being a foreigner in Japan

Being a Foreigner in Japan

I am 186cm tall, have red hair and my skin is whiter than snow. You could also say that it’s pretty easy to spot me in a country like Japan, where the average height for males is 170 cm, most people have black hair and share the same skin tone. So I stood out quite a bit. People would stare or even point at me with their finger. But standing out is also a good thing. So in this post I’ll talk about what it is like being a foreigner in Japan.

Being White In Japan

If you’re white, Japanese people will generally assume that you’re American, that you’re fluent in English and that you are also willing to teach them English. Some will think that just by being around you, they’ll somehow acquire the language without actually doing anything.

But besides that, Japanese people don’t have any real prejudices against foreigners. Especially not against white or black people (there tends to be discrimination against other Asians). They are rather very interested in foreigners and almost ‘like’ them. For some having a foreign friend can almost be a status symbol. It also often happened to me that girls called me cool when they saw me cycling home from school wearing my uniform. I even exchanged Instagram with at least three girls (and one boy).

In short: Being a foreigner in Japan makes finding new friends quite easy.

My "Racist" Experiences In Japan

If you stand out as much as I do in Japan, it shouldn’t come to suprise to you that people will stare at you. And they will stare wherever you go, be it on the street, at the supermarket or inside a train.

My Racist Experiences In Japan:

  • People staring at me
  • People calling me ‘Gaijin’ or ‘American’ on the street
  • Children running away from me
  • People not sitting next to me despite the train being full
  • People pointing at me with their finger

Being stared at in a country, where almost everybody has black hair, didn’t really surprise me. But what did surprise me was that some people even pointed at me as if I were an alien. And some didn’t stop there. They would say: ‘Look! A foreigner!’

There was even one old lady at a local department store that, as I was about to leave the store, stood up and shouted ‘WHITE! SO WHITE!’ She then grabbed my arm, pulled me back to the bench and then started asking me questions about my home country, why I came to Japan, etc. I’m not even sure if she understood any of my shitty Japanese back then.

Another place were people always wanted to talk to the alien (me) was the local gym. The people there were mostly retired, old men. They would come to me and ask ‘Where are you from? America?’ The first few times I felt quite happy, answered: ‘No I’m from Switzerland.’ and then continued talking about my beautiful home country. But after having told the same thing over and over again I got annoyed and started replying with ‘Sorry I don’t speak Japanese‘.

I don’t know if it’s just me looking like a monster, but small children often ran away when they saw me. Or when I was standing in line at the cash register and there was a child behind me, it would look, then point at me saying ‘Gaijin’ (= colloquial form of ‘foreigner’) and take a few steps back. And the parents didn’t know what to do. Should they tell their child that that thing in front of them is also just a human being and not some weird monster? I don’t know either. But it made me sad, somehow. Even though they were just kids…

Why Japanese People Are Racist

Japan is a country with almost no immigrants. Foreigners make up only 2% of the population. And most of those come from China and South Korea. That means that seeing foreigners is quite a rare thing, especially in rural Japan. So it’s also no wonder that people get ‘excited’ when they see one. I think the fact that Japanese people aren’t accustomed to seeing foreigners on a daily basis is the main reason why they are “racist”.

That said, I don’t think it’s fair to call them racist. Because most Japanese simply aren’t and those who are ‘racist’ just lack the experience of interacting with foreigners.

And as I said earlier, most Japanese are really interested in foreigners. This made it a lot easier for me to make many friends, despite not knowing much Japanese at the beginning.

Is That Even Racist?

While writing this article about being a foreigner in Japan, I asked myself again and again if the things I had experienced were really racist. Because when you compare those to what you see in other countries, it’s not that bad.

And for every child that ran away from me, there were at least five others that waved at me shouting ‘Hello. Nice to meet you. How are you?’.

So when I compare the ‘bad’ experiences I’ve made in Japan to all the good ones, the good ones far outnumber the bad ones.

being a foreigner in Japan

Everything written in this post is based on my own experiences. Some things might be exaggerated for entertaining purposes.

Aditional Resources

Worst Internship Ever; a short film about immigrants working in Japan (Vice News, YouTube) – I strongly recommend watching this one!


A “foreigner” born and raised in Japan talking about her experiences (Buzzfeed Japan, YouTube)


Born and Raised in Rural Japan to Black Parents (Max D. Capo, YouTube)

What Do You Think?

Do you think racism is a problem in Japan? Or did you experience anything racist yourself? Tell me in the comments bellow 🙂

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Levin, interesting article! As you said, i think there is no motive of racism behind many of the actions and words of japanese. Especially in the countryside, they might just not being used to interacting with foreigners – they are just uncertain.

    For example: You might see staff avoiding you in a store, but a japanese friend told me that they may be ashamed of their english and communication skills. They might not be able to help you properly with what you’re looking for, which would be no great example for the exceptional japanese service.

    As you said as well, for the most part the japanese greet you with exceptional kindness.

    1. Hey Mirko, thanks for your comment! You’re totally right, I didn’t even think about that aspect!

      I even went into a barber shop once but the owner was like “no no no no…”. I first thought he didn’t like foreigners. But I guess it’s just that he thought his English wasn’t good enough.

      Or he didn’t want to mess up my hair because he had never cut red hair before.
      Well, who knows…

      But as you said, for the most part the Japanese greet you with exceptional kindness.

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