On Becoming Japanese

By Michael Gakuran | | Japan | 36 Comments |

What does it mean to become Japanese? Can a foreigner or ‘gaijin’ ever fully integrate into Japanese society such that they blend in and are treated ‘normally’? A recent video foray into this tricky topic.

gakuranman1

There’s a lot of interesting stuff to watch, so fix up dinner, plonk yourself down in front of the computer and get stuck into the wide variety of opinions and ideas brought up by several different foreigners in Japan. My thoughts are right at the end of this post. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s go back right to the start…

**********

BobbyJudo brings up the issue:

‘If you master Japanese language and culture and started living in Japan in a real way, you will be recognised as a Japanese citizen.’

There were many great responses to Bobby’s video, but the real drama began when popular Japanese vlogger Hiroko over at HirokoChannel said:

‘In Japan you are a foreigner, and that’s okay’, seemingly implying that foreigners won’t be fully accepted and that they should not take issue with that.

Tokyo Zeplin took issue with Hiroko’s video and particularly that statement she made and responds by saying that he ‘wants Japanese people to treat him equally’.

Hiroko responds to clarify her position and misunderstanding about foreigners accepting themselves for who they are and in an attempt to quell the uprising of ‘racist’ comments being left on her video.

Gimmeabreakman pitches in and defends Hiroko, adding his own learned advice from many years living in Japan.

Hikosaemon gives us an impromptu and highly detailed account of his attempt to become a Japanese salaryman and explains his own wise views on becoming Japanese.

Finally, I decide to give my two socio-evolutionary pennies on the subject in response to Hikosaemon. Basically musings about there not being enough mixed ethnicities in Japan for foreigners to blend in at this point in time, but that as Japan opens up more and more foreigners find themselves embracing Japanese values and living there permanently that this will – hopefully – begin to change.

Also, how is it best for Japan to internationalise in such a way that it does not lose its culture and traditions, but also so that it may better interact with other countries on a global scale?

But this is certainly not the end of this debate! I would love to hear your opinions on whether foreigners can ever become Japanese and be fully accepted into Japanese society. What do you reckon? Is it possible and how can it be achieved?

36 comments on “On Becoming Japanese
  1. Ekirne says:

    I’ve seen plenty of comments from white/black people that loved japanese culture and once there and spending a few years, were fed up with the microagressions. Give me a break. Youre NOT going to be accepted as ‘japanese’ EVER. It doesnt mind if you are more proficient in controlling better the culture and language than the own natives. You look different, so they treat you different.

    This is not me saying ‘Japan is racist’, but more in the line that the whole world is like this. Maybe some countries are more tolerant than others, but most of the 1st world has its own share of crap.

    Can’t agree more with what PoppyNero said: I was born myself as a haafu in Europe. I’ve been asked in a lot of unpleasant ways about my origins, sometimes even from people I knew from thirty seconds ago. And indeed I was bullied at school because of my origins. So theres this crap everywhere.

    This is why I find kind of hilarious when I see people being born from the “supposed” race to be in a region of the world, and surprising themselves that hey, there are people with prejudices in that far place they idealized for so long. Just live with it. If you dont like that at all, just go back from where youre from. Is a matter of adaptation. If you cant go through that, at least you have options. Some of us never were given any of that.

    • Frankly, I feel it’s views like this that are part of the problem. The acceptance that looking different must necessitate treating somebody differently is why racism is so prevalent in many parts of the world, and failing to challenge that idea allows it to continue to exist.

      Even among communities of physically or mentally similar people there are differences between one person and the next. Making efforts to understand the cultural background and individual values a person holds is paramount to understanding that person and to fitting in within a broader community, where-ever you happen to be in the world.

  2. build a bridge and get over it says:

    Even a non-western person that “becomes” American, Australian, British, etc will never truely be accepted 100% as part of their adoptive society. They will forever be Latino-American, Indian-Australian, Chinese-British, etc.
    Apart from the fact that people all over the world will always instantly judge you on what you look like (it is in all of our nature to do this), you will always have a part of yourself, no matter how small, that identifies with your “native” culture.
    I have lived in Japan for about 4 years, my Wife and now my Son are Japanese (well, he is Japanese-Australian!!). It is difficult for me to feel completely at “home” living in Japan just as it is for my wife to feel completely at home living in Australia. We both have the things we miss about home such as friends, foods, places, etc. I can’t say whether this is a good or a bad thing, but it can be challenging.
    At the end of the day, how the people around you perceive you is not really within your control. The more you interact with them the more they will get you know you and the more you can break-down whatever stereotypes they may have pinned on you when you first met them, but you simply can’t do this for the entire population of a country!!
    Really when you think about it, when you are asking someone to accept you into any society, whether it is because of what is written on the front of your passport, or becuase of where you live, what you are really asking them to do is to apply whatever stereotypes they may hold for that nationality/society. Assuming this is possible, the very moement they do this, you are only going to start breaking down those stereotypes as they learn more and more about who you really are anyway!!

    Regardless of what anyone else thinks, you are you. Accept it for what it is, try not to get too angry or frustrated about it when people don’t understand and go about your way.

  3. JCH10022 says:

    Here is the answer to your question:

    A non-racially Japanese individual can become a Japanese citizen through naturalization. So technically, yes, this is possible, though difficult. After naturalization, this person would become a foreign-born Japanese.

    However, would this naturalized Japanese citizen ever be considered Japanese by the Japanese society at large, and by individuals who are not his close friends/confidants? No, because the Japanese society as a whole sees nationality and race as inseparable, and have not had enough exposure to diversity to be able to see beyond this construct. It is not so much rejection as it is a total unfamiliarity with Western views of nationhood and citizenship. I hope this makes sense.

    It seems that many Americans, or other Japanophiles from diverse societies, struggle with this reality — and that is totally understandable. The best way to deal with this issue is to understand how and why Japanese society is the way that it is. Accept it. Understand that the society could change someday, and that the current cultural perception of us/them does not mean that you cannot like Japan, love Japan, have close ties with Japan, take inspiration from Japan, study Japanese, or integrate the culture into your everyday life. All it means is that if you ever decide to put down roots there, you could seek naturalization but would nevertheless have to contend with a certain social “otherness.”

    Always be patient, diplomatic, and respectful — these traits will get you very far in Japan, and will open many doors.

  4. Oh, and I already said this on your Youtube Video pages, Gakuranman, but your video responses to this topic are really quite insightful. Thanks for putting all this together in this article on your site so we can watch everything unfold from video to video!

  5. woops. Accidentally tried to post this as a guest without logging in….

    Fantastic series of videos. Admittedly I am a relative newcomer to Japan, and have only been here a total of about a year if I add up my various visits plus recent (more permanent, career based) move to Tokyo, but I feel like I'm starting to see some of the cultural layers peel away in my daily interactions with others – particularly through daily life at my work and graduate school. As an anthropologist, I try really hard to listen to everyone's feelings about identity, home, culture and place, and then form somewhat of an understanding about the cultures and subcultures around me… but this is something that any anthro student or professional is told can and will take YEARS to come together for you. Since I have some years to spare, I'm trying to be patient and just let the big picture come together over time. I don't want to become Japanese – but I do enjoy living among Japanese people and making a positive difference in the community around me (I'm okay with participating in things like trash cleanup days and I think it's helped me to be at least recognized as a positive part of the community).

    I have to say, Hikosaemon's account on being Japanese and whether or not that is a desirable goal really has a lot for people to think about and really digest intellectually (and I've been thinking about it for the past few days). Honestly, I think he had a lot of really helpful things to say, and I tend to agree that keeping my identity as my own, rather than forcing new definitions or restrictions around it constantly, is something that is very important to me. Observing the general social code is of course important when living in another country and usually makes things a lot easier for you and those around you, but your identity is something you always have control over. If you are a generally unhappy person where you are living now and you want to come to Japan thinking that will make you happy – it probably won't work out. I get a lot of emails from people who want to move to Japan because they love what they've learned about Japanese Culture and have formed this very defined picture of Japan in their heads…(I think this happens to everyone to some extent. Even I admit to having some defined notions before I came!) but I try to remind them that at the end of the day we're all just human – eating, working, sleeping and living in the space around us for better or for worse, AND that what many of the Japanese Video Bloggers have been saying is quite true (I'm paraphrasing here but you get the idea) “Everyone who comes to Japan will have a different experience.” It's wonderful to travel and experience new cultures and ideas, but remembering who you are and why its special for everyone to have their own sense of identity, culture and happiness in life is quite important. That's what I honestly feel.

  6. Oh, and I already said this on your Youtube Video pages, Gakuranman, but your video responses to this topic are really quite insightful. Thanks for putting all this together in this article on your site so we can watch everything unfold from video to video!

  7. Fantastic series of videos. Admittedly I am a relative newcomer to Japan, and have only been here a total of about a year if I add up my various visits plus recent (more permanent, career based) move to Tokyo, but I feel like I’m starting to see some of the cultural layers peel away in my daily interactions with others – particularly through daily life at my work and graduate school. As an anthropologist, I try really hard to listen to everyone’s feelings about identity, home, culture and place, and then form somewhat of an understanding about the cultures and subcultures around me… but this is something that any anthro student or professional is told can and will take YEARS to come together for you. Since I have some years to spare, I’m trying to be patient and just let the big picture come together over time. I don’t want to become Japanese – but I do enjoy living among Japanese people and making a positive difference in the community around me (I’m okay with participating in things like trash cleanup days and I think it’s helped me to be at least recognized as a positive part of the community).

    I have to say, Hikosaemon’s account on being Japanese and whether or not that is a desirable goal really has a lot for people to think about and really digest intellectually (and I’ve been thinking about it for the past few days). Honestly, I think he had a lot of really helpful things to say, and I tend to agree that keeping my identity as my own, rather than forcing new definitions or restrictions around it constantly, is something that is very important to me. Observing the general social code is of course important when living in another country and usually makes things a lot easier for you and those around you, but your identity is something you always have control over. If you are a generally unhappy person where you are living now and you want to come to Japan thinking that will make you happy – it probably won’t work out. I get a lot of emails from people who want to move to Japan because they love what they’ve learned about Japanese Culture and have formed this very defined picture of Japan in their heads…(I think everyone does this to some extent and even I admit to have had perceptions before coming here) but I try to remind them that at the end of the day we’re all just human – eating, working, sleeping and living in the space around us for better or for worse, AND that what many of the Japanese Video Bloggers have been saying is quite true (I’m paraphrasing here but you get the idea) “Everyone who comes to Japan will have a different experience.” It’s wonderful to travel and experience new cultures and ideas, but remembering who you are and why its special for everyone to have their own sense of identity, culture and happiness in life is quite important. That’s what I honestly feel.

  8. 10 Headingley Mount club says:

    Omoi yari. Nice post Gakuran man. There are a few reason's I think that you do the best job responding to Bobby out of the videos above. Obv this excludes the epic video by Hikosaemon in Japanese (with subs): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lE-cpTzHnWk&anno

    1. As prescribed by your job description, you are on the front line building grassroots intercultural bridges in Japan.
    2. You have been “in and out” of Japan a few times, each transition lasting over a year.
    3. You have studied – through both your own extensive curiosity and through university – the paradigms of Japaneseness, trends in cultural identity, and being caught between cultures. You have practiced putting these ideas clearly and concisely.
    4. Holding both a Philosophy degree and Japanese culture close to your heart, you have clearly been doing some deep thinking about this for years up to recording this 'cast.

    As with all things it's a question of degrees. You can integrate so far, but there are stumbling points. As time goes on some things will become easier for foreigners and some will become harder. Aspiring to meaningful, succinct, and well-considered social commentary is useful for everyone.

    You say in the post “How to argue in Japanese” that you're looking for a “fight” having you've just come out of university and want to tackle all these questions. I say it's good to keep chasing new ideas, trying to understand the nature of questions that are important to you.

    Your cast and the original are the only two above that are watchable, as you are not rambling. Oration is a skill. It's not a chat. So thanks Hikosaemon and Gakuranman. I hope these vids gave some comfort to Bobby!

    PS

    I feel like the practical message is this.
    Living in Japan can be a gruelling experience, so be as proactive as possible. Grab it by the horns. Get involved in as many local things as you can. Drink with the men, get involved with any clubs, festivals, projects, anything you can. Be productive. This is the best therapy for sitting on your arse having a sad and lonely crisis.

  9. Shitamachiboi says:

    Kudos to Hiroko for being straight up. I also fully endorse what Hikosaemon said.

    Living in Japan requires patience and maturity if one wishes to survive in Japan long-term and enjoy one's life. We cannot change who we are, so taking offence at Japanese people viewing us gaijin as being different is just a waste of energy. We are different.

    Embrace the wonderful cultural differences that Japan has to offer us gaijin but don't lose sight of who you are.

  10. PoppyNero says:

    Why would British or American person – or those who comes from country where immigrant of different races are common – would understand Japanese mentality? Honestly?? You don't understand Japanese and Japanese can't understand you; and I don't think either will ever understand either. But not understanding each other on this one particular matter will not hinder friendship or love for that matter.

    I'm half Japanese and half white English and I've spend half my live in each country. I was born in Japan and grew up there going to local schools, and I faced my share of racism and whole load of unpleasantness for simple reasons that I don't look 100% Japanese, my name wasn't Japanese, and my father was 6'2″ with blonde hair and pale eyes. So yeah, I know about not being treated like Japanese despite living there are one and I've had my share of racism stemming from various source, be it ignorance, stereotype or xenophobia.

    But at the same time, I can also understand why the culture and attitude is so I can see why they are like that. Obviously that doesn't mean I liked that about Japan. But then what country hasn't got shit sides to them? I moved to England when I was 15 and I don't have enough fingers on my body to count what is shit about this country. British people aren't going to change bad things about them just because 30,000+ Japanese living over here complains are they. No, they aren't.

    UK and Japan are equally good and bad in its own way. Neither are going to change in a hurry and and you have to take the bad with the good.

  11. TATSUSHI says:

    When asked “Sir, what is the ultimate truth?”, the Master replied, “The sound of one hand clapping.”
    The Koan addresses the central issue of all human strivings, “All discursive thoughts and ideas lead to still more discursive thoughts and ideas.”

  12. Wow. A very interesting discussion.

    I wonder how different the discussion would be if instead of saying, “being treated like a tourist” or “being treated like a Japanese,” we used a phrase Hiroko did in her second vid when she said she didn't like “being treated like a baby” in the States. But then I wonder, how many things would fall under the category of being treated like a baby? Where do you draw the line? To me, things like the “oh, you can use chopsticks!” remark fall under the category of Baby, but I suppose to others it falls under Foreigner. When a coworker explains a procedure to me that I've already been doing for seven months, and while asking himself how to say certain things in English and ignoring me completely when I answer at that, I think I'm being treated like a baby. Well, like an idiot would be a more fitting term.

    Fortunately, I recognize not all of my coworkers are like that. ^_^b

  13. uccemebug says:

    An interesting discussion, though I have to admit I could only play some of the longer clips in the background as I worked. The consensus in the videos seems to be “don't try to take it too far” and I'd agree. There's no sense in forgetting who you are in an attempt to make a life here.

    I agree with the comment that Japan is not ready to accept non-Asian immigrants.

    Thanks for posting this collection.

  14. Gakuranman says:

    I don't know of any congregate sites myself – I tend to just follow people as I find them. If you visit gimmebreakman's or gimmeaflakeman's channel though you can find recommend people and such. Following people who leave good video responses is another method :)

  15. superyossy says:

    As for Japanese returnees, the problem is that most of them are VERY proud of themselves because they are fluent in English and so on. For example, one of my classmates in my uni (Waseda) told me very proudly that she met 2 guys of Chuo University and then they respected her because she is in Waseda Univ. Well, honestly, I wanted to tell her she didn’t take the same exam as non-returnee students. In my uni, returnees can take the same exams as non-Japanese students and it’s much easier than standard exams because it includes Japanese language exam. Kinda cheatinf, isn’t it? That’s why I also have lots of respect for non-Japanese students whose country is not an English-speaking country and who passed the exam in my Uni…
    And then, general reputations on returnees are that “returnees are proud of them because they are fluent in foreign languages but useless because they don’t make any effort to improve other skills”. So, some intelligent returnees want to avoid this kind of labelling, that’s why they don’t want to show easily their language skills. I’m trilingual myself, you can trust me for that.

  16. superyossy says:

    As for Japanese returnees, the problem is that most of them are VERY proud of themselves because they are fluent in English and so on. For example, one of my classmates in my uni (Waseda) told me very proudly that she met 2 guys of Chuo University and then they respected her because she is in Waseda Univ. Well, honestly, I wanted to tell her she didn’t take the same exam as non-returnee students. In my uni, returnees can take the same exams as non-Japanese students and it’s much easier than standard exams because it includes Japanese language exam. Kinda cheatinf, isn’t it? That’s why I also have lots of respect for non-Japanese students whose country is not an English-speaking country and who passed the exam in my Uni…
    And then, general reputations on returnees are that “returnees are proud of them because they are fluent in foreign languages but useless because they don’t make any effort to improve other skills”. So, some intelligent returnees want to avoid this kind of labelling, that’s why they don’t want to show easily their language skills. I’m trilingual myself, you can trust me for that.

  17. superyossy says:

    As for Japanese returnees, the problem is that most of them are VERY proud of themselves because they are fluent in English and so on. For example, one of my classmates in my uni (Waseda) told me very proudly that she met 2 guys of Chuo University and then they respected her because she is in Waseda Univ. Well, honestly, I wanted to tell her she didn’t take the same exam as non-returnee students. In my uni, retunees can take the same exams as non-Japanese students and it’s much easier than standard exams because it includes Japanese language exam. Kinda cheatinf, isn’t it? That’s why I also have lots of respect for non-Japanese students whose country is not an English-speaking country and who passed the exam in my Uni…
    And then, general reputations on returnees are that “returnees are proud of them because they are fluent in foreign languages but useless because they don’t make any effort to improve other skills”. So, some intelligent returnees want to avoid this kind of labelling, that’s why they don’t want to show easily their language skills. I’m trilingual myself, you can trust me for that.

  18. superyossy says:

    I have already talked about this topic. Well but I will reapt here some of my thoughts…
    Firstly, I have same experiences in some sort as you non-Japanese people.
    Simply, I have been living in the West as a non-Westerner, so the direction is opposite but the phenomenon is the same.
    For instance, Vietnamese born French or Chinese born Australian are called “Asian” and not “French” or “Australian” in their country. Even more, French people having African origin are all called “Black”.
    The mechanism of this phenomenon is very simple. In this world, most of people are unfortunately superficial irrespectively of where you are.
    And then, I really wonder why you want to be Japanese? If you think that you will not be discriminated if you become Japanese, I’m sorry to say this but you are just DREAMING. Even if you are Japanese, you might get discriminated because you are short or fat or bold or too young or too old. The fact that I am Japanese for example, doesn’t exclude possibilities of other type of discriminations.
    I’ve lived 4 years in France, 1 year in Aus and 1 year in UK, but I have never wanted to become French or Aussie or Brit because I find it meaningless.
    What’s important for me is that people there treat me as Super Yoshi and not as one of Japanese or one of Asians they even don’t know the name. That’s what really matters. But I have to tell you that it’s REALLY difficult to be achieved. It needs really lots of effort.

  19. Lar Rush says:

    Well done. Lots of different points from different views. While I have never lived in Japan, only visited many times, I cannot see why gaijins would expect to be the same as Japanese. Your points, in particular, to fit in and live, but to keep values you hold dear were well stated. Maybe because I married a Japanese and have never felt discriminated against when I visited Japan, my viewpoints are slanted. I also agree that non-Asians really cannot integrate. More interactions between gaijins and Japanese and more internationalization might be inevitable, but it might not be all that is best. Who knows?

  20. Nihonrobu says:

    I actually had a question about the whole vlogging. It's something that I'm really intrigued with, but despite my searching around for a “master list” so to speak, I've only found individual pages. Pages such as Hirokochannel, Hikosaemon, BobbyJudo, but do you happen to know if there's a congregation site for vloggers like JapanSoc is for bloggers?

    I'm looking to try to keep up to speed with their news, and perhaps submit some of my own, but the daunting task of following every person that pops their head in on a reply is slowing me down. If you have any info, that would be great! Thanks :-D

  21. Gakuranman says:

    Thanks for getting through it all! You're a star!

    • Anonymous says:


      面白かった。
      作ってありがとう。去年日本で2か月旅行したし、今大学で日本の経営学を勉強してるし、その話題は大事だと思う。

      最近このブロッグ発見したから、これから毎週読むでしょうね。=)

  22. Gakuranman says:

    Thanks for the comment. Good to know you weren't bored enough to leave a response :)

    The view that foreigners cannot become Japanese is a very prevalent one, for sure, but I don't think it is above debating. Sorry to say that I can't share your view that anyone who has lived in Japan for a even short period of time knows or understands Japanese culture. I know I don't understand it fully, despite having lived here over 2 1/2 years.

    You're right that Kobe is in Hyogo-ken.

  23. cnahrebeski says:

    おもい と やり
    lol

  24. boredbyyourobsessivewaffling says:

    You cant be Japanese. You arent and never will be as you werent born into Japanese culture. And anyone who has lived in Japan for even a small period of time will know that no matter how good friends they become with someone, they will NEVER be accepted as Japanese or accepted into the culture.

    Oh, and Kobe IS in Hyogo-ken.

  25. HIG3KI says:

    I Saw This Whole Mess Of Responses Yesterday And Today I Find Out That U Got All The Videos Lined Up Neatly Thx, I Wish I Had This Page Last Night XD

  26. telefunkal says:

    Wow, you guys sure love to talk! I didn't have time to look at all of the videos, but I would say that as a 4-year (non) veteran of Japan, that Hiroko's position is about the default that I have encountered among foreigner-facing Japanese. Non-Asians really can't integrate into Japan in the same way because the country is not ready. It shouldn't be a cause for resentment unless you're treatment is discriminatory rather than curious. Most of my experience has been the latter.

    • Gakuranman says:

      Thanks telefunkai. That’s pretty much been my experience to date as well. What I’m interested in now is if we should and how we should go about internationalisation in Japan. Is it right to introduce Japanese people to more Western values, for example?

  27. Joshua Zimmerman says:

    No. Seeing as how children born in Japan to Korean or Chinese families are often not officially “Japanese,” let alone the fact that children born and raised in Japan by Brazilian families are most certainly not “Japanese.” I’ve had people tell me that my neighbors are Koreans, I should watch out. Even though they’d been living in this area for three generations.

    A good example. A teacher I worked with lived in the US for most of her teen years. When she returned to Japan she HID the fact she lived abroad, even doing poorly at English tests in college, because she didn’t want people to think she wasn’t “Japanese.” I’ve read about special classes students can taken when returning from abroad in order to “reeducate” them into the social world of being “Japanese.”

    What I’ve found so insanely funny are the American English teachers who happen to have Japanese blood, usually three or four generations removed. They often insist that they are in fact “Japanese” while having had almost no exposure to the culture or people. The ones that DON’T do this (so it seems to me in my limited experience) are those people who have very close ties to Japan. Usually people born to parents who immigrated from Japan, 1st generation American kids. They’re the ones that have openly stated that they are in fact NOT Japanese at all and don’t pretend to have some mystical connection to the country. It’s in interesting aspect, the closer you are to being “Japanese” the more likely you are to say that you’re not “Japanese.”

    (I’m also going to throw in there that I detest the random college kid who comes to Japan for a semester and then spends the next 4 years using chop sticks to eat his hamburger because he became Japanese while abroad. God I hate those people.)

    • Gakuranman says:

      Thanks for sharing your opinions and experiences Joshua.

      I was a bit confused about whether you were referring to naturalising as a Japanese person or just being accepted as a member of the community. I think you meant the latter, but I’m a bit unsure on why you think that is not possible. If a person’s values are very close to a person who was born and bred in Japan as a Japanese person, why couldn’t they be accepted as a Japanese person in the community?

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