Japan is an amazing place to live. It has four seasons with beautiful nature to match each one, a wide variety of delicious food and drinks, stunning historical monuments, castles, and shrines, an abundance of manga and anime that are read and watched around the world, and a culture that promotes harmony with others. Whether you’re looking in from the outside or already standing on the inside, Japan is a great place to be. Sure, it has its cons, as every country does, but from my personal experience the pros far exceed them. It seems that I am not the only one who feels this way, because the number of foreign residents in Japan has steadily risen over the years, reaching a record-high 2.5 million people in January of 2018. Each person most likely has a different goal for their time in Japan: some want to study. Some want to work. Some want to get married and settle down here for good. Over the past years, I have met quite a few foreigners whose goal is to become “Japanese”. How exactly do you do that? How do you become “Japanese”?
I’m just going to cut straight to the conclusion: you don’t. You can’t. At least, not yet. Now before you get discouraged or upset or say “this guy doesn't know what he’s talking about”, I ask that you stick with me until the end of this article and find out what I mean by “not yet”.
I was born in Nara in 1991. This was back when foreigners were still called “gaijin” (outsider) to their face, back before Nara became one of the most popular tourist spots in Japan. Kids my age would walk right up in front of me and just stand there staring with their mouths wide open at the funny-looking kid with the blonde hair and blue eyes. I remembered going to the zoo with my family and sitting down to eat lunch; the crowd of kids watching us eat was bigger than the crowd of kids looking at the hippo across from us. It didn't matter to these kids that I had lived in Japan just as long as they had. I looked different, so I was different. Twenty-five-plus years ago, that was the general mentality.
Fast forward to 2010. I was almost twenty. Twenty years of living in Kansai. I had an American passport, but besides that and my appearance, not much about me was American. I had been working part time for nearly five years for Japanese bosses. I was bilingual and bicultural. I had mastered the language to the point where people who heard me talking would give me a second glance just to make sure it was actually me. I knew the culture well enough, but it didn't really matter. I was still the “gaijin”.
I think I was about twenty-four years old when I introduced myself to someone and, for the first time, they said “Oh! You’re practically Japanese!” Twenty-four years of living in this country, and I was still “almost” Japanese; it was good enough for me though. It was a sign that things were changing. Yes, I had studied to speak, read, and write the language and yes, I had learned the do’s and don’ts of the culture through countless trial and error, but that wasn't the only thing that made me more Japanese.
Japan is changing, becoming more cultural and accepting of people who don't look the same. It’s not at all racism on their part, it was just a part of their culture. Just 170 years ago (1633 to 1853), Japan was still in the “sakoku” (closed country) era, and the average Japanese person had no relation whatsoever to foreigners. Now, foreign residents make up more than two percent of Japan’s population. (That might not seem like a lot, but the number of foreign residents in Japan is now more than the entire population of Nagoya, the third most populated city in the country). Now, no one will come walking up to you and stare at you like I was stared at twenty-some years ago. Twenty-five years ago, if you looked different, you were different. This mentality is being changed at an astounding speed, thanks to the increase of foreigners living in Japan, and the rising number of half-Japanese people from international marriages. Now, you can “almost” be Japanese. So learn the language and study the culture, experience the Japanese work force, make friends and relationships. Who knows, at the rate that this country is changing, you could be accepted as a Japanese in the near future!
Before I end, I would like to share my opinion on becoming Japanese based on my personal experiences. And I’m going to be very honest. Sometimes, it’s better to be the foreigner. It’s better to be the outsider. While cultural norms and ways of thinking are changing with globalization, Japan’s culture is still based heavily on co-existing harmoniously with those around you. This is one aspect that makes this country so attractive. It is what makes this country so safe. However, It can also be a stressor for those who feel that they are required to prioritize harmony. Traditionally, there are many rules (some spoken and clear, others ambiguous and very unclear) that one must live by in order to keep good relations and live in peace with others. In Japan today, I feel that these traditional rules are gradually being replaced by or adapted to Western standards, but they are still the base of nearly every kind of relationship and interaction in Japan. I personally have come to realize that if you want to be identified as Japanese, you will be expected to know and live by these traditional rules. All of them. However, if you are willing to be identified as a foreigner, you will be praised and valued for every traditional rule that you understand and abide by, even if you don't know all of them. This is just something to consider if you are hoping to become “Japanese”.
In conclusion, study the language, the culture and its history, make friends and get to know the people. And don't be discouraged if you feel like an outsider. The day will come (sooner than later, I feel) when appearance will no longer be what defines a person as Japanese. Until then, I hope you can enjoy the benefits of being a foreigner in this beautiful country.