Questions You're Likely to Be Asked If You're a Foreigner in Japan
Travelling to Japan as a non-Asian person is a completely unique experience. In western countries, people of all kinds of ethnicities can travel around without being considered particularly exotic, and staring at someone who looks a little different can be considered rude. However, foreigners (Gaikokujin or Gaijin) of non-Asian descent tend to stick out in Japan, especially in rural areas and small villages. Although Gaijin aren’t considered as exotic as perhaps thirty years ago, you should still expect to be treated differently, and sometimes be asked questions by interested locals, whether it be in English or Japanese. This article shows some questions you are likely to be asked by Japanese people if you visit Japan, whether it be for a week’s sightseeing, work or a year of study abroad.
Where are you from? (Okuni wa nan desuka?)
“Where are you from?” isn’t necessarily a strange question to be asked. Sometimes people will guess that you’re from America, especially if you’re Caucasian. Don’t be offended by this – the USA just seems to be the first western country they usually think of. Here’s a list of countries in Japanese if you need help.
The UK – Igirisu
France – Furansu
Canada – Kanada
The USA – Amerika
Germany – Doitsu
Australia – Oosutoraria
New Zealand – Nyuu Zirando
How old are you? (Nansai desuka?)
I was sitting in a restaurant near my place a few weeks ago, and one of the waiters just randomly asked me how old I was. She doesn’t know my name, where I’m from or anything about me, yet my age was the thing she wanted to know. In Japan, people are often interested to learn your age, even though this can be considered rude in the west. A few possible reasons include:
- Japanese people often find it difficult to guess the ages of westerners (just like some western people find it difficult to guess Japanese people’s ages).
- The age of someone depends on the type of language and behaviour they use. If you’re older than them, they tend to be more polite.
Can you use chopsticks? (Ohashi ga tsukaemasuka?)
Whether it’s ignorance or not, some people will want to check if you are able to use chopsticks. If you’ve been in Japan a while it might annoy you a little, but they’re not doing it to be patronising or offensive. Usually they just want to see if you’ll need a fork for your meal or not, and probably find it would be less embarrassing to clarify beforehand instead of watching you struggle. Just smile and say Hai, dekimasu, meaning, “Yes, I can!” or “not very well” (Jyouzu dewa arimasen").
Why did you come to Japan? (Nande Nihon ni kimashita ka?)
Japanese people are often happy to hear that people travel a long way to visit their country. You might be asked why you visited Japan, so have an interesting answer ready. Here’s some useful vocabulary if you need it.
Japanese culture – Nihon no bunka
Japanese films – Nihon no Eiga
Video games – terebi ge-mu
To have an interest in _____ - _____ ni kyoumi ga arimasu
How long have you been here? (Doregurai Nihon ni imasuka?)
Try to remember how long you’ve been in Japan, because you’ll probably be asked it a lot, especially if you try to speak some Japanese. People are always happy if you try out the local lingo, and might be interested in whether you’ve taken lessons in Japan, or if you’re just here on holiday.
Do you like Japanese girls/boys? (Nihon no onna no hito/otoko no hito ga suki desuka?)
If you’re single, you might be asked whether you find Japanese people attractive. Don’t read too much into this – it might not necessarily be flirting (you never know, though). Because many foreign people come over to Japan and end up getting married to a local, someone may be genuinely interested in whether you’re looking to do the same. They probably won’t ask if you’re already with someone, though.
Can you eat…? (…ga taberaremasuka?)
The language barrier here makes a strange question of “can you eat…?” rather than “do you like…?” For example, in the west we would say we couldn’t eat something because of diet restrictions or allergies, but in Japan they’re asking if you like to eat it. If you try to explain that “yes, I can eat it, but I don’t like it,” or you can just shake your head when they offer you something you hate (natto or chicken intestines will do that for me) and say “Taberaremasen!” (I can’t eat that!)
Being prepared for these possible questions makes for good conversation, and can help you make friends quickly. Don’t be offended by any abrupt interest or blunt questions, but try to be open-minded and answer as honestly as you can.