Being Stared at by Japanese People
“I’m sick and tired of being stared at by Japanese people all day, every day, everywhere I go.“, said the Australian man in his late 20′s sitting 2 tables away.
To which his friend replied, “Then go back to Australia.”
This is Japan. And if you are foreign, chances are that people are going to stare at you.
It doesn’t seem to matter that we are living in the 21st century, and that foreigners, or gaijin are no longer a rarity in Japan. People stare. And it’s probably not going to go away any time soon.
And while I would think it safe to assume that this staring at foreigners phenomenon would be more common in areas where there are less foreigners, in my experience, it has actually been quite the opposite.
While in Tokyo, I am stared at on a regular basis, I find that in the countryside, mountains, small towns, and minor fishing villages, etc.. (I… travel a lot for work) I am more or less treated… well… a little more normally.
People will make passing eye contact, nod, greet, or generally treat me the same as any other visitor. In smaller towns when someone does stare at me, I can usually expect it to be followed with some form of (attempted) conversation. Which all-in-all, if I have the time, is never a bad thing.
And while some of this could be chopped up to good old fashioned small town hospitality, it doesn’t change the fact that from time to time, some foreigners might want to be invisible too.
Some people are bothered by this. In fact, some people are seemingly overly bothered by this… to the point of starting fights or even changing seats/train cars/etc.. just to get away from it.
I was unfortunate enough to witness a North American man in his late 30′s freak out on a Japanese man on a train a few years back, just because the Japanese man was staring.
Now in his defense, the Japanese man had been staring relentlessly for about 25 minutes straight when the gaijin man, who was growing increasingly uncomfortable and irritated throughout the duration of the train ride, finally snapped.
He stood up, walked right up to the Japanese man and started yelling, “WHAT?! …SERIOUSLY?!?! WHAT DO YOU WANT?!?!…..”
I wish I had more of a story here for you, but I was somewhat embarrassed to be in the same train car at the time, and decided it might be best to switch cars.
I guess everyone has their own feelings when it comes to being stared at…
For me it has become a part of life in Japan that has seemingly faded into the background like the noisy pachinko parlors or the vending machines that sell neckties and beer. From time to time I will notice, but for the most part I don’t.
When I first came to Japan, being stared at was a point that really stood out to me (especially being stared at on a train… I felt like there was no escape), and whenever I was with Japanese friends, I would always ask the golden question:
Why do Japanese people always stare at gaijin (foreigners)?
And with the number of times I have asked that question, I find it amazing that the only seemingly legitimate answer I ever received is, “Because we can. Japanese people can’t stare at other Japanese people, but for some reason we feel that staring at a foreigner is something we can get away with.”
But I guess when it comes down to it, we have to accept that there’s nothing we can do about being stared at.
Or is there…?
While most people who notice, simply choose to ignore it or pretend that they are sleeping, some people choose to have a little more fun with it.
My old roommate J, used to make a game of it by seeing how long he could hold eye contact with people. (surprisingly, top record sits over two and a half minutes!)
A Swedish girl that works in the same building as me uses it as an opportunity to show off her magic tricks with coins, pencils, etc..
And my friend’s son (9-yrs-old) has made it routine to get into games of peek-a-boo or rock-paper-scissors with people who stare at him! (props to the minor on the creativity here lol)
But I think one of the more well known ideas comes from an artist named Arni Kristjansson.
Arni designed a (very legitimate looking) book cover which has been dubbed The Staring Book.
The Staring Book book-cover makes any book you are reading, look like a fictional book called, “日本人はなぜ外国人を見つめる？“ (Why do Japanese People Stare at Foreigners?) and has built quite a following. The cover has been featured on such sites as CNNGo, and Rocketnews24 and for anyone interested, is download-able in PDF format on Arni’s page!
Everybody has their own way of perceiving and reacting to being stared at.
And whether it drives you to the point of emotional breakdowns on the Tokyo subway system, or doesn’t faze you at all, it’s safe to say that it comes with the territory.
So if you are in Japan and hate being stared at, get a book cover, play some peek-a-boo, do a magic trick or two, or as the Australian guys friend said, go home.