Some people would call Japan and it’s people pretentious.
Take a walk through the streets of Tokyo’s Ginza district on any Sunday of the month, and you will have a fair idea of why they might think this way. And while there is much to be said on this statement alone, I will leave that for another post.
It is a well known fact that Japanese people love brand-names. A Japanese girl I met back in my university days owned a wallet that cost her over 150,000 yen (roughly $1,500 -$ 1750) and when I asked her how she got it, she told me that she worked an entire summer just for the sake of purchasing this single wallet…
And this love for brands doesn’t just come in the form of wallets, bags, and clothes… It reaches its way into everything from food and drinks, to schools, and even… people…
My name is X and I am a brand-name foreigner.
That’s right. Brand Name.
No, it’s not that I own many brands… in fact, I have never really been a fan of them. But rather, in this strange country known as “Japan”, I am a brand. And a seemingly fancy one at that!
I was inspired to pull this piece together after remembering a day many years ago when I was walking hand-in-hand with a Japanese girl in a countryside town near Kyushu. We walked past a group of girls who with eyes open wide, spit out a line that left me speechless:
“いいな～あたしも外人欲しい~！オシャレ！” (Aww~ I want a foreigner too! So fashionable!)
Me = Floored.
Now it is no secret that Japanese think it’s cool to speak English.
And it is no secret that Japanese think it’s cool to have foreign friends.
But it comes to a point where the line needs to be drawn.
If you read my post about finding your own in Japan, you will know how strongly I feel about re-calibrating our social filters in order to avoid unnecessary stresses. In my first few years in Japan, I met a great number of people. And while some turned out to be true friends, others seemed to have ulterior motives.
Years ago, I was (or at least thought I was) good friends with a Japanese man that we will call ‘Tak‘.
Tak was a pretty average Japanese guy aside from the fact that he spent his university days overseas in an English-speaking country. This is where we met.
When I met Tak, he went through truly great lengths to get to know me, and work his way into my social circle.
We spent several years together, studying, drinking, and generally just hanging out. Tak was even kind enough to show me around Tokyo and introduce me to a staggering number of his friends the first time I visited.
But when I moved to Tokyo, the nuance of our friendship seemed to shift.
When I arrived back in Japan, Tak insisted on getting together with me in the first week, and I happily obliged. He said that he wanted more than anything to introduce me to his new girlfriend, and as a long time friend, I looked forward to meeting her. But when he introduced me with the line, “This is X. He is one of my foreign friends!!”, to which she responded with “aww~ I wish I had foreign friends”, it set off a little light in my head and reminded me of a warning I once received from perhaps one of the most cynical Japanese friends I ever made. Her words rang in my ear,
You really shouldn’t trust Japanese people who try too hard to be your friend. To some Japanese people, foreigners are just like brands; Being seen with one is good for your image.
But after our dinner together, I felt re-assured that he was still the same great guy, and he just wanted to introduce me to his girl. That is, until the next time he invited me out…
We got together for dinner with one of his co-workers for dinner a couple weeks later. It was at this dinner, that I was introduced as one of his many ‘Gaijin’ friends. After which he proceeded to nearly ignore his co-worker and speak to me in English the entire night. The co-worker could not understand English.
When the co-worker finally commented on his own lack of English skill, without skipping a beat, Tak spit out the words, “X will teach you English! In fact, he’ll teach you for free!”
WHAT?! oh no no no…. I am not an English teacher.
… but that as well, is for another post…
Long story short, Tak and I exchanged words. But in the end, he tried to pull the exact same routine 2 more times.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me three times, and you’re a dick.
Tak was a lesson learned. But in the end he only serves as an example of a single area of this issue…
One of the Japanese guys who works in my office has a girlfriend who is from Poland. He seems to genuinely care for her and always treats her with respect. But every single time he meets a new Japanese person in a social setting, like clockwork, he manages to work the line “my girlfriend is a foreigner” into the conversation.
It’s actually quite impressive.
Add to this, the number of times I have had a Japanese girlfriend use the words “Let’s go out somewhere today! I want to show you off!”, and you have somewhat of an epidemic….
Back in 2010 my best friend’s (Japanese) girlfriend pretty much summed it up:
Japanese people love something exotic. Have you seen all those strange flavors of Pepsi in the convenience stores? We live on an island. An island filled with Japanese people, ruled by Japanese culture, and share a similar Japanese way of thinking. So what could be more exotic to a Japanese person than someone/something not Japanese? Even now [in 2010], most Japanese people cannot speak English, and so even the thought of interacting with a foreigner is unfathomable to some people. Which means when a Japanese person looks at another Japanese person who is hanging out with a foreigner, they see someone doing the unimaginable. It’s like watching someone do magic!! And everyone loves magic tricks right? So, we love to be seen with foreigners. For some it is a novelty, and for some it becomes a lifestyle, but it is what it is and it’s probably not going to change anytime soon, so it’s better to just make the best of it.
And that is exactly what some people do…
I once lived with a guy from NZ who made his living off of capitalizing on this very point!
And honestly speaking, if this is the biggest of your problems while in Japan, I think it’s safe to say that you’re doing pretty good for yourself…