My Tokyo life began in 2015 as a Freshman student at TUJ. After four years, I’m graduating and ready to escape from Japan. Don’t get me wrong, these four years in Japan were the highlight of my youth; I had a lot of fun and will definitely want to come back and visit. It’s just that I’m tired of the Tokyo lifestyle. In this article, I’ll tell you why.
Everyone’s experience in Tokyo differs, and I’m just sharing mine. As an East Asian female study abroad student who speaks Japanese, I don’t look much different from what many presume to be the typical Japanese woman in terms of facial feature, skin color, and the way I dress. Japanese people usually don’t know that I’m a foreigner until I reveal it myself. If you have a non-typical East Asian look or don’t speak Japanese, you might have a totally different experience. Either way, there are pros and cons.
My family visited Japan very often when I was little and I always had wonderful impressions of Japan, but living here is not the same as traveling here. Life in Tokyo is always busy. Even if you’re not busy, most other people are, and they won’t give you a break from the fast-paced life because they assume that everyone else is so busy too. I feel like living in Tokyo, I’m experiencing a constant trade-off between fun and relaxation. If I want to go out and have fun, I have to endure the crowded train, try to walk as fast as the busy city people, and remind myself not to break the unwritten rules. I call Tokyo the graveyard of personal space. Life here is stressful, which I only realized two years in. The stress accumulated in me and I wasn’t aware of it until I started experiencing severe physical pain in body, and had become paralyzed for half a year.
Part of the reason why I feel so stressed out, is because I always get that cold, strange look from Japanese people if I don’t act Japanese. As soon as I started living here, I learned that pretending to be Japanese helps me get rid of the unfriendly attention from strangers. I’ve learned to speak good Japanese in a short amount of time because Japanese people treat me differently when they think I’m Japanese. I’ve also learned many social rules. I should never talk on the phone when I’m on the train, always walk on the left side, leave space before me when getting on an escalator, etc. (I do most of this unconsciously, so it’s hard to recall). And then there are additional rules for girls. For instance, don’t eat while walking (especially ice cream), don’t wear flip flops, paint your nails, wear makeup in public etc. if you want to fit in. These are the rules that I’m supposed to follow to be considered well mannered in Tokyo.
I used to hate the silence on trains. Barely anyone talks on the train; they’re usually on their phones or taking a nap. Everyone has their phone on silent mode and even though there is no rule saying that we are not allowed to eat, no one really does. People reading newspaper on the train have to fold it into quarters. Japanese books are mostly made to be pocket sized because there’s no space for people to read bigger books on the train. Sometimes, people get aggressive (usually verbally) towards each other when they are standing too close. It’s just so crowded that everything annoys you. I started liking the silence because any noise would cause me even more stress. Trying not to annoy others is stressful enough.
Sometimes if people notice that I’m a foreigner from another Asian country, they treat me differently. When I’m with my Chinese-speaking friends on the train, I always tell them to speak in English because in my experience, many Japanese people look up on you if you speak English, but sort of look down on you if you speak Chinese. I can tell from their facial expressions- they stare at you in a different way. In fact, speaking fluent English is such a plus for Asian foreigners living in Japan. It’s not because it’s more convenient when communicating with Japanese people (it’s not), but it’s because they’d think you’re the cool kind of foreigner that they could adore. If you ask a Japanese stranger for a favor in broken Japanese, they might not be as willing to help out compared to if you speak in fluent English (this may stem from fear of the language as well).
Growing up in a country where I can go around in pajamas and no makeup, I feel like some social rules in Tokyo are infringing on my rights. I had a Japanese friend tell me that I should wear more makeup and dye my hair because that’s what well-mannered cute girls do. One time, I packed a lunch box (bento) to school and my other Japanese friend saw it and said my bento looked like a “guy’s bento”. I did not know that bento had a gender. The same person also told me that I smelled bad because I didn’t use laundry detergent for girls (that smell “girly”) to wash my clothes. Another Japanese friend of mine actually got mad at my other friend for not wearing makeup to school one day. A lot of Japanese apparel shops don’t sell short pants or skirts because after a certain age (high school/college), girls should wear pants or skirts that drape down below the knee to fit the “good girl” or “good wife” image (probably due to the high rate of upskirting and groping). At my part-time job, I have to keep smiling and keep myself busy in front of customers. Almost all of my conversations with customers begin with “I’m sorry”. I don’t even feel like I’m really apologizing anymore because it’s just become a part of the routinely sentence. I love my job because it teaches me how to act like a Japanese person, but it’s very mentally demanding. It’s hard to be smiley and busy and sorry all the time.
I’ve taken courses at Japanese universities. I was surprised on the first day of class when I saw all the girls sitting on the same side of the room with extremely similar makeup, outfits, and hairstyles. They were slightly different from the girls I see on the street. They spoke louder and behaved more like typical college students I know from other countries. It’s just that they usually disguise themselves under the girly and ladylike appearances because society expects them to do so. I always thought that I’m pretty much like a Japanese person, but from that first day of class, I realized that I am obviously a foreigner. I don’t act or talk like they do, and I have a completely different attitude towards school. I go to class to learn, but many of the Japanese students came to just socialize, catch up on sleep, and just pass in order to get a collegiate degree. They don’t have to worry about failing even if they don’t speak any German and can’t even read German alphabet in a German conversation course because the professor has to pass them or else he’d be in big trouble (why? because of the Japanese employment system). Japanese companies don’t care about your major or your grades, just which university you came from and if you graduated on time.
A lot of my observations of Japan, are made through watching TV. In the beginning, I watched it simply to relax, but now, I watch it to make myself more aware of Japan’s dire social situation. Sexism is everywhere on Japanese television. Women are on TV to look cute and pretty. Men do the talking and take control of the shows. Many commercials feature women as housewives and men as experts. Women cook because they are housewives and men cook because it’s their profession. They say if a man can do all the housework or if a woman is financially independent, it’d be hard for them to get married and an old enough adult who’s not married is considered inadequate/a failure. There are shows where unmarried women in their 20s~40s get judged on reasons they can’t get married. It’s always the women’s fault for failing to attract men. Women on Japanese TV get judged on their personality and physical appearance, often normalizing sexual harassment against women. There was even a show that said breast cancer prevalence among Japanese women is on the rise because more women are working and that disturbs their hormone balance. Why are they telling women not to work when it’s actually the patriarchal employment system that should be changed?
When it comes to sensitive news topics, there is usually zero debate. Most Japanese new programs are more like variety shows- they are there to entertain and not necessarily to inform their audiences. Barely any shows talks about the #MeToo movement. If they do, they’d be blaming the victims and ridiculing feminists. Most young Japanese people don’t even watch that kind of show because having interest in politics and social movements, is lame.
To be honest, knowing the Japanese language or looking like a Japanese person doesn’t make life in Japan easier. People assume that you know the social rules and should follow them. Your rights as a person are ambiguous. You get very narrow personal space, you’re told to dress a certain way and behave that way according to you gender, and the worst part is: you should endure it when you feel like your rights are violated. If I don’t understand Japanese, I wouldn’t have learned all these rules and wouldn’t care about how other people judge me. If I don’t look Japanese, people would understand that I act differently because I’m a foreigner. But at the same time, I wouldn’t have been able to make all the social observations, become close with many nice Japanese friends, and get to know things that only Japanese people know.
Life is never perfect anywhere you live. I’m grateful for these four years and it’s time for me to free myself from my quasi-Japanese identity. I’ve finally realized how awful it feels not being able to be myself. Living in a highly conformed society like Japan helped me see my individuality. I am me. Neither my gender nor nationality should define who I am.