Adamu at the Mutant Frog posted: “This is a long one, but I hope you will bear with me:

Today Neojaponisme has posted a fascinating, Einstein vs. Freud style debate between David Marx and Matt Treyvaud on how Westerners should properly speak Japanese. Marxy writes:

As Japan’s global role shifts from fearsome economic power to lovable cultural hotspot, the tenor of foreigners living in Japan is also in flux. The majority of “foreigners” in Japan are Asian immigrants, of course: those working “immigrant jobs” and living at the margins of society. But if we may narcissistically limit the following conversation to Japan’s immigrants of non-desperation — those like ourselves who are here for more complicated reasons and/or have no obvious way of blending into the dominant racial paradigm — I would argue that the widespread respect for contemporary Japanese culture has summoned a new breed who enthusiastically embrace the Japanese language rather than see it as a noisome barrier for colonial English universalism.

The text in bold is David’s fancy way of saying White Men. As a subspecies of White People, Westerners living in Japan “who enthusiastically embrace the Japanese language” are often the topic of these blog posts. I feel that one important contribution of this essay is a firm definition of this group for the sake of discussion.

That brings me to today’s topic:

Michael Pronko in Newsweek—is it HIS Tokyo?

Newsweek Japan’s latest entry in the “Tokyo Eye” column, a feature written by a rotating cast of Tokyo residents, usually foreign, is titled “Looking Away: The Foreigners’ Battle Without Honor or Mercy—‘Tokyo is MY City!’”The author, Meiji University lecturer Michael Pronko, explains for a Japanese audience how it feels to see other Westerners in Tokyo. You can read the entire column in Japanese from this PDF, but for those who can’t or won’t read the Japanese I will summarize the piece’s main points:


  • There is an unwritten rule for when Westerners encounter other Westerners living in Tokyo—don’t make eye contact, and don’t strike up a conversation. This rule is more or less strictly followed, to the extent that you could fail to acknowledge your Western friends in your effort to avoid anyone you recognize as Western. Nevertheless, if a Westerner sees another Westerner on the train, he/she will be unable to keep from glancing over at the other foreigner and wondering what they might be doing in Japan and how long they have been here. You can actually tell how long a Westerner has been living in Tokyo by how well he/she abides by this rule.
  • There are times when this rule doesn’t work. Example—one night when Pronko entered his favorite blues club—an “exotic secret” place he would prefer to keep to himself—he found it full of American lawyers holding a raucous birthday party. With so many of his fellow countrymen in the club, he couldn’t help but get involved in their conversation.
  • Reflecting on the above experience, he writes, “Even now, whenever I see a foreigner in an unexpected place, I want to ask ‘What on earth are you doing here?’ It’s just as if I were trekking through Africa in the 19th century and met another explorer in a safari helmet. In fact, I want to shout, ‘Tokyo is MY city!’ I [fancy myself] a bold explorer in uncharted lands. But this fantasy unravels the instant a foreigner appears other than myself.”
  • Occasionally, talking to other Westerners can be “fun,” such as when he and his wife ran into a couple at a hot spring in Gunma Prefecture.

Like the foreign correspondents in my more recent posts, I want to commend Pronko for being honest and opening up. Due in part to the sense of rivalry that can exist among foreigners living here, it can be hard to bring up some critical, basic issues no matter how glaringly apparent.

People who have considered this issue before will soon recognize that Pronko is expressing the consensus view on this subject. The Westerner’s explorer tendencies and need for authentic Japan experiences, the argument goes, are at the root of this need to avoid other foreigners. And to the extent that there exist many who consciously avoid English speaking situations in order to either improve their language abilities or otherwise have a more authentic Japan experience, this is an important and mostly true observation.

It also goes a long way toward explaining the second step in the Pronko scenario—i.e. why Westerners are interested in looking at each other after seeming to avoid one another. But I doubt this is the whole story.

It might be helpful to separate Pronko’s argument into two separate issues—his worry that seeing Westerners where they have no business being will destroy his adventure fantasies, and the “no eye contact” rule.

Tokyo as the ultimate hip ethnic neighborhood

To be more precise about what the adventurer motivation is all about, let’s consult the best source on the subject ever—the Stuff White People Like blog.

As insight into the world of American White People culture, humanity owes the SWPLan immense debt of gratitude. Take the entry on “gentrification“:

In general, white people love situations where they can’t lose. While this does account for the majority of their situations, perhaps the safest bet a white person can make is to buy a house in an up-and-coming neighborhood. 

White people like to live in these neighborhoods because they get credibility and respect from other white people for living in a more “authentic” neighborhood where they are exposed to “true culture” every day. So whenever their friends mention their home in the suburbs or richer urban area, these people can say “oh, it’s so boring out there, so fake. In our neighborhood, things are just more real.” This superiority is important as white people jockey for position in their circle of friends.

Or consider this entry on “being the only White person around,” which I’ll quote at length:

This concept…is important [in order to] fully understand how white people view authenticity and experience. 

In most situations, white people are very comforted by seeing their own kind. However, when they are eating at a new ethnic restaurant or traveling to a foreign nation, nothing spoils their fun more than seeing another white person.

Many white people will look into the window of an ethnic restaurant to see if there are other white people in there. It is determined to be an acceptable restaurant if the white people in there are accompanied by ethnic friends. But if there is a table occupied entirely by white people, it is deemed unacceptable.

The arrival of the “other white people” to either restaurants or vacation spots instantly means that lines will grow, authenticity will be lost, and the euphoria of being a cultural pioneer will be over.

And that’s especially true when you think about how Tokyo can be seen as the ultimate gentrification project—it’s halfway around the world, it’s a developed country but still very different and Asian, and it’s got a relatively low white person population. So it’s very easy to understand why Pronko might feel umbrage when his fantasies come crashing down. As you might expect, SWPL has already weighed in on the subject:

But it goes beyond just food, all white people either have/will/or wished they had taught English in Japan. It is a dream for them to go over seas and actually live in Japan. This helps them not only because it fills their need to travel, it will enable them to gain important leverage over other white people at Sushi restaurants where they can say “this place is pretty good, but living in Japan really spoiled me. I’ve had such a hard time finding a really authentic place.”

SWPL’s focus is a little different on this topic (he notes that White People who learn to speak Japanese “kind of ruin it for everyone else”), but its heart is in the right place.

White People (at least those fitting Marxy’s definition at the top of the post), and by extension Westerners in Japan, are seeking authentic experiences through experiencing real, exotic foreign cultures. The presence of Westerners, while it can seem kind of irksome to a Pronko, nonetheless serves as a necessary barometer in determining how successful the Westerner is in attaining that authenticity (though paradoxically the very presence of another Westerner threatens to ruin the whole experience).

But is this why the “no eye contact rule” exists? Are Westerners so fragile and dependent on a facade of being first that the mere presence of a foreigner makes them cringe in terror? As you can probably tell, I am not so sure.

Everyone here averts their eyes

For the most part, Pronko is spot-on about the “rules.” But these rules cannot be explained simply by a SWPL-esque colonial quest for authenticity. If that were true, then wouldn’t a “no eye contact” policy be the default for those awkward encounters with other white people in the ethnic food restaurants?

I suspect it’s not quite that simple. Behind Pronko’s seemingly simple observation lies immense insight into the place of Western expats in Japanese society. The way people carry themselves on a daily basis is not just the response to unspoken rules between the type of people they might see once a week; it’s a response to the constant stimulus of exposure to people on the street and everyone else in their lives.


First and foremost, it is perhaps the greatest social virtue in Japan to avoid being a nuisance (aka meiwaku in Japanese) to others. To quote one of my gaijin forefathers, Thomas Dillon, writing for the Japan Times:

Meiwaku is an important word in overcrowded, group-centered, harmony-obsessed Japan, and a concept that is pounded into children from an early age, along with a related term, wagamama, which means “self-centeredness.” If you are wagamama, you will no doubt be meiwaku. The lesson from pre-school on is this: Being wagamama and meiwaku are bad. Not being so is good. 

Of course, much of this is a simple show of proper manners. Yet the motto of Group Japan seems not to be, “all for one and one for all.” Rather it’s “all for all.” All of the time.

I know how they feel. After almost three decades here my meiwaku senses are finely tuned. As a foreigner, I understand I will never blend in. Yet, I try like mad not to stick out.

Cross my legs on the train? Nope. Might bump the fellow next to me. Meiwaku.

Drop a plastic bag in the trash? Are you nuts? That’s unburnable. Someone has to separate it. Meiwaku.

Raise my voice on the train, on the street, or even in my shower? Absolutely not! Other people are too close.

Dillon doesn’t mention eye contact, but he does not have to. It is just simply not done here. So in other words, it’s not just Westerners who refuse to make eye contact or talk to strangers, it’s the entire nation of Japan!


He also characterizes this phenomenon as rather hard to understand. But while the finer details may elude people who did not get a full early education in the country, I suspect that this “don’t make eye contact and don’t talk to strangers” rule is readily obvious to even the most casual observers.

An example close to home—after a week in Tokyo, my mother realized that the young men never leer or check out women as they would in New York. And it’s true—people often seem to walk as if traveling in separate pneumatic tubes. As an aside, I happen to think that this type of behavior is neither good nor bad, but simply a necessity of living in a big city (New Yorkers are famous for wearing “don’t mess with me” expressions as they walk through Manhattan).

As a kind of scene-setting description of what this phenomenon is like, and to show that it’s probably not a Tokyo-only phenomenon, I’d like to quote from a literary critic’s description of Ghost in the Shell’s fictional Hong Kong:

Bilingual, neon-lit advertisement signs are not only almost everywhere; their often ingenious construction for maximum visibility deserves an architectural monograph in itself. The result of all this insistence is a turning off of the visual. As people in metropolitan centers tend to avoid eye contact with one another, so they now tend also to avoid eye contact with the city. (PDF)

Conclusion—it’s not about us

One of the eternal ironies of White People is the capacity for endless self-examination co-existing with a complete inability to see what is right in front of their eyes. We seek comfortable truths and wallow in our privilege even as we admit its complete absurdity.

And let there be no mistake—Westerners in Japan are a privileged upper class. While Marxy’s nativized Westerners do not receive the royal treatment of, say, an executive on an expat package or a high school Japanese language class visiting from Wisconsin, they are nonetheless praised as geniuses for speaking Japanese, handed cakewalk jobs merely for the language skills, and are directly subject to virtually none of the social responsibilities of actual Japanese people.

The reactions to this kind of treatment vary widely—some exploit it adeptly, some accept it and demand still more, some see it as a subtle form of rejection, but many, perhaps like Pronko (I don’t really know what his life is like but I know others), find their niche and stick to it, growing used to the rhythm of Japanese life, fielding the questions about why your Japanese is so good, and taking that job as a token foreigner or everyone’s favorite gaijin at the karaoke bar.

So what does this status have to do with these random encounters with other Westerners on the train? Reactions like Pronko’s may reveal the underlying White Person culture reaction to other Westerners—that is, seeing another Westerner kicks in that rival explorer instinct and the need to compare one’s Japan experience with others. I mean, why is the first reaction to seeing another Westerner “how long has this person been in Japan?”

Another possibility is that the curiosity upon seeing another Westerner is merely a mirror image of the typical reaction when a Japanese person meets a foreigner. In fact, the list of questions is almost the same—how long have you lived in Japan, how good is your Japanese, what you are doing here, etc. Those are the characteristics that justify why this odd person is in Japan in the first place, and at some point I think nativized Westerners develop a similar need. This attitude is a close analog to how Westerners living in Japan, particularly Americans, fall into the trap of endlessly contrasting the US and Japan, largely because that’s what Japanese people do when they talk to an American.

Pronko expressed a bit of alarm at the noticeable increase in the number of foreigners popping up in unexpected places. I think he was expressing pure surprise, and perhaps some consternation at an interruption to his routine, but the increasing presence of Westerners in Japan—not just Army and expats but former exchange students, JET alumni, former NOVA teachers, or whoever has come to make a life here—means that dealing with a Japanese-speaking foreigner is probably a semi-regular encounter for Japanese people in general. My hope is that they will break from the golden cage of White People privilege and work to “fit in” even if they cannot “blend in” as Matt notes in the essay linked at the top of the post. As the American brand continues to tank and Japan gets around to reassessing its immigration policy priorities, I doubt the White privilege gravy train will last forever.”