I made this post into audio, so if you’d like to listen instead of reading, please do so!
Let me start by saying that I get why the staring bothers people. I get why you think it’s rude, and I understand why it makes you uncomfortable. I mean let’s be realistic, I’m an overly pale, blondish, white girl living in Japan. People stare. I think there’s more to it than just ‘stare at the foreigner because you can‘.
And for the record, I’m talking about general population starers. Not super creepers, who undress you with their eyes. Because come on, there are creepers who will stare at you no matter what country you’re in. I also am only referring to staring; not being approached, touched, or any other potentially unwelcome action that may or may not happen during your stay here.
When I first came to Japan on exchange the staring got to me. I’m a somewhat nervous person, and I kept thinking that there was something completely wrong with me, and that’s why people would continue to look. I’m not a confrontational person. I wouldn’t have the guts to ask them why, or even stare back… that’s just not me. So what did I do? I pretended that people were staring at me because they were confusing me for someone famous. It’s stupid, and maybe even a little vain, but it was fun and it got me to stop worrying and stop caring about who was staring and why they were doing it.
People stare because you’re different from what they consider to be the ‘norm’. You can find it annoying, you can find it bothersome, you can find it rude, but you can’t tell me you’ve never stared at someone because they look or act differently from what you perceive as your community’s ‘norm’. Be honest, you’ve been somewhere and have seen a person that looks different from what you expect. They could be really tall, their hair might be orange, maybe their clothing is outrageous. You stared at them, because different is interesting.
It’s not necessarily a negative thing, and it’s also not always because you’re a foreigner. Maybe you really do have a giant booger hanging from your nose. Maybe your music is too loud. Maybe you smell horrible. Or hey, maybe it is because you’re clearly not from around these parts.
I guess what bothers people most is that it seems like Japanese people aren’t taught not to stare at the foreigner. They’re taught not to stare at disabled people, or old people, homeless people, or overweight people… but no one ever said anything about what you do when you see someone that looks so different from you. A lot of people probably don’t even realise they’re staring. And sure, maybe the mother of that nosey child should say something or discipline them, but I think they don’t do it because they don’t see anything wrong with the action.
If it’s going to bother you so much that you go into angry rages, you probably shouldn’t be staying here for any extended period of time. My boss told me a story about a lady that he knew that just could not handle when people stared at her. She was an attractive woman, who was tall, with blonde hair and blue eyes. Minus the attractive part, she was pretty much the exact opposite of your stereotypical Japanese woman. The staring got to her so much, that she ended up just yelling at people on the subway who stared at her. As if that would make things better. Wouldn’t that draw more attention to her? Who wouldn’t stare at the screaming foreign lady? I so would. It was the partially the inability to cope with people looking at her which made her leave Japan.
Another girl that was in my program during my exchange lasted about a month here, because she reacted so negatively to people staring at her or trying to talk to her (and from what I heard, the people who approached her were trying to make friendly conversations, not anything weird or inappropriate).
Even though Japan is an old country, it’s an old country that if you really look at it, hasn’t had a long history of the everyday person interacting with non-Japanese, and especially non-Asian people, on a regular basis. It’s also a place where change is often quite slow moving, and not necessarily welcomed with open arms. So really now, what can you expect?
I think people notice being stared at more when they’re part of a minority. You know there’s something about you that’s not quite the same as everyone else in that subway car. I also think that sometimes, foreign people who maybe without knowing, almost seek out someone who’s staring at them. Because sometimes, I’m sure they’re really just staring off into space… not at you. I do that. You also have to consider the amount of people in Japan in comparison to other parts of the world. A bus in Canada wouldn’t have nearly as many people as a bus in Japan does. More people equals more chances of being stared at.
No matter where you go, there are going to be people who look at you, people who are interested in you, people who judge you, and people who don’t like you for no real reason at all. So in the end it all comes down to this; you can’t control what other people do, but you can control how you perceive it, how you feel about it, and how you react to it. So why ruin your experience in country as rich and interesting as Japan just because people stare at you? Why get angry, upset or bitter about it? That’s exhausting, and not worth an ounce of your time or effort, especially because it’s not going to stop it from happening.
You could argue that pointing it out will get people here to realise how uncomfortable it makes people feel, but the thing with that is most people go about it the wrong way, and instead give a bad stereotype to foreigners in Japan. Aggression, anger, hate… how is that going to help anything? (And if you throw in fear, you’re heading to the dark of the Force). Honestly, the one thing that can really be done is just to wait for people to adapt. For foreign people in Japan to become a society realised ‘norm’.
For me personally, the biggest way to get over it was to realise that it wasn’t anything personal, and that if they can’t help but stare, that’s not my problem. Sometimes you just have to accept things the way they are.
But hey, if it’s still really bothering you and all else fails, get a puppy. I kid you not. No one notices you when you have a cute puppy leading the way. Tried, tested, and true.
The photo featured in the front is of a book cover which reads, 「日本人はなぜ外国人を見つめる？」(Why Do Japanese People Stare at Foreigners?), for those who want to try a passive-aggressive, non-confrontational approach to get starers to realize what they’re doing. Get more information on it at Arni Kristjansson’s site. Other coping mechanisms can also be found in the article at The Japan Rants.