University of Wisconsin–Madison

A White Western Woman’s Take on Japan

I love Japan and being here is an incredible, once in a lifetime opportunity. All of this aside, however, this experience is filtered through a different lense than most other Asians because I am a curly blonde haired, blue eyed, white, western female from America. I cannot easily blend into a crowd, or go by instinct when making conversation or even speak to locals with anything other than broken English, Google Translate or hand gestures. I am always hyper aware of how different I am: people stare at me on the street, cashiers will automatically speak English, locals come up to me to talk and some men get a little too friendly. Coming from the background that I do and looking the way I do has given me a very interesting perspective of Japan. Some is good, such as people going out of their way to help me (seriously, so many people in Japan have been extremely helpful when I am lost or confused), and some is not so good, like being treated like a second class person. I think it really depends on if people judge me as the typical loud, white, foreign tourist or as a new member of the workforce here to present new ideas and bring two countries closer together.

In order to better adjust to life in Japan, I have found it very useful to compare American and Japanese cultures so I know what elements of my American culture are compatible here and what is not. One of the biggest difference between cultures that people don’t mention is how different it is to be a woman. I don’t need to be worried about my safety by any means (Japan is one of the safest places in the world for petty crimes), but when it comes to women working it feels like we have gone back 30 years. America has its share of workplace gender discrimination, but it is no wonder why Japan is ranked one of the least hospitable work environments for women in the developed world. The prime minister of Japan addressed this issue and wants to “womanize Japan” but in practice there is no evidence of change. Even the women I’ve seen who are technically at the same level as their male peers (cashiers, waiters, business people), struggle to be heard when it counts. I’m not saying that their male peers aren’t talented, but that these women don’t seem to be given the same opportunities as their male counterparts to make their voices heard. It makes me feel lucky to be living in a country where women can be more outspoken.

On a separate note, many woman happily talk with me about local customs and traditions and want to compare them with America which has helped a lot in me learning about Japanese culture. Men are a little more hesitant to talk to me, but my coworkers discuss all manner of Japanese places to go to or food to try or a holiday coming up so I feel a bit more in the loop. I do feel guilty not being able to speak the language here because it forces everyone around me to speak English! I have been trying to pick up some frequent sayings, but I feel like I don’t have enough time to do more on the evenings or weekends. I definitely thought it would be easier to pick up the language, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

All in all, it is definitely a different experience to be both white and a woman in Japan, and it has opened my eyes to problems and circumstances I had only ever heard about before, like someone going out of their way to sit down next to me to chat about where I’m from!