5 Ways to Not Stand Out in Japan

Many of us expats (or "foreigners" or "gaijin" as we often refer to ourselves) in Japan know well the feeling of not quite blending in. I'm sure many of you have experienced constant stares, as I often have (I have a feeling our little foreign baby will bring about even more of this...). And yet there are others who seem to attract more "unwanted," sometimes negative, attention. Attention is often something to be expected in Japan as a non-native, but that doesn't mean negative attention is OK, and for that which is of a more innocent nature, it's not always easy to accept or get used to. 

If you're feeling this way, Caroline of C. Life in Japan is here to share some ideas about how to "blend in" a bit more in Japan (if you want to, that is). *Please keep in mind these are just general suggestions and not "rules" of any kind, and they certainly don't guarantee that you won't receive any attention whatsoever - especially those ubiquitous stares... 

Oh, and between you and me, getting pregnant and having a baby definitely is not the thing to do if you don't want attention. - Ashley


I have been witness to, and heard many stories, about Japanese people approaching foreigners in Japan and asking strange questions or giving unwanted attention. Most of this is innocent, but still, it can take a toll, especially if you aren't accustomed to it.

Foreigners who have made lives for themselves in Japan take pride in that, myself included, and there’s nothing worse than being treated like a tourist in a place you consider your home.

How can this be avoided? I’m here to give a few tips (from my own experiences) on how to not stand out as much (unless you prefer being the center of attention).

1. Dress up

I know many young adults in the West take pride in ‘not caring’ how they look. I went to university in the USA; I wore pajamas to class too. I was a girl who lived in jeans and t-shirts until I came to Japan.

A lot of women I know comment about how Japanese women always look so well put-together. But Japanese women (or men!) aren’t the only ones who know how to put a nice outfit together. I don’t believe that you have to dedicate yourself to Japanese fashion, and I know that not all foreigners can wear Japanese clothes (or you may not want to), but putting a little effort into dressing up may help you blend in a bit more.

2. Be cool

Try to look like you know what you’re doing even if you don’t. Standing around with a wide-eyed, “deer in headlights” look on your face is sure to bring you attention.

Don’t freak out at the ticket machine when you can’t figure out which ticket to buy; don’t stand in front of the ticket gate looking like a confused lamb when your Suica (pre-paid electronic “ticket” card) doesn’t have enough money on it. Don’t stare at the barista at Starbucks when she speaks to you in Japanese. And if you do have a question and you’re confused about which shinkansen you’re supposed to take, ask the station master, but be confident. Especially if you can’t speak Japanese. Crying or panicking may only make the situation worse.

3. Ignore

Don’t be afraid to ignore people who harass you. They usually give up after a few tries, and responding to them usually makes it worse. I’ve lost count of how many shady old men have tried to bother me while I’ve waited for people outside of the train station.

Keeping your cell phone out is a good way to keep people from bothering you. I once had a man say hello to me in three different languages before giving up and moving on. I stared at my cellphone screen the entire time. Keeping your earphones in is a good defense against this too. And don’t make eye contact.

This does not mean you shouldn’t respond to people just being friendly, as many people are genuinely nice. This applies to those situations when you have a feeling “something’s up.”

4. Learn how to pronounce words necessary for daily life

For example: food and simple phrases, and at least learn how to pronounce the train stations around you, or the location you’re heading to.

Following a friend around who wanted to take me to "ake-hair-bear-a" (Akihabara) got to be a little embarrassing after awhile, and earned us a lot of strange looks. It also got us lost when that friend decided to take me somewhere, and when I asked where we were going, I was told, “mihe-nam-me kushugey-a” (Minami-koshigaya). A nice woman tried to step in and help us out, but even she couldn’t riddle that one out.

5. Look around 

If you’re aware of your surroundings you’re more likely to become part of them and not stand out so much. I’m not saying to "become" or "act" Japanese but at least mimicking those around you at important times can help you avoid unwanted attention.

A couple of months ago I was waiting to see the doctor at a pretty large, famous hospital in Tokyo. I was in a crowded waiting room when suddenly everyone stopped talking and the people sitting near me started to look down at their hands, phones, or in their bags. It seemed odd to me that everyone had collectively shut down when I noticed that two nurses were ushering a man through the lobby. I quickly looked down at my bag when I realized that the man was a member of, um, Japan’s “underworld.” It was written all over him. At first I didn’t believe it, but the fact that everyone around me had gone silent and avoided looking seemed to say it all.

What other ideas do you have to avoid receiving unwanted or negative attention (at least, as much as is possible)?


Caroline Josephine, a creative writer and avid reader, has been living in Japan for over 3 years where she spends her time running to catch the train, spending all of her money on clothes, and playing with stuffed Mamegoma toys. Caroline writes about her life in Japan at C. Life in Japan. To keep up with her random train adventures follow her on Twitter via @innocencewalker

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