Jan 27, 2016

Representing Yourself and Your Country

Representing Yourself and Your Country photo

In 2020 the Olympics will come to Tokyo, bringing many top athletes to Japan. They will train for years to be the best in their field. They will work very hard to represent their sport and their country. In the coming months you will have a some random foreigners. With little to no training they will step into Japan. They will come here for their one year vacation...I mean ALT job. They will treat Japan like their playground, think Japanese people are racist because no one wants to sit next to them on the train, constantly complain, and think that Japanese laws don't pertain to them.

Now, I know that might sound like an extreme example. Surely, those people don't actually exist do they? Sadly, they do...they very much do. The big problem is that their selfishness can ruin your time in Japan. In fact it can do a lot more damage than they care to think about. While you might live in Japan for years, they will go back to their home country and tell all their friends how bad of a time they had in Japan.  

Let me tell you something about Japan that you might not know. Whether you like it or not in Japan you represent your culture, race, country, or whatever box people want to put you. Some people (and I want emphasize some) will judge you based on what they perceive you to be. Before even knowing you some people are going to have formed an opinion of who they think you are and they believe you will act.

Please, please keep in mind that this isn't everyone! You will meet some amazingly nice and gracious people in Japan. I can't even count how many times people have helped me or have even just been patient with me. Over the years I've had many amazing Japanese coworkers and friends. What I'm trying to say is that sometimes people are going to pigeonhole you into who they think you should or shouldn't be. And, acting like a fool isn't going to do you any favors.

Also, let me clarify one more thing. I'm not talking about the little nuances and "rules" of a foreign country that you might not be aware of. I'm talking about breaking laws, treating people with disrespect, and acting like you've never been out in public before. Hopefully you can tell from your surroundings what behaviors are appropriate. And hopefully you don`t think you`re somehow above the law just because you are a foreigner.     

While in Japan there have been times when I've run into people who think they already know how foreigners act. They've seen movies, watched the news, or even had the occasional run in with a foreigner. If I've never met this person before I have no idea how they processed that information. They might have had a wonderful time. Maybe the foreigner they met was loud and obnoxious and stole their shoes after a long night of drinking. The point is, I don't know how they perceive me and unfortunately I haven't been given the gift of reading minds. 

So, how should you act? How should I act? How do you react to people who are uncertain of you? Those are great questions! The fact that you are even concerned about how you act in a foreign country probably means you probably don't have anything to worry about. On the other hand if you don't care, then for my sake (and the sake of other foreigners in Japan) don't come to Japan, seriously. I'm not trying to be rude I'm just tried of people thinking they can go to a foreign country and do whatever they please. As I said earlier foreigners represent their country. You might not want to, you might not think you should, and you might not even be the right person to. But, fact of the matter is you do. What you do, and how you act is going to represent you, me, and other foreigners in Japan.

This shouldn't be earth shattering news but as a foreigner Japan isn't your home country. Maybe in your country no one cares if you act like a fool on the train, seeing if you can break the world record for how many pull ups you can do. Maybe in your country no one will care if you are disrespectful to your server and make remarks like, "I can say whatever I want, they don't speak English anyway". Maybe in your country "soft drugs" don't get you into any trouble. Maybe in your home country no one will care because in your home country your actions don't represent you as well as the larger community. But, in Japan they do. Again, like it or not that's the way it is. 

What you chose to do with this information is up to you. You can play the "I'm a foreigner and I can do whatever I want" card. You can choose to blatantly ignore all the rules (written and unwritten), which you are free to do. Despite what you might think I'm not going to tell you can't. What I'm trying to do is help make your life (and mine) a little easier while you are here in Japan. You can do as you please. Just remember, your actions represent more than just you in Japan. When you meet someone for the first time they are going to put you into a category. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide which category we end up in.

Photo courtesy of Kazz Takahashi Photography. Check out his work!!


Andrew Higgins has been living in Japan full-time since 2012. He is a junior high school ALT, softball coach, lover of okonomiyaki (Osaka style), and all things Girls und Panzer. He makes YouTube videos about living in Japan. You can follow his adventures at facebook.com/HigginsInJapan


  • junko

    on Jan 27

    This is really interesting. I'm Japanese but it will be in that situation if I go to other country.

  • Higgins

    on Jan 27

    @junko Thanks! It goes both ways...it`s all about being respectful to the people you come in contact with in other countries.

  • DaveJpn

    on Jan 27

    Really like the way you sum all the points up at the end of this post. I think part of what might be going on is due to time, as you alluded to. Some people come over for just a year, thinking it's all about their own experience, tear the place up, and then leave without a care in the world. There's little consequence for them. I do wonder though, if our 'foreigness', for want of a better word, exaggerates what might otherwise be not such unusual behaviour, in the eyes of local people. I dunno, but your post has has got me thinking.

  • Higgins

    on Jan 28

    @DaveJpn Thank you. It's a good question. I often wonder how I come across to Japanese people. I think it causes me to more cautious at times but there a definitely times when I've been around other foreigners and not thought about it at all.