Oct 22, 2018

Being a "Ninjin" in Japan

Ninjin, that is a term I came up with. When people in Japan use the term 'gaikokujin' or the more offensive alternative 'gaijin,' the standard image is the blonde hair, blue eyes Caucasian, then maybe it would be a black person, then… the stereotypical image tends to stop there for a lot of Japanese people. Well, I'm Asian. From looking at me, most people would not know that I too am a gaikokujin until I attempt to speak Japanese. Thus, I consider myself a Ninja Gaikokujin, or in short, a Ninjin.

It is quite a unique experience that my friends from western countries do not share. Many of them have been in Japan for as long as I have, and they often share stories with me of how they were stared at as they walk on the street (especially in rural parts of the country), how they were recognized anywhere in town, how random people would try to strike up an English conversation with them, either to be friendly or to practice English, and they tell me that they got used to it.

Being a "Ninjin" in Japan photo

For me, despite my Canadian nationality and my job as an English teacher, my Asian blood and appearance has made it so that I have never experienced any of that. Sure, it might be nice that I could blend in, but I also become a part of an even more mixed identity that creates confusion for the locals. They approach me with full speed Japanese, only to be surprised to find out that my language skills are way off from what they expected. When I go out to restaurants with friends, the staff always direct everything at me, even though I had never spoken a word and my white friend was speaking fluent Japanese to them.

I just have an appearance that always sets up for a false impression in every little interaction I have with a stranger, and it feels rather awkward.

I am also often faced with a question that my friends never get: "So, have you faced any discrimination in Japan for being Chinese?"

Um… I never know how to answer that, and it confuses me even more about my identity in Japan. I often explain that because I present myself as an English teacher from Canada, I do not get as much of the prejudice and the "normal Chinese person" faces in Japan. Being from Hong Kong, a special district with a different international image also helps. 

Ironically, it also gives me an identity that is in between two "foreign" identities, one that I would not experience anywhere else, and one that I cannot get out of. I might look very similar to locals, but I feel like that I can never be fully immersed into this society truly as a local. 

In regards to discrimination, there is the huge disadvantage I have career-wise in that I do not have an "image" that sells English. For schools or companies looking for teachers, they often want those who might catch a customer's eyes instantly, not someone who has to explain his/her background to earn students' trust. Even after hearing me speak, some students/customers/parents still have doubts, despite my experiences and qualifications being beyond other teachers. I do believe that I have missed a job opportunity before due to being not advertisable. That is often what I explain when people ask me about the discrimination I face, which always surprises them. They reply that they had never even thought about it, but when I ask whether they would more likely be sold by an ad with a visible foreigner or a 'ninjin,' they got my point.

What I get is definitely not as much discrimination as many of my friends receive. People do not keep their eyes on me as I walk around town, or as one of my friends new to the country put it, being stared at like a zoo animal out of the cage. However, it is definitely not that the non-visible foreigners like me are accepted, and many Chinese and Korean residents here would have tons of stories to share. Rather, it is simply the fact that ninjins like me blend in perfectly, with our existence remaining unknown to many.

(As I was typing this, I talked to a foreign gentleman on the train in fluent English, surprising him and the Japanese business men next to us. Then I spoke to the business men in Japanese to ask them a question, surprising them again. The life of a ninjin, full of surprises.)



Games, manga, and ramen. Those three things make up my Tri-force lol.