Best ways to cope with routine gaijin questions? A reaction to Debito

Debito’s latest creation is a column about “microaggression,” which is his new term for the routine, repetitive questions and lines of conversation that Japanese people commonly have with white Westerners (“You can use chopsticks?” “Can you eat natto?” etc). He says they add up to a form of soft discrimination. It’s one of his better thought-out and organized pieces in a while, so I heartily recommend reading it.

I will admit at first the column touched a nerve because I easily tire of hearing these questions and have many times cut conversations short rather than continue (partly because my Japanese sucks). But while I agree with the basic framework of the idea—that people treat gaijin this way because they are different—I ultimately don’t think it’s worth calling that out and out discrimination and prejudice.

He goes into lots of details, and if you want to get into the finer points of his column in the comments, I will be there with you. But for now I just want to point out my biggest issue.

Boring, repetitive conversations are had all over the world. It just so happens that when Japanese people see a Western face, it calls up memories of learning English in school, the images on TV, and the experiences they or their friends have had with foreigners in the past.  It’s all completely natural and utterly mundane. A shout-out and a thank-you go to those rare people who can break this mold and have lively and fun conversations.

Rather than a small form of “aggression,” in my experience people who do this are almost always just sticking to the script of safe, polite conversation. Most people are not great conversationalists, so they gravitate to what’s easy. Doctors always hear the same questions about their job, so does that mean they’re being discriminated against?

I am totally on Debito’s team when it comes to being pissed off at ignorant prejudiced people. It’s just that while the ignoramuses do engage in the routine rote questions, doing so isn’t a capital offense, socially speaking. You will screen out a lot of perfectly decent people if you denounce everyone who ever mentioned your chopstick skills.  For one thing, talking about food is probably the best ice-breaker for intercultural encounters, so it’s kind of unfair to try and rule that out!

In the column Debito mentions “coping skills” like it’s a dirty word. But coping skills are absolutely essential for living in Japan, and they don’t need to involve trying to change the whole society. There might be a time and place to discuss with Japanese people the absurd repetitiveness of some of these conversations, but it’s probably not worth “resisting” someone you are meeting for the first time.

What are some go-to ways to cope with these situations? As I said I am not good at this, so my most common method for complete strangers might be to politely answer the questions and then clam up, thinking, Hurry up and finish cutting my hair! But when I am feeling festive, I’ll sometimes turn the question around, or even better—change the subject! People usually move on. Ken on Twitter had a good one: “Best part of being ambidextrous is as soon as I get [the chopstick] compliment I issue the challenge to use them lefty.” Really, this is an area where I’ve fallen into a pretty unfriendly routine, so being better able to deal with it would probably brighten these people’s days, not to mention my own.

Update: While Mr. Arudo’s column was worth our unqualified attention this time, our “no Debito” policy lives on in the comments section – our hope against hope is that you try to avoid talking about the man himself and his approach and blahblahblah

  1. All the rest aside, “microaggression” is not a term Debito invented, nor does his article claim this. The term was coined in the late seventies by Chester M. Pierce in the context of racism on US television. Co-opting a term used by the civil rights movement to discuss and explicate non-overt racism to moan about white person problems is a bit rich, though.

  2. Ah, the Chopsticks Compliment. Sometimes I honestly think it’s like some national koan competition. There is no correct answer, but it’s what you learn about yourself while thinking about it which really matters.

    I agree that ‘coping strategies’ aren’t to be dismissed so lightly, and if you ‘confront’ people who think they’re just being polite you run the risk of giving them even worse ideas. That said, it’s meant to be a conversation starter, so having a conversation about it is fine. If I’m in the mood I’ll just turn it around; ‘Why thank you! So are you. How long have you been practising?’ I don’t know what your policy on shameless link whoring is, but I wittered on about this at greater length last month – http://fightstart.blogspot.jp/2012/03/i-wish-i-was-special.html

    In my heart, however, I’ll always treasure the time I was at an enkai in an Italian restaurant. Proper place settings with the full array of start-at-the-outside cutlery. When one of my dining companions correctly identified the fish knife I was able to legitimately compliment him on his skill with a knife and fork. Simple pleasures…

  3. One of the nice things about getting older is I can say things like “yes, I started using chopsticks/speaking Japanese/eating umeboshi over 20 years ago…” and then point out how a 20 year old (or even 10 year old!) Japanese person would normally be able to do the same thing that I’m doing.

  4. “I learned how to use these at Chinese restaurants in America when I was a kid” is my go-to response. These comments are definitely ice-breaking small talk in my book and I have never been able to get worked up about them.

  5. I have a happy life here in Japan and can’t find the time to be bothered by these questions. (I really shouldn’t take the time to get bothered by Debido either!). As a (part-time) bartender, I get them more often than most and I’ll typically answer them with a joke, a laugh and we all have a great time. There are the oyaji who ask the same things every time you see them to be sure, but they are far from the norm and typically nice, if somewhat dense, guys. If we go on answering these questions, sooner or later the questioner will move on to better topics. Nothing good comes from treating these questioning Japanese rudely. Too many rude encounters and one might, somewhat understandably, develop negative stereotypes of gaijin, start ranting on 2Ch and become that racist Japanese that Debido is so passionate about.

    I find this “microaggression” as “microCOMPASSION.” It’s a world view. If you “you begin to dread interacting with the outside world,” as Debido puts it, it sounds like you have a bigger problem that has a correlation to being in a foreign country but it’s not exactly causative. The advice I always give to new comers is to think positive. Not just as a foreigner living in a foreign land, but at home also.

    Pronoia vs. Debido’s paranoia.

  6. I find the best thing to do is, as some suspect above, turn the conversation on its head. Challenge the stereotypes while not refusing to interact. I always counter “Nihongo ojouzu desu ne!” with, “Iie, machigae darake desu.” Refuse the compliment Japanese style and use an advanced grammatical form while also insisting on what I know to be true: this is my second language and I screw it up all the time. And by then, they know I speak enough Japanese to continue the interaction like a normal human being.

    I don’t usually get, “When are you going home?” I get, “Do you think you want to stay in Japan forever?” Which I find a vast improvement.

    My problems with taxi drivers are less the intrusive questions and more that they get all in my face about the directions I give them. Fuck you, Kyoto taxi drivers, learn to work your GPS before you get all up in my face about whether I sincerely want you to pass that main road and turn at the tiny one-way street coming up next.

    The information I have, though, leads me to conclude that as a short, dark-haired American woman who speaks fluent Japanese and could pass for half if I were less honest, my experience is a bit different to that of most other American foreigners, who are largely male and more exotic-looking than me. I can get in a taxi with a suitcase and have the driver assume I am going on vacation, rather than leaving Japan. I really wonder how much gender, height, and looks have to do with it.

  7. Hehe, the old chopsticks thing. The “micro-agression” interpretation of the chopsticks question to me reflects the mind not of a half glass empty person, so much as a person who sees a half empty glass as being completely full of feces. First up conversations are as boring and predictable among Japanese as they are with foreigners. And in Tokyo, I haven’t been asked about my chopsticks ability in years, although I expect it when outside Tokyo. But even then, it is used more as a kind of icebreaker for nervous Japanese than a declaration of ignorant prejudice.

    I spent many years taking the Groundhog Day questions foreigners always get upon meeting Japanese (“where are you from? How long are you here? Why did you come here? What do you like about Japan? Can you eat Natto?”) as an opportunity for practice, and to test out my contrived humorous responses.

    Debito doesn’t seem to like the taxi driver conversations either. Perhaps he is not aware of taxi drivers enjoying talking with their passengers. Again, for me, it’s fun, and often once you break through the icebreakers, you sometimes can actually get some interesting questions.

    The main thing for me is to engage back. If a taxi driver asks me where I’m from, I tell him NZ, and ask him if he has been. If not, I ask him where he has been overseas and how he liked it. Conversations like that have led down all kinds of paths, where I have discovered drivers who were once in peace corps, or who have Filipino wives – which gets us talking about international marriages and stuff.

    Those boring questions are gateways to meaningful conversations if properly used, and not responded to with the kind of passive aggression with which they are interpreted by and seemingly responded to with by some newspaper columnists.

  8. I think the chopsticks and “Can you eat Japanese food?” questions are silly (“No, I haven’t eaten for the past 4 years.”) but they’re really no different from the questions Japanese people ask each other when they’re meeting for the first time and don’t have a lot in common. “Oh you’re from Kyushu? It’s hot there isn’t it?” “You work for the government? That must be a stable job.”

    Not to mention that I’m sure everyone all over the world asks ignorant questions of international visitors. “Oh you’re from Japan? That’s in China, isn’t it?”

  9. As said, the “your Japanese is great” is quickly replied to with a “no, it’s really shit” or something to that regard. Same as when I compliment someone’s English. It’s small talk, and the translation of it is for me usually is “hey, I want to talk about your language ability.”

    Likewise with the chopsticks, but since it happens so rarely to me, and is such a stereotype, I do get a little bugged when I hear it, and make a smart-ass question about their fork-using abilities. Luckily, I remember when I worked at a high school seeing a reading passage for students with the topic of foreigners not liking to be praised for the chopsticks.

    Anyways, for me this is issues of making small talk. Despite being from Canada, and having far from fluent Japanese, this is a problem I have much more with in Canada. I have to get ready to be asked about my day, and talk about what I did, and ask follow up questions to people are paid to write down that I want a shrimp sandwich. I would also rather explain that I can use chopsticks, than explain when asked where I’m from while I am from X, I’d lived in Japan for Y many years, and that explains why I’m asking touristy questions in my hometown.

  10. We were always taught at University to say “mada mada desu” as a polite refrain to the inevitable “nihongo jyozu” comment. And it works.

    I like “iie, machigae darake desu”

    My friend had a great retort.
    Tired of people saying “nihon nagai desu ka?”
    the clever dick would say “列島の距離ですか?”

    The other alternative would of course be to say “hai, jyozu desu. sugoi darou.”

    and see what happens.

    I think Debito has a valid point and speaks for many in what he says, but I would also say that if this is what foreigners have to put up with it’s a lot better than what foreigners in other countries put up with – outright racial taunting and offensive comments.

  11. I think people really ought to read the first few paragraphs of that Psychology Today article linked to in the JT before they decide whether “microaggression” is a serious problem. Plus, I can attest that New Zealanders get plenty of questions about the Lord of the Rings and whatnot in the United States. I find these questions a little annoying, but don’t instantly assume that people are trying to “other” me when they ask them.

  12. This actually isn’t a bad column overall. I think that it was a mistake to frame it in terms of the chopsticks and conversation. Probably should have stuck to not having someone sit by you on the train and so on, which doesn’t have a positive side (socially, I mean; it is nice to have more room). I don’t like how the piece shuts down the idea that some may have very different experiences: “Some long-termers cultivate a circle of close friends (hopefully Japanese, but rarely so: JBC, Aug. 2, 2011).” Is there really “proof” that Euro-American long-termers rarely have close Japanese friends? Shouldn’t “you begin to dread interacting with the outside world” have been “I began to dread interacting with the outside world”?

    As for the small talk, the chopsticks one is boring as hell. Really all you have to do, however, is the most basic of basic “iie, iie + two shallow bows” (or a polite equivalent if necessary) and it’s over. Nothing to get bent out of shape about.

    The Japanese food one can work to move conversations – just say that you hate natto (if you love it, people will continue to bug you about it, so just say that you hate it). If you are in a group, a Japanese person will inevitably hate natto as well and then you have an “ally” who you can talk to and change the subject.

    I’m pretty interested in what ordinary Japanese people think about ordinary things so I don’t mind “Canada? You must get lots of snow!” types of things. You can head that off by simply saying “yes” and asking them any related question that you like (Would you like to live in a foreign country? Ever been to Hokkaido? What do you like about #wherever you are#). I did the “Would you like the live in a foreign country?” dodge one time and it turned out that the other person had lived in Turkey for 3 years. Turned into an interesting conversation.

  13. I hope this doesn’t violate the “No Debito” rule, but I cannot help but think that this article mentioning that “you can sleepwalk through most conversations” and his referenced article on having no Japanese friends are somehow connected…

    Anyway, the whole “microagression” stuff is pretty much nonsense, a way to blame The Man for keeping you down. If you are really seeing every negative interaction (or non-interaction) as an attack, it’s time to go home (there, I said it!) or visit a psychologist or the like.

  14. I like the koan idea. I got worried a few months ago – I was having pain in my right wrist and was convinced I had carpal tunnel syndrome (not a good idea to diagnose oneself from Internet information.) While it turned out to be something else, and, through a good diagnosis from the doctor and some medicine and exercise, the pain is gone, I did have trouble holding the old “ohashi” at the time. I was afraid that someone would ask me if I could use chopsticks and I would have to answer “no”. I am looking forward to the next time someone asks me the question (seems to be taking quite a while) so that I can answer, “nantoka yatte imasu.”

  15. “our “no Debito” policy lives on in the comments section – our hope against hope is that you try to avoid talking about the man himself and his approach and blahblahblah”

    It’s like talking about porn without mentioning sex,but since you run the show here,I obey.

    “Microaggression” is here to stay.And will thrive longer than any of our life time.As one Russian friend said to me once,”If you love honey,you gotta love the bees”.And the bees make humming noise.They also have needles to sting.
    The best ways to cope with routine gaijin questions is simply move off to the place where gaijins are majority.

  16. One thing I do agree with is the last sentence of the article. Telling a bunch of foreign residents that they need to “stand up to” Japanese people who are encouraging their attempts to learn the local language or just in general being nice is going to make for some very interesting conversation. I imagine it going down like this:

    A:日本語お上手ですね。
    B:おい、ちょっと!人種差別、それは!人種差別だよ!お前はミクロアグレッサーだ!

    This might well be the toxic effect of an article that tells you that every perfunctory compliment a Japanese person offers you is an instance of microaggression, but strangely, given the author’s wealth of experience, doesn’t tell you how to deal with it, save that you need to “stand up to” it. Instead of “standing up to” people who are trying to compliment you, it might be better to explain ways of offering similar compliments without seeming like you are going through the motions. There is actually a web page set up to do this, by the way:

    http://speak-english.seesaa.net/article/107698869.html

    Of course, as many here have pointed out, you can also just let it roll and recognize that perfunctory comments and platitudes are part of any Japanese conversation—and thus people who do this ARE treating you like they treat everyone else. If you can’t deal with that, then you are not speaking Japanese.

    In any case, it certainly seems to be counterproductive for someone who is apparently attempting to forge better relations between foreign residents and Japanese in Japan to be telling foreigners that they should act in a way that makes Japanese people more reluctant to engage with foreigners.

    And, speaking of alienating your audience, and observing the rule to discuss only the content of this article, I’d like to note that if I were still living in Japan, I don’t think I would ever call myself an “NJ,” and I wouldn’t want somebody else constantly using that term to define a group that includes me—especially if they were the only person ever to use it. In fact, I would assume that they were attempting to define my identity in contrast to Japanese friends and neighbours with whom I have more in common than with many other members of the group defined as such. That is, I see the term as an example of outright racism, and I would probably be especially hostile to somebody who thinks that my holding a different opinion to other hypothetical members ranks as “self policing” of other “NJ.” I will fully admit, though, that others might consider the spirit in which the term was offered and assume it was merely a well-intended but, ultimately, loaded way of painting things in a positive light. Microaggression, if you will.

  17. Oh, I’ve just noticed that the rule is that we are not allowed to talk about Debito’s approach, whether it is dealt with in the piece we are discussing or not. Oh well. I suppose I’ll have to wait till the next JBC article not to discuss the salient points featured therein.

  18. Make no mistakes.I’m fully with some” foreign residents” that they need to “stand up to” Japanese people or the government.

    Here’s my story.

    I got befriended with a family of ethnic Kachin from Burma the other day and got invited to their church in Takadanobaba.This man has been living in Japan for more than 20 years but still haven’t got any kind of visa status including political refugee.He and his wife and two born-in-Japan children are making living by the money coming from Refugee Assistance Headquaters which is about less than 1500 yen per adult a day,750 yen for a child.Meaning they live roughly 5000 yen a day,less than 150000 yen a month.The husband and wife has no job,because if they are not being recongnized as a refugee,you are an illegal alien,hence no working permits.Their passport being suspended by the Burmese government,and their children have no citizenship from neither of the countries.

    Sorry for being dick in the comment section,but I have to ask。
    Does this”microaggression”thing really matters to any of you?
    Because it certainly doesn’t matters to me at all,especially there are some real issues that needs to be solved urgently regarding Non-Japanese in this society.
    People asking questions about ability of using chopsticks or eating natto really don’t mind whether you can or can not.It’s a catch ball question to kick off a conversation.If your answer is “yes”.Means you are awesome,if it’s “No”,you are still cool,minus chopsticks capability.
    If you can’t tolerate inter-cultural communication practice as such,maybe he or she shouldn’t leave their home country in the first place and things would have been worked out better for them had they lived on in the basement of their parents or somewhere.

    But then,this is me saying.

  19. Yes, in this case, microaggression is white people whining.

    I think the Debito ban is a good idea, however. Has anyone noticed how raw the English Japan web stuff has been getting lately? Between CJ and Adelstein and now this dude in the Japan Probe piece talking about going to people’s homes…. We’ve seen 2 Dead Fukuzawas level meltdowns in the last month! And has Fu#kedgaijin become a casualty of this? Let’s just stick to content as much as we can.

  20. I just got back from two weeks in the US with my half-Japanese baby, and she was the subject of more “micro-aggression” in that two week time period than I have been during my entire career in Japan…

  21. Come to think of it, when my son “debuted” back home he was repeatedly swarmed and all features were rated for “Asian-ness”.

    Also, non-stop “So aren’t you worried about the radiation?” comments from virtual strangers.

  22. Random people’s radiation questions are my cue to unbutton my shirt and display the cheloid-looking psychic mutant that tells them “start the reactor, Quaaaaiiiid.”

    Then they ask the mutant if it can eat natto.

  23. Whenever someone says “radiation” you can also scream “RUN! GET TO THE CHOPPER!”

  24. I can understand if it is a case of making small talk, but I can also understand why it would be annoying. In my case, I always find I am repeatedly asked these types of questions, even by the same person. That makes me feel like they weren’t listening to me.

    And in some cases, I honestly don’t even understand why they ask the questions in the first place. For example, today I brought a tupperware bento to work, and put some of last night’s sashimi in there as protein with my salad. Despite having been to sashimi-only nomikais with my coworker, (and obviously having it in my bento), she looks down and is like, ” Wow, you can eat sashimi?”

    I’m not going to be aggressive, but unlike the old adage, I do think that there are some stupid questions. I responded by simply starting to eat my lunch and told her, ” Well, obviously, if it’s in my bento…........”

  25. Diana,

    Japanese people, including me, never use sashimi for homemade bento. It needs cooling to keep them safe to eat, but usually there is not a refrigerator for bento in workplaces. I guess your coworker was anxious about the safety of your day-old sashimi. I too would be surprised if I saw someone eating sashimi from a homemade bento.

    In my home, I usually make leftover sashimi into “zuke“, or marinated sashimi, by keeping them in a 1:1 mixture of sake and shoyu. The salts in shoyu would extend the safe period of sashimi, but still I keep the zuke in refrigerator and eat them no later than next morning.

  26. Aki,

    Actually, my workplace does have a fridge ( is that rare? All of my friends have one at their work too) and I use one of those bento icepacks to keep things safe. Then again, I also have an iron stomach perhaps :)

    I could understand if she was expressing surprise at me eating sashimi for lunch, but her question was not worded that way and she was (randomly) surprised at the concept of me being able to eat sashimi.

    Safety of sashimi aside, I’ve also bought lunch at our company cafeteria, which usually comes in teishoku form. It’s usually a main dish and some sides. On one particular day, as I’m tearing into the dashi packet and stirring up my natto, a different coworker expresses surprise that I’m eating natto. Well, obviously, if it’s on my tray, I’m stirring it, and getting ready to eat it…...............

  27. Has anyone ever noticed that when you meet other foreigners in Japan, the three main questions seem to be “where are you from?”, “How long have you been here?” and “So, why Japan?” This is clearly nothing but an inherently racist attempt to belittle you and single you out for your otherness. You need to stand up for your rights and punch them in the mouth next time it happens to you! It’s the only way they’ll learn!

    Seriously though, a lot of conversations with strangers and acquaintances who one barely knows are incredibly inane. It’s called “small talk” for a reason. People who compliment your Japanese or chopstick-using ability are just trying to initiate conversation, which is socially awkward at the best of times. As an Englishman, I’ve lost track of the number of pointless conversations I’ve had about the weather with strangers because it would have been more awkward to not say anything at all. Yes, when you, as a foreigner, meet a Japanese person, the conversation will frequently follow the same patterns, and it gets tiring because of the repetition, but I’ll bet secretly you were pretty pleased the first time someone paid you one of the (now exhausting and infuriating) compliments above.

    As a foreigner, you’re still pretty rare in Japan. The weather, on the other hand, is pretty much a constant. Would you, as a Japanese person, rather have the same conversation about the weather, or use the rare opportunity to talk to a foreigner to remark about their rarity? Have you never noticed someone’s accented English back home and asked them where they were from? Never complimented someone’s broken (or immaculate) English out of politeness? It gets tiring through repetition, but the Japanese person making the statements above doesn’t go through the same Kabuki dance (see what I did there?) several times a week, and for them, it’s still an interesting and novel point of conversation.

    As Aceface pointed out, if the worst discrimination you can get upset about is an excess of compliments, it’s time to seriously evaluate your sense of entitlement…

  28. In the end, if one’s so concerned about this “typicaly Japanese question”, might as well answer a “tipycaly Japanese answer”, such as:
    そうですかぁ。
    さぁ、どうですかね。
    etc.