Being an obvious foreigner in Japan has its pros and cons.

The pro is that you are neither assumed to speak the language properly, nor expected to know all the little intricacies of correct Japanese behaviour. If you are friendly, people will often go out of their way to help you, up and beyond standard customer service (which is very good in Japan to begin with). I recall an instance a few years ago where we – a group of about 10 foreigners unable to communicate in Japanese – descended on a nice restaurant in Sendai and demanded dinner. After some back and forth with the waitress, in which it became clear that we could not really get together, she finally pulled out her mobile phone and had the phrase translated “How much would you like to spend?” We agreed on a price – and had one of the best dinners I ever had in  Japan. Talk about service…

The con of being a Caucasian in Japan is – school kids. When alone, they are too timid to be a threat, but most often unfortunately, they come in groups and then there is always one who is plucky enough to yell the first “hello” in the direction of the unsuspecting foreigner. From there you are subjected to all sorts of well studied phrases: “Where are you from?” – “Do you like it here?” – “I love America!”, or just a general giggling of the girls. A friend of mine who lives in Korea and speaks Korean very well has learnt to counter these verbal advances with a smart “Do you want to marry me?”, which usually leaves the girls speechless and him time to escape.

group of schoolkids relaxing on the river KamoHence, my slight annoyance when, on an errand near Kyoto station, I passed a group of junior high kids starting to go “Hello!” just to be stopped by two slightly older girls with notepads in their hands a few meters later. I expected the worst, when the girls explained that they were students and wanted to ask a few questions for their homework. Not being able to retreat, I agreed. Imagine my surprise when the first question was: “What do you think about the death penalty?” The girls studied International Communications at the local university and had a few more questions in that vein: “Does your country have it?”, “What if it happened to your family?”. They wrote down my answers and opinions without further comment. For a moment I was tempted to ask what they think about it – Japan does have the death penalty – but I didn’t want to put them on the spot after all. What an interesting encounter!