Today I visited a local bakery to get a cream bun, a coffee, and a quiet space to do some work. I approached the small seating area to discover that all three tables were occupied. (There are long bench seats at each table and in this particular establishment it is not unusual to have to share them with strangers.)
I choose the table with the least number of other occupants. A middle-aged OL (Japanese-English for Office Lady) is sitting by herself bang in the middle of a 6-seater table. Impressively, she had managed to occupy almost every corner of it by strategically positioning plastic binders of A4 paper, splayed open to display various important-looking charts.
I stand beside the table for a few seconds. My presence is not acknowledged although she feels a little guilt which is evidenced through a slight shifting in her seat. I ask if I can sit down. Without lifting her face from her important work, she nods, and instinctively moves her handbag just a little closer to her side.
I sit at the opposite side of the table, perching myself right on the corner. I take out my laptop and start to work. She shifts uncomfortably for a couple of minutes in a routine that would be funny if it was so intended. She forgets how to read. She remembers again. She rearranges her binders. The wall suddenly becomes inexplicably fascinating. She then finds something very interesting in the binder at the furthest side of the table.
Suddenly she has to go. She abruptly and ungracefully packs up her binders, feigns a look at her watch (too late). For a few awkward and impressive seconds she is simultaneously moving away from the table while dumping its contents into her bag. She escapes from the foreigner’s ambit unharmed.
Meanwhile an elderly couple sit at a separate but close table on my right. They look like they are farmers having their morning break. They stop talking after I sit down, and then resume very quietly. They then skull their scalding hot coffees and promptly leave. It looked like a drinking game… The husband won at the cost of first-degree burns to the inside of his mouth.
Japan is a homogenous nation. There is no distinction between Japanese ethnicity and Japanese nationality. 98.5% of the population are Japanese. Of the remaining 1.5%, most are from Japan’s Asian neighbours like China and Korea. This means that if you are in Japan, and you are anything other than Asian, you are part of a very small visible minority.
Sometimes it is nice to be able to clear an entire area of all signs of human life simply by showing up. I’m sure that in an emergency situation it could save my life! But sometimes it wears a bit.
Occurrences similar to those I describe above happen pretty much every week. I get stared at every day. Three years of experience living in Japan hasn’t prevented this from unnerving me. Even when everyone is ignoring me I start to become paranoid. I find myself suddenly rubbernecking to check if the man who just glowered at me as I passed has stopped and turned to take a second look.
He usually has.