Taking the Stares

Taking the Stares

Or, how to avoid being gawked at in Japan


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on July 2009

So there I am, heading home from the office on the Fukutoshin line the other day, and like so many prior occasions, I’m on the receiving end of critical glares from the obachan sitting across from me. Insecurity couldn’t decide whether or not to creep up on me. Had I unintentionally done something rude? Or did I just have a tiny but still-noticeable speck of nori stuck between my teeth?

No foreigner in Japan can escape being stared at. And while we may not know the exact cause of this phenomenon, we have, over time, developed strategies to help avert the gaze of even the most watchful eyes.

1. Stop acting like a foreigner You know. Those kinds. The ones that don’t shut up in the train or the elevator. The ones that don’t remove their shoes before entering someone’s house. The obnoxious frat boys on vacation lurking around the Nishi-Azabu crossing. Simply put, you’re in another’s country, so mind your damn manners.

2. Know thy enemy The enemy in this case is not gaikokujin per se, but rather, the stereotype thereof. Sure, pigeonholing foreigners (or anyone) isn’t cool, but like death, taxes and the popularity of J-pop, it’s an unfortunate fact of life. As the saying goes, if anyone speaks badly of you, live so no one will believe it.

Illustration by Kohji Shiiki

Illustration by Kohji Shiiki

3. Blend in A careless foreigner is like a tiny hair in your morning bowl of cereal: no matter how small it is, you always seem to notice it—and it’s always gross. Pay attention to the type of area you’re in and the kinds of people that surround you. If you’re stomping around Happo-en Garden wearing loud clothes and a loud attitude, or partying in a Nishi-Shinjuku restaurant with shorts and flip-flops, you’re bound to attract unwanted notice. Observe carefully and proceed accordingly.

4. Boldly march forth, young lad (or lass) Despite being the world’s most populated city, Tokyo still works, still flows well. For the sake of not disrupting this fluidity—and incurring the resultant stares—it helps to know where you’re going. Research your destination beforehand, and then set out confidently. Even if you don’t know exactly where you’re headed, pretend to. If nothing else, you’ll walk out of sight so quickly, no one will have time to stare.

5. Begin a quest Now that I’ve lived in Tokyo a while, my ears actually prick up when I hear my native language being spoken. But when I was back home, it was the languages I didn’t understand that turned my attention. Tip: it’s the same for Japanese people. If you haven’t already done so, start learning and using Japanese. The rewards will extend far beyond not being stared at.

6. Go maverick Do you ever cringe when you see foreigners clustered in a big group, looking around like they don’t know what’s going on? Me too. The only thing that sticks out more than a sore thumb is an entire hand of sore fingers, so whenever you can, take advantage of the fact that in this country—um, Japan, right?—you can actually hang out with Japanese people. You’ll be less noticeable while at the same time improving your Japanese language ability.

7. Know “movement etiquette” Facepalm (n): a face-to-palm gesture of frustration or disbelief, often accompanied by closed eyes and a condescending head-shake. Also a common reaction when foreigners suddenly stop in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking foot traffic behind them; or stand on the right side of an escalator (or left side, if you’re in Osaka); or execute the infamous “Gaijin U-Turn,” in which said party stops suddenly, realizes they are lost, turns 180 degrees, and continues in the opposite direction.

8. Memorize this sentence Satsu yoberuzo, sukebe! (Just kidding. Don’t say that.)

9. Give yourself a makeover I’m serious. (Besides, my editor says I’m not allowed to make two jokes in a row.) As an addendum to the idea of blending in, why not try adding some Japanese flair to your sartorial repertoire? In terms of eccentric style, you can get away with a lot here in Tokyo. So take a trip to the nearest accessory shop. Trade those flip-flops for a cool pair of heels or boots. Men, grow your hair out, get it shagged, and start carrying a man-bag. Try wearing sunglasses at night. Even if you’re an elderly woman, dye your hair Barney-purple—you’ll fit right in!

10. Stare back If all else fails, fight fire with fire. Psychologists say that most people can only maintain eye contact with a stranger—no matter how cute—for about a second and a half. How’s that for quickly seizing control of an awkward situation? Just don’t keep staring after they look away. Weirdo.