U.S. Japanese Raise Eyebrows in Japan


Imagine getting into a taxi, giving a destination, and have the driver ask if you’re drunk. Or ordering in a restaurant and having the waitress stare at you as if you were a Martian.

Such is often the experience of a Japanese-American living in Japan. They resemble everyone else, but they don’t speak and act like native Japanese.

“I’ve gotten this thing where people think I’m retarded,” said Chikako (Chick) Nojiri, an English teacher in Tokyo.

“In the beginning, I felt pressure that people expected me to be a certain way,” said the second-generation Japanese-American. “If I said something a little off, they looked at me strangely.”


Uniformity and conformity are the norm in Japan. Accepted behavior is carefully dictated, from the way to stand in the subway to from the way to enter a room.

Toleration for Foreigners

For obvious foreigners--or gaijins-- violations of those standards are tolerated and forgiven. But the Asian features of Japanese-Americans create false expectations--and uneasiness when those expectations are not met.

“If Japanese people look quickly at the face, or look just from the outside, they might think they (Japanese-Americans) are native Japanese,” said Ichiro Nojiri, an engineer with a construction company. “But, generally they act like Americans.”


“Hanging between two countries without really belonging, that . . . to me is just unacceptable,” said Japanese-American Chuck Goto, a senior electronics analyst at S.G. Warburg Securities (Japan) Inc. in Tokyo.

“It would be a lot easier if people knew I’ve spent more of my life outside the country, and that I don’t recognize certain formalities,” said Goto, who speaks fluent Japanese.

Specific characters must be scratched out on an invitation with a return postcard. Women must always cover their mouths when laughing. Eating while walking in the street is forbidden, and jaywalking is an absolute don’t.

Rules to Remember

Japanese-Americans say they are forced to learn and remember these kinds of rules from which other foreigners are excused.

“You can really make a fool of yourself,” said Goto.

But some consider these cases of mistaken identity a small price to pay for the promising business opportunities, the lucrative jobs, and the chance to get in touch with their ethnic roots.

A native Hawaiian and third-generation Japanese-American, Rod Saito was sent to Tokyo for a two-month business assignment. Having never visited Japan, the 27-year-old internal auditor from Los Angeles was surprised at how moved he was during his short Tokyo stay.


“I felt very comfortable from the moment I landed in Tokyo,” Saito said. “Suddenly, everyone looked like me.

“I’ve discovered that my parents installed some very Japanese morals in me,” he said. “Appreciating older people, going to school and being smart, not leaving until the boss leaves--my parents put all that in me.”

Tradition Seekers

Some Japanese-Americans come to Japan to find the tradition they cannot find in the United States.

“The main reason I came here was to study with two top koto teachers who live here,” said Brian Yamakoshi, a professional player of the horizontal string instrument and a third-generation Japanese-American from Chicago.

“But part of it was to live in the country that my grandparents were from,” he said.

“It was mysterious to me.”