Foreigners Behaving Strangely in Japan

In Canada, it’s quite normal for people to nod or say hello to complete strangers on the street. In general, Canadians are a friendly and polite bunch of people. And it’s genuine friendliness.

In Japan, it’s normal for people to stare straight ahead and ignore everyone around them. Whenever there is eye contact, there is a friendliness and politeness. People will help others out, especially if they’re foreigners or elderly. But in general, it’s not genuine friendliness. It’s a way to maintain the harmony of Japanese society.

When foreigners meet each other on the street and they don’t know each other, that’s when things become awkward. A more normal behaviour is usually just brief eye contact and a nod. That’s nothing unusual. However, what happened to me last night was very awkward.

Because of the tendency to avoid eye contact in public, many long time residents of Japan from other countries start conforming to public behaviour norms. But looking at people is a normal thing in Canada, so I often take a quick glance. Well, as I got off the bus, a white woman walked down the sidewalk in the opposite direction as me, so we were bound to face each other. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye, and she did the exact same thing with me. We both realised what we were doing, and maintained an awkward silence as we passed each other. Both of us noticed that there was another white person and tried to discreetly see if we recognised each other. The result was a very strange and kind of creepy eye contact, our faces forward, our eyes looking sideways, locked on to each other.

After that, I realised how ridiculous we must have looked, and my initial feeling was that I wanted to tell her how silly we were. However, I didn’t know if she was an English speaker. She could’ve been Russian or Polish or Romanian, and may not have been able to speak English. So, I just carried on going home.

In the country you live in, how do strangers behave toward each other in public? Let me know in the comments below.

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12 thoughts on “Foreigners Behaving Strangely in Japan”

  1. When I lived in the countryside in Japan, I always greeted my neighbors, and they greeted me. I once had the pleasure of exiting my apartment on the first day of the school year just in time for the local first grade class to walk by. As their teacher was instructing them on how to properly greet people on their way to and from school, I was treated to thirty-eight six-year-olds screaming “KONNICHIWA” at the top of their lungs. It was pretty adorable.

    In the city, not so much, though I was in the habit of it so I often greeted people in my neighborhood automatically. It usually surprised them slightly, but older women especially seemed happy about it. Younger people, though, it was a little awkward. Are you in the countryside, or city?

    Here in the states when I’m walking my dog around the neighborhood, I at least nod to everyone. But if I’m out and about beyond my neighborhood, I don’t. Too busy, and too many people.

    1. I’m in the city. Although I live in Fujisawa, I’m still well within the Greater Tokyo area and a very short distance from Yokohama. We definitely don’t get the countryside experience here.

  2. I grew up in Massachusetts, where strangers are usually met with a cautious optimism and a slight distancing — they’re probably fine people, and we’d probably get along if we had to chat, but we don’t *have* to, so it’s okay if we don’t connect. [That’s where out-of-towners confuse that with standoffishness. We’re not rude, we’re just not outgoing unless you’re related or an old buddy. :p ]

    On the other hand, I’ve been living in San Francisco for the past ten years and I STILL can’t get used to completely random people having a full-on conversation with me. They’re much more open and chatty and willing to connect here. I don’t mind it at all, it just feels weird to have to hold up my end of the conversation when I’m not prepared for it!

    1. Victoria, BC, is a lot like San Francisco, I think. People will be very friendly and start talking with complete strangers. I lived there for five years and loved it.

      On the other hand, Edmonton is a big city that tries to act like a small town. It doesn’t really work, but people can be friendly or cold, depending on where you are. Most of the time, a smile will be returned.

  3. I am sad to say that at least in the cities of my country of origin – Britain, a stranger, for the most part, is not a friend you haven’t met yet and other than a comment on the weather, one would never engage the stranger in conversation. That’s why here in Japan I do my best to eschew the gaijin nod and engage strangers in conversation .

    1. Yes, as it normally would be. I think the US and Canada have cultures which have less of an effect on public behaviour. People are pretty much free to do as they wish, within reason.

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