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JET Tales from Aomori

If You Fingerprint Me, Will You Accept Me?

As the year draws to a close and the bonenkai (end of year party) season comes into full swing, I find myself reflecting on what it means to be a foreigner. Just a few weeks ago, on November 20th, Japan implemented a new immigration procedure that requires all foreigners entering the country to provide their picture and fingerprints. Only special permanent residents (i.e. third generation Koreans), foreigners under the age of sixteen, and diplomats/officials will be exempt. I will be subjected to this new procedure in February when I come back from a friend’s wedding and it will be the first time for me to be fingerprinted since a school project in elementary school. Some of my friends are outraged by this new development and say it’s a violation of their human rights; I, however, am more concerned about the reflection it has on Japanese nationals’ attitude towards foreigners.

About 90% of the time, I feel whole-heartedly welcomed by the Japanese people and rarely feel discriminated against. This could be attributed to the fact that I speak Japanese and have familiarized myself with the culture and customs so I can avoid making cultural flops resulting in discrimination. The other 10% of the time, however, I can’t help feeling like an outsider even though I know it’s unintentional. I have been told countless times that I was good at using chopsticks. People are surprised when they find out I like authentic Japanese food and even more so when they find out I don’t eat at McDonalds. I’ve had a store clerk go get another store clerk, who can speak English, to answer my question, even though I asked him in perfect Japanese. Even my own boyfriend has told me how amazed he is that I can make miso soup.

In the beginning, all of this was flattering and encouraged me to try even harder to adapt to the Japanese lifestyle. However, after three years, it’s made me wonder whether Japanese people ever expect foreigners (to be more specific, foreigners who look foreign) to excel in the Japanese community. What I have experienced seems trivial to what other foreigners have experienced. I know of other foreigners in my area who have had an extremely difficult time finding housing because very few landlords want to lease out to foreigners. I have heard of people being denied seating at a restaurant because there wasn’t enough rice for everyone in the party (all of whom were foreign). The treatment of 2nd and 3rd generation “foreigners” at schools (bullying from other children) and at the workplace can be dismal, although recent reports say it’s on the decline.

This is by no means specific to Japan. I grew up in a southern California community that had a large population of immigrants. Of the nationals in that community, I don’t think there was anybody who would have been amazed that an immigrant could speak English or use utensils correctly. In fact, just the opposite, I think there were many people with the opinion that if you couldn’t speak English or couldn’t adapt to the American lifestyle, then you shouldn’t be in America. This is a viewpoint that leads directly to racism and discrimination and it must be changed.

Cultural diversity must be appreciated and accepted if we are ever to live in a peaceful environment. This is one of the reasons why I have come to love my job. Education is the first step to building an open heart. I feel like I do that every day when I expose the children I teach and the people I interact with in the community to my “American ways” while at the same time showing them I can adapt to the “Japanese way” as well.

If you read my bio it says I plan on staying in Japan for several years. Recently I have been rethinking my plan (not because of any issues stated in this article though), and one of my new year’s resolutions is to ensure that all the children I teach are equipped with an open mind and an open heart to see foreigners as people they can learn from and share with, not as people they should fear or think of as “outsiders.” On that same token, when I do eventually go back to the States, I want to get involved with the international community and help immigrants adapt to the American lifestyle and change existing negative opinions of those who might be thought of as “un-American.” That’s what the holiday season is supposed to be about right, acceptance and love? To all of those who read this article, I’m wishing you the happiest of holidays and a wonderful new diverse year!


Allison Reed is a second year JET program Assistant Language Teacher living and teaching in the city of Goshogawara in Aomori prefecture in the Tohoku region of Japan. She teaches English at five elementary schools and two junior high schools throughout the area. Allison graduated from Soka University of America in May 2005 with a Bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a concentration in social and behavioral sciences. She enjoys living in Aomori and plans to extend her stay in Japan for several more years.

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This column was contributed by Allison Reed, a second year Assistant Language Teacher on the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) program in Aomori prefecture.