Are You Looking at Me? Are You … Looking at Me?

A lot of visitors to Japan notice that some Japanese people like to stare at foreigners. Yes, yes, we get it; our features are different, they just don’t get people who look like us around these parts very often, we look like Hollywood actors come to life, and me – Liv – I’m the most beautiful person in the train car. Fine. We get it. We’re different. If someone with three heads or a baby named Suri walked into the room, heads would turn in America, too. Nonetheless … blatant staring? For minutes at a stretch? Is it ever cool to stare at a human being like they’re a zoo creature, regardless of what innocent reasons are behind it?

But I digress. Different people have different reactions to getting stares in Japan. Bob takes a gentle approach to confrontation, calmly asking the starer in perfect Japanese if there’s something on his face. Sean takes a more instinctive tack and explodes into a rage. My co-worker Sabrina likes to point back. Me? I just feel guilty … because as annoying as it can be to get stared at, I do a fair amount of people watching myself. Now before you get all, “Oh, now who’s the racist??”, bear in mind that it’s not about race for me. No. It’s almost always all about the clothes.

Fashion is a constant frustration for me in Japan. Clothes cut for Japanese figures don’t fit my lady lumps properly and yet, they are oh-so-cute. As I should be studying verbs, my eyes drift up to the outfits on the train. That gal over there has paired red pumps with black tights and black micro shorts. She’s wearing a mustard yellow baby doll smock and thrown a royal blue faux fur shrug over the entire thing. She looks amazing and, oh, dear me, I could never wear that. Or could I? Surely I can pull off electric blue. But a smock? No. I can’t. I musn’t … oh stop. Oh yes! Oh no. Oh yes …!

Then my eyes drift down on a train ride to my female companions’ shoes. Here is a pair of navy blue patent leather Mary Janes with stretchy straps and a matte stacked conical heel. Over there is a sumptuous pair of dove gray slouchy leather flat-heeled boots. Further down the car is a pair of olive green suede wedges. Shoes in Japan are some of the most exquisite I’ve ever seen and while the clothes may not fit me, the shoes absolutely do so every chance I get, I’m looking to my sistas for inspiration. She’s wearing striped knee socks with red pumps and a purple A-line micro dress. She’s in a Strawberry Shortcake hat. She’s wearing a kimono. I have to glance over. How can I not? It’s Strawberry Shortcake. And a panting micro-puppy in a Louis Vuitton handbag held by a girl with Barbarella hair and the same glitter eyeliner that I’ve been planning to buy from Loft. Just a peek. Just a little peek.

So when Sean growls because a woman has turned her head to look at me, I’m sure it’s because she likes my dress. How could she not? It’s gray. It’s cut on the bias. I’d look at it, too. Bob has dubbed me “blissfully naive” at times like these, but the way I see it, it’s just not worth getting all het up for something that usually comes from an innocent – if slightly ignorant – place. Come on, folks. Get over it. We’re here and the differences between our features is clear.

And then every once in a while, I’m confronted with what is unmistakably a hostile stare. Five minutes of uninterrupted gaping from an old man or a pack of uniformed school girls, on days when I’ve left the chicken suit at home. A quick glance into my compact tells me that there’s nothing on my face. That’s when I kick off a nice round of “staring chicken” – I stare back, hard, and we see who looks away first.

5 Replies to “Are You Looking at Me? Are You … Looking at Me?”

  1. Signorina, I know what you’re talking about, but it’s nothing compared to Hong Kong (and probably mainland China)! You know, here in Japan people stares at you but if you stare back they usually look somewhere else..
    I’ve been in Hong Kong some time just a week ago and wow, that was crazy.. Everyone staring at my hair all the time! My Chinese friends told me that people was saying “oh, he’s Jesus!”..
    ..mmh, kinda weird.. Ok, maybe it’s just that I’ve extreeeemely long dreadlocks and you don’t see often this kind of hairstyle in Asia.. (anyway, I’m cutting them next week.. completely! kowai~~~)

  2. I would be looking at/coveting the electric blue too. I think if I were a foot shorter and perhaps a billion pounds lighter I would embrace Japanese fashion like no other. But alas, I am American, and whilst I would still try to pull it off, I’m sad to say that the outcome would be horrible.

  3. Signore Ruben … in Taiwan, a woman actually asked me why I have black hair and why I am so short! She was genuinely confused as to why I didn’t fit the Westerner ideal. Re: Gesu; I think I’d try to make the Jesus look work for me. “Why, yes. It’s true. I am Jesus. I’ve come at last.” And it’s true – I’ve only seen dreadlocks once since I’ve lived here. Another teacher had them and I was kind of surprised that they allowed him to. Cutting them off is kowai indeed!!

    Ninonokao; I’m 4’11” and about 95 pounds and Japanese fashion still does NOT work for me. Something about having junk in the trunk throws the whole thing off; I just look like Baby Jane when I try.

  4. I notice a lot less staring-by-Japanese (in Tokyo) than 10 years ago.

  5. I think there is racist staring, and there’s fashion staring, and there’s staring you could avoid. Japanese girls do stare at each other and even comment on other people who are probably within earshot, seemingly anyone who is doing or wearing anything unusual at all is a justified target. For a Japanese guy (apart from some of the younger girlyhairboys), though, staring at someone Japanese is fighting talk or the mark of a letch. With foreigners, from a salaryman it is probably severe disapproval, perving, or a mixure of the two. Making sure you do not show one milimetre of midriff, shoulders, or bar straps is one way of cutting down on that if it really gets you down. It’s much worse here in Korea, where I’ve moved to after 5 years in Japan.

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