This is how we do it.

I had a mortifying experience a little while ago. I was walking down the street in Ginza on my lunchbreak when a middle-aged man called out, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” in English behind me. I spun around. Very politely, and still in English, he said:

“I’m sorry but you might want to check your dress. I can see your bottom. We don’t do that in Japan, it’s… just not done. Sorry.” He looked apologetic. I flushed a deep red.

“Oh. I see. I’ll be sure to, er, check. Thanks,” I replied, stunned. Then I turned on my heels and speed-walked away.

Five metres down the road, all kinds of brilliant ripostes came to mind, including, “スケベオッサン、何であたしの尻をじろじろ見ているの?!” (“Why are you staring at my ass, you sleazy old man?!”). But the thing that really riled me was his assumption that foreigners dressed in a sleazy way, while Japanese women and girls are chastely covered up.

Tell me that after walking down the street in Shibuya and Harajuku, where girls’ actual buttocks — rather than just the shadow of them through material — peek out of ridiculously short hotpants. Tell that to me on Center Gai, where you can ogle all the cleavage (both tit and ass) as you like. Tell that to me the next time I see a twelve year old skipping along in over-the-knee PVC boots and a tatty lace garter. Oh no, we don’t do that in Japan.

If I had been Japanese, I highly doubt he would have pulled me to one side of the sidewalk and warned me that my countrymen never dressed like that.

Being loud on the train, or rowdy in the street, or doing drugs, or being lazy, dirty. As a foreigner, any of these crimes will be blamed on your nationality. As a Japanese person, it would be blamed on your own character or personality. If you eat in the street and you’re a foreigner, your uncouthness is a product of your foreignness. A Japanese person who does it is… well, simply rude.

Conversely, most foreigners in Japan find themselves maligning something a Japanese person has done as “typically Japanese.”  It requires a little more empathy and humanity to realize that many behaviors are personal, and that individuals shouldn’t be held up as representatives of an entire culture.

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