Welcome to Japan, Where Foreigners are Exotic Animals


Sorry guys, this post is a little different than the ones I normally post. I love most things about Japan, but one thing really gets on my nerves.

In Japan, children’s privacy is very protected; it’s one of the things JET beats into you before you even arrive in Japan. Most schools won’t let ALTs take pictures of the students because there is a risk that they’ll post them online for the world to see. We can only post pictures that have all the children’s faces blurred out, as well as their names and the school’s — that way the children are protected. Completely anonymous. Nothing to tie them to a specific class or specific school. I get that. In fact, I thought it was just common courtesy not to take pictures of strangers without their permission.

Guess not.

I forget sometimes that when it comes to foreigners (especially western foreigners), all bets are off. Sometimes I feel like a circus animal or a freak show exhibition, and it’s ridiculous.

My first experience with this was back when I studied abroad. I dressed up in kimono with a couple of friends and was set upon by hordes of Chinese tourists. We gave the ok to take a picture to one person and suddenly all bets were off. They were shoving each other (and us) clamoring to get a picture. Later, we caught people taking our pictures from across the street; a couple times we made crazy faces to try and ruin their pictures since they hadn’t asked us. Fun in the beginning, became annoying.

The next time something like this happened was at Zenko-ji a few weekends ago. I was bent over my stuff on a bench, sorting through it, when I realized there was a Japanese guy behind me taking my picture. He said, 「きれい~」 “beautiful” and I stiffly walked away. Later, I thought of all the things I should’ve said or done to that guy that I didn’t. I just wanted to get away. Left a bad taste in my mouth for the whole rest of the day.

The week after that, it happened again, this time at a hanami (flower viewing) party with a large group of friends. As we were standing, sitting, chatting, I noticed a Japanese man obviously taking our picture. He was rotating around us, taking it at different angles, and it ticked me off. A couple of people (including me) flipped him off when we noticed to see if there was any chance he’d stop. Eventually, one friend went over and stood in front of him so he had to stop. She said, in Japanese, “I’m sorry, please don’t take our picture.” “I can’t?” “No, please stop.” “…Are you sure?” “YES.” “Oh….. ok…..” We watched him walk away to make sure he didn’t try to sneak back.

Welcome to Japan, where foreigners are exotic animals, only good for practicing English with, providing amazement at their use of Japanese/chopsticks, and taking pictures.

If you catch someone doing this to you, here are some Japanese phrases to use:

  • 写真だめ. (shashin dame) — literally “pictures no-good” or “not allowed.” Easy, straight-forward.
  • (私の) 写真を撮らないで. (watashi no shashin wo toranaide) — Don’t take my picture. You can add ください (kudasai) on to the end to make it more polite if you want, though I’m not sure you’d want to. As it stands, still a polite command.
  • (写真)撮るな! (shashin toruna) This one uses the rough command form. Best said by rolling the ‘r’ if you can. Very gangster sounding. Will probably turn some heads.

Of course, you could just start shouting at them in English, but try the Japanese if you can. They’re more likely to stop, and, if you say it loud enough to turn heads, you can get other Japanese people to help you shame them.

Have you ever caught someone taking your picture without permission in Japan? What did you do?

Categories: The Good, the Bad, and the InterestingTags: , , , ,

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