Photo/IllutrationFrom left, Andres Tamarit, Maryam Hassan, Le Thi Hong Trang and Paudel Baburam talk in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward in January about what they have experienced in the capital. (Yuichiro Oka)

With more than 550,000 foreigners living in Tokyo, up 40 percent compared with five years ago, The Asahi Shimbun held a round-table with four to discuss what life in the capital is like for them.

The four foreigners exchanged frank views of Tokyo in terms of both positive and negative aspects.

The four were Andres Tamarit, 49, from Cuba, who works for a miniature railroad manufacturer in Tokyo and has lived in Japan for more than five years; Paudel Baburam, 31, from Nepal, who works for a company in the capital that supports foreign students and has lived here more than five years; Maryam Hassan, 21, of Britain, who attends a university in Tokyo as an exchange student and has lived in Japan for about six months; Le Thi Hong Trang, 23, of Vietnam, who is studying at a university in Saitama Prefecture while working part time in the capital. She has lived in Japan for more than two years.

The following are excerpts of the discussion with the four:


Question: What surprised you in Tokyo?

Tamarit: Everyone is concerned about a delay in train services, and station workers announce even when there will be just a three-minute delay. I did not mind such a thing before, but recently I do as I got used to living in Japan.

People do not say “sorry” after bumping into me or stepping on my foot during rush hour. I want to say to them, “Hey, give me a break.”

Hassan: When talking on a phone in a train, other passengers stared at me, which is what I heard happens before coming to Japan. It is acceptable to do so as long as your voice is not loud in Britain. Everyone dutifully observes the rule in this country, which stunned me.

It is disappointing that the trains stop running so early in this country. In London, they offer service until late in the night with the Night Tube. There are numerous enjoyable places in Tokyo that we cannot frequent (due to the early last trains). It is too bad.

Trang: The train that I usually take is frequently involved in an accident causing bodily injuries. Right after starting to live here, I was scared to ride on the train past those accident scenes.

Q: What about non-train related matters?

Tamarit: Workers visited my house to install an air conditioner that I had purchased. After collecting the money and leaving, they came back to return some of the money that I paid, saying, “(It cost you less money) as we are doing a promotion.”

Trang: After finishing shopping, a shop clerk rushed up to me to return just 1 yen (0.9 cent) saying that she had short-changed me. They are so honest that I was stunned.

Paudel: I have an awful experience. After attempting to rescue an old man who had “collapsed” on a street, he alleged that I had pushed him, forcing me to be interrogated at a police station. I felt that he was making me, a foreigner, he wasn’t acquainted with, out to be an evil person.

Hassan: When we went to an "izakaya" tavern with 10 of my friends, we were charged 30,000 yen ($268) in total although we just ordered glasses of Coke or something similar. A staff member explained that we were charged the extra cost for it being a weekend and at midnight, antipasto dishes and other things saying, “This is Japanese culture.”

Trang: I think it's not a small number of people who hate foreigners. When I was selling Vietnamese cuisine during a university festival, a customer asked, “Is this Vietnamese? Oh, no.” I was very much shocked. Routinely, I am frequently asked, “Are you a ‘gaijin’ (foreigner)?”

Q: Do you feel discriminated against when you hear the word “gaijin”?

Trang: “Gaikokujin” (person from a foreign country) is a polite way of saying it. Hearing the word gaijin (short for gaikokujin) breaks my heart.

Paudel: I once worked part time at a convenience store. There was an old man who always picked up an extra cup when ordering coffee. He did not want to use the one that I, a foreigner, had touched.

Q: Why do you think a certain number of Japanese are not good at communicating with foreigners?

Trang: This is especially true with old people. This is probably because there were few foreigners in the past here and they do not have experience in dealing with us. At a store, which is my workplace, many old people ask questions of Japanese staff instead of asking me, saying, “Probably you do not know that as you are a foreigner.”

Tamarit: I have never worked part time at a convenience store and do not have such an experience.

Q: Is there such a tendency in Britain?

Hassan: In rural areas, people often stare rudely at foreigners or show prejudice toward them. I have Pakistani roots. I went to a school where 99 percent of the students were white, which was located in a rural area, when I was 17. I would be stared at by those older than me or get looks of disgust outside the school. People's minds were conservative.

Q: Do foreigners tend to stand out in major cities in Britain?

Hassan: Indian or African people can be recognized based on their attire. But many of them behave like a citizen of Britain. There are people with a wide variety of backgrounds, and I don't think they are frequently treated badly based on their appearance.

Q: What is a nice point of people in Tokyo?

Tamarit: I met a person who showed me directions in a courteous manner. Just telling me the directions was fine, but the person guided me for 200 meters.

Trang: Even small shops or restaurants treat customers well. Their staff members bow saying, “Welcome” or “See you again.”

Paudel: Shops or restaurants do not differentiate in their way of treating foreigners from that of Japanese customers. In Nepal, some shops charge foreigners more.

Trang: It's the same in Vietnam.

Tamarit: Cuba, too. Although if a foreign customer mistakenly pays $1 instead of 1 Cuban peso (4.2 yen, or 3.8 cents) for a newspaper, a shop clerk does not give him any change back. If a customer looks rich, the price will be higher. But in Tokyo, the price is fixed for everyone.

Q: Is there any aspect of Tokyo that should be changed for it to become a better city?

Trang: The law has been changed so that the number of foreign workers will increase. (The revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law will go into effect from April.) But I want (the Japanese government) to make it possible for foreigners who have sufficiently studied in Japan to easily obtain visas so that they can work here after their studies.

Paudel: It would be better to allow foreigners who have studied in Japan to find work here, rather than increase the number of those who do not live here at this point.

Hassan: I feel that Britain is an easier country for foreigners to work in. In Japan, the language barrier is too great. Although if you do not speak perfect English, that is no problem at all in Britain, but if you do not speak perfect Japanese, including polite expressions, that is not acceptable in Japan.

Tamarit: I have worked four jobs in Japan. Those who speak at my level of Japanese cannot perform 90 percent of those kinds of jobs. I think the job environment should be changed so that those who speak only simple Japanese will be able to work in this country.

Paudel: Japanese people are prone to focus solely on the rules of work. At a store where I used to work, I was instructed to clean in a fixed order. I want such kinds of rules that foreigners do not understand to be abolished.

Tamarit: A wide variety of shops or companies in Tokyo are being operated thanks to foreigners. If the job environment becomes improved, the economy will be more stimulated and it will be beneficial after the city gains the reputation of being a welcoming city to foreigners.

(This article was written by Yuichiro Oka and Ari Hirayama)