Being a POC in Japan

皆さん、こんにちは! Hello, everyone! 

My name is Tariq Muhamed, and I am an alum of the 2018-2019 academic year program at the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (JCMU). I was asked to provide some insight into my life in Hikone from the perspective of a person of color, so here is my story:

I should first explain what led me to this point. With my home institution being Michigan State University (home to JCMU’s administrative office in Michigan), I had many professors and instructors advising me that if I wanted to improve my Japanese skills and have the experience of a lifetime, studying in Hikone was the way to go. So I packed my bags and did just that.

Two young students wearing jackets in front of a pine tree
My older brother and I outside of JCMU

I was greeted in Hikone and JCMU by a very common occurrence in Japan: a typhoon. Weirdly enough, that was when it finally set in – I’d finally achieved my lifelong dream, I’d finally made it to Japan.

I quickly became adjusted to life, going to karaoke with friends, the bi-daily trips to the convenience store, hanging out at the local restaurant Diner Pop, the works. My academic life also had been progressing well. Although I don’t want to get into the preachy stuff just yet, I want to give my first piece of advice to prospective JCMU students, whenever that may be – it is regarded as an intensive program for a reason! You will most definitely be pushed to the limits in your Japanese classes, so don’t be discouraged by the amount of work you will have to put in to your studies, you will definitely see results.

Now for the meat and potatoes, my experience in Hikone and Japan in general being a POC. Coming from a country in which I am already a steep minority, I couldn’t help but not expect many more stereotypes than the preexisting ones surrounding mine and many other’s lives in America. Excuse me if this is a generalization, however through my time in Japan, I’ve learned firsthand that many people know only kindness. I had been shown nothing but respect and love from almost every encounter I had.

That is not to say I didn’t have my share of questionable actions. More so than my friends and peers around me, I got stares and many more questions. Shrugging it off as the classic ‘gaijin’ (foreigner) enigma, I didn’t think much of it. Though I have been asked many questions such as “How do you feel about Trump?” or the classic “Can I touch your hair?” Nonetheless, I believed then and still do that they come from a place of genuine curiosity. Especially for a town such as Hikone, foreigners (specifically those of African-American descent) are quite scarce. All-in-all, I faced no discrimination at all during my time abroad.

Five Japanese and U.S. students together, with two in the front holding acoustic guitars
A fellow JCMU classmate, myself and some Japanese friends

So to prospective POC students of JCMU: you get back what you put in. I believe the saying “respect goes both ways” reigns true in this regard. Much in the same way you’re both surprised and amazed about the brand new culture in front of you, the Japanese person to your left or right feels the same way about you. Just think, through every conversation you have an opportunity to teach someone from an entirely different background and history, about YOUR heritage, own it.

I sincerely hope that you take the opportunity to expand your cultural horizons by taking a chance and putting yourself out there. If you are on the fence about studying, not just in Japan, but anywhere due to the color of your skin, I am here to tell you to not worry, and take that leap of faith.

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