Tokyo Interlopers; Tokyo as seen through the lens of foreigners.

Tokyo Interlopers aims to give insight in to the lives of Tokyo’s non-Japanese residents in the hope of allowing them to celebrate their differences. It’s also a project pointing towards the future of Tokyo.

I was first made aware of it through Time Out Tokyo, who likened Tokyo Interlopers to the famous Humans of New York, only with a foreigner twist. Rather than dilute the essential points of TI with my own interpretations, I decided to make a post with a straight-up Q&A, and let Cory and TI founder, Tac, tell the story for me.

Personally, I think Tokyo Interlopers is essential in helping to break stereotypes about foreigners in Japan and find some of the answers truly fascinating…


Is the concept based on Humans of New York and what other motivational factors were involved?

Cory: The idea of New York is that it is a melting pot filled with people not only of different nationalities but people from every industry including finance, music, art, and blue collar work. The image of course in many Asian big cities is that while the vibe is very much metropolitan what is lacking is the diversity of cities like New York, London, and other Western cities. So, through our project we are trying to let not only local Japanese people know that foreigners are now contributing to Japanese society at a growing pace, but we are also trying to show to the world that Tokyo is growing as an international city.
Tac: TI was inspired by HONY. Even though foreigners only make up a small percentage of Japan’s population, increasing demand for foreign workers amid a labor shortage will see more growth in immigration. Already the employment of foreign nationals topped one million in 2016, which is a watershed moment for Japan. This will have implications for Japan’s hitherto homogeneous society. We wish to shine a light on this changing reality and perhaps even help the Japanese government promote their Cool Japan agenda to the world (with the Olympics coming). Also, through individual stories of people, we hope to give a voice to this unrepresented segment of society.


What do you think Japanese people think of gaikokujin in general and do you fit in with that?

C: The stereotypical answer is that Japanese view foreigners as “outsiders” and that integration is impossible for foreigners. However, like anything the answer is not exactly black and white. Some Japanese are accepting while others are not, but in between this is a growing acceptance that for Japan to move forward (and have a steady supply of workers) it is necessary to incorporate the skills of foreign born residents. All three of us (Taq, Tim and Cory) have lived here long term so we know how to blend in with Japanese culture while still maintaining the important aspects of our own unique identities and culture. 
T:I think the Japanese view us on different levels. Broadly speaking, we’re never on time, not serious, but have more passion and act exaggeratedly. I fit some of that, being Filipino. And as someone from South East Asia, it’s hard to escape the “third-world” label. So I feel my place is lower in the gaijin food chain. Also because of my Asian appearance, I feel I’m held to a higher standard in terms of behaving and speaking like the Japanese.


Personally, I didn’t struggle with culture shock or the Japanese way anywhere near as much as I had thought I would, even 6 months after arriving in Japan, but of course, I was working from home. I’m interested to know if you’re able to identify any negatives that have arisen from a professional/work environment.

C: For me personally, I know that it’s just the little things that can be a bit of an annoyance. For example, complimenting my use of chopsticks or my Japanese language ability, and no matter how long I live here it is something I will never stop hearing. So to some degree just by my very nature of looking different, and nothing to do with my behavior, I am singled out as different.

T: My culture shock kicked in much later after entering the workforce here in Japan. Prior to that, I was having the time of my life in university (I did my undergrad in Japan), learning the language and assimilating. I worked for a Japanese marketing company in Ginza where I clocked in long hours. This meant staying in the office until the boss would leave despite not having anything left to do for the day. Getting home by last train was the norm. I was constantly reminded of how superior the Japanese way of conducting business is and that I was given the highest privilege of assimilating into their culture. Crafting the most polite and honorific emails in Japanese, taking meeting minutes, and making reservations at restaurants to liaise with clients were all I had to master to make it big in Japan.

Can you remember what you knew about Japan before you ever came here?

C: Like many Americans I thought Japan was a land of robots, Toyota cars, and Ninjas. However, the image of the place is always vastly different to the reality and I really enjoyed to see how my impression of the place was far out of line with how it really is.
T: What I knew about Japan before coming here consisted of anime, Japanese soap operas, Michael Chrichton’s novel “Rising Sun”, and Hollywood movies on ninjas (think Christopher Lambert in The Hunted).
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Has beginning Tokyo Interlopers resulted in any change in perspective for you personally?

C: For me personally, meeting with and interviewing other foreign residents is inspiring and gives me the opportunity to cross paths with a variety of different and unique communities in the city. We meet everyone from artists to bankers, and I enjoy hearing these people open up about their inspirations, successes, failures, and future dreams for themselves and the future hope for this massive metropolis we call home. 
T: One of my early interviews touched on unconscious bias. So I became more aware of how I might be making up my mind on people without first giving them the chance to show who they really are. And with every person I would meet, came a growing understanding of our similarities as people, despite the differences in our backgrounds. 

Is the inspiration for starting TI different from the goal? What do you see as the aim for Tokyo Interlopers?

C: While we have overarching goals – finding diversity and inclusion in Japan – it is also an opportunity to give a voice to people who may often not have one, and to serve as an inspiration potentially to people looking to move to Tokyo. 
Diversity and inclusion is a two way street. To expect Japanese people to rid themselves of all prejudice while at the same time holding various prejudices against Japanese people, is a bit of an inherent contradiction. 
T: Yes, the goal has changed from the original inspiration for starting TI. In the beginning the purpose was only to document and write profiles of foreigners in Tokyo. At first it was just a hobby, for recreational purposes. Even tourists were included. But now there’s a growing sense of community arising from our common denominator that binds us all — we’re human beings trying to make it in Japan. Our different reasons for being here (visiting, studying, working, entertaining ourselves, indulging in Japanese food, culture, etc.) make for good stories and hopefully we can inspire one another.

10 thoughts on “Tokyo Interlopers; Tokyo as seen through the lens of foreigners.

  1. Reblogged this on Tokyo Interlopers and commented:
    We had a wonderful chance to speak with Nathan from Japan Oblong on our humble beginnings and what inspired as to start Tokyo Interlopers. Here’s the interview and feel free to follow Japan Oblong so you won’t miss their insightful stories on Japan! Thank you, Japan Oblong!

    Liked by 1 person

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