Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. This is a line you often hear when you’re planning a trip in Japan. I remember being told this by the study abroad agent when I first looked at a program in Japan at the age of twenty. At that time I had dreamed of living abroad so long that I would probably have been willing to go anywhere just for the chance to try something new. Hearing that Japan was so much safer than my hometown was just the cherry on top.
So, in the first week at school when the police arrived at my university to tell us about foreign girls being attacked on their way home, I was a bit surprised. Apparently there had been a case of one of the previous foreign exchange girls being attacked while walking home from the train station. Luckily in her case she was able to fight off the attacker with her umbrella, but it still was an eye opening realization that while Japan was safe, it wasn’t perfect.
It is natural for young women to be worried about their safety. There is no limit to media coverage talking about cases of bad things happening worldwide. There is no limit to the types of dangers a woman can face traveling, especially in a place where we may not be able to even speak the local language.
For one, it is true Japan is one of the safest countries. I want to reaffirm this first and foremost. As a female who has moved and traveled all around the world, Japan is in fact one of the safest places I have ever been. Japan has very few violent crimes and a supportive community for travelers. In fact, it is so safe that the sight of young children free to travel without parent supervision is common. I have even seen many people leaving their electronic devices and wallets unmonitored while using the restroom. I can safely say I do not ever regret choosing to move to Japan and it is in fact this safety that makes me love life in Japan.
However, with this said, Japan is also still a country full of a variety of people. This means while it is a safe country, it still has dangers you must be aware of, particularly as a minority which you may never have been before. Sexual harassment is a commonly discussed topic across Japan. There are an many cases of harassment and police reactions can be underwhelming. In fact, it is becoming increasingly mainstream in Japanese discourse. Women are coming forward about their experience with discrimination and criticizing discrimination. While there is less publicly visible instances such problems of catcalling (something I highly appreciated after traveling across Europe and America), we still have to remember it does exist.
Sexual harassment can happen to any woman in Japan regardless of background, but there is also a confounding factor of being a foreigner. I found in my time in Japan that there are less foreign women, particularly women not from Asian descent. This means we are much less common for the average Japanese person to come across. Naturally, this sparks curiosity when men start to interact with us.
This can admittedly lead to cases of being sexualized in ways you may not like. I have found a stereotype of foreign women (particularly European and American women) being seen as “sexually liberated”. This can lead some men to assume you are more sexually available than many Japanese women and will be willing to have open style relationships. This is something to keep in mind while dating if an open style relationship isn’t something that suits you.
However, I do want to note that the curiosity Japanese men may feel isn’t inherently dangerous or bad. In fact, I have had many long and meaningful friendships with Japanese male friends who never interacted with a foreign woman before me. I find a lot of my Japanese male friends ask me questions about my own experiences with genuine curiosity. These types of friendships have allowed both of us to grow and I am thankful for them.
The reductive “Japanese are perverts” narrative we see often perpetuated by Western media outlets is often wrong. I do not want to discard criticisms towards issues of violence perpetuated against women in Japan. This is in fact something that should be discussed openly and what harm such things can cause to individual lives should be addressed. There is no limit to examples of where this has caused problems in Japan. The need for women only cars on trains and signs warning of men taking pictures up skirts while riding on escalators are indeed sad. There are many times I get annoyed with Japanese responses to harassment. They sometimes focus on useless solutions rather than addressing the actual problem. For example, mandating all phones to have a shutter rather than educating men about how unsolicited photos might hurt a girl.
While perverted men do exist, the over application doesn’t help you distinguish safe from dangerous. It instead limits the amount social interactions that might help you in your time in Japan. Most Japanese men don’t want to hurt you and in fact if you give them a chance, you might find life changing friendships instead. Likewise, by being honest, Japanese male friends might benefit from learning about female experiences and how to better help the women around them.
So how do you distinguish between good men and bad men? That’s a question that can be asked in any country, not just Japan. However, it is uniquely hard for foreign women in Japan because we now have an added cultural barrier in navigating red flags. For one, we need to be thoughtful about the men we meet in Japan, both Japanese and foreign.
It is common for Japanese men to be shyer when interacting with foreign women because of lack of experience. This means they don’t know what to expect the first time they interact with a foreign female in an informal setting and so they become nervous. Without common knowledge on general norms in interacting with us, it results in an awkward exchange.
Distinguishing between a shy guy that means well and a creepy man that means harm can be difficult. Since there is more ambiguity in the situation, calling out red flags might be less easy. Was that comment a disturbing comment or was it just ‘lost in translation’ situation? Is this a miscommunication or danger?
This is where fellow Japanese friends do come in handy as they can explain what things come from the culture and what things come from the person. For example, once I dated a Korean man that often sent me messages asking questions like “what did you eat today?” or “where are you going tonight?”. At first, I was curious because I had never had someone be so constantly asking about my free time. Such norms weren’t something I was used to in either American or Japanese dating context. It felt invasive to me, but when I discussed it with my Korean friends, I was able to understand the norms in Korean dating. They explained differences in Korean and Japanese culture. Likewise, my foreign friends (especially Indian and Korean friends) complain their Japanese partners were cold and distant in ways I never noticed.
Additionally, I also want to point out that some of the threats you may face may come from your fellow foreigners. In fact, in my own experience, the only case where I was truly scared for my safety was from foreign men, not Japanese. For example, in one case I was at a bar where I met a British tourist. He had bought me a drink which I rejected (naturally, please never take a drink from a stranger) and this caused him to be angry with me. The man grabbed my arm, leaving bruises the next day. Luckily, I had a group of friends to keep the man away from me or else the experience might have been far more dangerous.
This is where having good social networks and clear communication is important. I found that relying on my friends tend to make things much easier for me. For example, when I would go out drinking with my friends late at night, returning home could be quite worrying as I didn’t want to walk home in the dark. All my male friends, both foreign and Japanese, were very willing to walk me home for my own safety. When someone makes me feel uncomfortable, my friends can interject into the situation to help me escape.
If you feel nervous, don’t hesitate to bring it up and be honest about it to both your male and female friends. Even in cases where it is a misunderstanding, by being honest about how you feel and conscious about not putting yourself in situation without people you can rely on, you are less likely to encounter danger. Remember, men who mean well don’t have a reason to get angry and if they do get angry, they aren’t the kind of man you want to be around. And if you are being stalked or harassed, because it does happen, it is best to always tell others around you.
Please don’t let fear make you feel scared to make friends in Japan, but also be mindful of your own safety.