I'm very hesitant to go forward with this post because it's very specific to me and, based on past experience, I know that some will come to disagree with it. However, I feel like maybe putting this out there might reach to others in a similar situation know that they are not alone. It may be a very small circle of people who can relate (maybe extremely small), but it's been on my mind on-and-off for the past couple years.
My experience in Japan is very much influenced by the fact that I do not have any sort of fluency in Japanese. If you are a Japanese American or Japanese diaspora who can speak Japanese, your experience and notable points may be entirely different than mine.
My family on both sides have been in America (and specifically Hawaii) for several generations now. Even my great-grandmother on my mom's side was born in Hawaii. My grandparents on both sides have only ever spoken to me in English and that is their first and primary language. (Ex. my dad's dad doesn't even understand more than very, very basic elementary-level Japanese and never uses it unless we are specifically talking about translating things.) I think it may be quite evident from this that my primary, first and only language of proficient understanding is English. Ofc I understand most phrases in HCE (Hawaiian pidgin) just by growing up here (in Hawaii) though. By choice, I took 8 years of Mandarin Chinese from middle school through college and even minored in Chinese. My limited Japanese is thanks to a few classes and a short 6-week study abroad my junior year in college that I just took "for fun" on a complete whim since I wasn't at capacity for credits those semesters. I have no proficiency in any of my heritage languages and only know a limited amount from what I was taught in a classroom and have retained very little of it since it is never used at home as my parents speak only English.
Central thesis / tl;dr
Based on my experience, most people in Japan will assume that I can speak and understand what they're saying and can read signs/menus, etc or even think that I am a Japanese national. I believe the perception is due in part to the way I dress and present myself, which does not necessarily come off to immediately read as "non-Japanese-speaking tourist", but also bolstered by my general East Asian appearance. Being perceived as someone who is Japanese and can speak Japanese but actually cannot is a huge part of shaping my experience when visiting Japan and has both advantages and disadvantages.
Blending in (behavior and appearance)
Due to this conscious effort and coupled with my appearance, I more easily blend into a crowd. Furthermore, and what really doesn't help, I'll nod when or acknowledge whenever anyone talks to me in Japanese regardless of how much I actually comprehend. I understand maybe 50% of it and usually get away with it if it's not a question. Luckily, we don't need to interact a lot when it's not initiated by us but it gets very hairy when I try to go shopping, especially by myself.
Communicating with shop staff
Shop staff, especially in the stores for the brands that I'm interested in, can be very friendly and attentive which can make me very nervous. I sometimes get unreasonably scared to talk to them because they might just start rattling off something in really quick Japanese that is essential to the conversation, and I'll act like I understand, but then I'll miss it and then can't continue. I prefer not to use the "Oh, I'm American" excuse as much as possible because I don't want it to become a crutch, especially when they're just saying something super simple and introductory which doesn't really need to have a specific response, but I wasn't prepared to translate it in my head, and then I'll just make things awkward for nothing. Plus, it's not like Americans are the best visitors/have the best reputation as tourists in Japan anyway, so it doesn't always pay off to jump in with that if it can be avoided.
To their credit, once they realize I don't understand Japanese, there have been a few shop staff who try really hard to communicate in a simple but still very polite and helpful way. There are then others who just decide to leave me the fuck alone which can also be okay until I decide to buck up and try and ask a question or try something on, then it's really hard to try to get their attention, so it's not always the best thing to "out" myself if I can help it.
Being perceived as Chinese
There's recently been an abundance of tourists from China in Japan. In the past, we (my family)'ve noticed they were especially prevalent in Osaka. During our most recent trip in May, there was a large number of Chinese visitors when we visited places in Hokkaido, especially on tours. And for us, many groups are hard to miss whether that's intentional or not. From the number of people in their groups to the volume at which they speak, to the way they don't seem to fall into the natural flow of pedestrian traffic, we tend to notice if a fellow tourist is Chinese. For some reason, we were mistaken as Chinese tourists during this recent trip in Spring 2016 more than any other trip. Or maybe I was just oblivious and just didn't realize how much it happened until this trip, I'm not sure.
We usually define ourselves as American (and, in fact, my father and bf are not at all Chinese themselves) or "from Hawaii". Not that American tourists are, on a whole, usually a heck of a lot better (I know several first hand who were incredibly obnoxious and refused to calm down and were so used to their privilege that they refused they could do any wrong), but I believe they can be more easily accepted than Chinese tourists at times due to some particular negative stereotypes.
I noticed that during this trip, we were more often offered the Chinese language alternative for written material or spoken to in Chinese once Japanese didn't seem to work. We (my family in particular) don't really hold the same customs and cultural norms that we've noticed that tourists from mainland China do (in Japan), and this isn't a good or a bad thing but just something that's different. I've always thought that Japanese (nationals) could easily see that I'm mixed Japanese but wouldn't immediately jump to a conclusion about it or stereotype me as a Chinese tourist. I do get treated differently in general once people realize that I don't speak Japanese, but I do think there would be a difference between being treated as a Chinese person (from China) and Asian diaspora from America just because of the difference in relations between Japan and the two countries. Which is not to say that I resent being Chinese (in ethnicity), but just that I'm not from China and when it matters, like in this situation where I feel that it does, I would prefer to differentiate.
I'm not really blaming Chinese tourists for anything and quite obviously it isn't "all Chinese tourists" because there are clearly many that do their best and fit in such that I would never be able to identify them. It's quite obvious that there's just a different cultural norm/expectation in China and they just might not realize what they're doing is abnormal or even possibly disrespectful. Not everyone will take the time to research about the cultural practices of another country (especially if they're part of a large tour group) but I guess that's why sometimes there's a very blatant way to recognize this kind of tourist lol. And obviously there are impolite or disrespectful tourists from all around the world so I'm not just trying to put down Chinese tourists, but understand that in my situation, we're never mistaken for European or Filipino or Indian tourists and only identified as American when we vocalize it or show our passports, so that's why I feel like the stereotype or guise of Chinese tourists affects us.
This wasn't mean to be a tirade against Chinese tourists because, by all means, let them do their thing I guess, but their behavior and how it reflects on me as someone who has been repeatedly mistaken as a Chinese tourist more times this trip than ever, I just feel like it's notable that when we were discovered to not be "Japanese" (often due to language barrier), we were suddenly "Chinese".
Advantages to being Japanese American in Japan
How is the Japanese American experience in Japan different?
Based on what I've read or heard from a selection of others, my experience has been different from those visitors who are not Japanese/East Asian appearing at all. Ex. If you are white/look white, the shop staff is more likely to take the initiative to use English from the beginning (if they have those skills) and will be accommodating if your Japanese is only at a very basic level or if you cannot speak Japanese at all. You are typically also excused for not knowing the correct customs or polite language. And I'm sure something will be different if you are non-white and non-Japanese/East Asian appearing. Being accommodated this way has its own pluses and minuses, but the point is that it is markedly different than my experience as a non-Japanese speaking Japanese American who is expected to understand everything perfectly and react and respond in a certain way based on my appearance.
There are white visitors (or residents) will complain when they automatically get handed something in English because they worked so hard to get their language proficiency, so they should get treated like they are local Japanese or something. I guess I can see where that can get possibly insulting, but there are other obnoxious white tourists who insist on everyone accommodating them that you can thank for that and actually it's an advantage for you if you don't have language proficiency like most visitors. There was a white family at DisneySea during my November trip who loudly had conversations in English and made a big show of pushing around. They got an English pamphlet explaining the Tower of Terror backstory without them having to say anything directly to the crew member. However, my Japanese American friend and I got nothing because we quietly conversed to ourselves and wasn't making a big deal about our foreignness. If we wanted the pamphlet, we would have had to stop the crew member, disrupt the flow of the introduction before the ride and figure out how to ask her for it. (And we'd have to know to ask for it which the white family didn't have to do.)
I feel like having white people in the touristy areas of Japan not understanding Japanese is much more common than white people in those same areas having full fluency in reading and speaking Japanese and staff are only trying to help by providing something that they thought you could understand. If you do have language proficiency, you can easily just ask for chopsticks instead of the fork you were handed or say that the Japanese menu is fine.
Why don't I just learn Japanese if that's what's affecting my travel experience so much?
Well honestly, if it were just that simple, wouldn't we all? I would love to dedicate time, effort and personal resources to learning and perfecting my Japanese language proficiency. Believe me, nothing would make me happier (except maybe learning and perfecting Mandarin, Cantonese or Uchinaguchi), but unfortunately it's just not a priority for me right now and I'm not the best student for self-teaching.
Beyond that, it's not mandatory to learn Japanese to be able to have a good time or to function on a basic level as a tourist in Japan. We only ever visit for 7-10 days at a time and can clearly still figure things out. A number of restaurants in high tourist areas have English available and most, if not all, transportation has either furigana/hiragana or romaji for kanji.
That being said, I do try and retain and reinforce what little language proficiency I do have by following reviewing my textbooks occasionally (OK, more like sparingly) and follow Japanese social media accounts (mostly Liz Lisa stores or shop staff) and every so often will watch videos or shows in Japanese and continue to slowly learn new phrases as I go, but I just don't have the time and energy to sit down and study for hours everyday.
When I've tried to discuss this or voice my opinion on the topic, I've had people tell me that my own experience is wrong and that "it's not that way at all". I have visited Japan as a tourist 4 times in the last 16 months, and, let me tell you, my personal experience has been consistent with what I've written with an extremely small amount of outliers. This is partially why I've felt compelled to write about this on my own blog, in my own space - because I have felt silenced or belittled because my experience didn't match that of others and was dismissed as essentially untrue. My experience doesn't invalidate that of others, and others' experiences (especially those which, in many cases, are a completely different situation) should also not invalidate or overshadow my own. I think it's important to look at why it was different and therefore what to expect depending on who you are and your own personal situation.
This isn't meant to be a pity party or to meant to invoke any kind of specific reaction. If you don't care, can't possibly imagine empathizing with me, and you think I'm just being whiny, this post clearly wasn't for you.
I'm not saying that if you are also Japanese American or a tourist of any East Asian background that your trip and experience will be certainly be like mine. I'm just ...reflecting, especially since this part of my experience didn't immediately fade to the background as soon as I got home. Maybe I need to re-evaluate. Maybe I should work harder at some things. Japan might be the "motherland" but Hawaii will always be my home and I think I'm lucky to be able to think so highly of a place where I grew up. (Hawaii has its own share of problems, but being East Asian in Hawaii usually isn't one of them.) But at the same time, I used to feel very secure with my heritage but I never feel less Japanese than when I am in Japan. And it would probably be a very similar feeling if I were to visit China. The American in me would certainly stand out. And is that a bad thing? As long as it doesn't interfere with my trip, I would think not. And I do and have enjoyed my trips to Japan in the past, but I do think my experience is markedly different than a white American's (or other country / nationality) might be. There are certainly already a number of articles and posts written about this topic, but this is my point of view which may be slightly different due to the kind of interests I have and even potentially because of my mixed ethnic background.
I don't expect anyone reading this to agree with what I've said, especially if your experience was different! There's nothing wrong or right about either of what we've experienced, and there's no need to say that one is better or rate them against each other, especially if there were different variables at play between our two experiences. They are just simply not the same. Like I wrote before, my experience does not invalidate yours, just as yours should not invalidate mine. I would definitely be intrigued to read about someone else's experience, so feel free to share similarities or differences (and maybe why you think your experience was different)!