What Is My Worth as a Foreigner in Japan? A Pandemic Query

What Is My Worth as a Foreigner in Japan? A Pandemic Query

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Tokyo crowds
Our author discusses how the pandemic has laid bare elements of how the Japanese public and government perceive the foreign residents in their midst.

Life During the Pandemic

I originally began writing this essay three weeks ago. While I always intended for it to be an op-ed, I initially tried to take the same approach I usually take with these longer pieces: neutral, well-rounded, and thoroughly researched. As I wrote this essay, however, something changed. Despite a desire to do my journalistic due diligence, I felt my personal feelings — feelings intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic — welling up inside me. The truth is, I’m simply beside myself as I think about my life as a foreigner in Japan.

A Year and a Half of Frustration

I’ve written multiple pieces about this time period. Myths surrounding Japan’s crisis management; last year’s dwindled Shibuya Halloween celebrations; and during my more optimistic times, how Japan could improve their response in the future. When the Tokyo Olympics were taking place, I reported on Japan’s confusion and frustration with the event, only for myself and my colleagues to be harassed by the usual suspects–individuals who deign to hear any criticism of Japan whatsoever.

In between all of this, I’ve managed a day job, started rewriting a fantasy novel, and rekindled my love for video games (resulting in a new interest in fighting games). I’ve met interesting, funny, and loving individuals through this endeavor, and am grateful to be a part of their communities.

But I also haven’t seen my family in almost two years. I’ve missed two funerals, one each for my paternal uncle and my maternal grandmother. I was unable to mourn with my family, only able to watch the ceremonies via Facebook Live and a YouTube VOD.

In the earlier days of Japan’s vaccination rollout, I watched with bittersweet frustration while my friends and family back in the United States and over in Europe had much easier access to vaccines than my peers and myself in Japan.

Vaxxed, but the Unease Remains

A Japanese national receives a shot. Foreigners in Japan watched on as friends in other countries received vaccines months before they became widely available in Japan.
A Japanese national receives a shot. The Japanese vaccination effort started slow, but has recently overtaken the US in terms of per-capita doses.

I eventually got my two Pfizer shots over the course of July, thanks to talking with fellow foreign residents about clinics that had open slots, and with very little help from the Japanese government.


Despite these challenges, I have seen myself through this pandemic, fully vaccinated, still masked up, and slowly regaining a social life offline. It’s been comforting. Yet, I still can’t shake a perpetual uneasiness when it comes to my standing as a foreigner in Japan, especially when it comes to residents vs. tourists.

Non-residential tourists and new visa holders are still barred from coming into Japan. Yet high-profile performers and athletes are still able to come and go with relative ease. What does this say about the Japanese government’s relationship with its foreign residents? How is it that our long-term contributions seem inconsequential to Japan, yet short-term celebrities are welcomed with open arms?

Permanent Guests

Whenever this conversation comes up, the foreign community usually cycles back to the idea of “permanent guests”. Quite often, when I meet a Japanese person, whether professionally or casually, they ask me to give a general self-introduction — my name, where I’m from, what do I like about Japan, etc.

This is then always followed up by the perennial question: “When are you going back to America?”

Due to recent world events, this question stings more than ever. It also speaks to how little the general Japanese population knows about immigration and border laws in Japan. And why would they? They would never be considered foreigners in their lifetime. And even if they go to other countries for vacation, they still do not perceive themselves as “outside people”.

Borders Closed, but Foreigners Still Blamed

These misunderstandings may seem innocent to a more optimistic eye. However, it’s an extremely harmful misapprehension, which unknowingly can make living in Japan much more difficult for those who seem “foreign”. One of the more extreme examples of this was back in May of this year, when Japanese netizens spread baseless rumors about how foreigners were coming to Japan to receive treatment for COVID-19 specifically to take advantage of the publicly funded health care.

Indeed, it is no secret that many nations, especially my home nation of the United States, have terrible public health care policies. But Japan has never been a popular place for medical tourism, even before the pandemic. Within Asia, the popular medical tourist destinations are Turkey, India, Malaysia, South Korea, and Thailand.

So why would anyone want to come to Japan now under those circumstances?

Sadly, this xenophobic fervor surrounding communicable illnesses is not new, as Yoshii Riki of the Mainichi Shinbun reports:

“There has also been a case of prejudice in the past that linked a new infectious disease with foreigners. When AIDS became a global topic, discrimination against foreigners and overseas countries was particularly cruel in Japan. In 1991, the Japan Foundation for AIDS Prevention, which was under the jurisdiction of the then health ministry, created and distributed a poster that read ‘Bon voyage, beware of AIDS,’ showing a suit-clad man raising a passport, which came under fire.”

Yoshii Riki, “What’s behind false rumors that foreigners are entering Japan for free COVID-19 treatment?”, Mainichi Shinbun (May 25, 2021)

Rightfully, the Immigration Services Agency dispelled these rumors. But the permanent guest concept trickles over into other aspects of the Japanese bureaucracy.

Taxpaying Outsiders

Foreigner residents of Japan must pay taxes to the country.
Foreigners who reside in Japan must pay taxes. Payment into pension funds is also required.

Last year, when the sole stimulus check was announced, a whole debate emerged on JPN Twitter about whether or not foreigners should receive the payment as well. In response, politicians such as Onoda Kimi suggested that we shouldn’t because we are not Japan’s responsibility, but that of our home countries.

Considering the legally required financial contributions that foreign residents make to Japan’s taxes, infrastructure, and the general economy, the fact that this would even be questioned shows how embedded the double-faced separatism is in society, even in times of crisis:

Foreigners in Japan pay taxes not to our home country, but to the Japanese government…. We aren’t covered by the health insurance programs of our respective home countries, we contribute to the Japanese health care system and are covered by that. We don’t make pension contributions to the programs where we came from, we make pension contributions to the Japanese pension system….

In short, we are active participants in Japanese society. When we came to Japan, we entered into an agreement with the Japanese government—we would participate in Japanese society and in return, we are entitled to the same benefits of the system we support.

“Foreigners in Japan need assistance too”, Percival Constantine, Medium.

With all that in mind, it’s a daily challenge to cope with the fact that Japan is not only indifferent to the concerns of foreigners–even further cemented by the Zairyu Card app–but also to that of its citizens, especially with these past Summer Games and no financial supports since the one stimulus check we got last summer.

Final Thoughts

The COVID-19 pandemic, along with the compound of microaggressions against foreigners in Japan–both individually and collectively–have affected many aspects of my life, including my writing. My output has slowed down in the past couple of months, not just because of exhaustion, but because I have come to doubt, on a larger scale, the efficacy of my work.

Full disclosure: most of the topics I write about I choose and pitch myself. So it’s not out of corporate obligation that I’ve written and debated these subjects, but out of a sense of personal and collective urgency to shed light on what is unseen by the larger community outside of Japan. Often, either online or offline, I find myself torn when I have to dispel good-faith notions about how Japan has to handle the pandemic.

One way I think it would be helpful to have these conversations is to broaden Japan’s culture outside of the modern/traditional, as is the modus operandi of most travel and culture sites that discuss Japan. We must also discuss the hierarchy of disorganization that exists, especially within government and society as a whole.

Everyone has a role and a title, but no one wants to lead. Yet the hierarchy states that I’m supposed to obey their words without question, even if their words label me as a second-class citizen simply because of my nationality and race. If I were a tourist, without nearly as much temporal and financial investment, these societal woes wouldn’t affect me as much. But they do.

So, for the rest of the pandemic, and the rest of my time in Japan, I’ll simply have to do my best to not internalize the misgivings of society at large. I’ll check the news occasionally to maintain my awareness, but not dive so deep that I lose myself. I’ll re-focus my work on topics that interest me and feed my curiosity, and even make me smile. When my social life is fully revived, I’ll try to travel more often, even if it’s within the metropolis.

Though I live in Japan, my life as a foreigner is not determined by Japan. Before anything else, I am a human being, trying to survive during an extremely difficult time. And now I find myself crying tears of relief, because it’s the first time in the past two years that I’ve felt able to tell myself that.

A darkened Shibuya, taken by the author on a recent walk
A darkened Shibuya captured on a recent walk. Photograph by author.

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Thalia Harris

Thalia-Marie Harris is a North Jersey/New York native, currently residing in Tokyo, where she works as an ESL teacher and freelance writer. Her previous pieces have appeared in Metropolis Tokyo and pacificREVIEW.

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy