Being brown and Indian, I did not embody an appealing brand of foreignness.
Nobody goes to Tokyo without a dream. Tokyo—complex, multifaceted, and unforgiving—is a city of opportunity. A tempestuous, dynamic vessel for the pleasures, pains, and aspirations of increasingly disillusioned generations. An economic hub powered by throbbing, vibrating, neon circuits of global industry and commerce. From all over Japan and the world, people pour into the city to craft visions of their futures into reality and to build their lives anew.
I went to Tokyo with my own ambitions. When I traveled there for a semester abroad in March 2017, I wanted to investigate what it means to be a brown Indian woman in Japan, and to negotiate the personal and political stakes of power, desire, and sex in its troublingly notorious homogenous and xenophobic national space.
As a small but potent example, a Justice Ministry survey taken in anticipation for Japan to host the 2020 Olympics found that about 40% of foreign residents who sought housing in Japan had applications turned down and almost 25% were denied jobs in the past five years.
I had begun learning Japanese in New Delhi, India, where I was born and raised, in high school; at college in the U.S., I declared majors in International Studies and Japanese. Through my classes, I gained fluency in Japanese, and became invested in understanding the discourses of race that influence contemporary debates on migration, labor, and nationhood in Japan. So the opportunity to experience Tokyo as a South Asian woman—not as a transient expat, but as a full-time student and resident—both terrified and excited me.
Brimming with vending machines and Kanji-scrawled billboards, Tokyo’s urban orchestra is deafening and inescapable. Areas like Shinjuku and Shibuya—positioned in the global cultural imagination as metonyms for the entire nation—tend to evoke lurid fantasies. Heavily inked yakuza lurking in cigarette-littered alleyways. Minuscule ramen joints awash with hungry beer-blossomed salarymen returning from work. Host and hostess clubs oozing sequins and sex, recalling in florid technicolor the libidinal economy of the floating world.The opportunity to experience Tokyo as a South Asian woman—not as a transient expat, but as a full-time student and resident—both terrified and excited me. Click To Tweet
But contrary to how it is portrayed, the fever dreamscape is finite. As glorious and mesmeric as the urban sprawl is, beyond its main areas, Tokyo transforms into tightly packed bed-towns where the truths of deflation, labor shortage, and Japan’s aging society are all too evident. The steady hum of the train, though still audible, seems faint. The youth, color, and rabid cross-culturalism of the center feel, somehow, distant.
Although the classical image of Tokyo is that of the multicultural, cosmopolitan, and fully globalized city, Japan has the lowest number of resident foreigners among the world’s advanced economies. As of 2017, there are 2,561,848 foreigners—less than 2% of the entire population.
In Tokyo, there are approximately three foreign residents for every 100 people—compared to 35–40 in megalopolises like New York and London. Migrants from Brazil, China, Nepal, the Philippines, and Vietnam, amongst other countries, sustain Japan’s labor-starved industries. Since there is, to this day, no comprehensive immigration policy, these migrants often fall victim to abuse and discrimination—without any legal recourse.
In addition, minority groups like the Hisabestu Buraku, Ainu, Ryukyuans, and resident or zainichi Koreans, Chinese, and Taiwanese have been waging movements for equity for decades. Knowing this, I was interested to see what it would be like to be me—Other in the arguable extreme—and attempt to experience relationships and romance while inhabiting a contentious body.
Whether in the center, where tourists and migrants abound, or in the periphery, where strangers openly confessed their lack of exposure, I experienced an unprecedented loneliness. Being brown and Indian, I did not embody an appealing brand of foreignness. At restaurants, crowds of Japanese would swarm around my white American friends from New York and ask to shake their hands. My white peers were applauded for the tiniest displays of Japanese proficiency, fawned over and adored. But towards the brown girl from Delhi, there was little to no positive curiosity; the ubiquity of whiteness as a proxy for power, prestige, and privilege was just as potent as is in America. Maybe worse.
There was, however, negative curiosity. My host family resided on the farthest eastern edge of the city, and walking to and from the train station constituted my first encounters with fetishism and exotification in Japan. I was frequently harassed by Japanese men, each admitting that I was the first person they had seen in the flesh who looked like me—their excuse for why they could not resist trying to engage with me. Some even followed me to my apartment, or emerged from bushes and street corners, wordlessly, to take photos of me.
Japanese men are frequently stereotyped as shy, gentle, “herbivorous men,” but in truth, I did not bear witness to this myth of meekness. Instead, I felt like a specimen they’d placed in a glass pickling jar where I waited to be inevitably prodded and poked.
I quickly grew weary—would I spend my time in Tokyo as an exotic but spurned brown face amidst a menagerie of more attractive white creatures? Would I experience only the reckless curiosity of the unacquainted, or would I gain allowance to desire, and be desired in earnest?
With that dream in mind, I became compelled to try my hand at Tokyo Tinder. Having already spent three years in the States, many a white boy had accused me of being racist when I expressed my disinterest. Many, too, had relished the prospect of securing an Indian trophy. I was familiar with the various images of Indians spilling from the Pandora’s box of American history and popular culture. I understood that my body is simultaneously fetishized and desexualized, admired and despised–the object of ethnic fantasies, of hatred, and of violence.Would I experience only the reckless curiosity of the unacquainted, or would I gain allowance to desire, and be desired in earnest? Click To Tweet
But in Japan, where there are few people who look like me, come from where I do, and also speak Japanese, how would the politics of desirability slight or reward me?
To begin with, I found that Tokyo Tinder is full of Japanese men hoping not to find dates, but English-speaking foreigners to help them practice their English. I was not interested in this type of relationship, and since most aspired to sound American, British or Australian, my Indian English was not on their radars; most were shocked to find that I spoke English at all.
Shokuminchika, I would remind them lightly—“colonialism.”
Both on and off Tinder, most claimed they had never spoken to someone who is chairo (literally “tea-coloured” or brown) and indojin (Indian)—even though there is a substantial and growing presence of South Asians in the city.
Because the word tends to connote white Western expats, I was not afforded the label of gaikokujin or, simply, foreigner. Rather, I was identified by and named according to the colors of my skin and passport. I fielded questions about curry and the caste system, and comments about the absurdity of Bollywood films overflowing with dance and song, my “wild” hair, too-many piercings, and too-large earrings.
Many asked if I am arabikkujin or “Arabic,” insisting that I resemble Jasmine from Disney’s Aladdin. When I asserted that one of my favorite Japanese foods is tonkatsu or breaded pork, they were aghast, having mistakenly assumed that I am Muslim because I am brown. Coupled with patriarchal and misogynistic ideas, I felt tethered to boundless misrecognition and inaccurate profiling.
My first Tinder date was with a Japanese man from a town just outside of Tokyo–let’s call him Tetsu. Tetsu was a Japanese-English bilingual and self-proclaimed feminist with a sense of humor. Over yakitori and whiskey highballs, we discussed Japanese vs. American romantic expectations, films, and music. We agreed to keep our arrangement casual.
Yet, one night, a few weeks into seeing him, Tetsu uttered a dreaded phrase: aishiteimasu. “I love you.” The next morning, he confessed that he had developed intense feelings for me. When I reminded him that we had agreed to keep our relationship casual, he yelled at me, exclaiming that he could not stand to see me if I was seeing other people.
“You can’t call yourself a feminist and go around opening your legs to every guy you meet,” he shouted. He would never trust women again, he clamored, and especially not Indian women. I left, afraid of his wrath, resolving never to meet him again. Hours later, I found my DMs flooded with unsavory messages and unsolicited pictures from random men. Tetsu had snuck into an online sex chatroom and broadcasted my Instagram handle to the world—then blocked me on all social media.
Whether in India, Japan, or the U.S., toxic masculinity comes as no surprise. I was not daunted, but I did feel exquisitely deceived. I thought, perhaps, that I had failed to explain in my imperfect Japanese that I had wanted to keep our relationship casual. I dwelled on the words I had used; I promised myself that I would formulate my sentences more carefully next time.I thought, perhaps, that I had failed to explain in my imperfect Japanese that I had wanted to keep our relationship casual. Click To Tweet
Despite my heightened attention to the vocabulary and grammar of my sentiments, what I experienced with Tetsu was only the first of many such occurrences. I fancied myself as a foreign version of Tanizaki Junichiro’s moga or “modern girl”–an urban, independent young woman who watches movies, visits cafes, chooses her own suitors and has casual relationships. A waruiko– a “bad girl” for the ages.
As I continued to meet men off Tinder–a handful every couple of weeks–my ability to narrate myself in Japanese improved vastly. I grew confident in my capacity to avoid misunderstandings based in matters of language. Yet, I still found myself ensnared by stereotypes and relentless exoticization.
This was until I chanced upon Hiro, also on Tinder.
Until I met Hiro–a Tokyo transplant originally from Hiroshima who spoke sparing English–I believed that I would only ever be a brown token, an ethnic fantasy. By that point, I was well-rehearsed and exhausted, rendered frank and naked by erosive men, and their preconceived notions of me. I spoke with candor about how I had been reduced to my phenotype, and the discriminatory and offensive behavior and comments I had received during my sojourn in Tokyo. Initially, Hiro did not believe me. “But Tokyo is full of foreigners,” he protested, defensive.
One afternoon, Hiro and I stumbled into an unadorned coffeeshop. As soon as we sat down, the elderly Japanese lady who owned the establishment bounded to our table and asked where I’m from– a common occurrence. “India,” I offered, tentatively. She was delighted, “You must be very good at math and computers.” I sighed internally. Though an affirmative comment, her statement drew on damaging stereotypes, neatly boxing me into limited imaginings of what I am and could be.
“She is intelligent,” Hiro piped up, “but that has nothing to do with her nationality.” He immediately grasped what was transpiring and stood up for me in a way no one had thus far. Surprised and grateful, I felt truly seen and heard; I felt, in that moment, wanted and cherished for me, not the expansive and totalising (mis)conceptions of people of my race and nationality.
Thereafter, Hiro became more sensitive to the particular conditions under which I navigated Tokyo, and became a vital source of comfort and companionship even as our relationship remained casual. He noticed how people in the train would stare at me and whisper, conjecturing about my nationality, and how police officers would unavoidably stop me to demand that I show them my ID–how he too became tainted by strangeness, viewed with suspicion, just by being near me. Together, we (re)discovered Tokyo–museums, galleries, monuments, and public spaces alike–with our eyes and ears wide open.I felt, in that moment, wanted and cherished for me, not the expansive and totalising (mis)conceptions of people of my race and nationality. Click To Tweet
Hiro did often ask me questions about India, but they referenced my personal history and experience; instead of sounding like half-hearted Google searches, they were genuine and specific. Between us, we cultivated an intimacy wherein cultural, racial, and national differences were not effaced, but deeply felt and explored. Here was a vivid image of solidarity and allyship–and of desire negotiated with honesty, compassion, and humility. Moving away from my experiences alone, even now, as we stay in touch as friends, we have lengthy back and forths about policies towards minoritized populations, popular media and its portrayals of Others, and the immense value of intercultural dialogue, particularly in the context of Japan.
Looking back on my experiences with romance and desire in Tokyo, I am astonished by the extents of both the cruelty and kindness that people showed me. Being a brown Indian woman in Tokyo, I faced particular oppressions unfathomable to my white American and European peers—I moved through the city’s pageant of humanity feeling isolated much of the time, cocooned in my blatant Otherness, swinging wildly between hypervisibility and invisibility.
But there were also moments of unfettered joy and appreciation. I saw how my perceived gender, race, and nationality structured my experience, and sought to make room for delight in spite of discomfort. In my romantic endeavors, I fought to stay soft and vulnerable even as I grew jaded. I learned to wear my difference with quiet confidence, stand up for myself, and let others in–even when I was certain they could not wholly empathize with me.
Between being seen and unseen, coveted and reviled, misinterpreted and duly deciphered, my Tokyo ambitions, one way or another, found fulfillment. Although I still have many unresolved questions, my time in Tokyo showed me that I can thrive–find mirth and wonder–even in spaces that deny my presence. Whether it was about travel, identity, or the untold shapes of desire, Tokyo taught me a lot.
Somewhere, I hope, I left the people I met with their own lessons to ponder.