As a Black girl growing up in a small town in Quebec, I was fascinated by Japan and knew I had to explore the country more deeply when I grew up. So in 2018, I made the bold move to leave my comfy Canadian life and moved to the Land of the Rising Sun for two years.
Living in Japan as a Black woman definitely had its ups and downs. On the one hand, Japan is a beautiful country with a rich culture and history. On the other hand, it can be a challenging place to navigate as a foreigner, especially if you're a female-identifying person of colour. But with a little humour, a lot of patience, and a willingness to learn, I found that it's totally possible to thrive in Japan as a Black person.
Here are five tips to help you live your best life in Japan:
Before we start, the first thing to keep in mind is that Japan is a complex country that balances traditional and modern values with varying degrees of success. While it's definitely evolved over the years, Japan is still one of the longest-standing monocultures in the modern world. This is because of the sakoku policy, a set of isolationist policies that ran from the early 17th century to the mid-19th century meant to restrict foreign influence and control over Japan. The term sakoku literally means "locked country" or "country in chains," and the policies included a ban on foreign travel and the establishment of strict controls on trade and contact with foreign countries. Under sakoku, Japanese citizens were also forbidden from leaving the country, and any foreigner found in Japan without permission was subject to arrest and execution.
Even though Japan has opened up a lot since then, it's still not the most diverse place in the world. One way the country’s exclusionist past still influences its society to this day is that only one out of four Japanese people have a passport despite its passport ranking as the most powerful passport in the world. Japan still ranks globally as one of the countries with some of the lowest immigration numbers annually. Contrast that with Canada, a country known for its multiculturalism policies and that welcomed a record number of immigrants in 2022, and you get the idea.
Because of this, you might get interesting reactions from people when you're in Japan, ranging from indifference to suspicion, to quasi-worship with a swarm of improvised local paparazzi following your every move (true story).
My first tip is to try not to take anything personally – ignorance and prejudice exist everywhere, including here in Canada. Don’t pick up what the haters are putting down.
Though it can be uncomfortable at times, remember that your presence will also help educate others about different cultures while challenging the status quo. Stay true to yourself, let it roll off your back, and you will be much happier.
My second tip is to break down barriers through language. I know it's a classic tip, but it's classic for a reason. Even though English has been taught in Japan for decades, it's still not widely spoken. This is why learning even just a tiny bit of Japanese can go a long way in building relationships and putting other people at ease. Believe me when I say, nothing compares to the joy of hearing a bombastic "nihongo jouzu" from a konbini cashier after mustering up the courage to utter "arigatou" (or ‘thank you’ in Japanese). It's like getting a high five from the Universe and a back rub from the language powers that be. An instant mood booster!
Something else to keep in mind is that finding places and products that cater to our skin and hair in Japan can be a bit of a mission impossible. It was so frustrating for me to find a hairstylist to braid my hair, or get makeup products that matched my skin tone after I’d exhausted the ones I had brought with me. So, here's a third tip for you: check out my book, A Black Traveler’s Guide to Japanese Beauty! In it, you'll find over 200 beauty recommendations tailored to meet the needs of Black people in Japan. Everything is laid out so you can easily find the name of a great hair stylist to braid or loc your hair, get a dope fade at a barbershop in Tokyo, discover Japanese makeup brands with super pigmented products that also work on darker complexions, and more.
Living in a foreign country can be stressful, and my fourth tip is to make time for yourself and your well-being. Whether it's eating well, meditating or getting relaxing massages, it's essential to prioritize self-care. To help you out, my book includes several health and wellness recommendations that you'll love, such as Japanese aromatherapy fragrances to boost your mood and an awesome, Black-owned spa in Yokohama that's worth a detour.
One of the hardest things to deal with when living or travelling abroad is feeling isolated and lonely. Japan is no exception, and that's why my fifth and final tip is to find a community to help you navigate life in Japan. There are over 100 resources to help you connect with the Black diaspora in Japan listed in my book. From “Black in Japan” Facebook groups to join, to amazing Black people doing cool things in Japan to follow on social media, you'll find everything you need to make new friends. The Black community in Japan may be small, but it's incredibly supportive and welcoming to newcomers. Forging relationships with people on the ground before and as soon as you arrive will provide much-needed connection and warmth as you begin your new life in Japan.
Before I go, I have two bonus tips to share with you because I’m your friend, so I’m spilling all the ocha. First and foremost, never leave home without cash in Japan. When almost 8 out of 10 transactions in Japan are still done in cash, the last thing you want is to hold up the line fumbling through your bag for your card or worse, not being able to pay your bill altogether (especially as a foreigner). Ain't nobody got time for that.
And now, for my final bonus tip - brace yourself for this one - Japanese cockroaches are straight-up G’s. They’re native to Japan and they’re huge, like the size of your entire thumb, and can even fly because they have two pairs of wings on their abdomen! Japanese cockroaches take no prisoners and are unafraid to attack humans (I’m kidding, but not really).
Do yourself a favour and keep some GokiJet on standby at all times. You'll thank me later. Phew…and now you can breathe a deep sigh of relief, because you totally got this. Mission “Living Your Best Life in Japan”: accomplished!