Being a Person of Colour in Japan

Hi! My name is Lungile and I’m from Durban, South Africa


In 2019 I moved to Japan to teach English! I love watching horror movies and true crime, and I’m an excellent cook! Some of my favorite Japanese foods are takoyaki, spicy miso ramen, and okonomiyaki.

My biggest recommendation for going to Japan is to make some time to visit or live in a smaller town- that’s where you get to see and feel the true community in Japan!!

How would you describe the overall experience of life in Japan as a Person Of Colour (POC)?

I’m from South Africa, a mixed pot of different cultures and races. So moving to Japan which is for the most part “monocultural”, was quite a big change for me.

I first lived in Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture. I never saw another person of color there until about 4 months in!

I definitely stuck out, but I felt okay about that. People in my city were welcoming, helpful, and I loved living in Yokkaichi. It’ll always be my second home

I visited other major cities as well, and never felt unwelcome- whether it was at a school, on the trains, shopping malls and other places.

I was met with many questions, made some Japanese friends, and Japanese people were usually more intrigued than anything else.

You worked in both public and private schools in Japan. Did you notice any differences in the way you were treated as a POC between one institution or another?

I didn’t notice any differences. My students loved chatting to me and the staff were always great and kind towards me.

It was definitely easier hanging out with the Japanese staff outside of work when I was at the private schools, but I think this was because in public schools some were a little older, and were really busy teachers.

The Japanese staff at private schools (Eikaiwa) were usually reception staff so had a little more free time.

How does living and working in Japan compare to some of your other experiences living abroad?

I lived in China briefly back in 2016. I was teaching English in Shanghai. I sadly didn’t enjoy my time there, because being a POC there was definitely harder.

People would reach out to touch my skin and hair, and they always wanted to take pictures of me because I’m black. Sometimes they would do all this without asking me first. So it felt a little overwhelming, and I wasn’t expecting that since I was in a larger city.

Japan wasn’t like that at all.

No one touched my hair/skin. Some of my students were always amazed and intrigued when my hair would change from a weave to braids overnight (haha) so that would become a topic of conversation sometimes, but they were genuinely interested and loved learning about the process behind my “extravagant” hairstyles!

The people in Japan were also very tidy, down to earth, and respectful which I really appreciated.

Did you find that there was a community of POC that you could connect with?

Yes definitely!

At first I was a little lonely, but there are Facebook groups I joined and I made friends through some of them. Most of these friendships were online though.

Do you feel like you could differentiate between the perception of you as a foreigner in Japan in general, versus specifically being a person of colour?

This depended on the context/situation I was in. In a social context, some stereotypes would pop up- such as people always expecting me to dance (because “all” black people have rhythm), or people expecting me to be super outgoing all the time. While teaching though I was treated like any other foreigner I’d say.

How would you say that your experience as a person of colour compares to some of your fellow teachers of different ethnicities, particularly your fellow colleagues?

This again was a context thing. I think my non-POC colleagues had it easier finding things like cosmetics/makeup products (as a dark skinned person I couldn’t get foundation for example, I’d order online).

Online dating as well – it’s hard as a foreigner in general but it did feel like I had it harder as a POC. But I do think these are small things so they didn’t make me feel bad or feel like I wanted to leave Japan- they were just minor inconveniences!

Teachers of colour can often feel nervous about teaching abroad in foreign countries. Do you have any advice for them?

In my honest opinion, I think a lot of the time Japanese people group foreigners as one. It might seem at times that you’re being targeted but there’s a high likelihood that a non-POC has had or is having a similar experience.

Do not take things personally, especially when it comes to young kids, some of them have never ever seen a POC before, so they will be curious and have questions. If however you feel really uncomfortable by certain comments/gestures and it’s an adult lesson, I’d always recommend speaking to your manager.

Learn Japanese!

This will make things so much easier for you, and Japanese people warm up really well and quickly to people who try speak their language.

Did you notice a distinct difference in perceptions of POC in rural areas versus cities?

You’d definitely have more people looking/starting in rural places. Older members of the community might come up to you and ask you questions (in Japanese!).

In big cities people really weren’t bothered I’d say. They see so many POC so that’s probably why.

In your experience, have you noticed any changes in the perception of POC in the last few years?

I was in Japan (2019-2021), I’ll compare that to my time in China (2016).

Although the two were very different, I’d say due to social media, POC are seen more now, so I’m assuming the perception has changed and become more positive.

Did you feel included with other expats?

I did!

I had some great friends who I still speak with today.

I was blessed to have such great co-workers, especially when I was living in Yokkaichi, we became a little family.

As much as everything is about color/race in our respective countries, once we are in Japan that all goes out the window and we’re all just foreigners!

Visit our Teach English in Japan program page for more information.

About Grace Martens

Grace is an enrollments coordinator at TravelBud signing people up to our many programs and helping them get all the answers to the questions they may have about taking the plunge and going overseas for amazing teach English abroad adventures.
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