On Growing Up Latino, Moving to Japan

On Saturday, Taku and I decided to have dinner at a Spanish restaurant. We were greeted by a friendly non-Japanese woman, and after asking her for a table for two, she called over a male, non-Japanese waiter over to seat us. This lead an awkward exchange. Well we’re in Japan, so actually a “KY” (空気読めない) exchange.

As the waiter approached, he greeted us with a friendly “Hola!” and then paused as if waiting for us to say something more…rather, for me to say something more. Taku, being the charismatic guy they he is, replied “Hola” cheerfully, despite not being able to speak Spanish. However, I just gave the waiter an awkward nod, and probably subconsciously gave him a rather strange look as well, as I was not really sure what he was expecting from me.

“Ah…so…just the two of you,” the waiter continued after a moment, now speaking in Japanese. And we were seated and given menus. After he walked away, it dawned on me that he had recognized that I was Latino and was expecting me to speak Spanish. And here I thought the peppering of foreign language was just part of the atmosphere.

How was I supposed to know, after two years of living in a country where everyone expects me to speak English? I guess what I’m saying is, I’m kind of rusty on western social cues.

A little background.

I’m American, but my heritage is 100% Puerto Rican. I didn’t grow up on the island however; Truth be told, I’ve never even had a chance to visit there. I was born in the New England region of the states, and while I feel that I had a pretty typical “Latino” upbringing, I was never made to speak Spanish at home. I grew up speaking English at home and school, so I never properly learned what should have been one of my native languages.

Though I feel some level of regret for not learning Spanish when I should have, I also accept the fact that those days, I didn’t have much interest in my Puerto Rican heritage at all. When I was young, I always felt conflicted with my identity, especially because I was annoyed at how rigid Puerto Rican culture was.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but as an adult, I figured out why I always felt out of place. I disliked the hyper-masculinity. And the Catholicism. I also wanted to distance myself from the image that Puerto Ricans were troublemakers, high school dropouts, or even criminals. I was a skinny, nerdy, gay kid with a love of videogames and Japanese culture. I didn’t want to listen to reggaeton, womanize or cause a ruckus.

I lived in a periphery. Not Puerto Rican enough to be a “real” Boriqua, but certainly not any one of the other ethnicities or races around me. In my mind, I always felt ambiguous.

I grew up as a kind of enigma, and that was okay with me. In college, I grew my hair out straight and long, down to my shoulders. People would mistake me for Italian, Indian, or “some sort of Asian”. To me, it was hilarious seeing everyone struggle to place me into some sort of group. I even had the pleasure of someone mistakenly badmouthing Puerto Ricans to my face, and they were in shock when I sharply informed them that I was, in fact, one of “them”.

I’ve lived in Japan for over two years now, and the cultural transition wasn’t very difficult for me. I think I’ve figured out why. I feel very comfortable here because I’ve never quite felt like I was part of any type of any ethnic group anyway, so in Japan, being an outsider isn’t so out of the ordinary for me.

But boy would it be great to able to speak Spanish fluently someday…I’ve got about one thousand more kanji to learn, and a ton of Japanese grammar and vocabulary to study, and the Japanese Language Proficiency Test N1 to pass though…

After that, I promise.


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  1. I always wondered how the Japanese treat Latinos. We have a long and shared history together. Granted, your heritage lies in the Caribbean so it might be a bit different. Thing is, the biggest Japanese population outside of Japan is found in Latin America (Brazil, South America) and the first Asian (Japanese) president in the western world was in Latin America (Peru). I wonder if there’s any solidarity there. Nice post.

    • I’m not so sure what Japanese people think of Latinos in general. It might just be similar to the way foreigners are generally treated.

      Living in southern Japan, I personally haven’t had any problems. I even came across a pretty big salsa dancing community here in Fukuoka, and every year, an event called “Isla de Salsa” is held that draws local bands and international performers such as El Gran Combo.

      I’ve read somewhere that there’s a bit of discrimination towards the Brazilian-Japanese population. As you may be aware, due to Japan’s shrinking population, many Brazilian-Japanese were immigrated back into Japan to do dangerous and dirty labor, partially because it was thought that because they had Japanese blood, they would somehow fit into Japanese society better than other foreigners. The Japanese government was appalled when they didn’t magically become perfect Japanese citizens upon setting foot in Japan, and during the global recession a few years back, they were literally given a ticket out the door if they promised not to try to come back…The government later eased back on the “don’t come back” clause, but still…

  2. Han pasado dos años. ¿Qué tal vas con el español? 😉

  3. Haha, I’m hella Hispanic and I can drink tequila like it’s water, but I’ve always felt like I didn’t fit in with my culture as well. It mostly had to do with the emphasis we place on ‘machismo.’ I just always felt an affinity for Japanese culture. It resonates with me for some reason.

    • Yeah same. Living in Japan, you’ll always get the question “Why did you come to Japan” and I always wonder “Should I just say the answer they expect and say ‘anime’ or should I say the real reason which is the inexplicable magnetic pull of Japan that just progressively became stronger throughout my life?

  4. I was wondering if you could tell me if you ever felt like you could blend in in Japan sometimes (like if people weren’t paying attention that well)? I ask as am British raised of American multiracial decent (Chinese & southeast Asian and supposedly way back a bit Japanese in there, Black Caribbean, Bi-tribal Native American, and White – mostly Cajun French and Welsh ), think kind of like a lighter skinned Tiger Woods. All that being said people think I am Latinx pretty often most often Puerto Rican or Mexican. Often guess a lot of other things similar to you which are closer to true for me than you; I personally always though I look pretty first nations though. I’m about 166 cm so I am not even tall, going form what you seen and your experience, do you think I could blend into crowd in Japan at all.

    P.S. Sorry if this question seem odd and you it seem weird that I am asking you, partly it because people made lot of the same guesses about as they do me.
    P.P.S. Fun fact My name is also Rei and am apart the lgBT community myself (^-^)

    • Hello Rei, thanks for your comment.

      While there were a few times where I felt self-conscious about my foreignness, I didn’t find it to be a big stressor in my day to day life in the way that other people make it out to be. Of course, everyone’s experiences are different, and it certainly depends on a lot of different factors, like if you’re living in an urban or rural location, if there are a lot of other foreigners living there or passing through, and so on.

      This is all my own conjecture and others may think differently, but I feel that blending in is less about your appearance and more about your behavior and body language. No matter what, your face will always give you away as foreign. Even Japanese people, especially those from Okinawa or who have indigenous or other mixed heritage can be mistaken as foreigners. That being said, when I first came to Japan, I had my hair long and straight. That, along with my average stature (169cm), and Japanese language ability made a lot of people think I was half-Japanese.

      So the answer to your question is…maybe.

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