My mom and I rolled into Shimoda today, at the southern tip of the Izu peninsula. It's pretty nifty- lots of cute shops, a ropeway up to a nearby mountain, and awesome waterfront walks. We didn't reserve a place to stay ahead of time, so we had the station travel agency find us a minshuku, a traditional family-style lodge. He found a nice-looking, reasonable one, but when he called them up to check on space, the conversation went something like this:
"Hi, this is the travel center at the station."
"Yeah, it's two white folks, but the guy speaks pretty good Japanese."
I translated this for my mom, and she burst out laughing (the station agent didn't understand English well enough to get what I said, so he was someone puzzled). I find the Japanese fixation on Japanese vs. non-Japanese funny in and of itself, but he said 白人 (haku-jin), which directly translates to "white people." I wasn't particularly offended, I just found it kind of funny that part of his inquiry included mentioning the color of my skin, and then qualifying it. The following conversation ran through my head:
"Hi, this is the San Diego tourist information center."
"Yeah, they're both kind of brownish…but the guy speaks great English."
Probably wouldn't go over quite so well, methinks. The Japanese have a consciousness of race that's different than Westerners, where skin color defines culture as much or more than language and behavioral cues, and there's no shame in taking notice of it.
(Thanks to A.Havill for correcting my Japanese)