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  • Kiana

Although His Face Does Not Say American

The incident at an airport in Japan.

My Filipino American boyfriend and I were standing in line at the ticket counter for a flight to the Philippines.

I was surprised when the staff at the counter asked my boyfriend this: "Were you born in the Philippines and immigrated to the U.S.? Please show your visa indicating your status in Japan and a visa to stay in the Philippines."

He answered right away: "Please look at my passport well. I’m American, so I have an American passport. I'm not Filipino. My residency status in Japan is SOFA status* because I work for the U.S. military in Japan."

When he said so, he handed over his military ID, which isn’t originally required to be presented.

The staff continued: "Right, U.S. military in Japan. But you still have a visa, don't you?"

He explained SOFA status, including that U.S. forces in Japan have a special status under the U.S-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, so they don’t have a visa like civilians.

It’s true that there are no U.S. military bases in the Philippines like Japan, so it’s possible that they don’t know about SOFA status. However, this airline has flights to many Asian countries, such as Korea and Japan, where there are U.S. military bases.

Because a very limited number of Americans have SOFA status, and it isn’t generally known, it couldn’t be helped.

The question from the staff still continued. "I understand your residency status in Japan. What about in the Philippines? Do you have a visa?"

Currently, Americans, including civilians, don’t need visas to travel to the Philippines. It was obvious the staff was asking because he looked Filipino.

He was rendered speechless, so I helped him.

"He’s an American born in the United States. He just has relatives in the Philippines. Americans don’t need visas to travel, and he shouldn’t have one since he’s an American serving in the U.S. military in Japan. His passport should be enough. The flight back to Japan is also purchased."

After I explained, it somehow ended easily.

It happened at an international counter of a non-Japanese airline, so it’s probably not a language issue. Even he, who rarely gets angry, seemed invidious this time. He was asked if he was Filipino or an immigrant from the Philippines, even though he was showing an American passport. He was upset about the staff being intrusive on his identity and not believing that he was an American when he explained so. I don't know what the staff was thinking, but working at the airport, they meet people who are in Japan with various statuses, which may lead them to doubt if some people are illegal residents. But in this case, that didn’t seem to be the problem.

We thought it was a matter of stereotypes.

He looks Filipino and travels to the Philippines. He had a passport from the U.S., which has the world's highest GDP, and was with a Japanese woman. The staff may have wondered, "What's the purpose? Are they lying?" because of a strange possibility. More fundamentally, if I were to take the liberty of digging up hidden possibilities, the staff may have doubted whether he was an American.

His face doesn’t say American. It also doesn’t say Japanese or Filipino.

It doesn't say their nationality on anyone's face.

I’m Japanese, but when I’m with him, people often think of me as a foreigner because I speak English. We interpret the fact that people speak English to us in restaurants as a kind gesture of hospitality. When I am asked "What's your nationality?", I’m a little puzzled because it’s unnecessary to confirm it.

If anything, there are many situations where staff just want to make sure that we understand Japanese when seeing a menu or receiving some service. It’s enough to try speaking in Japanese once and ask what to do and in which language to respond if the person seems not to understand.

There are people all over the world who are fluent in Japanese even if they’re not Japanese nationals, and it’s not written on their faces whether they’re Japanese or not. It’s ok to try once because assumptions may hurt the other party.

Confirming nationalities at airports, financial institutions, government offices, etc. is important because it’s often a legal matter. But what was wrong with the airport staff this time was that they didn't believe his ID and what he said.

The staff member may not have meant to offend, but they should’ve first properly checked the documents he submitted and believed what he said. So that I, a Japanese, didn’t have to follow up.

He’s American, although his face doesn’t say so. People would judge a person's nationality by their appearance when the stereotype they have of them overlaps with the way they look.

Let's look around.

There are many people with different appearances in the world. There are some areas where the appearances of people who live there are similar while in others it’s more diverse.

When I looked around at a big intersection, everyone walking around is wearing different clothes.

It would surely be difficult to find someone who wears the same clothes as you. As much as that, there are all kinds of people in the world.

I think there are stereotypes, of course. Stereotypes created by the media and shaped by history. Stereotypes created based on personal experiences.

As I had never had this experience until I traveled with him, meeting someone or traveling somewhere you’ve never been may expose you to eye-opening experiences and values, both good and bad, that reflect your own stereotypes.

When you expose yourself to new people, places, and things, you can regularly inspect your stereotypes. Let’s expand your world step by step by reviewing respectively.


  • Shoichi Murai, Foreigners residing under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) of Japan-U.S., Continental International Gyoseishoshi Law Office

Written by Kiana

Translated by Kana Miyazawa

Edited by Emiru Okada and Kyoko Itagaki

Graphics by Ren Ono

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