Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

Photographing Tokyo's human side: Isaac Aquino finds an 'interloper' in us all

by Rebecca Saunders

Contributing Writer

Isaac Aquino has just quit his job as a reporter, and he seems quite pleased with himself. The soft-spoken Filipino recently decided to go all in on Tokyo Interlopers, an Instagram account he launched three years ago, by focusing on a business MBA.

Prior to taking the project to Instagram, Aquino would simply snap pictures of his friends on his iPod Touch and post them to Facebook with a few words attached.

“A friend encouraged me, saying it was like ‘Humans of New York,'” the 39-year-old recalls, referring to the popular photo blog that features interviews with people on the streets of New York City. “I was looking at those pictures and I thought, ‘You know, there’s lots of people in Tokyo.’ I thought it would be nice to create something similar.

“My other friends started to push me into taking it more seriously and I want to tell people’s stories.”

 

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So far, Aquino has told 315 of those stories. Speaking to people from different backgrounds and nationalities has also given him an opportunity to learn more about the range of challenges facing non-Japanese who live in Tokyo. By sharing those stories on social media, he hopes a wider audience will be able to get an insight into what it’s like to live in Japan as an outsider. In that sense, Tokyo Interlopers is more than just a neat account, it’s a place to learn about what life is like for a good chunk of the population in one of the world’s largest cities.

“In the beginning the theme was foreigners in Tokyo,” Aquino says. “I’m a foreigner myself, and I’ve had ups and downs, good times and bad times, so I thought I would ask people about their experiences and find out if there is a common thread.”

As to what that thread might be, he seems to still be searching.

Everyone has a story

Aquino’s own story is as interesting as those of his interview subjects. Having grown up in the Philippines, he moved to Tokyo when he was 21 to study, enticed by an interest in “very typical ‘exotic Japan’ stuff” like anime and food. Life in the city was exciting at first; it opened up his world and he spent a lot of time mingling with people of many different nationalities.

Tokyo was also where Aquino began his professional career. After graduating from school and taking on a job at Japanese firm, he found navigating the rigidity of Japanese work culture to be difficult. On top of those common challenges many non-Japanese face in the workplace, he realized his Filipino origins made fitting in extra difficult making for a rather bitter first taste of what life would be like in the professional world.

“It was very tough on me, I made all of these mistakes,” Aquino recalls. “There’s the culture, the language — both written and spoken — and all of these rules you have to navigate. I feel like, because I look a little more Japanese and I’m Asian, there was a higher expectation to perform. I had to act like ‘one of them.'”

Aquino believes his desire to hear out the experiences of other non-Japanese in Tokyo comes from the frustrations he experienced working as a Filipino at a Japanese company.

“Failing was hard and so is being constantly berated for how inferior your culture is,” he says. “At work people would say to me, ‘You’re lucky now you’re becoming more Japanese, you’ve got more characteristics that are advanced.’ It wasn’t easy … so that’s why I quit.”

 

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Hearing such sobering tales of working in a Japanese workplace, it becomes a little clearer why Aquino named his project Tokyo Interlopers. After all, that word implies an intrusion of sorts or that somehow they don’t belong.

“As a Filipino in Japan you’re from a developing country and, I’m not going to lie, sometimes it’s really tough,” he says. “I think it was at a point in my life when I just felt like my foreignness, or my being an outsider, was just stifling and getting in the way of my career advancement and all of that stuff. Some of those frustrations really started to pile up.”

The first time Aquino came across the word “interloper” was in the 2004 book by Ben Mezrich titled “Ugly Americans.” He found he could relate somewhat to the book’s main character at the time, particularly in that he was never accepted in Japanese society no matter how good he was at speaking the language.

“I feel like I’ve always been an interloper, that’s who I am in this society,” he says. “Rather than hide from it and rather than fight it, I embraced it.”

One thing that he shares with the other longtime non-Japanese residents of the city is that he feels a little bit like an interloper when he visits home.

“I feel very much like an outsider in my home country and I don’t feel like I will ever fit in again,” he says. “It’s kind of hard to find my place back home. I did grow up there for most of my childhood, but it’s hard to reconnect sometimes. There’s a reverse culture shock.”

Voices of the people

Having questioned what his place is in Japanese society — or whether he should even have one at all — Tokyo Interlopers has allowed Aquino to hear the stories of others living here, which has at least assured him that he’s not alone.

A quick spin through the different posts will lead you to a single mother who moved from California to Japan at 44; she tells of her experience of feeling alone in the city and moving to the Japanese countryside: “Even though I can’t vote and they can kick me out anytime, I’ve fallen in love with this place,” she says.

Another “Interloper” is a Nigerian with roots in Punjab: “Japanese people seem to have a bad image of us because the touts in Roppongi give us a bad name. So I usually don’t reveal my nationality right away. But I want Japanese people to know that most Nigerians have legitimate businesses here in Japan.”

 

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A Muslim student from Uzbekistan who worked in the kitchen of an restaurant notes: “Like other students from developing countries, I had to get a part-time job to support myself financially.”

“Sometimes it’s very therapeutic and I can see a lot of myself in other people,” Aquino says. “Other times I’m so thankful. I think, ‘I had it bad, but this (person has it) so much worse.’ It feels like I’m the one giving therapy. People bare their souls.”

Moving forward, Aquino hopes he’ll be able to speak to a wider range of people and share even more stories. In the past he had been finding people online and arranging to meet up with them, and sometimes people reach out to him. This year, however, he’d like to go to festivals, approach people on the street and rely on the skills he learned as a reporter more.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, either. Aquino says it can be rather difficult to get people from minority communities to open up about their feelings and opinions.

“I guess they feel like no one wants to listen to them,” he explains, adding that he needs to work hard to establish trust. “People just want to have a voice. Some people want to showcase their achievements and others are kind of hurting and want to find a community.”

The posts on Tokyo Interlopers are sometimes translated into Japanese, but the bulk of them are in English. When asked if he wants to make the Tokyo Interlopers account more accessible to a Japanese-speaking audience, Aquino is hopeful.

“There is definitely an audience for Japanese people who want to hear these stories,” he says. “At first it was just foreigners, but I’ve interviewed half-Japanese and Nikkei (foreign citizens of Japanese descent). My goal is not to stay within the confines of ‘the foreigner’ but actually make it humans of Tokyo.” After all, you don’t have to be foreign to feel different — anyone can be an interloper.

“I’m not trying to start a revolution, I’m encouraging people and giving them hope,” Aquino says. “Getting the chance to be heard can go a long way and I think it’ll create a more lasting change.”

Other Instagram accounts worth checking out

If you’re looking for slices of life from various communities in Japan, check out some of these other Instagram accounts:

@hafu2hafu: Revealing what it is like to live in the world as somebody of half-Japanese heritage, this account profiles people from various backgrounds with that one thing in common. The project, run by Tetsuro Miyazaki who lives in the Netherlands, aims to shed light on what it is to be of mixed heritage. The posts are almost all portraits in black and white, accompanied by questions such as, “What do you think a hāfu looks like?” (using the Japanese term for half-Japanese) and “How can the Japanese system become more inclusive?” The account was recently published as a book titled “Hāfu2Hāfu.”

@millennialsoftokyo: This account showcases the lives of Tokyo’s millennials, both Japanese and non-Japanese. It’s a mosaic of funky shots that are often fashion-focused and as colorful as the characters each one portrays. Some posts come with detailed descriptions from the millennials themselves, including interesting start-up ventures and hot tips for places to hang out, as well as answers to questions like “What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning?” Basically, it’s a peek into the life of what a young generation of Tokyoites are up to and how they’re making the most of their time in the city.

@theblackexjp: Documenting what it’s like to live as a black person in Japan, The Black Experience Japan profiles a variety of characters and situations that include teachers, martial artists and those working in the tech industry among others. The backgrounds of the subjects are also diverse, including Americans, Nigerian-Canadaians and Jamaicans to name a few. Some of the posts link to the account’s ongoing YouTube series — Melanated Files, aka MFiles — which shares more in-depth accounts of the black experience in Japan. Expanding outside this country’s borders, a recent video interviewed a teacher and model living in Seoul. Both the Instagram and YouTube sites are insightful and inspiring, presenting both the good and the bad of living overseas via first-person accounts that most everyone will be able to relate to.

@tokyofashion: Tokyo Fashion is like a delicious slice of excitement for the eyes. The account is a pick ‘n’ mix of streetwear looks, from candy-colored couture to punchy punk and lacy goth get-ups — as well as anything in between. Focused mainly around the streets of Tokyo’s Harajuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku neighborhoods, the photographer behind the account knows how to pick up on trends and discovers interesting characters whose styles are recognizable and stand-out. There’s something for everyone in this counterculture deep-dive into DIY avant-garde, most notably those of us who just love people watching. (Rebecca Saunders)

Check out Tokyo Interlopers on Instagram at www.instagram.com/tokyointerlopers.

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