The long pauses. The nervous gestures. They're not quite sure what to say, and thus, neither are you. Sometimes when foreigners interact with Japanese people, things can get awkward. Very, very awkward. Good thing there's anime to remind us how awkward!
Japan is around 98.5 percent Japanese. Within that, there are small groups of are minority groups like Korean-Japanese, Chinese-Japanese, and the Ainu indigenous people of Hokkaido, as well as religious minorities, such as practicing Catholics. Then, there is an ever growing number of Japanese of mixed Asian and Western heritage.
But Japan still isn't anywhere near the melting pot or mixed salad of other industrialized countries. Depending on where you live in Japan, you can go long stretches of time without seeing a Westerner. And then, even if you are a Westerner living in Japan, you might be surprised to see another Westerner. To be honest, I live in a somewhat rural place, and when I do see foreigners, sometimes I slow down my car!
More than anything, what can cause the awkwardness, though, is the language barrier. If you speak or understand Japanese, getting around the country and interacting with people isn't usually awkward at all—it can be enlightening, because you can understand the amazing things people are uttering, or even infuriating, because you can grasp the not so amazing things, too! But, you can understand what they're saying, and they can understand what you are saying, and that, hopefully, leads to smooth communication.
It's when there is a language barrier that things can get tricky—and this isn't only a phenomenon. Whenever there is a language barrier, communication can break down (though, there are some individuals—let's call them super communicators—who seem to get on with anyone speaking any language). Since, as mentioned above, Japan is 98.5 percent Japanese, when folks here see a Westerner, they might immediately think that the Westerner does not speak Japanese. Because, well, most don't!
But, there's a caveat: Context. If a foreigner is on a university campus, then the assumption might be that he or she does speak Japanese. Or, if they are in Japanese company or wearing a Japanese corporate pin on their business suit. Or, if they are with their family, and the kids are mixed. Or, they're really old and have lived in Japan so damn long that they have started to look Japanese. For better or worse, these are clues people tend to pick up on before making snap judgments. However, if the Westerner is on a subway or in a bar, those clues become more ambiguous.
The awkwardness often arises due to a fear of the English language. Many Japanese people are not confident in their English speaking and listening, since those are not practiced as much in school. Many people do wish they were better at English for a variety of reasons, whether that be professional (transferring abroad or getting a promotion) or personal (hobbies or travel). So when Japanese people see a foreigner, some might feel like, "Oh crap, now I have to speak English, and I cannot speak English." (Not everyone feels this way, obviously, and some people just prattle away in Japanese, and hope the listener gets it.)
Over the years, anime has shown just how difficult the language barrier can be. In the above gallery, there are clips from several different shows. Most of them are old, and some of them are just downright silly, but many of them underscore the difficulty of using English, whether that's spitting out a slew of English catchphrases that are famous in Japan ("Boys be ambitious!), regurgitating English class lessons ("This is a pen"), or simply freaking out. One of the clips, which is an infamous one from Abenobashi Mahou Shoutengai, started appearing on Japanese blogs this week for some reason, leading people to once again discuss the perception of foreigners in the country. The clip itself is more centered around stereotypes, but it does show the jaw-open reaction of machine gun English, f-bombs, and hot dogs.
English and Japanese are very different. Both are hard languages. If you've mastered either (or both!) as a second tongue, give yourself a pat on the back. With my own kids, I can see how difficult it must be for some Japanese people to pick up the language. My oldest son is nine years old, and his English is getting better, but he still seems somewhat uneasy when he has to use it. I can imagine how much harder it is for kids that don't have a parent who can talk to them in English. Whether it's in anime or real life, I can also imagine their surprise when they see someone speaking it.