So it's probably not fair to compare Seoul to the Fukuoka suburb I live in, which, although near a city is in a part of Japan rarely reached by foreign tourists, but I couldn't help doing just that when Jonathan and I visited earlier this month. We both felt that our experience in Korea was closer to what we expected visiting a foreign country to be like--there are language difficulties, many things are unfamiliar and challenging--whereas Japan has defied our expectations in often seeming more like an alien planet. Impenetrable etiquette aside, things like this happen to me in Japan: people literally slow down in their cars so they can turn and get a good stare at me while I wait for the bus. A stranger runs up and snaps my photo when I am posing for a friend in front of Kumamoto Castle. On visiting day, parents come into the classroom where I am teaching solely to take my picture, then leave. A group of young men come into the ramen shop where we are eating dinner and spend the entire meal looking at us and making comments to each other; we have no idea what the hostility level there is, because there is never direct confrontation. I think the most draining aspect of being here is not the work, which is almost embarrassingly minimal, but the constant awareness of my sticking out so dramatically and people's behavior confirming that I am not in fact being paranoid--at best everyone notices me and is curious; at worst they are resentful that I am here bumbling around their town speaking English. I suppose it's a worthwhile experience to be a minority somewhere if you haven't been before, but I don't think I particularly needed to be enlightened as to the difficulties of, say, new immigrants to New York--I was aware at least intellectually that it must be very difficult indeed.
Even Tokyo has this aspect; there are organized anti-foreigner groups that demonstrate publicly and even in that huge and diverse (for Japan) city the neighborhoods are still relentlessly Japanese; there is very little familiarity. (If you go, don't expect to find an "East Village of Tokyo" or any such thing.) This may be because Japan generally does not allow foreign franchises (save apparently for McDonald's and Starbucks) and doesn't even allow foreigners to own businesses without a Japanese partner. I don't necessarily blame the country for resisting the forces of globalization and wanting to preserve "authenticity," but it is a bit strange coming from such a major participant in global economic forces, one that so readily incorporates foreign ideas (but then, of course, Japanifies them).
Korea, or at least Seoul, on the other hand, seems really eager to be considered a "modern country," to be welcomed into the global power fold (whatever that is). Maybe that's due in part to the massive American military base there. In any case, it had a savvier, more New York feel to it, with hip college neighborhoods, aggressive street hawkers speaking Korean, English, and Japanese, men who look less likely to blow away in a strong wind, etc. AND great international restaurants. Jonathan and I were super thrilled to find a delicious Greek place in Itaewon, the uber-foreign neighborhood. There is Krispy Kreme and California Pizza Kitchen and Outback Steakhouse. Not that I crave mediocre chain restaurants particularly, and they are outnumbered by Korean barbecue and bibimbap and juk (delicious porridge!) but these things made me feel less conspicuously other. It's not like I'm saying all countries should have these things--I don't feel entitled to be made comfortable anywhere I go in the world by the presence of friendly American franchises--but visiting Seoul did highlight for me how completely bizarre I am often perceived to be in Japan: "Every day in America--BIG STEAK?" "Do you have four seasons in your country?" "Do you argue with your family in English?" (Actual questions from Japanese people.)
Not that your average American high school student knows f*ck-all about Japan, but it occurs to me that the kids' world here is very, very small. The centuries-long tradition of insularity and the obsession with preserving Japanese culture has made it so that for many young people, America is a fantasy land, and anyone who can speak English fluently is an awe-inspiring miracle creature. At least, that's how it is for the kids in the Fukuoka burbs, where every foreigner you see is surely an ALT, imported here to open the world just a little--and then, of course, go back to their own country.