While the average Japanese person on the street may think there are "a lot" of foreigners in Japan, in reality the number of gaijin here is ridiculously low, only representing around 1.6% of the population, compared with 11%, 8.5% and 13% with the U.K., France and the U.S., respectively. This 1.6% number is even lower, though, because 400,000 of the 2 million registered foreigners in Japan are "special permanent residents," which means people born to ethnic Korean and Chinese families who maintain separate citizenship for cultural reasons yet are totally acculturated to Japan's society and language. (Interesting tidbit: Lynn Minmei from Macross fell into this camp, an ethnic Chinese born in Japan.) Because (Western) foreigners are such a rarity in Japan, it's not all uncommon for the occasional Japanese person to find themselves staring at you on the train. They're not intending to be rude, of course -- you're just the only non-Japanese face they've seen in a while and they might be fascinated with you, wonder where you're from, etc. Kids also sometimes stare because, well damn, you're like the only black dude they've ever seen in Portland, Oregon. A DJ and music student from Iceland named Arni Kristjansson has come up with an interesting way to handle this problem with it crops up, with a fake book cover that turns the book you're reading into one entitled, "Why do Japanese stare at Foreigners?"
This lack of foreigners in Japan is actually a big problem, and one that the country should take very seriously. While the subject of immigration can be a touchy one, the basic idea of individuals chasing their dreams by traveling to a new place and putting down cultural roots has many benefits. Immigration is important for business, and companies like J-List couldn't function without the our talented foreign staff to augment our hardworking Japanese employees. Foreigners may be more entrepreneurially minded, too, as evidenced by the fact that 25% of tech start-ups in the U.S. are founded by people born elsewhere -- I can certainly vouch for the fact that giving up your old life to come to a new country makes you more open to taking risks. Japan is trying to entice foreigners to come here, for example through a program that hires nurses from Indonesia to work in Japan. Unfortunately the requirement that they speak and read Japanese perfectly has made it difficult for more than a handful of the women to transfer their credentials over.
Sometimes Japanese stare at foreigners, but here's a way to get them to stop. Or wierd them out even more.