Racism in Japan – Some Other Aspects

* In this article, I define ‘racism’ as discrimination based on race, ethnicity, colour, descent or nationality, following the UN Convention. Read the reference section for details.

* Racism is a complex subject. I’m focusing on some of the aspects people usually don’t talk about online.

Hair colour

In the late 90s, dying hair became very popular in Japan. I was in Japanese junior high school back then and many students wanted to dye their hair. There was one problem: school rules didn’t allow them to. Some of them enjoyed dying their hair during the holidays, but, as soon as a new semester began, they dyed it back to their ‘original’ black. ‘When I am older’, they thought, ‘I will be able to dress how I want.’

A few rebellious kids dyed their hair anyway but it usually didn’t turn out well. Some teachers forcefully dyed students’ hair ‘back’ to black. Some of them got beaten up by older students for ‘not knowing their place’.

Many Japanese schools were so strict about enforcing the rule that they didn’t miss the slightest signs of dying. Those who had naturally brown hair often got into trouble because teachers didn’t think it was natural. My mum once got asked by a teacher because my brother’s hair was just a little bit brown. I couldn’t even tell the difference. In some cases, the school would tell students to dye their hair black.

It wasn’t dying hair that was forbidden. Not having black hair was. This is discrimination.

To this day, there are people harassed by teachers and other students because of their natural hair. Having to sign something like a ‘certification of natural hair colour’ seems to be common practice. And it’s not just hair colour: naturally curly hair can face the same discrimination.

Not all teachers and students are discriminatory. From my experience, most of them are not that unreasonable. But there are often a few who are wrongly passionate about enforcing ‘rules’ and these few people are enough to make your school life less enjoyable to say the least.

People don’t usually consider this racism. After all, it’s just one of many unreasonable and annoying rules Japanese schools have. But, if a teacher can get away with this kind of practice, doesn’t it make some students wrongly think that it’s OK to discriminate against someone for his appearance that he’s not even responsible for?

Apartment issues

If you are western and live in Japan, the most overt racism you will experience is perhaps being blatantly denied the opportunity to rent an apartment on the basis of not being ‘Japanese’. Sure, it’s not always easy to find an apartment when you live in a foreign country. But in Japan they blatantly say ‘These apartments don’t accept foreigners’, even if you have a long-term visa.

It’s not so much that they hate non-Japanese people as business concerns. According to Japan Talk some of the common concerns the landlords have are:

Communication – most landlords aren’t comfortable speaking English.
Ties to Japan – the general fear that you’ll just leave the country without wrapping up your financial obligations.
Fear that you wouldn’t follow Japanese conventions – Japanese people don’t wear shoes in the home and they don’t typically have house parties.

These concerns are understandable. These are private properties and landlords have the right to choose their customers. But what if you speak fluent Japanese, intend to live there for several years, and understand Japanese social conventions? The apartment owners could just talk to you and find out that you would be a good customer. But they wouldn’t.

The apartment example shows several important thinking patterns found, I think, in Japanese people.

Putting all non-Japanese people into the same box – there are all kinds of people in the world but, to those landlords, there are just ‘foreigners’.
Collective punishment mentality – some non-Japanese people don’t make good customers, therefore, all non-Japanese people are rejected.
Lack of cultural awareness– denying service on the basis of nationality is seen as racism in many other countries. However, in a Japanese context, this often isn’t seen as racism. They don’t realise that it’s controversial.

The first pattern about putting everyone in the same box comes from a lack of experience of interacting with people from other countries; it’s rather obvious. But for the last two ones, I find them particularly interesting, so I will talk about them separately.

(Note: If you are thinking of renting an apartment, there are still plenty of options in the major cities. Just tell them you are not Japanese and filter out the ones who are not interested in you. Some of the agents are specialised in international clients. This will save you a lot of time.)

Collective punishment

One of the things I didn’t like about Japanese schools was the practice of collective punishment: when someone in a group breaks a rule, the whole group gets punished. It was so common that I don’t remember specific cases, but it’s easy to find examples online.

Example A: A mother says that in her son’s class, the teacher won’t let the students go home when somebody has forgotten to do the homework. The student who didn’t do the homework has to do it after school in the classroom and until he finishes it, the whole class has to wait there. The mother wonders if there’s any good reason for doing this.

Example B: A fifth grader is in a sporting team and has a teammate who often disrupts the team. When the teammate has a bad attitude, the coach punishes the whole team, making them run, do push-ups etc. But his teammate doesn’t stop his bad behaviour.

Collective punishment is highly unpopular among students and parents. Despite that, it’s quite prevalent in Japanese society. It seems like pro-collective punishment camps always outnumber anti-collective punishment camps.

I suspect this is one of the reasons the landlords think it’s OK to reject all the people in the ‘same’ category for the misbehaviour of some.

(I somehow thought that collective punishment was very Japanese, but I could find several cases in the US. Maybe it’s more common in the west than I thought? Let me know if you know anything about this.)

Cultural awareness

I remember being at a party with international people (not one of those ‘international’ parties where they blatantly charge different prices based on your gender and nationality). I overheard a conversation between a Japanese girl and a black guy. Right after exchanging their names, the Japanese girl asked the black guy, ‘Can you run fast?’ (Her exact wording.)

My initial reaction was, ‘I can’t believe she just said that!’ The party was advertised both in English and Japanese, so you would have expected the people there to be interested in different cultures. Yet, that girl made the rudest racial remark I’d heard in a while. She was completely unaware of the implication of what she’d said.

I know where the remark came from. In Japan, most people don’t have first-hand experience of interacting with black people. Their images of black people are often limited to the athletes they see on TV. That was why she made the association.

As innocent as it sounds, most Japanese people have no experience of dealing with racial issues. I doubt they have ever experienced a situation where they’ve made some racial remark and their friend has said, ‘Dude, that’s racist.’ If you are Asian Japanese and grew up in Japan, the chances are your awareness of racial issues is extremely low.

In the Japanese educational system, very little is taught about racial discrimination. Sure, if you pay attention in classes, you will learn something about ethnic issues in Japan and maybe civil rights movements. But unless you actually live in a diverse place, your knowledge of racial discrimination remains just ‘knowledge’.

Most Japanese people rarely use words like ‘racist’, ‘white’, ‘black’ (apart from when they are watching the Olympics) or ‘Asian’. It’s not because these words don’t exist. It’s because there are not many situations in everyday Japanese life where you need to make racial distinctions.

If you grow up in an English speaking country and the people around you are aware of racial issues, you develop some kind of self-censor system. When you speak, you censor any racist thoughts or expressions. ‘Is it racist if I say…’ you ask before you say something.

I just remembered a scene from Up in the Air (2009) where George Clooney explains, at airport security, that you should always choose the queue with Asian business people because they are efficient travellers and you get through security faster. After hearing what he said, his co-worker says, ‘That’s racist.’

The meaning of the scene is very interesting. The tone is casual and the scene is meant to be funny. A normal person probably won’t say ‘Asians’ if he doesn’t know the co-worker well but George Clooney says it because he is trying to teach her how to travel efficiently. The comment about racism shows how uptight she is.

In order to understand the scene, you need to understand the cultural context. First, you need to know that stereotyping people can be considered racist. Second, most people don’t say things like ‘choose the Asian queue’ in public even if they are thinking it. Japanese people don’t share this context. If it was a Japanese film, this scene wouldn’t work.

The absence of this context is precisely what makes Japanese people say overtly racist things. That’s why they pay little attention to whether they sound racist or not, and why they appear very insensitive in many people’s eyes.

(By the way, I don’t think many Japanese people are as bad as the girl who said ‘Can you run fast?’ She might have lacked some core social skills.)

My opinion on the apartment problem

In case you are wondering, my opinion on the ‘no foreigners’ policy for apartments is this: Firstly, the landlord should stop saying ‘no foreigners’ because many people take it as discrimination even though it’s not the intention. If they only speak Japanese, they can simply say ‘Japanese speakers only.’ If they don’t want short-timers, they can add visa requirements. Secondly, they should interview you individually and see if they are comfortable communicating with you. If they don’t think you will be a good customer, they can always reject you.

Why I don’t use the word gaijin (foreigner)

I don’t use the word gaijin (foreigner). I know a lot of people – including those who are called gaijin – don’t mind using it, but I do.

The first reason is that the usage of the word is heavily biased. In Japanese, gaijin is supposed to be the abbreviated form of gaikokujin, meaning ‘foreigners’. However, when people use the word, they often mean white, western people. It sounds as if white, western people represent the rest of the world and all other people are disregarded.

The bias gets even stronger when the word is gendered. If you say ‘foreign women’ in Japanese, a lot of Japanese people immediately think of blonde white girls. You can do some interesting research using Google image search. Go to https://www.google.co.jp/ and set the language to Japanese. Then type ‘外国人女性’ (foreign women). This is the result . Now, how many blonde white girls are there in the world? I don’t have anything against them but they don’t even remotely represent the world population.

(‘Foreign men’ yields interesting result too. It’s a bit more diverse: less blond, more European, but still pretty white.)

When most Japanese people talk about Chinese people, they simply call them Chinese people. However when they talk about American and Canadian people, they often say gaijin. A lot of American and Canadian people use the word gaijin too. I know this because I often ask for clarification when someone uses the word gaijin because I want them to be more specific.

Words like ‘foreign countries’ and ‘overseas’ have the same biased connotation too. For instance, a lot of Japanese people say ‘I studied overseas’ when they mean that they studied in North America. When they studied in Egypt (or South Africa, Philippines etc.) they are more likely to say ‘I studied in Egypt.’ When Japanese people say something like ‘This kind of practice is not acceptable overseas’, I often ask, ‘Do you mean in the US or Canada?’ I almost always get ‘yes’. (It can be other popular English speaking countries namely Britain, Australia and New Zealand but there are much more people who go to North America.)

I remember seeing an ad for an English course. The ad read, ‘Do you know that foreigners don’t say, “What time is it now?”‘ When I saw this ad, I immediately felt that something was not quite right. It was because in that ad, they assumed ‘foreigners’ are native English speakers (and quite possibly Americans rather than British). The use of the word sounds awfully wrong to me. The majority of ‘foreigners’ in Japan don’t speak English.

The second reason I don’t like the word is that it sounds as if they make too much of a distinction between Japanese and non-Japanese people. The degree of distinction is different from person to person and I might be exaggerating, but I often have the impression that they think of non-Japanese (especially non-Asian) people as a completely different set of people.

The third reason is similar to the first one but when people use the word gaijin, they often completely ignore the differences between hundreds of different nationalities. They might say ‘gaijin are ____’, but it’s far too broad to make any meaningful generalisation.

Also, addressing someone by calling them gaijin is pretty rude. Calling someone something based on their physical traits or nationality is not common practice in Japan or in many countries. (They do it in some Latin American countries.) I don’t think it has suddenly become OK for non-east Asian people.

My thoughts on racism is Japan

Racial discrimination exists in Japan and some of the cases are really disturbing. I particularly find horrible the way some non-Asian Japanese kids are treated, as schools are where the most aggressive form of racism happens in Japan, along with other kinds of bullying and harassment. Sometimes, even teachers practise discrimination and children have nowhere to go.

Other examples of overt discrimination are also disturbing. I know a lot of apartment and bar owners do this to protect their businesses but they should at least be aware that the practice is considered discrimination in many developed countries. They should also stop putting everyone into the same box.

On the other hand, considering the fact that Japan is a country where you can get away with discrimination and 98.5% are considered the same ethnic group, Japanese people are doing rather well. There are a lot of elements in Japanese society that allow you to express racist thoughts freely. In my opinion, it could have been a lot worse.

Before I wrote this article, I was expecting a lot more cases of racial discrimination in Japan. I used Google in both English and Japanese to find examples. After doing hours of research, I learnt that I might have been a bit too harsh towards Japanese people in general on racism.

I work for a Japanese company and I hired a bunch of Americans and New Zealanders for my team. People in my company call them by their names, talk naturally to them in Japanese, and don’t treat them in any weird way. Nobody is amazed at how they can use chopsticks and nobody exclaims how amazing their Japanese is. From time to time, they invite them to go for a drink along with Japanese co-workers.

As I was writing this article, I was paying attention to their conversations hoping to catch an unintentional discriminatory remark or two. However, I didn’t hear any.

(I’m still looking for examples of racial discrimination in Japan. If you have any specific experiences, please share!)

References

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CERD.aspx) – United Nations Human Right
In this article, the definition of ‘racism’ follows this convention according to which:

the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

This is not necessarily the same definition that dictionaries give but I find it closer to what most people mean by racism (racial discrimination). It includes nationality and ethnicity as the elements that can constitute racial discrimination. By this definition, discrimination against Korean people by Japanese people can be called racism even though Korean and Japanese people are all Asian.

Student seeking Kyoto flat told: No foreigners allowed
http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2013/04/23/issues/student-seeking-kyoto-flat-told-no-foreigners-allowed/#.Uuc0o2Smq00
The comment section of this article is very interesting. I could find many examples of racism in Japan. It’s also interesting to read many different opinions.

Why It’s Difficult to Get an Apartment in Japan
http://www.japan-talk.com/jt/new/why-its-difficult-to-get-an-apartment-in-Japan
If you are looking for an apartment in Japan, the real challenge can be having a decent job and finding a guarantor. If you don’t have a stable job, it can be hard to find an apartment whether you are Japanese or not.

連帯責任で居残り
http://okwave.jp/qa/q4544118.html
連帯責任をとらされる息子(スポ少)
http://komachi.yomiuri.co.jp/t/2013/0712/604955.htm?g=05
Examples of collective punishment can be found on these pages.

外国人という理由での入居拒否は法律違反ですか?
http://okwave.jp/qa/q2689381.html
Some people discuss whether it’s illegal for apartment owners to reject you because you are not Japanese.

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25 thoughts on “Racism in Japan – Some Other Aspects

  1. Chris

    Great article! You're right to really explore the subtle nature of this discrimination or racism. Another example which struck me as a gay person and frequent traveler: in all countries you're welcome with open arms into the local gay community – except Japan. In Nicho the vast majority of the 100s of bars openly have a sign on the door saying "no gaijin" or once you enter they make you understand very quickly that you're not welcome. As a white skin person you really only have the choice between less than half a dozen bars left. Not a big deal but it is definitely another example where Japan is more racist than any other country I experienced (maybe with the exception of Korea which is similar but may just reinforce the point as its society has adopted so many things from Japan.)

    Reply
    1. yuta Post author

      Hi Chris, thanks for sharing your experience. Your stories are very interesting. From your impression, what is the percentage of 'Japanese-only' bars in Nicho-me? Another guy just commented and said similar stuff. I have a feeling that there's something about the Japanese gay scene. I don't know your background, but, do you think Japanese gay people are more open to Asian guys compared to non-Asian guys?

      * I've been doing some research on Nicho-me and it appears that they are many bars that don't accept 'first-timers'; you can't get in if you don't have any reference. Do you think that some of the bars you couldn't get in were these bars?

      Reply
  2. OrangeXenon54

    I like this article, but am wondering, author-san, what your ethnic background is, just for reference?

    I'm a white American in my mid-20's working for an eikaiwa and have experienced a lot of the typical things:
    1.) People are amazed that I can use chopsticks. I've actively started asking these Japanese people if they can use forks now. They usually get confused and wonder why I'm asking them that.
    2.) People frequently comment on my size (I'm 6'3") and say that Japanese people are much smaller despite the fact that I've seen many Japanese people who are larger than me.
    3.) Japanese people have not sat next to me on a crowded train or bus despite there being an open spot.
    4.) I've been routinely asked if I like Japanese girls (more on that in a sec.

    I've also experienced some more blatant forms of racism. I was walking down the street in my neighborhood and a middle-aged man who seemed slightly drunk stopped in his tracks when we crossing and said 「ああ!宇宙人だ!」("Ah! A space alien!"). Two days ago, I was taking out three bags of trash for my school. I waited for the elevator, but when it came to my floor, it was already full of 30-something ladies who seemed to work in the building. They all gasped when the door opened since I was standing in front of it (in a suit and tie, I might add). As the door was closing, they giggled and said 「びっくりした!外人だった」 ("I was surprised! It was a foreigner!"). I shouted at them while the door was closing that I could understand Japanese, I was so angry.

    I am also gay, and I know the same feeling that the commenter Chris has. In Nichome, I am constantly reminded that I'm not welcome. There's a gay bar where a some of the teachers at the school I work at go to for parties because they have cheap drinks and a nice atmosphere. But when the other Japanese patrons come, they quickly separate themselves from any of the "foreigners" and refuse to talk to us if we try and engage them in friendly bar chatter. I also see the phrase "Japanese only" on a LARGE percentage of gay online dating profiles here in Tokyo. It's really really really frustrating.

    Reply
    1. yuta Post author

      Thanks for sharing your experience. You just pointed out some of the things I was wondering about.

      1.) People are amazed that I can use chopsticks.

      How do you meet these people? Do you already know them? What percentage of Japanese people make the chopstick remark? Do they have experience of interacting with non-Asian people? When you get to know them, do they still say the same thing?

      2.) People frequently comment on my size (I'm 6'3")

      The average height of 20 something guys in Japan is around 5'7", and 98% of the guys are equal or less than 6'3". I'd say you are legitimately very tall.

      3.) Japanese people have not sat next to me on a crowded train or bus despite there being an open spot.

      From your impression, what percentage of people does this? Since many people talk about this I've been trying to spot this behaviour but so far, I have no success (I take the train every day in Tokyo). I'm Japanese but people actually do this once in a while although I hardly notice it.

      4.) I've been routinely asked if I like Japanese girls

      I know it can be quite annoying when people ask this out of context.

      5) I also see the phrase "Japanese only" on a LARGE percentage of gay online dating profiles

      Have you ever asked them why? I'm quite curious about this. I kind of think what they really mean is 'Asian only' but I'm not sure.
      6) As the door was closing, they giggled and said 「びっくりした!外人だった」

      Do you live in Tokyo? If you do, which part?

      My theory is that the less they interact with non-Asian people, the more they make those remarks. Do you think this is the case?

      * As I said, I'm (Asian) Japanese.

      Reply
      1. OrangeXenon54

        In response to your questions:

        1.) I get this in social situations, usually at parties I'm invited to. The people who say it I've just met for the first time. But since it happens a lot at parties at the 英会話 I teach at, these people talk to/see a non-Asian person every time they come into a school. Every single party that I've been invited to in Japan where I didn't know the majority of the people there, My chopstick remarks have been commented on.

        2.) I guess I'll give you that, but it's still uncomfortable and awkward. And it's the way that they imply that NO Japanese person is or ever will be as tall as me that makes it "othering".

        3.) When someone doesn't sit next to me on the train even though it's the only open spot on the train is about 5-10% of the time. And maybe once every three months, I'll have someone get up after I sat down next to them and move to another part of the train. But any time there are multiple spots open, about 50% of the time, people will take another spot before they sit next to me.

        4.) It really is especially because I get this question most often when I'm teaching my students (who are adults).

        5.) There are profiles that say "Asian only" but then there are ones that say "Japanese only". And there are also ones that say "Japanese only" and talk about how dirty and disgusting Koreans and Chinese are. Either way, it's not acceptable to completely disregard an entire group of people. There's no reasoning behind it, at least in their profiles (although some say because they can only speak Japanese. I can speak Japanese too!) and because I'm NOT Japanese, they won't talk to me even if I did ask them why they had that in their profile. You'll get the same attitude going to a gay club or a gay bathhouse.

        I do live in Tokyo in the 三鷹/吉祥寺 area and I work mainly on the Chuo Line but also work in 聖蹟桜ヶ丘 and 恵比寿, so quite a variety of areas.

        Reply
        1. yuta Post author

          Thanks again for your stories. About the chopsticks remark and the question regarding Japanese girls, well, people are often quite predictable. I think you won't mind if it's just a first couple of persons but when 1000 people ask the same question, you'll get sick. I had similar experiences in France. Otherwise, I wonder if Japanese gay guys are less open than straight guys.

          Reply
          1. ikanimo

            I would like to feedback that it may be true that gay local men in Japan might be less open than their straight counterparts. Many of the gay bars specify a body type as a criteria for entry. And some of them do specify if foreigners are welcome.

            Nevertheless, I feel this is a problem rather specific to Tokyo. I have never felt unwelcomed when visiting gay bars in Osaka, Nagoya etc.

    2. Olga

      Wow… I go through pretty much everything you mentioned, but that thing with the bar and people changing the attitude is really messed up… :(. I'm really sorry for the dating situation with you, too. Ironically enough, if you were a tall girl, plenty Japanese men would love to go out and brag about having had a date with a "gaijin-model" after (trophy mentality?), and if you were straight, I think the same would work for Japanese girls.
      I'm a big gal muhself (not so much in a tall cool way as in a heavier way); while most adult friends of mine do not mention that, when I was moving into my new apartment, my landlord (an elderly lady with hearing aid) told me several times "oh, I thought moving for a girl would be harsh, but you are 'well built', so that must not be a problem" while patting me on my beefy shoulder. Why she would think it's a good thing to say to a girl is beyond me. And it's not like you can punch an elderly lady half your size….

      Reply
  3. Olivia

    When I taught in Kyoto, I was often introduced to the students as "the gaijin sensei". Used to drive me batty. But being a white American, at least it was mostly positive stereotyping.

    The one time I had a very negative experience was when I was pregnant and on a train in Tokyo. I took a seat in the priority area as I was feeling quite unwell. An old man across the aisle from me starts ranting loudly and in English about how horrible foreigners were always taking the priority seats. I told him politely that I was pregnant and needed the seat. He said that I didn't look pregnant and continued loudly until I finally moved. I'd never encountered such blatant racism and sexism before in Japan. But I think it was a good learning experience for me. I was so upset for days afterward, it gave me a taste of what many people in America go through on a regular basis.

    Reply
  4. Olga

    THANK YOU! I can rely to every word of the "Why I don't use the word "gaijin"" part. Well, I do use the word (just gave up), but the same things drive me nuts, mostly because I am a former college-level Japanese teacher from Ukraine with both Russian and Korean roots (i.e., neither blond nor English-native). I used to reply with "your fork skills must be pretty impressive too!" at chopsticks remarks… ahhh, good times. They do not see the irony.

    Reply
  5. Stacey

    Thank you for writing this blog entry. It's kind of rare to find people who will discuss "racism" in a calm, non-accusative manner. I really appreciate it!

    I hope other people can be calm when discussing these topics.

    Sometimes people just say "These people are racist!" and then do not actually discuss anything, and do not listen to the other side. Labeling people as "racist" sometimes shuts down discussion, and the social situation does not improve.

    In the example of the Japanese woman asking the black-looking man "Do you run fast?", I think the best response would be him asking "Why do you ask that?"… and then he could mention "Oh, well actually not all black people are fast. Some fast athletes happen to be fast, but that's just because of training and not their skin-color." Unfortunately, I think many people just act polite and say "No, I don't run fast" and change the subject…. then go online and complain about it later.

    I see similar situations in the United States, too. I hope people will remain calm and talk about things instead of just politely ignoring (or getting angry at) people they think are "racist".

    Reply
    1. yuta Post author

      Thanks for your comment. Yeah, I think calmly explaining that stereotypes are not always true is a good response. If the other person was a English speaker, I'd probably joke about it though.

      Reply
  6. Daniel

    Hey thanks for the good read.

    My partner and I just got back from an apartment hunting trip to Tokyo, and we had an overall bad experience. I am Australian, my partner is Chinese, and we are both fluent and literate in Japanese, and soon to be graduates of a well known Japanese university (grad school).

    The first part was discovering that many if not the majority of landlords in our area did not want to rent apartments to foreigners. The real estate agent basically couldn't show us what properties were available, only what what properties were available even if you were foreign. Time and again he would make a call to a landlord while we were sitting right there, ask if it was OK even if my partner was Chinese (he decided not to mention me at all, as I won't be staying all year round), only to be rejected. It didn't matter that she was a woman, a good Japanese speaker, kind etc. in his words, she was Chinese and that was enough to rule her out. Thankfully though we did eventually find a good place with an understanding landlord.

    Secondly, the next day we decided to check out a bit of Tokyo, and while on the metro my partner was aggressively elbowed by BOTH of the Japanese people next to her, while I was obliviously looking at my phone (it helps me deal with the stress of being confined with so many people I find). First she was elbowed hard by the old man next to her, so she tried to scootch a little to the other side, only to be elbowed by the woman in her thirties on the other side. She was not cramming herself into a space too small, but easily had a few centermeters of room, so in both cases it seemed to be a clear case of harrassment of a person guilty of being foreign, or (because she is Asian) guilty by association/for speaking English when she got on the train. It took several hours for her to feel better after that incident, and combined with the apartment problem has left her feeling very apprehensive about starting her new life in Tokyo.

    Finally, we found walking around Shibuya that my partner would constantly be getting dirty looks, particularly from women, as though she was some kind of harlot for being with a white guy. We were basically made to feel very unwelcome and dirty, which hasn't really happened to us in Kansai, although I have of course had my own problems during work commutes and such at times.

    What is bugging me at the moment is how dismissive some other <i>foreigners</i> can be of these kinds of discussions.

    Reply
  7. Ken Seeroi

    Nice article. I agree with so much of what you've wrote, but I'd challenge you to re-think the statement that "98.5% are considered the same ethnic group." That's a common wisdom that I believe is false.

    Working in the schools here, I've taught well over 20,000 Japanese students, and in a typical class of 30, there are always at least one or two children who are identifiably "different." Some are white, some black, and some brown, but they certainly don't look traditionally "Japanese."

    Even within the remaining students, there is a *lot* of facial variation, significant differences in noses, eyes, and skin colors. It seems clear that there is some mixed Asian blood, though nobody wants to admit it. Students sometimes confess to me that they have a parent or grandparent who came from another country.

    This idea what constitutes "Japanese" is largely a fabrication, the same way that one could say that all white Americans are "the same," despite having roots from Italy, Ireland, Sweden, etc.

    Japanese people invest a lot of energy into dividing the nation into two kinds of people "Japanese" and "foreigners," based upon appearance. Or if they must, they'll label someone as a "half." But the truth is a lot messier.

    Reply
  8. LSP3000

    I was a nanny for a Korean family for two years, and have been acquainted with many Korean and Japanese people over the years as I studied Japanese and Korean through high school and college. I have found that Korean people especially, and often Japanese people aren't very shy with their opinions and it could be very easy to be offended by some of the things they have said. Everyone always complements me on my chopstick skills, are shocked that I can cook Korean food, or pronounce Korean words, etc. etc. I heard one black man living in Japan say that every time he spoke good Japanese, he felt like the natives were thinking, "the dog can speak!" That can be what it feels like sometimes, but he was good natured about it. I often receive a lot of complements on my Japanese (until I mix up ageru and kureru again, then I am told I should study 😛 )
    Sometimes I was offended or amused by their comments, race specific or not, but over time I've come to realize that Korea and Japan, probably Korea especially, has a very homogeneous population and has not had to have developed racially sensitive rhetoric like a country like the US has. And Koreans in general, and Japanese too sometimes, are more blunt with their opinions, despite the stereotype that Americans are more rude, we just have different areas where we expect politeness. My Japanese teacher tells us American students we are weird, lazy, or too honest on a regular basis, and when American teachers said things like that to me it stands out as very hurtful, but I have come to expect more honesty about certain things from my Japanese teacher. And Korean culture seems to be more comfortable with observational statements, like, "you look sick! You're pretty fat! Your eyes are big and blue!" so remembering that they say those things to each other, too, about things besides race, makes it a lot more understandable. I also don't know if their comments are meant to have such a strong positive or negative connotation, "you look sick," or "you look fat," I think can be seen as concern for your health, and hope that you will take care of yourself. And being foreign you have the additional features stemming from a novel race that a fellow person from their own country couldn't receive a comment on.
    I just try to remember that this person invited me over for a home cooked meal, or took me out to a restaurant, or is helping me with my studies, and often offer this goodwill freely, maybe even more freely than other Americans, so I don't find the things they say offensive on the whole. Even if I'm mildly annoyed for a minute.
    That being said, outright discrimination does exist and is both damaging and hurtful. I haven't been to Asia although I am going soon, but in the US, I often feel very unwelcome at Asian businesses (but some are extra-friendly and eager to share their culture, so it depends). And as someone who may live in Asia in the future, it seems troubling that it may be so hard to find a place to live.

    Reply
  9. Mr_Alex

    A opinion from a Hong Konger who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade, I have decided to move back to Asia but Hong Kong is out of the question due to lack of freedom and Beijing enforcing in its iron hand on Hong Kong, I am a pro British Hong Kong supporter and I will say Japan would be a better option

    Reply
  10. blogster

    Just found your blog and you have some interesting posts. This particularly one is interesting for me from a personal experience perspective. My background: my family was a homestay family for Japanese students visiting Australia through short term university programs for about 10-12 years. I studied Japanese at high school (forgetting most of it), our school had a ‘brother school’ in Gifu with whom we did exchange programs. I have dated Japanese girls, had Japanese friends. I have visited Japan maybe a dozen times, including a 3 month and 6 month period travelling. I’ve read a lot about Japanese history. So I’ve had a reasonable Japanese experience.

    What is apparent is that when it comes to the issue of other cultures, particular those existing in Japan, the Japanese mindset is quite unique in comparison to other economically advanced countries. It is overall characterised by a resounding lack of experience interacting with foreign people, even in Tokyo. It is strongly influenced by history where over hundreds over years, countries (including Korea) attempted to invade but unsuccessfully, followed later by the quarantined allowance of Dutch traders and then finally the arrival of Commodore Perry in the 19th century and all that followed and then the WW2 bombings, occupation, Okinawa etc. All of these (and other) factors have contributed to what we see today.
    Most recently, I was there for a short 3 week break earlier in the year. What I really noticed, putting together all my experiences past and present was:

    • Japanese are by and large very childlike in their interaction with foreign people, particularly when on their home turf. Even grown adults. Imagine a high school kid asking the same inane questions, with the same still-developing perceptions of the big, wide world and you get the idea. At the local bar I frequented (where people had a reasonable grasp of English) it was astounding the lack of awareness/understanding of the outside world. Also, they often had no idea how to have a general conversation, as if the foreign-ness made this extraordinarily difficult. Put simply, they had no base knowledge or experience to draw from.

    • You’re often treated as an exotic curiosity, particularly if you have characteristics polar opposite to most Japanese (tall, muscular, blonde etc.). The number of Japanese who tried to touch me because of this was extremely annoying. The regard for personal space in Tokyo that miraculously prevents people from bumping into each other doesn’t exist when you are a foreigner. I had 7-11 clerks, salary men, random girls at bars etc. all putting their hand out to touch me as if I was some panda at a zoo. Many times I would try to move the conversation on to more mature territory, but it would keep getting pulled back to inanity as they would behave like overexcited school children. Again complete lack of maturity and regard, but also due to you being perceived as an ‘other’ and therefore normal rules don’t apply. Of course, this sort of treatment simply wouldn’t fly in Australia. After being repeatedly touched at a local bar I was frequenting, I asked the bar tender to tell some of them to settle down. He didn’t do anything until I threatened to take me and my five buddies drinking expenses for the remainder of the trip elsewhere.

    • The concepts of inside and outside the group, ‘otherness’, becomes more apparent the more you attempt to integrate into everyday life. When travelling around Japan as a tourist, there is a feeling of wonder at the politeness and friendliness which makes you assume that true bliss awaits you if you just integrate a bit more. Not so fast. I noticed an incredible awkwardness and difficulty in a large number of cases in trying to take the next step that is peculiarly Japanese. It’s great when you are a short lived novelty, not always the case long term. There were several social instances where I was just left hanging in the wind because no-one knew how to deal with the foreigner. The city I live in in Australia, there are about 190 different nationalities. We are used to having to adapt and are naturally more comfortable.

    • There is a high degree of nationalism, which can often be mistaken as racism. Combine that with the collective mindset and you get the idea of why you can feel isolated. Often, they literally cannot see past Japan, Japanese perspective, Japanese interests. Due to the history, there is also a reluctance to adopt external ideas or mindsets.

    Having considered moving there for work, I admit I am now weighing it up carefully. What would the long-term outlook be for a foreigner in Japan? As you get older, you naturally feel more stable, want stability and want to settle down. However, this requires integration, and it appears it would be difficult to do so in Japan.

    Reply
  11. blogster

    Just found your blog and you have some interesting posts. This particularly one is interesting for me from a personal experience perspective. My background: my family was a homestay family for Japanese students visiting Australia through short term university programs for about 10-12 years. I studied Japanese at high school (forgetting most of it), our school had a ‘brother school’ in Gifu with whom we did exchange programs. I have dated Japanese girls, had Japanese friends. I have visited Japan maybe a dozen times, including a 3 month and 6 month period travelling. I’ve read a lot about Japanese history. So I’ve had a reasonable Japanese experience.

    What is apparent is that when it comes to the issue of other cultures, particular those existing in Japan, the Japanese mindset is quite unique in comparison to other economically advanced countries. It is overall characterised by a resounding lack of experience interacting with foreign people, even in Tokyo. It is strongly influenced by history where over hundreds over years, countries (including Korea) attempted to invade but unsuccessfully, followed later by the quarantined allowance of Dutch traders and then finally the arrival of Commodore Perry in the 19th century and all that followed and then the WW2 bombings, occupation, Okinawa etc. All of these (and other) factors have contributed to what we see today.
    Most recently, I was there for a short 3 week break earlier in the year. What I really noticed, putting together all my experiences past and present was:

    • Japanese are by and large very childlike in their interaction with foreign people, particularly when on their home turf. Even grown adults. Imagine a high school kid asking the same inane questions, with the same still-developing perceptions of the big, wide world and you get the idea. At the local bar I frequented (where people had a reasonable grasp of English) it was astounding the lack of awareness/understanding of the outside world. Also, they often had no idea how to have a general conversation, as if the foreign-ness made this extraordinarily difficult. Put simply, they had no base knowledge or experience to draw from.

    • You’re often treated as an exotic curiosity, particularly if you have characteristics polar opposite to most Japanese (tall, muscular, blonde etc.). The number of Japanese who tried to touch me because of this was extremely annoying. The regard for personal space in Tokyo that miraculously prevents people from bumping into each other doesn’t exist when you are a foreigner. I had 7-11 clerks, salary men, random girls at bars etc. all putting their hand out to touch me as if I was some panda at a zoo. Many times I would try to move the conversation on to more mature territory, but it would keep getting pulled back to inanity as they would behave like overexcited school children. Again complete lack of maturity and regard, but also due to you being perceived as an ‘other’ and therefore normal rules don’t apply. Of course, this sort of treatment simply wouldn’t fly in Australia. After being repeatedly touched at a local bar I was frequenting, I asked the bar tender to tell some of them to settle down. He didn’t do anything until I threatened to take me and my five buddies drinking expenses for the remainder of the trip elsewhere.

    • The concepts of inside and outside the group, ‘otherness’, becomes more apparent the more you attempt to integrate into everyday life. When travelling around Japan as a tourist, there is a feeling of wonder at the politeness and friendliness which makes you assume that true bliss awaits you if you just integrate a bit more. Not so fast. I noticed an incredible awkwardness and difficulty in a large number of cases in trying to take the next step that is peculiarly Japanese. It’s great when you are a short lived novelty, not always the case long term. There were several social instances where I was just left hanging in the wind because no-one knew how to deal with the foreigner. The city I live in in Australia, there are about 190 different nationalities. We are used to having to adapt and are naturally more comfortable.

    • There is a high degree of nationalism, which can often be mistaken as racism. Combine that with the collective mindset and you get the idea of why you can feel isolated. Often, they literally cannot see past Japan, Japanese perspective, Japanese interests. Due to the history, there is also a reluctance to adopt external ideas or mindsets.

    Having considered moving there for work, I admit I am now weighing it up carefully. What would the long-term outlook be for a foreigner in Japan? As you get older, you naturally feel more stable, want stability and want to settle down. However, this requires integration, and it appears it would be difficult to do so in Japan.

    Reply
  12. dearelaine,

    I'm so fascinated by your outlook on Japanese culture and society as a whole, as well as your innate interest in travel and in various cultures. Recently, I've been reading articles on the way Japanese students respond to conformity set out by Japan's educational systems. As someone aspiring to teach English in Japan to high school students in the near future as a teaching assistant, this is something I want to wrap my head around because in North America most students are taught to implement a more open minded thinking and approach in their personal studies.

    What was high school like for you? You mentioned being the odd one from class because you liked different things than the average Japanese youth. SO, when it came to speaking up in class, were you always nervous that you had a different opinion than others?

    This was a wonderful article and your English and grammar is amazing. Can't wait to read more of what you have to say about the different aspects of Japan. (:

    Reply
  13. Nathan

    I've lived here now for 4 years and have been both impressed (when a salesperson shows up at my door and, other than an initially surprised face, proceeds to speak to me as if I was just another person), and dismayed by the treatment of foreigners in Japan.

    It's fair to say that modern Japan hasn't been tested.

    – I've been asked many times why it is that foreigners stink.
    – I've been blocked from going into certain shops.
    My wife has been called a slut for marrying a foreigner.
    – I am asked almost 100% of the time what I think about Japanese girls, as if that's all that matters to a foreigner.
    – 100% of the time, I am asked where I am from, how long I've been here, and why my Japanese is so good.
    – I'm almost always told about how safe Japan is especially compared to foreign countries.
    – I've been warned to keep my windows locked because there are Chinese about that will sneak in and lop off my head (when I lived in Edogawa-Ku).
    – I've seen time and time again Japanese touch the hair of foreigners of any stripe without asking permission. Ditto arms and legs.
    – When I worked in sales, I was told point-blank and prior to business deals that 'We Japanese do things different from you. We are organised, on time, and attentive to problems."
    – My wife's friends (whose fathers and mothers were of different races, generally Japanese and European) were told by many teachers to not even try at school as they were handicapped by their mixed blood. Eventually, many of those students had move to international schools and their parents had to pay money to go to school in order to skip out on the racism from their teachers and others in charge.
    – The chopsticks, the 'shoes off before coming in', the 'we are clean, we take baths every day', the 'our products are superior because we are Japanese and we are more able', the 'you know that our customers are far more detail-oriented than yours are, so you can't sell that here', is almost a daily problem.

    I've never heard of anyone I know getting beat up or anything, for being foreign, but almost daily when I'm out in Tokyo doing business, or even in a pub chatting to local pub-goers, I am ground up against what is either ignorance on steroids, or a truly under-the-surface roiling bitter racism.

    For those reasons and for environmental concerns, my wife and I are thinking of returning.

    Reply
    1. Andra

      Thank you Nathan for taking the time and sharing your story! Your post is very helpful to understand better the possible downside of living in Japan as a foreigner. It is nice to read a honest and mature post about this issue. Again, many thanks!

      Reply
  14. Dev Chand

    You've talked about how the Japanese perceive Americans and British, but what about other nationalities? How do they treat Indians or Arabians for instance? From the comments on your video, I understand that people from different countries stay in different "mini cities" or prefectures of Tokyo, so it would be interesting to learn about how they're treated there.

    Reply
  15. Rose

    OMG I was planning to study in japan but now I am so frightened! why!? I thought they would be friendly whit foreigners since I live in a middle eastern country I think I would not have any chance there right?!

    Reply
  16. Alex

    I think the comcerns about racism im Japan are a bit overrated. Not because I don't think it is a big problem, but because the Japanese will have to get used to having "foreigners" in their country.
    Let's face it: the Japanese are not going to save their country on their own. They will have to attract well-educated people from other countries in order to fix their economy, so they can't decide how these "foreigners" are supposed to behave as long as no laws are broken. Great Britain is in a very similar situation right now: the Brexiteers are blaming "immigrants" for all of Britain's problems even though a lot of deserted British villages are only kept alive thanks to low-paid workers from Romania who do all the jobs the British are too sophisticated for. Here in Germany, the Turkish immigrants and their descendants are even more likely to become entrepreneurs and start businesses than the "native" population. Of course, our problems with racism are still very big, but there's at least an awareness for it.
    So how can anyone dictate "foreign" behaviour as long as the "foreigners" are contributing to the GBP? Whoever pays for the music gets to pick the songs, as we say here. The sooner the Japanese realise this is not the shogunate anymore, the less painful the shock will be when they wake up one morning and notice their country is being run by Indians, Indonesians and Ghanaians (yes, exactly).

    Reply

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