* 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.
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?
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.)
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.)
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!)
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
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
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.
Examples of collective punishment can be found on these pages.
Some people discuss whether it’s illegal for apartment owners to reject you because you are not Japanese.