On the Debate of Discrimination / Racism in Japan

Let me first get out of the way that I’m a Caucasian woman.  I don’t pretend to understand all of the complexities of race, racial identity,  discrimination, prejudice, or racism.  I also don’t overlook the fact that despite being female, I still have vast amount of privilege that a large number of people don’t and may not ever have.

That being said, no matter what race, ethnicity, or nationality you are this is an issue you might find yourself butting heads against in good ol’ Nippon, most recently in the form of the new ANA airline commercial that got taken off the air due to bad press.  The story itself has already been beaten to death (read here if interested), but I think the outrage and misunderstanding on Japan’s part touches on issues that any foreigner here might eventually find themselves faced with at some point.

Like I’ve mentioned before, I’m from the U.S.  Although sometimes misguided, I feel like in American media there is some degree of political correctness that dictates some things that can be shown in the media and what can’t.  I’m not saying the U.S. gets it right every time or filters anything that could possibly be offensive to minorities, but when something falls through the cracks, the forum to speak openly on the topic and educate people is there.

In Japan, not so much.  It’s not uncommon to see Japanese people performing in blackface or dressing up in whatever stereotype they have of a certain nationality, which might include stick on facial appendages, ridiculous wigs, and/or inaccurate costumes or speech patterns to go along with it along with a whole slew of questionable behaviors that might not fly in other more internationally-minded countries.  Unfortunately Japan rarely offers a platform or encouragement for discussion on the topic.  Japanese people either can’t comprehend what could possibly be construed as offensive, xenophobic, or racist by foreigners, or will give you the light hearted excuse that Japan is an island country so shōganai, it can’t be helped with the overwhelming attitude summarized as ignore it or go home.

As a white person I hold a certain amount of privilege that blinds me, and will probably always blind me no matter how hard I try to understand racism and racial issues, just because I’ve never internally experienced them.  I can recognize this privilege in the way I know men will never understand all the complex issues and struggles women face even if they educate themselves and are open to the struggle for gender equality.  Although the move to Japan has help me shed light on some of it, I’m don’t deny being in the dark on others.

So am I qualified to say whether or not Japan is racist?  The answer is no.  There’s an argument for reverse racism, but I feel like it’s pretty much an impossible to make, as with my privilege I could always move to pretty much any other country and my status would change to, for the most part, being back on top again.  Furthermore, I feel like while Japan may discriminate against other ethnicities/nationalities and some of it seems institutionalized, I have no actual means for comparing it to racism in my own country because I’ve never been a victim of it.  To get a real answer on whether or not Japan is racist, you would have to ask a person who has actually experienced racism.

What I can tell you is that discrimination exists in Japan.  Some of it I’ve experienced and some of it I’ve witnessed happen to other foreigners.  I’ve also come across many uncomfortable issues that may arise the longer you spend in the country like:

  • Micro aggressions
    These are definited as, “Racial microaggressions are the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.” (Source: Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life)  In Japan, white people aren’t really on top or the majority of anything, so we’ll replace them with Japanese people for the purpose of this post.  Some of the most common micro aggressions foreigners experience include being asked where you’re from, whether you like Japanese food, if you speak any Japanese or if you find it especially difficult to learn compared to other languages, when you started living here and when you plan on leaving, overexcitement or emphasis at the fact you can use chopsticks, eat or like Japanese food, can speak even the smallest bit of Japanese, etc. every single time you meet a new Japanese person.  It’s awkward at first, and something that gets old fast once you realize it’s a never ending routine.
    Micro aggressions can also be nonverbal slights such as being blatantly stared it by Japanese wherever you go, Japanese moving away from you as you approach, Japanese purposely leaving empty spaces next to you on public transportation, or being carded by police while walking down the street because you just seem “suspicious” by looking foreign.
    When it becomes an issue:  Besides wearing you down day after day, these micro aggressions often prevent non-natives from assimilating in the workplace, neighborhood, or society.  They also act as a way for Japanese to hold onto their stereotypes of foreigners and retain the status of “host”, while foreigners are delegated to the role of “guest”.  You’re often treated as a temporary visitor no matter how long you’ve lived here or plan on continuing to live here.
  • The constant need Japanese people have to “educate you” on the Japanese way of life
    Some of this ties in with micro aggressions, but on a wider scale it’s a way of Japanese generally trying to feel more secure about themselves or Japan being a homogenous country, or possibly the need for international validation.
    When it becomes an issue:  If you do anything that might be perceived as “breaking the harmony” you might be surprised by a Japanese person swooping in and telling you how to behave more Japanese or why they think you must stop whatever you’re doing because “this is Japan”.  It becomes problematic when the behavior you’re engaging in might be something the person accusing you is guilty of themselves, or other Japanese around you are also guilty of but the accuser only singles you out for.  Additionally this takes on the form of a Japanese person presenting a topic in which they think Japan is special or excels in, which you are expected to agree with, validate, or show awe over.  Some popular ones include Japan having four “unique” seasons, the healthiness of Japanese food, how safe Japan is, how good Japanese service is, how hardworking/studious Japanese people are, and how polite Japanese people are compared to people in other countries.  The implied meaning is often that you should recognize these great things about Japan and aspire to follow them yourself, as if you may already not, nor any room for debate on how true the actual matter is.
  • Stereotyping
    It’s pretty much par for the course.  I can’t think of any point, at any given time of living here, where I haven’t seen at least one movie, TV show, and/or commercial that portray Japanese people pretending to be foreigners or talking about what foreigners think or behave like on a daily basis.  The recent ANA blunder falls into this category.
    When it becomes an issue:   When Japanese judge your work ethic or character entirely on these stereotypes or engage in racial profiling.
    In an extreme case two of my friends, one Caucasian and the other African American, were detained by the police without any kind of charges.  In the case of the Caucasian friend, he was detained for “suspicious activity” walking down a street by himself after arriving from Korea on a ferry, despite having proper documentation and a valid passport.  Although these documents were verified, he remained in police custody while they tried to find something to charge him with and was released without apology later almost a week later to be returned to Korea.
    In the case of the African American friend, a drunk Japanese person tried to assault him without any provocation at a train station.  In self defense, he shrugged the man off and tried exit the station quickly to avoid an altercation.  Being drunk, the guy lost his balance and toppled over, and claimed injury.  The police took my friend into custody and the drunk man was allowed to go home.  No Japanese witnesses stuck up for my friend, who was detained over a week while the police tried to charge him with assault on the drunk guy.  He was released when there was no evidence to support such a charge.  The point of relating these stories to you is that when push comes to shove, being a foreigner in Japan often means you won’t be judged on the merits of the circumstance, but rather the stereotype of being a foreigner alone.
  • No foreigners allowed / foreigners being refused service
    If you speak Japanese well enough to communicate, it normally isn’t an issue.  Often this occurs when establishments or services don’t want to deal with tourists because they feel they can’t communicate well enough to provide service.  There are a few exceptions, however.
    When it becomes an issue:  Many landlords will not rent to foreigners, even if they have a Japanese spouse or family.  Some online auction sellers or retailers might refuse foreign buyers.  Some red light establishments might not allow you to enter.  Some taxis may not respond when you flag them, or pull away as they get close enough to realize you’re not Japanese.  Some people might be so caught up on the fact you may not speak Japanese that they respond to any attempt at communications with, “Sorry, I don’t speak English.” (Even if you were speaking clear, correct Japanese to them.)
  • Lack of opportunities for climbing the social ladder
    Japan is still ripe with holdovers from when Japan was divided by class based on employment and financial income.  Most Japanese work now is categorized into full-time employment with benefits (seishain) and full-time contracted employment that may or may not include benefits (keiyaku shain).  Part-time workers are called free timers (freeters, or furiitaa in Japanese) and may be contracted, but not full-time and usually without benefits.  Japanese do not look upon free timers favorably, unless you’re a high school or university student.  Naturally, full-time employment with benefits is considered the most viable and stable.
    However, most foreigners fall into neither of these categories.  Almost all foreign workers are sub-contracted workers (itaku gyōmu keiyaku) employed and instructed by company A while they work at company B or dispatch contracted workers (hakken keiyaku) who are hired and instructed by company A to be additionally instructed or work at one or more companies regularly or irregularly.  The difference between the two is that legally, a sub-contracted worker can only be instructed or given directions by the company A and is indefinite temporary employment without benefits, while a dispatched workers are temporary workers without benefits that can be instructed or given directions by either company and after three years have the right to demand coveted full-time employment either with benefits or contractually after 3 years.
    Why it becomes an issue:  Full-time employment with benefits is at an all time low.  I’ve never met a foreigner on this track, because they are usually passed up for a Japanese worker even if that Japanese worker is less capable, productive, or skilled.  A handful of foreigners I know are full-time contracted workers and is often the highest a foreigner may ever be allowed to rise within a company in ideal conditions.  The large majority are stuck in the sub-contract or dispatched contract world for as long as they are employed.  This is because almost all companies who employ foreigners work between them to keep foreign labor cheap and without benefits or rights.  It’s not uncommon for Company B to fail to renew a dispatch contract with Company A for a worker right before a foreigner has claim to full-time employment.
    These conditions mean foreigners are kept as lower class citizens or just managing to reach the outskirt of the middle class.  Very few rise to the top unless they start their own business and it’s successful.  Since foreigners aren’t allowed to start their own business without a Japanese name on the owners lease, it’s not a viable option for everyone.  With little claim to economic power, it there is very little voice given to the issues outlined in this post.  Also, lack of full-time employment options means that foreigners are susceptible to having no other choice but meeting illegal or unfair demands of sub-contractors and dispatch contractors, because it could affect your visa status and eligibility to remain in the country.  Becoming a naturalized citizen in Japan means renouncing your home country’s citizenship, passport, and changing your name into Japanese.  Even if you’re willing to do so and are able to meet citizenship candidate requirements, the process is often long and difficult.
  • Lack of parental rights
    If a child is born to parents with no Japanese citizenship between them, their child is not considered Japanese no matter if Japan is the only country that child knows or not.  This is because Japanese believe bloodline determines nationality over country of birth.  A child born to parents where one is Japanese and the other is foreign, will usually be remanded into the custody of the Japanese citizen unless that custody is forfeited to the foreign parent.  Japan is also currently not a member of the Hague Convention, which allows the return of children kidnapped to Japan to their legal guardians abroad.
    When it becomes an issue:  Children are often bullied or discriminated against for not being “pure” Japanese, which is even easier when the child doesn’t possess Japanese citizenship.  This might include being singled out by administration for having different hair or eye color because Japanese students are not allowed to dye their hair or wear color contacts.  These children often  have decreased employment opportunies compared to “pure” Japanese counterparts.  Or a child could be kidnapped by a Japanese spouse and the foreign spouse would have no means to get their child back.  It’s a too-common, sad occurrence.

Although these issues reflect a common ground among many foreigners, certain races or nationalities might feel the brunt of this more than others.  In my case, once I married a Japanese man, my exposure to some of them became limited.  I think this is because Japan is still a highly sexist country as well, and Japanese expect my husband will bear the responsibility of “keeping me in line”.  Or that perhaps if a Japanese person could stand to marry me, that I must not be all that strange or follow typical foreigner stereotypes.

Personally I would be really interested in reading how groups considered minorities outside of Japan feel on the issue.  If you know of any good information on the matter, I hope you’ll share, and feel open to discussing any of the issues in this post in the comments.

Until next time,

– J

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