Is Japan Racist?
Thursday, October 11, 2018
Japanese people for the first time are grappling with what globalization means in the context of history and the future
Japan, for most of modern history has concocted an illusion of self-identity propagated by literature known as Nihonjinron. Central to this illusion is the idea that the country is homogenous and therefore racial, religious or ethnic discrimination could not exist in a place with no diversity and thus, government policies protecting these classes from discrimination were unnecessary. But today, as the number of foreign residents exceeds 2.5 million – roughly 2 percent of the overall population and continues to grow – their age old narrative has begun to melt and Japanese people for the first time are grappling with what this all means in the context of history and the future. They are discovering that like the insightful lyrics from the award winning musical Avenue Q: “Everyone is a little bit racist.”
This is, by the way how Americans viewed Japan during WW2:
Of course, Japan’s homogeneity is a myth, and like all countries has a shameful history of suppressing indigenous peoples, namely the Ainu in Hokkaido (who finally became recognised as an indigenous people in 2008) the Ryukyuan in Okinawa (technically Japan’s largest ethnic minority but still unrecognised as such), and the Burakumin (not ethnically different but known as the lowest caste in Japanese society). Post WWII, the influx of foreign residents from Japan's occupied territories – primarily China and Korea – that chose to remain in Japan, didn’t fare too well either. The Joint Civil Society Report on Racial Discrimination in Japan submitted by the Japan NGO Network for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ERD Net) in August of this year details historical and recent accounts of injustices experienced by minorities with a primary focus on the post WWII Korean community known as Zainichi Koreans. The tone of the report is bleak and upon reading the entire 81 pages it wouldn’t be farfetched to assume that Japan is in the ranks with Apartheid South Africa. Some context might be vital perhaps.
Historically, Japan’s “sameness myth” has served the country well; from the devastation the country found itself in in 1945, Japan has managed to toggle between the second and third largest economies in the world since the 1980s. It cannot be emphasised enough that Japan did this without any natural resources, rather with blind faith in a collective national goal and the work ethic that came with it. So for the generation who dedicated their lives to Japan Inc., it might be hard to fathom the benefit of diversity for their country’s future, this can end up translating into xenophobia and resistance to change.
Human Rights organisations have repeatedly encouraged lawmakers to implement anti-discrimination legislation and to collect comprehensive data on prejudices experienced by foreign residents. It wasn’t until 2016 that the government took two baby steps in line with these recommendations. The first was an Act “promoting efforts to eliminate discriminatory speech,” –which doesn’t actually set out provisions on how and what needs to be done, just that discriminatory speech should be eliminated – and the second was a Foreign Residents Survey commissioned by the Ministry of Justice asking foreign residents about encounters with discrimination. The survey had 4,252 respondents across 37 cities, and while the methods and results of the survey can be debated, it is a small glimpse into first hand accounts of disparate treatment foreigners in Japan experience.
A summary of (negative) talking points that have been making the rounds on the internet and various media outlets are: 39.3% of foreigners who sought a new residence experienced some kind of discrimination, 25% experienced discrimination at school or work, and around 33% experienced some kind of derogatory comments all within the last 5 years. Many caveats to the data can be listed here but the most glaring one is that the Zainichi Koreans were lumped in with all other foreigners for this survey, and their historical and social situation is too complex and delicate to be applied alongside the graduate student from Bangkok and the engineer from Bangalore. The largest point that the survey made is that discrimination exists, as it does everywhere in the world, more data is essential and now the Japanese government can’t say they didn’t know.
As a response to this survey, the YouTube Channel Asian Boss took to the streets of Tokyo and asked random foreigners about their personal experiences and their responses were, albeit anecdotal, far less tenuous. A man from Fiji after having been refused entry into a drinking establishment still believed that Japanese people are more uninformed than racist and acts of discrimination were “ninja-like” rather than aggressive. And another responder, American of South Asian decent, pointed out that often apprehension from the side of the Japanese person can be dissipated with credentials and associations (e.g. the company that you work for or even Japanese language abilities), often it is a question of exposure rather than inbred racism. AsianBoss then went and asked Japanese people what they thought about Abe’s plan to bring in large numbers of foreign workers to fill the gaps in the Japanese labor market. The respondents had their reservations about immigrants ability to acclimatise to Japanese ways, but most acknowledged that Japan needs to become more globalised and inviting foreigners to live and work in Japan will be beneficial for the country and the mindset of its people.
In a separate interview Asian Boss asked people in Osaka their opinions about people form China and Korea. Fascinatingly, because the dark details of Japan’s history with its East Asian neighbours are all but glossed over in national text books, the young people interviewed astutely observed the difference in their opinions from their parents and grandparents. They also blamed the mass media for disseminating negative stereotypes about each other on both sides, but when they became friends with someone from one of those two countries, they saw the person and not the historical drama.
With this backdrop of forward thinking young people, the Zaitokukai – the ultra right-wing facist group against Zainichi Koreans – hold regular demonstrations and have a strong online presence.But people are fighting back. In the western city of Kobe, a Zaitokukai protest (that consisted of all of 30 people and a police blockade 3 times the size) was surrounded by anti-hate speech protesters demanding a racism free country. This 12 minute video shows an aggressive side of Japanese people, fighting for what they believe in, in addition local governments have utilised the Anti-Hate Speech Act as justification to fine the Zaitokukai in civil lawsuits brought against them for their savage behaviour against Zainichi Koreans.
The behaviours of a few do not define the experience of a country. Historical notions of Japan-ism coupled with fear and lack of exposure and negative impressions broadcast by those with the loudest voices is making waves in Japan, but for now it is safe to say that cooler heads are prevailing. More people are coming into Japan and changing the hearts and minds of the average Japanese person. That coupled with landmark institutional changes as seen in Kyoto’s Seika University, where Oussouby Sacko, native to Mali, and a naturalised Japanese citizen of 16 years, became the first African-born President of a Japanese University, are propelling the country in the right direction. He surely has his own vision about how to globalise and modernise his university which will inevitably impact future generations of Japanese citizens for the better.
My colleague Hugo Clark has written an article about the practical sides of dealing with Racism in Japan, in case you are interested.
To read more about the Japan’s Zainichi Korean population, Izanau recommends the following academic papers:
About the Author
I've been in Japan so long that I say my heart is Japanese. And still this country impresses me from time to time. In those moments I think, "That's why I love living in Japan."