Racism in Japan. Is it real?
Wednesday, October 24, 2018
Rising Sun, Rising Foreign Population and Rising Expectations
[Updated on July 1, 2019]
Japan is a country known for its culture of hospitality, and we can see examples of people from all parts of the world who have settled and succeeded there. How could racism exist in such a place? Is this something we can write off, like the deep-set prejudices of your otherwise kindly grandparents? Only last year, the Japanese government learned in a nationwide survey that almost a third of foreign residents experience derogatory comments over their background. And while some instances may be more adequately described as “mild xenophobia”, it is the more disturbing cases of racial bias and ostracisation that show what can happen when negative perceptions of foreigners are left unchallenged.
There is hope that the government will be taking this seriously, as preserving Japan’s image as a haven of hospitality matters perhaps more than it ever has done. I am referring to the declining population and the demand for foreign workers to fill the gap. Japan has been welcoming more and more foreign workers; the number doubled to 1.3 million in the space of just 5 years.
In my experience, Japan is a wonderful place to live. Awkward moments can easily be put down to cultural misunderstanding. But perhaps this is why it is important to recognize racism when it rear sits ugly head. With an increasing foreign population and under the scrutiny of an ever-globalizing world, will Japan with its proudly traditional and rich culture be willing to attune to a more international perspective?
The government’s survey also found that 40% of foreign residents experienced housing discrimination. In Japan, some landlords believe that their tenants would rather not live along side foreigners and simply reject all foreign applicants. One cannot help but wonder how far these landlords really speak on behalf of their tenants; perhaps they find something appealing in the notion of a “proper, Japanese-only establishment”.
Fortunately, finding a place that does accept foreigners isn’t hard either. It’s not really fair to let the views of a few obscure the goodwill of the Japanese people. In the cities there are some tenants who offer “foreigner-friendly” apartments that even include English guidelines and notifications.
Experience based on Ethnicity
Research by psychologist Kazuo Mori of Matsumoto University suggests that Japanese people have an implicit bias against black people and a preference of white people, which he links to the effects of media portrayal.“The similar racial attitudes of Japanese people toward black people might have been transplanted into Japanese culture through the US media such as the Hollywood movies and the American TV programs imported into Japan”.
But if this true, western media has failed to communicate what westerners perceive as “racist” to the Japanese. A recent example would be obviousness to the connotations of blackface, which became the subject of controversy gained when famous comedian Masatoshi Hamada imitated Eddie Murphy’s character in “Beverly Hills Cop”. Blackface has in fact appeared in Japan prior to this, in lesser-known stage productions.
A US born resident of Japan named Baye McNeil gained some attention online for his stark criticism of blackface. McNeil was careful not to let his anger express itself in the form of hostility towards the Japanese people. He shared the thoughtful reactions of five, including a college student who said: “As you probably know, the Japanese are not racist against black people per se but are ridiculously ignorant about racial issues. But ignorance cannot be an excuse, as you said on Twitter.”
Similarly the BBC’s documentary on “being black in Japan” noted that black people tending to acknowledge racism in the form of “cultural ignorance” but not of a threatening nature. “Crime rates in Japan are very low compared to industrialised Western countries, and several said they felt insulated from racist violence and targeting by police.”
Still, the reverberations of this “cultural ignorance” should not be undermined. I have had a first-hand account of an English teacher from the UK who, in the escalation of a quarrel, was called the dehumanizing n-word by his non-Japanese colleague. When he complained to the board, the Japanese reaction was not to fire or even suspend this colleague but to attempt to diffuse the situation with a mutual apology. The weight of the offence which has taken western civilization all too long to learn, apparently does not translate into Japanese culture. Hopefully incidents like Mr.Hamada’s blackface portrayal, which blew up on Twitter, may help to spread awareness throughout Japan.
However, it may be the ethnic groups closest to the Japanese that deserve the most attention. Ethnically Korean and Chinese people have been integrating into Japanese society long before westerners, making up the majority of responses to the government’s survey on racism. In Japan these people are referred to as “zainichi” – those who “reside in Japan” – though in terms of nationality many of them are born and bred Japanese. And in a culture that demands humility and perseverance, how many of them would be willing to speak out?
Racism exists in Japan, but unlike many countries, it rarely escalates into violence. A rise in foreign population is likely to offer a greater variety of perspectives, as well as more familiarity with foreign people themselves. The Japanese have the reputation of being a proud people, but aside from the crazy nationalists found in any country, a respect for people of all nations is a part of that pride, and there is promise in the willingness to learn from mistakes.
About the Author
I have worked alongside game translators and developers as localization manager for Playism in Japan. Now I'm back in the UK with all this Brexit confusion, hunting for cool games and practising Bach fugues.