Racism in Japan

As a part of the ‘Japan YouTube community’ (though somewhat reluctantly) I’ve encountered a lot of the videos that people have posted about racism in Japan. I don’t really agree or approve of a lot of these videos, because they are almost always very negative and extremely one-sided. Personally, I haven’t experienced much racism while living in Japan. While many Japanese people do seem to be somewhat shy and nervous around gaijin, I don’t consider this racism. As someone who grew up in the United States of America and in a family that is very interested in different cultures, it is not always easy to try and understand the perspectives of people who have spent their entire lives in one of the most homogeneous countries in the world.

Japan always seems to get a lot of criticism for it’s ‘insular mindset’ and inability or unwillingness to try and relate to foreigners. The JET Program itself was created as an attempt to address these criticisms, criticisms that I often find unfair. Many of the Japanese people that I have had the pleasure of meeting are very open to learning about different cultures and different people. Most of the time, Japanese people consider me strange not because of my own culture, but because I am so interested and invested in learning about Japanese culture.

Of course it is difficult to live in a rural area of Japan around people who do not speak the same language and have not traveled outside of the country. It is also very difficult to be the one person who looks different from everyone else. At least for me, it has been very hard to adapt to being stared at all the time – it makes me feel like I am living my life underneath a microscope. This is not necessarily racism and it is not necessarily a bad thing.

The biggest problem with the information about racism in Japan (written in English) that you find online is that almost all of it is written by foreigners who have traveled or briefly lived in Japan. You don’t see a lot of videos on YouTube or blog entries by Japanese people. So, I asked a Japanese friend of mine if I could post a recent email he sent me about the subject.

As a disclaimer, the author of this email is currently finishing his PhD in Particle Astrophysics and has lived in the USA for ten years. He speaks fluent English and has absolutely no accent, so he can easily pass as a Japanese-American. This is just his personal opinion and not meant to be representative of the Japanese population as a whole. He and I both share an interest in the history of the Pacific War and postwar Japan – the following email contains several references to the 1940s.

After watching The Pacific and talking with you last night, as you know I got trapped in the YouTube infinite loop. There, for some reason, I started watching “racism” videos – racism in the US, racism in Japan, and racism in Europe.

Watching about racism in Japan was very painful. It’s nothing different from racism in other parts of the world, but when I hear foreigners’ opinions about the racism in my country, sometimes it is very difficult to listen to. I felt that part of me was trying to deny what they said, or that I had objections. Racism in Europe, especially Italy, Spain, etc. is also really bad.

Every time I think about racism, I can’t admire enough how far the US has come. Of course it’s never perfect, and the US is often treated as a scapegoat by people around the world. I am a big fan of the US, so I try not to look at it through my filtered eyes, but it is so unfair that people criticize the racism in the US – theirs and ours are much worse – it just doesn’t come above the surface.

It’s the curse side of the US being such a superpower country, and it’s very easy for people to criticize the scapegoat and ignore problems with themselves. The only 2 countries, in my opinion, that can possibly criticize the US are the UK and Germany.

It’s very ironic, but because of the massive slavery in the US, this country is infamous about the racism, but at the same time, because of that people have gone through difficult times and tried to overcome the problem. Of course there are lots of racists in the US, but there are also so many humanely advanced people in the US compared to any other country. It’s all about education.

Same for the women rights. You have to be a woman to really experience and feel the problem. There are many men in Japan who criticize/blame women (usually “feminists”) for men weakening – represented by soushoku-kei. It is amazing to me that the basic logic of those people is exactly the same as that of racism. It’s very difficult to face reality – women are getting equality and the same social power, or foreigners “taking” their job, etc etc. There are so many people who cannot take responsibility and just blame others because it’s easier, and they are lazy.

Because I didn’t have an internet connection earlier this month, I was watching a lot of TV. Very timely, because PBS was showing a documentary of Patsy Mink, the first “colored and female” congresswoman in the US. She’s a Japanese Hawaiian. I’ve never even heard her name, but what she has achieved is just amazing. And at the same time, I was just amazed how the US has the capability of “changing” (of course, it was/is not easy).

And very timely, I was reading the last book of the Pacific War series (9th book!) at a coffee shop today. Now I know what kokutai is and have started to understand many things you tried to explain to me before. For a country like Japan with a strong and unique “kokutai” that’s been established over 1,000 years of history, “change” is very very difficult. And it will never happen because people are lazy to start with – unless there’s a “necessity”. And I think the necessity is about to visit Japan very soon. Having more foreigners in Japan, equal rights to both genders, etc. Can Japan handle it? I do not know. But change has to come from inside Japan – it cannot be forced on Japan by other countries. That is one thing I disagree with the typical US interaction with other countries – although I understand where the US is coming from.

Sorry my stories move back and forth – but I was just shocked that the US and England made a statement to Japan at Yalta and Potsdam telling Japan to stop the “savage invasion of other countries” after the US, England, and all the other white countries conquered all sorts of countries in the world. Of course Japanese did not accept such a bullshit demand, but the sad thing is that those white countries really believed it was OK for them to occupy land, but not the colored countries. Lots of people in the world nowadays would think that was bullshit, but people at that time of course were all dead serious.

Whenever I meet someone who is racist or someone who believes that their country would be better off closing it’s borders to immigration or foreign exchange (this goes for both people in Japan AND the USA), I can’t help but feel a little sorry for them. Personally, I think racism is ultimately a product of poor education. Any well-educated person who has experience living or traveling in foreign countries cannot possibly believe that a nation’s problems are entirely the result of ‘undesirable foreign influences.’ People who want to close a country’s border to immigration, foreign trade, etc. are just hopelessly ignorant. In the modern world that we live in, where technological advances in transportation and communication have made the world so interconnected, it is simply not an option for any country to ignore the importance of international relations. Well, it’s not possible for any country to follow such a narrowly autarkic policy and still be a wealthy or influential nation.

Many countries are struggling to address the issues of immigration and foreign trade – the USA will need to find an acceptable solution to illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America (and Arizona’s new legislation is not an acceptable solution), Germany and the EU will need to figure out what to do with Turkey and Islamic immigration, and Japan, in face of it’s declining birthrate and aging population, will need to start being more open and accepting of foreign workers and immigrants. It will not be easy to find solutions to these problems because these solutions will, in many ways, fly against traditional nationalism. The most important thing for people to understand is that we are all people and that, ultimately, we have more in common with one another than not.

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Comments (28)

  1. atheistwithfaith

    Though I have to admit, my first hand experience of Japan is limited – but from what I have experienced and from all the other information I have absorbed about this topic I agree that people are too quick to judge the Japanese society based on their own western values of equality, fairness, social responsibility, ‘individuality’ above harmony, yadayada.

    If they took a step back and tried to look at these ‘racist’ situations from the perspective of the Japanese culture/society I am sure that a great deal of the time they would realise it is the product of misunderstanding and not malice.

    As a side note, from your friend’s email: [i]”The only 2 countries, in my opinion, that can possibly criticize the US are the UK and Germany.”[/i]
    If he is suggesting we have less of a problem with racism – just look at our recent (failed) election where the BNP (a racist party) got 500,000 votes.

    May 10, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      I agree, most of it comes from misunderstandings.

      Yeah, I’m not really sure if I agree with his comment about the UK and Germany. My knowledge on this might be a bit out of date, but I remember that Germany was having a lot of problems regarding Turkish immigrants and neo-Nazi-esque gangs.

      May 10, 2010
  2. nessa

    Every time I meet someone from Japan and they discover that I am studying Japanese history and nationalism, they all say how happy and honoured they are.

    Many more go further by saying that foreign perspectives that are holistic are needed. that the Japanese require more voices to be heard.

    So many of my classmates are ready it seems to assume that whenever I discuss my topic with Japanese people there is anxiety or tension. And though not all agree with my views, none have been unwilling to listen and respect my research and perspectives.

    May 11, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      This is an exact description of how Japanese people react to me when I tell them I am studying Japanese history and nationalism as well!

      May 11, 2010
  3. Kelly

    I’ve always been a believer of the idea there’s only one race: the human race. I mean (and pardon my lame example) if aliens were to invade Earth with hostile intentions, all people would ban together to stop them. We wouldn’t look over to a Hispanic/white/black/Asian/etc person and think of our prejudices, we’d think, “How can we work together and reach our common goal?”

    Regardless, I suppose this thought process is a gift from living in such a diverse and mixed society. I almost cant imagine what it’d be like for a person to grow up otherwise, so in turn I don’t hold countries like Japan up to the same standards as I would the U.S., U.K., etc.

    Anyway, if I were ever faced with racism in Japan, I’d probably be too naive to realize it was even racism.

    May 11, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      Hahaha, I love your ‘War of the Worlds’ view of racism! It made me smile!

      May 11, 2010
  4. Jessuru

    You wrote all that to explain your opinion that racism is ultimately a by-product of ignorance. Are you running out of ideas for your blog?
    Also, why just because you haven’t experienced much racism in Japan does that me those who have should not comment on it. The truth is that Japan is a very insular culture in many ways and those videos are often expressing a legitimate criticism, one-sided or not.

    May 11, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      I’m not sure that any criticism that is one-sided can be considered legitimate.

      No, I actually wrote it because I wanted to share the perspective of one of my Japanese friends, a perspective that I thought was very legitimate. I’m not saying that I haven’t experienced difficulties in Japan, but I’m not going to label any of them as racism. I’m not going to be the blonde white girl who sits around and bitches about racism.

      Japan does have problems, Japan is insular, and there are definitely racist people in Japan (like every other country). But, the most racist/insular people that I met are also the people with the least exposure to foreigners.

      May 11, 2010
      • Russell K.

        Love this blog post. Although, I have a strange suspicion they stare at you for reasons other than the fact that you are a gaijin, Constantine.

        I agree with the “foreign exposure” conviction. During my time in Japan, I spent some time having conversations with the Assistant Dean of Waseda University’s International School, where the primary objective of much the curriculum at Waseda is rooted in the foreign experience. They attest to the relative makeover of the mind that occurs during the study abroad/foreign experience, and are noted for their attempt to facilitate a more worldly perspective among Japanese collegiate youth for this very purpose. Opening the mind beyond the bubble, as it were.

        But I was taught a simple way around the often isolating, perhaps ‘racist’, feeling that the bubble of Japanese homogeneity can infer – know something about the Japanese better than they do.

        “Most of the time, Japanese people consider me strange not because of my own culture, but because I am so interested and invested in learning about Japanese culture.”

        Exactly. In my case, and I suspect yours Constantine, we herald a deep-seated understanding of Japanese language, history, popular culture, and are drawn to the allure of its intricacies. I witnessed this particularly in a moment among new friends at a restaurant in Ochanomizu, where we realized that the only reason we knew each other was because of the song ‘Cherry’ by Spitz. Apart from the fact that we reveled in the notion that music brought us together, it was my subsequent addenda about other bands, etc., that earned me some pedestal of “yamato-damashii”; this was how I knew I could feel a sense of belonging, and I could try my best to do it anywhere else on earth.

        It’s a powerful thing, knowledge. Long story short, you’re awesome Constantine.

        May 21, 2010
      • constantineintokyo

        You certainly hit the nail on the head with that, Russell! I’d say that 90% of the time people find me strange because of my freaky interest in weird Japanese stuff (when they aren’t just staring at the hair, of course =P). My interest in Meiji and the Pacific War have earned me the title of 変な外人 (which is now used almost exclusively by one of the teachers instead of my name) and マニア. But, most Japanese people react to my interest in Japan the same way most Americans do: “You’re interested in Japan? Why??”

        One of the funniest though was when an older teacher drunkenly proclaimed that I was a 大和撫子 in front of everyone at a party. Delicate, feminine Japanese flower of the Yamato I am not!

        Thanks for the comment, and I’m going to go lurk around the pages of your blog now!

        May 21, 2010
  5. C

    To lighten the mood a little, I found this last night on Tokyocooney’s channel.

    May 11, 2010
  6. jaydeejapan

    I live in an area of Japan that has many foreigners, so I guess I don’t get so much in the way of stares. I tend to see 2 or 3 foreigners a day in my neighbourhood, and I certainly know I’m not the only foreigner where I live (I personally know 2 of them, as they work for the same company as me). The people in the shops around where I live treat me exactly the same as their other customers. Maybe they’re used to me? It seems that the more exposure to foreigners people get, the more likely they’ll treat them as “normal” people. And you’re right, with Japan’s declining and aging population, immigration will have to be more accepted. Even my students agree with that. Many of them are worried about the future of Japan if there’s a growing percentage of retired people and not enough younger people to take care of them or the economy. One student said that he admires Canada’s immigration laws, and wishes Japan would adopt something similar. Change is happening, especially with younger people, but I wonder if it’s fast enough.

    September 7, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      Change is definitely happening. However, Japan has a tendency of putting of change until they’ve exhausted every other option – short of a Mongol/Chinese invasion, ‘Black Ships’ or a really catastrophic military defeat, is Japan really capable of profound institutional change on their own? Who knows…

      Though, watching the antics surrounding the office of the Prime Minister over the past few years has definitely made me skeptical. Makes me nostalgic for the days of Yoshida Shigeru…you know, those days before I was even born. =P

      September 7, 2010
      • jaydeejapan

        I can feel that many people in Japan are getting frustrated with the government. The problem with the Prime Minister changing every year is a lack of stability, which prevents any kind of effective change.

        September 7, 2010
  7. Patrick

    “and Arizona’s new legislation is not an acceptable solution”

    Why not?

    Certainly no solution to immigration anywhere should involve accepting criminal activity on the part of illegal aliens. So what is wrong with Arizona authorizing its law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of individuals apprehended breaking the law?

    It’s no different than when the police pull you over for speeding and run your license for any outstanding warrants for other crimes.

    October 15, 2010
  8. Guest

    I’m curious as to what you (and perhaps Asian friends) think about the whole “many Japanese are prejudiced against other Asians” topic.

    Clearly the problem does in fact exist on some level, I mean, it’s a JET interview question.

    January 20, 2011
  9. Ken

    Here it loses it:

    but I was just shocked that the US and England made a statement to Japan at Yalta and Potsdam telling Japan to stop the “savage invasion of other countries” after the US, England, and all the other white countries conquered all sorts of countries in the world. Of course Japanese did not accept such a bullshit demand, but the sad thing is that those white countries really believed it was OK for them to occupy land, but not the colored countries. Lots of people in the world nowadays would think that was bullshit, but people at that time of course were all dead serious.

    What Japan was doing was very very different.
    The US overran the Native Americans in the 19th century, non-urban cultures were regarded as very different, they didn't even 'own' the land.
    The UK…over a period of hundreds of years it aquired land and territories around the world usually through buying them or being attacked and beating their attacker.
    What Japan was doing was rocking the 20th century world, a world where it was increasingly agreed that imperialism was bad and things were very much moving towards ending it.
    Japan also were just outright conquering. No deals with the locals, no steadily worming their way into position. Just move in and conquer.

    Yes. All countries have bad things in their history. However to say what Japan did was fine because the westerners did the same…no. What Japan did was very different and at a time when the international mood was very different.

    January 30, 2011
    • Lulz

      Manifest Destiny by any other name… or committed by any other people is still the same thing, Ken. Other nations using the excuse of Western imperialism doesn’t lessen the negative impact nor does it excuse what the U.S. did. If Natives didn’t own land then why were there turf skirmishes between tribes? Seems like a sense of ownership to me, albeit communal ownership. No sense in trying to make the U.S. appear as saints when we both know they weren’t. And a lot of those deals were backhanded and done without the consensus of the people of many of those tribes. Japan and the U.S.: More alike than you think.

      March 31, 2011
      • Ken

        Again: US- 19th century, age of imperialism. Japan-20th century, road to decolonisation already under way.

        May 21, 2011
  10. mariot

    >What Japan did was very different and at a time when the international mood was very different.

    This book is saying that:
    Japan gave up their interest from Manchuria, pushing west to give up their interest which made them mad.
    Mirror for Americans:Japan/Helen Mears

    August 9, 2011
  11. Ben

    I spent two years stationed in Misawa, Japan as a young airman (and went to Tokyo a handful of times to explore) and I was nothing but amazed at how wonderful the Japanese people are. Since I’ve gotten back from Japan, basically whenever I get the chance I tell people how great the Japanese are. They were always extremely polite to me, and often wanted to practice their English, haha. I got more culture shock flying back to the states and encountering rude TSA people than I ever had in Japan. Looks like you have an interesting blog here, Constantine.
    Have a good day.

    April 18, 2012
    • constantineintokyo

      I also had a similar culture shock when I moved back to the States. Why is everyone so rude here? Why are the serving sizes so large? Why is a large soda the size of a liter?? WHYYYY! BUt it was nice to be able to buy pants that were long enough for my legs!

      I think the whole ‘Japanese people are racist’ thing gets blown out of proportion on the internet. It’s not where near as insidious as some internet-people make it out to be. Nearly all of the Japanese people I met were very polite, very nice, and very curious to learn about me. Sure, people will talk about you in Japanese because they think you won’t understand them, but you get used to that.

      Thanks for the comment!

      April 19, 2012
  12. ctdancer

    By Yalta I am assuming you meant the Yalta Conference, which was during World War II. Was the demand for Japan to stop savage invasions bs? No. You are speaking as someone who has no idea whatsoever of what the Japanese did to the Filipinos when they occupied the Philippines. My mother was only a child when she went through a village that had been invaded by a Japanese battalion (they were advised to leave the church they had sought shelter in because information was received about a Japanese battalion’s intention to invade a village. When they left, it seemed the village had already been invaded. My mother saw people with their stomachs cut open and left like that to die. What was the most traumatic, however, was the fact that among the villagers who were cut up, there were babies. That was when she would not stop crying and asking the question, “Why?” So please do not even say that there were no savage invasions or that such invasions were justified because the white nations did the same. At least the Americans did not cut the Filipinos up like that. Japan invaded the Philippines only because it was occupied by the United States. Yet, the ones who suffered the most and who were killed were the natives, not the Americans (despite some Americans being killed or injured as well). While there are things I like about Japan and it’s a place I would love to visit, I’m sorry, but my mother will never like the Japanese for their savage invasion of the Philippines. You will never know that trauma (just as I don’t know) unless you were there. You were never there. It is similar to my ex-mother-in-law swearing that she would never set foot in Germany after she left (she was the daughter of a rabbi and their family left Germany during Hitler’s rise to power). And she never has to this day.

    July 3, 2012
  13. Ken

    Racism does exisist in Japan; go to Hello Work, apply for jobs and be told “Nihonjin Only” by countless employers. Racism exisit at every level in Japan, its a society built on racism and xenophobia. I suspect due to your race or privilage, you rarely encounter it so you are in a comfie zone. Ask any filipino, Chinese, or other non white, and Im sure they will tell you it does. I also suspect you dont speak/understand Japanese so well, and this is shielding you from it. Once you learn the language, a whole new world of racist comments on TV and the media opens up to you. I find that people who say racism doesnt happen to NJ in japan are usually very ignorant of Japan.

    April 22, 2014
  14. Ben

    I must add, while I respect your taste in art and your passion for it, if you were to reside in Japan, quickly would loose interest in all that as the arty of conformity would take hold. Its why I said your in a comfort zone, as many young japanophiles are these days. They dont really know Japan, and display their ignorance through Nippon Daisuke behavior. The gaijin who come dressed in costumes are looked at as strange. Why? because most Japanese live a life of misery, of obligation and toil. I have witnessed suicides, not occasionaly, but sometimes weekly. I dont think this is a sign of a healthy society. Many Japanese think the whole visual kei or other “escapes” are a symptom of the disease. Sure, there are a few younguns who are into it, but its not the norm. Ijeme in Japan is severe, and people dress up like that to escape the conformity. I think your very young, impressionalbe and naive as I once was. These days, I have nothing good to say about Japan, I have done the circle many times. I think someday you will also come to realize this. At the stage your at now, I can only observe someone who is quite ignorant of the real japan. Its not your fault, as Japan has perfected the art of hidding the real. Please dont take this as hate, but as the real. The real can save people allot of grief latter )

    April 23, 2014
  15. Victoria

    Highly energetic post, I liked that a lot.
    Will there be a part 2?

    September 21, 2014
  16. homepage

    Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Many thanks, However I am encountering problems with you RSS.
    I don’t understand why I cannot join it. Is there anyone else having similar RSS issues?
    Anybody who knows the answer will you kindly respond?

    November 7, 2014

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