There have been a few videos recently by some various people in the JVLOG community regarding racism in Japan. As I have never talked about this topic before I figured that today was as good a time as any. To begin this post I should mention that although I have spent short periods of time in other parts of the country most of my experience comes from being in Okinawa so please keep that in mind while you are reading this post.
I am going to just cut to the chase; I don’t really think that racism is a “thing” here in Japan. That is not to say that it is not out there but it is truly my belief that the term “racism” is used almost as a buzz word rather than a truly descriptive term of what is being experienced by a particular person. This is why you will see the word in quotes in the title of this post. To be honest I feel that most cases of “racism” here in Japan by foreigners can be broken down as follows:
90% People who misunderstand you.
9% People who are just jerks regardless your race
1% People who are actually racist by definition
The 90%: People who misunderstand you.
When I say “misunderstand” I am not simply talking about language although that part does exist. I am talking about people out there who do not understand your intentions as a person, your abilities or your culture. This could be for a number of reasons but the ones that I believe (from my past experience) are the most common are stereotypes of a culture and examples being made by the “louder and prouder” (let’s say) of our culture. One of the common things that people will say is that they were given a fork at a Japanese restaurant rather than chopsticks like everyone else. Another example of this might be given a limited menu which is in english and more catered to the palate of an American. Neither of these cases are because of a person thinking you are incapable of doing things like everyone else but rather giving you a helpful hand rather than watching you suffer through eating a salad with chopsticks. While we are talking about restaurants let’s talk briefly about “Japanese Only” signs that may be on store fronts or on the doors to restaurants. From experience this does not mean that you have to be a Japanese person to enter, what this means is that Japanese Language is the only thing that you are going to find behind this door, chances are they do not have any English speaking staff and please know that before proceeding. This is especially important when you go to various restaurants because once you sit down to that table you may receive a menu that does not have a lick of English on it or even photos. This not only turns out embarrassing for you who is sitting there without a clue (if you don’t speak or read Japanese) but it is uncomfortable for the staff who are not prepped to handle English speaking customers.
There is another commonly used example “racism” in Japan is the denial of getting an apartment here in Japan. (DISCLAIMER: If you are one of my readers who is in the US Armed Forces what I am about to describe does not apply to you because there are agencies who are here in Okinawa and elsewhere I am sure designed to work directly with you because of your Military affiliation.) There are many people out there who have discussed this but I wanted to add in my experience with this topic. When I was looking for an apartment I was denied the ability to to rent from various places here on island. In most cases the agencies were very open with us, not in a disrespectful way, but in an informative way because we had inquired about it and they were openly honest. Every agency that I spoke with explained to us that it is risky to have (non military) foreigners live in their houses and apartments. Keep in mind that many of the apartments and houses here are owned by private parties and not big corporations there fore when foreigners don’t properly understand how to take care of tatami or do not follow rules such as how to put out trash the price often has to be paid by the landowner. There is also a problem here in Japan of foreigners picking up and leaving without following the proper processes or paying bills and then disappearing. The person who then has to pay for this is the landowner. Of course it is important to look at this from the eyes of a business owner rather than immediately feel as if you are being singled out. After all would you take that type of risk?
You may even find yourself denied service from certain companies, usually high end, which might require you to sign paperwork. If this paperwork is all in Japanese the company will be hesitant to work with you because the documents that they you to protect themselves and you as the customer won’t be understood. This is one that I had experienced in the past with a jeweler. I wanted to get a ring resized and I knew that it was something many people are hesitant doing because of the design. Unfortunately I was told that they could not do it, although I was aware that they could from referrals. It wasn’t because of my race/culture or otherwise but rather because they most likely didn’t know how to communicate what was required and the risks and likewise I didn’t know how to communicate that I understood that there would be risks and it was ok. Thusly both parties respectfully withdrew from the situation. No hard feelings, no problems.
The last thing that I want to touch on in the “misunderstood” category is being stared at. This is another one that I hear a lot about. The fact of the matter is that yes there are people out there who are going to stare at you but to be honest in my opinion that is not without good reason. If you are of European decent in any way you need to consider that your chances of being a giant over here are pretty good. I’m 5’7″ and I can easily see above a crowd and that’s if I am not wearing heels or anything that brings me closer to sky scraper status. Then there is the matter of if you are very overweight or if you just simply have curves you are going to be looked at because you are different. People all over the world do the same thing and in fact I can say for sure that in the US if you saw someone like Dita Von Tease walking down the street as if she came out of a 1950’s magazine you would give a second glance too. It’s something you are not used to seeing and likewise it is something that the people here are not used to see and you stand out. The truth of the matter is that you can make this better or worse for yourself based on how you choose to alter your appearance. For example if you are of African American descent and you choose to wear blond hair I imagine you are going to get a lot of looks just as someone like myself who chooses to die their hair a dramatic red is going to get looks. You are outside of the norm. Does dealing with these situations ever get uncomfortable? Maybe. I think that it honestly depends on your personality. If you are the type of person who is not used to standing out in a crowd this is going to be difficult for you. Of course there are things that you can do to prevent the number of looks you get but that is part of adapting to your new environment. More about this later.
The 9%: Jerks Without Boundaries
Japanese people are just people like anyone else on the planet and that being said there are jerks who are out there just like you would find anywhere else. Although we like to think sometimes that the culture of Japan prevents people from being out right rude and disrespectful to human kind they are out there. I have encountered some of these people in various situations such as at the airport recently when I was standing out of the way and yet still run into by about 5 to 6 people who just simply did not want to deviate from their path. Of course the first reaction might be “wow this person is picking on me in particular” for some people but as I looked at that person continuing down the lobby I noticed that they were ramming into other people as well. Racism? No just a jerk. There have been other situations when I have noticed this type of thing as well where a particular person simply treats others with disrespect regardless of race. It’s rare but it’s out there.
The 1%: Actually Racist
Truth is I can not say that I have ever encountered anyone who is just for no reason whatsoever racist towards myself or others I have been with. Being that as I said above Japanese people are just people I can guarantee that there is racism out there but I just do not feel that it is something that is in any way widespread.
The fact of the matter is that your perception of how people are treating you is the biggest factor in whether or not you consider yourself a victim of racism. From most of the stories that I have heard and researched it seems that this idea of racism was almost created to somehow explain something that wasn’t fully understood in the first place. The unfortunate part about this in my opinion is that people continue on the path of creating these bad situations for themselves which gives them a bad attitude and the way they most likely act fuels the stereotypes that may have been created causing this problem in the first place. This is what I mean when I describe this situation as a vicious cycle.
My opinion is that the first thing to do is take a step back and self reflect before making and judgements. Do you speak enough Japanese to explain to that waiter that you don’t need a fork and that chopsticks are just fine? Is the way you are dressing going to cause you to catch the eye of some who might think it’s out of the ordinary? Is the group of people you are with being loud and disruptive or making the people around you uncomfortable? And the most important in my opinion: Am I creating an image of foreigners that others may not want to be portrayed as?
There are so many other things that I would like to comment on but I feel that this has gone on long enough for one entry and to be completely honest I think it’s time for me to head out to the grocery store and get some food so I can eat breakfast. Thank you so much for reading and considering what I have said above. I hope that what I have said allows those of you who might be experiencing something like this to take a look at the situation in a different light and hopefully make your experiences more enjoyable.