Here are some things that happen to me, as a non-Japanese person living in Japan, on a regular basis:
1) I constantly have to watch what I say, do, wear, etc. when in public, because I know that if I’m not careful, people will judge my entire race by my actions.
When a Japanese person does something impolite in public, people say, “Wow, he’s a rude person”. If I do something impolite in public, people say, “Wow, foreigners are rude people”. The same thing goes with breaking a rule; if I disobey a rule, or trespass across culture lines, even unknowingly, people will assume that all foreigners are ignorant (at best) or completely lacking in manners. I dress more conservatively than I would normally, because otherwise people will make judgements about the moral qualities of foreigners. I dress more professionally than I might otherwise, in case people think I’m a criminal. But even so …
2) People think I’m a criminal.
For example, I volunteer at an orphanage, and last fall I asked the kids if they’d gone trick-or-treating. It’s not a thing in Japan, but a few kindergartens have started picking up the idea, and I thought that if they didn’t know, I could give them a fun culture lesson. They said no, because their teacher told them that foreigners put poison in Hallowe’en candy in order to kill Japanese kids. I asked if this had happened in the news recently; they said no, but their teacher told them it happened all the time. Or, if a news story breaks about a criminal act (a rape, murder, robbery), people watching will say “Ah, that was a foreigner, I bet”. If it is, the news will splash it all over the page; if it’s a Japanese person, no mention of race will make it into the article at all. If a foreigner is charged with a crime, they will be convicted, full stop, whether they did it or not.
3) People stare, or cross the street when they see me coming.
Self-explanatory, really. Little kids and elderly people do the most staring; the middle demographics tend to be a bit more internationalised and tend to take things in stride. But little kids will constantly whisper and poke their mothers and say things like “look, Mama, Mama look, a foreign person!”, and most of the time, if I’m on the train, even if it’s packed, there will be empty seats on either side of me. I’ve sat in crowded cafes where people are standing in order to drink their tea, but there are two empty chairs on each side of me.
4) I’ve been turned away by restaurants or hot springs that are “full”, even when they’re clearly empty.
This doesn’t happen much, but when it does, it’s always a shock. Sometimes it happens when I’m in a group, and the proprietor doesn’t want to deal with what he assumes will be a raucous crowd. Not always, though. I’ve had it happen when there were only two of us, and only one or two occupied seats. Each time the proprietor stands firm, even if I attempt to argue, and eventually I just have to leave. The rest of the day, no matter what happens, is automatically ruined.
Many hot springs in rural areas are even worse, as they display “no foreigners” signs right out in the open and don’t even pretend it’s about anything else. Many bars (especially in areas with American naval bases) have “Japanese only” signs on the door. If a foreign-born naturalised citizen enters, they will be told their citizenship doesn’t matter, just how they look. Sometimes it’s funny — my foreign friends and I joke that we always get the bath to ourselves, since as soon as we enter it every Japanese person gets up and leaves — but even then it isn’t, really.
5) People think I’m taking money from Japanese people.
I’m an English teacher on a contract position; I pay Japanese taxes, contribute to Japanese social security, pay into the national pension, and contribute to the national health insurance system. I buy Japanese goods, which supports the Japanese economy. Yet at the same time, people tell me that I am taking money from Japanese people (there’s actually a Japanese word for people like me that translates as ‘tax parasite’), and that all foreigners only come to Japan to siphon money out and to send it to family back home. The idea that foreigners might live here permanently and become a fixed part of the Japanese economy is a completely baffling one.
6) I won’t ever belong.
If I stayed in Japan permanently, and spent the time and money to attain citizenship, people would still ask me where I’m from, and when I’m going home, and how smart I am to know Japanese and be able to use chopsticks. If I had children here, said children would never be treated as Japanese, but merely the offspring of someone who doesn’t belong here. The first question anyone ever asks is “Where are you from?”, and that wouldn’t change even if the person was born in Japan.
7) The police can stop me on the street based on nothing but my skin colour.
Foreigners have to carry identification with them at all times (either a passport, for a traveller, or an alien registration card, for a resident). If we don’t, and we’re stopped by a police officer who asks for it, we will be arrested. This doesn’t happen to me (a white girl) as often as it does people of colour; one friend I know, who’s part Maori, got stopped at least once a week, often while his white friends didn’t. I brought this up in a discussion class and asked the students why; when they were stumped, the Japanese co-teacher prompted them, saying, “This is because Japanese police know that Japanese people are kind, while foreign people are often bad people, so it’s better to be suspicious”.
Foreigners who have become citizens of Japan do not have to carry said identification by law, but do anyway, because police do not believe them when they say they are citizens, and they’ll be arrested anyway until they can prove it. When this happens, the police will tell them that they should carry ID anyway, because they look suspicious, and it will save time.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. It can get pretty awful, and while it happens enough that it turns into something you learn to ignore, at times it bubbles to the surface like a giant vat of discouragement. When groups of foreigners who’ve lived here for a little while get together, inevitably this sort of thing gets tossed around. People share stories about being barred from hotels or hot springs, of passersby shouting racial epithets from sidewalks, of being ignored at service counters, of being told they can’t do this or that because they’re foreigners. Many foreigners (myself included) then launch into tirades about the ingrained racism or xenophobia of Japanese society.
But here’s the thing. These are things that visible minorities in privileged nations like the United States (and Canada, though we like to pretend we’re a ‘post-racism’ society) go through every day. The fact that I, a white person with a good economic background, have to go through them in a country that I choose to live and work in for a set period of time, is nothing compared to what people do in the place where they call home forever.
I realised this a while back during the height of the Trayvon Martin debacle, and I had to sit down. I’m ashamed that it took me so long to make that connection, but that’s what happens with privilege — you can’t see it because you’re inside it. My own lack of privilege in Japan was perfectly easy to spot, but as for what that meant back home, well, that took a little longer. Apologies to anyone, privileged or no, who might be rolling their eyes at how obvious this is.
Sometimes I think it would be a good thing for racists back home to come in Japan and see what it’s like, to have someone judge your worth by your skin colour. To see if it would jog them, like it did me, into realising what it’s like for people they usually don’t give a second thought about. For them to think, “Wow, they’re judging me just because of what I look like, and making assumptions about my entire race and culture, most of which are incorrect — and that doesn’t feel very nice. I wonder if that’s what it’s like to be a person of colour in Arizona.”
Except I know it wouldn’t actually work. They, like many of my friends, like me for the longest time, would just rant about how unfair it is, and never look to the larger implications. The only thing these people would take back home is how badly white people are treated abroad. Then they’d turn around and do the exact same thing all over again to minorities there, and not even think about it.
Racism in Japan is a very real, very deep-rooted problem. I’ve had students who happily chat with me tell me to my face that think foreigners should not be allowed to live and work in Japan — when I remind them who I am, they say they don’t mean me, they mean foreigners, but can’t unpack that statement if I challenge them. It affects foreign policy, it affects international relations, and now — as Japan is faced with an aging society yet refusing to bring in foreigners to fill in the gaps in their work force — it affects the economy.
But the answer for foreigners living here is not to stick it out, complain, then rush back to the racial utopia of our own countries, content that it’s so much better there. Because it isn’t, and we need to stop kidding ourselves.
- Living as a Foreigner in Japan (valworksinjapan.wordpress.com)