Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Racism in Japan

I generally try to keep myself upbeat and try to maintain a positive outlook, but the racism in Japan really wears me down. The "帰れ(go home)", "死ね(die)", and host of other comments muttered in passing or said behind my back have really dampened my excitement about living in Japan. While less blatant, the rampant tendency for strangers to clear their throats or spit when they become aware of my presence suggests the racism runs pretty deep.

In hindsight, learning Japanese may have been a mistake; if you can't understand the language, you don't know when people are making rude comments.

Even as a white male, I do my best to not draw attention to myself. I've seen the looks of distrust and fear my fellow commuters give to foreigners of middle-eastern or African decent on the train. I can only imagine the death by the thousand cuts that everyday life in Japan must be for them.

My poor 5'2" wife isn't immune either. She's fed up with the way little old ladies stare at her and awkwardly avoid her like she was some sort of circus freak.

My coworkers often ask me why my wife and I don't go out and see more of Japan on the weekend. Frankly, at the end of a grueling work week, I don't have any urge to stand on the train some more. But more important, the last thing either of us wants is our weekend spoiled by bigots. Just going to the store can be emotionally draining. Trying to rent a room in the country can be outright impossible (70% x 37.8% = ~26.5% of hotels surveyed illegally refuse to serve foreigners; they cite "language barriers" -- apparently confusing nationality with language ability).

The almost-daily little hints, most of which seems trivially minor in isolation, add up to a roar of "you're not welcome here".

Before we came to Japan, we were familiar with the complaints many foreigners living in Japan have. The comment sections of many popular news sites aimed for expatiates living in Japan are filled with disillusionment. I always figured it was because the people hadn't taken the effort to learn the language, or had unreasonable expectations, or were being obnoxious in had to be something they were doing wrong. Maybe it was; maybe I've made the same mistakes.

Since coming to Japan, I have come to appreciate Dave Aldwinckle's complaints and the hard work he has been doing to try and bring the injustices in Japan into the forefront. Whenever I get worked up enough about something that I want to bitch about it on my own blog, I just need to go hit his to commiserate.

When I was sitting in the comfort of the U.S.A., Debito's stories seem farfetched and, frankly, unbelievable. More than once I thought he was making a mountain out of a molehill. However, I now realize that he doesn't have to go digging to find examples of racism, discrimination, injustice, and turns out there is just a lot of material to pull from here in Japan.

Unfortunately, while brave individuals like Debito are trying to recitify the situation, apologists still abound. Guides for foreigners coming to Japan are filled with such insightful advice as:
NOTE: At certain points through this and other articles we note that in some cases foreigners may be refused entry to particular hotels or rental of accommodation. This is not intended to imply any form of prejudice; it is merely a statement of the facts. Almost exclusively this is due to the very low number of foreigners in Japan, and general ignorance among the Japanese regarding foreigners. Smile, persevere, and try to be a good ambassador not just for your own country but for all non-Japanese in general.
(taken from

That's right, denying you access to shops just because you are a foreigner isn't any form for prejudice. Nope. People may be ignorant and racist, but if there is one they are not: they are not prejudiced. So just suck it up and deal.

The implicit message: "no one wants you here and if you don't like it, well go home."

Anyway, I don't want to give the wrong impression: I've met a lot of nice people in Japan (and Japanese living overseas). If it weren't for the great folks I have (and have had) the pleasure to work with, I probably wouldn't still be here. That said, I am looking forward to going home. Honestly, many people I have met seem to have no comprehension of how intolerant their countrymen are or, as the quote above demonstrates, don't even recognize actions as being discriminatory in the first place.

So until I can go home, I guess I'll have to continue to find solice on Debito's blog.


arudoudebito said...

Hi Kelly. Thanks for the kind words. I made this blog entry the subject of my entry for Saturday, March 14, 2009. Go to:

You seem to be going through a bit of a bad patch. The quick and dirty and unsolicited advice I would offer is:

Just remember that things will get better over time — stick with it; avoid grand conspiracy theories, and do what you can to fill your world with sympathetic people and pleasant things.

Thanks for writing this blog entry. Arudou Debito in Sapporo

Nagoya Hammer said...

Hi Kelly... I "enjoyed" those "nice" muttered comments while walking out with my ex-gf (Jap) or other female friends... it looks like that some Japanese people don`t like that "their" women fool around with gaijin. You know, the old story about "they come here and steal our women". Obviously is difficult to explain them that it is not your fault that they don`t have respect for women, are boring lowlifes with no education worth of being called as such and, all in all, drunk sore losers. I anyway take pleasure in spitting out some really vulgar comment in their mother language... This is enough to make them run off... give them a reason to fear you... the fucking gaijin can talk rude Japanese and tell you off if you fuck with him!

Glenn said...

Regarding Emanuele's comment... I've had some guys give me the, "stealing one of our best women" remark. It's always done with a smile and followed by, "only joking", but the "joke" seems all too common and now I reply with, "Oh, I didn't think she BELONGED to you nor to anyone other than herself."

E L said...

Hi Kelly, I found your blog through Debito's site.

Can't agree with you more about certain information found in travel guides. I always thought it was partly our job as international residents of Japan to cause the necessary friction in order to promote the change needed if Japan is to ever adjust to non-Japanese living here. If books keep citing lack of exposure to non-Japanese as reasons for this poor treatment, shouldn't we give them the necessary "exposure" by letting them know when something isn't cool?

Hoofin said...

Especially with the grown men and that throat-clearing/spitting (I have that happen at least once a week, sometimes days in a row), I wish these people would grow up.

Usually, I say within hearning distance: "soooo cowardly". Most Japanese, I think, understand the word "coward". It defines a not insignificant number of the men here, so it should not be so difficult a concept.

If the Japanese can't learn to deal with people from overseas, I think America needs to open up a serious discussion about pulling the troops. Let the Japanese deal directly with the Chinese threat, without our putting skin in the game.

Maybe the Chinese forgot about all the horrible things Japan did in the last war, just like the Japanese have.

Good luck with the Chinese, kids!

When the choice is either seeing a foreigner in the street or having their children spend another morning in the bomb shelter (or shipped out to the countryside), then maybe having a few foreigners around won't seem like such a big inconvenience.

America spends tens of billions a year in the direct and indirect defense of Japan. Japan only pitches $2 billion in towards that, which it refers to as "sympathy money".

When MacArthur set up food relief in 1945, so that 10 million Japanese wouldn't starve, we didn't call it "sympathy food". We did it because that's the kind of people we are.

Leave it to those few Japanese to show an ingratitude that really grates.

crackerjacksoul said...

To be fair, most of those people who make racist or whatever kind of comments aren't well-liked even by their fellow Japanese either. Also, you're more apt to remember those incidents where someone made such stupid comments rather than the tons of other people who have absolutely no problem with foreigners. Don't let it get to you too much - at the end of the day, you have the ultimate revenge because the idiots are the ones who have to wake up with themselves every day of their miserable lives.

zichi said...

I have lived in Japan for 15 years, I'm male, white, British and my wife is Japanese.
I have never personally experienced racism here so much of your post was a little surprising.
I have never had a problem renting suitable property and in fact I've done very well.
I don't work so I can't comment about that but I'm a painter and all my clients are Japanese.
We lived in Nagano for about 8 years, and since the end of 2002, Kobe City.
I love living in Kobe and find it more than suitable for my needs. Also a very large number of foreigners are actually born here.
There is some kind of racism in all countries.

I suppose in the end we'll return to live in the UK but not because of anything wrong here but because I think it might be a better place for older people. We are both in our very late 50's. But I intend staying for at least another ten years and by then I might just change my mind about going home?

Unknown said...

I'm a large Caucasian guy who has lived and worked in Japan for 15+ years. I have a house in a major city and another in a very rural area so I see a fairly broad spectrum of the country on a regular basis.

I've met a few idiots along the way but I haven't come up against the regular discrimination that is described in this blog entry. (My Japanese isn't perfect but it is more than proficient enough to pick up on people suggesting I should "go home" or "die".)

I have also never been refused service at any establishment here -- though honestly I wouldn't care if I had been. I certainly don't wish to hand over my money to someone that doesn't want my business. Really, why would anyone want to knowingly enrich someone who dislikes them? I'd sooner know how they feel and just take my business elsewhere.

I suspect you may be going through a phase where things seem worse than they are. Perhaps a short trip out-of-country would be a good idea. Everyone needs a break from Japan occasionally.

AETF said...

Kelly, I completely understand every single thing you wrote. There will always be deniers and apologists that live wonderfully blissful lives, but that doesn't invalidate our experiences in any way.

I too often regret understanding Japanese. My coworkers feel free to discuss anything they want around me, even embarassing personal information, because they presume I just can't understand. And it's not as if I'm trying to hear them - they do it two feet away from me.

I also grow tired of having to explain and defend myself for everything I do - what food I choose to eat, where I choose to go, etc. People seem to ask me questions only to confirm their own stereotypes. "Oh, you have your own chopsticks? Hahaha!"

But as our mutual hero Debito has said, try to focus on the good things and people around you. For me, every time I fear the death of a thousand cuts, I think about my host mother. She has always treated me as one of her own, never as a "foreigner". She's one of the most well-traveled and internationally minded people I know. It's for people like her that I stay positive on Japan.

Anonymous said...

Hey Kelly! Way to tell it like it is. I've been writing about the paper cuts for a while now, so I know exactly what you mean, and if you can imagine a worse situation here, it would be, like you said, for middle easter and African-Americans like me.
Nevertheless, I hope we can find ways to make our stay here less of an ordeal. I'm certainly doing my best and I'm sure you and your wife are doing the same. Gambarimasyou ne

Loco (-;

Hiero said...

The Enigma of Japanese Power

Karel Van Wolferen.

the soul of japan said...

Hmmm...I've covered almost every prefecture in Japan and have never experienced any form of racism, then again I never smile at people either. And I never make eye contact because I hate socializing and being some geeky visitor from America. I'm an asshole, and yet I live and enjoy Japan far better than most Japanese - fact.

I experience more racism and prejudice in the States than in Japan, and I'm American. Think about that one....

The problem with you is,like Loco, have thin skin. The both of you are needing acceptance in a society that can barely accept it's own cultural identity and history.

Living in Japan has all to do with your attitude! 100% attitude only. It's your attitude...attitude...attitude! And then there's your sense of humor. Once you lose control of those, you need to pack up and leave.

When I sit in an onsen full of Japanese men I get sick to my stomach at how spineless most of them are:

Unpatriotic,irresponsible, let their wives go off to foreign countries for months at a time while they stay home alone, 60% sit down when they pee - truth. They are ashamed of their own national flag and refuse to sing the kimigayo. They don't procreate and don't teach their children anything. They rely on the U.S. to protect them.

You should slap yourself in the face Mr. OP for allowing yourself to be stressed by these people. Go to the bathroom and wash your face with cold water. These are not men you're living amongst.

Dave Baeckelandt said...

Kelly, I am your run-of-the-mill Caucasian male, married to a Chinese-American woman with three kids. On and off I have lived in Japan (starting as an exchange student; ending as an expat Japan country manager) for many years and when I was not living in Japan I was spending weeks to months at a time on business trips here.

During the 20+ years I have had occasional odd asides but nothing compared to what a Japanese guy might be subject to among Americans from the wrong side of the tracks. You don't say how proficient your Japanese is here but I think that either you have had an extraordinary exposure to the rotten element or (my suspicion) you may be overly sensitive to perceptions.

The Japanese I have mingled with over the years (all social classes, and everywhere from Goto Retto to Sendai) in general I have found to be incredibly accomodating. As another commentator here mentioned, if they are antagonistic, the manifestation has been so muted as to be negligible.

Regardless of whether your experiences are real or perceived, you clearly have a bad impression of the Japanese. My recommendation is that you leave the country. Because frankly, that perception likely colors your interactions on a daily basis and the Japanese are nothing if not perceptive. To stay in Japan is simply a formula to make you and those you come into contact with unhappy.

Kelly Yancey said...

Just wanted to thank everyone for the comments. McAlpine's gave me a good laugh. The rest of you made me feel better than I'm not alone...I was starting to think it was something I was doing wrong.

I've had plenty of positive experiences here, including the kind person who helped me when I lost my vision on the train ( Most of the people I interact with are friendly and kind.

But there is a definately a racist minority that feels the need to make their presence felt. Even if it is only 1% of the population, that is 300,000 jerks in the Tokyo metro area alone. :(

I guess more than anything, this is a new experience for me. Even though I grew up in the American south, racism was frowned on by the community I lived in. I now realize that it only takes a minority of bigots to make people feel uncomfortable. Just as living in Japan has raised my awareness of women's issues (, it is raising my awareness of racial issues too.

kushibo said...

I don't speak Japanese well and I don't live there, but I've been to Japan dozens of times, spending time that adds up to months. I've traveled with Koreans and hakujin, but I've never seen the kind of throat-clearing or spitting you're talking about.

On the other hand, if someone muttered something offensive after I mangled "Which bus goes to the Korean consulate?" I wouldn't have known.

Maybe this is a case of "your mileage may vary." Are you living in some place that attracts the element that does this?

It's funny that in Korea so many gaijin point to Japan as a paragon of how well foreigners are treated, but there's stuff like the widespread housing discrimination in Japan that just isn't there (if there are some isolated cases, they are so few and far between that they do not form a systematic or significant form of discrimination).

turingpup said...

After I read this entry, I started to feel a bit down, especially with, as you know, my intention to move to Japan to study Japanese within the year.

The truth is, everyone I've talked to about living in Japan for a serious amount of time has completely different stories and experiences. And I've been asking people for a long time. This isn't just people I read about over the internet, but people I've known and trusted.

It seems that a lot of factors are involved in whether the experience will be good or not. Too bad you end up making that risk and having to deal with the consequences.

It's interesting though. It absolutely reflects the exact same kind of racism that goes on frequently here in the states, like the middle of central Arkansas where I grew up. I found out the other day, by the way, that the ever popular Japanese 2channel was first created by Hiroyuki Nishimura while he was a student at UCA in 1999. This is so funny to me; not only is my home town the birthplace of the "Final Boss of the Internet", but there's a chance I may have met the guy when I went to UCA and asked about the active East Asian international student exchange program they had there (which I ultimately then went to Hendrix and participated in the Kansai Gaidai exchange, but anyways, random tangent).

What was I saying? Oh yeah, racism. Yeah, it's common, and I think it's actually a pretty common human rationalization, derived more from society fears and unity than individual experience. I still remember my own brother getting angry when an illegal Mexican was involved in a drunk car wreck with a teenage girl which resulted in her death. He told me that this was why we shouldn't allow Mexicans in our country and why they're criminals perpetuating tragedy. I told him that the real tragedy wasn't an illegal Mexican, it was drunk driving, which is statistically higher in fatalities for American teenagers than it was even for illegal immigrants (especially considering how few illegal immigrants even own cars). He conveniently ignores this blatant fact. He wants to be mad, not for any real reason, and not even because he has any reason to be mad. He wants to be mad because he is friends with other people who are mad who are probably themselves mad because they stay up listening to Rush Limbaugh who has no reason to be mad except to spread ridiculous overhyped sensationalism to make money.

It's like why marijuana became illegal, despite a unified scientific inquiry that yielded that it is practically harmless and far less incidental than even alcohol? That's right, to drive out the Mexican immigrants who were supporting themselves in the border states importing and selling it. And it was at the behest of state senators to get the Feds involved because the general public was generally indifferent until the campaigns to associate immigrants and violence to use of the drug (because a depressant causes killing sprees, amirite?)

Oh well. I figure it's useful as an experience, if nothing else, to know what it feels like. As a White American, I'm "the top of social chain" as it were in America. It's not something that I wanted or asked for, but I won't deny it: I've never had to deal with sexism, racism, or bigotry in all my life. I can't even relate to that kind of experience. It often allows me to take for granted my lifestyle.

When I go to Japan, I hope to just focus on my friends and my studies. As long as I have their support, I feel like the bad attitudes around me would be ignorable. And I figure the more I focus on deepening friendships with my Japanese anyways, the more sidelined and isolated the older generation will become. I feel that it's the same way in the states; as the younger generation interacts increasingly with 'immigrants' and relationships and bonds formed, there is less footing and social capital to fear monger racism with.

Basically, I think even racist people aren't really racist most of the time. They're just angry and protective and use rationalization to avoid it. Personal relationships often do alot to melt away predispositions and increase a person's ability to deal with societal problems in a socially responsible way.

But then again, people can be hateful ideologues, too.

Unknown said...

Really the main problem with racism here in Japan isn't that it exists (of course it does, it does everywhere), but how unaware most of the locals are that it exists or unaware that things they do or say are racist and/or offensive. I hope stories and comments about racism here in Japan don't sour people's expectations for visiting or living here. Before moving here I also heard many different impressions of Japan, both positive and negative, and have found all of them to be true. There are people here who will go out of their way to be helpful and kind, there are people who fear foreigners, and those who simply don't want to bother dealing with us. Many people see us as curiosities, but most people just ignore us and go on with their lives. In other words, despite many many people claiming otherwise, the Japanese are just like everyone else. There are lovely people and there are assholes, with most people falling somewhere in between. Most of the discrimination in terms of housing, hotels, stores, etc. I believe comes more from ignorance and laziness than anything else. People think you will be more trouble because they assume you don't know the language or the culture and don't want to bother to accommodate you. Again we do attract attention here, some negative, but most just curious. I don't like that extra attention and it makes me uncomfortable, other people don't mind so much, and some really enjoy it. Probably that will color your experience here more than anything. And for those people who have visited or spent time in Japan that has added up to a lot and made comments here - if you haven't lived in Japan, gotten your own apartment, utilities, groceries, job, travel arrangements and dealt with regular people in stores, on the train, at work, and in your neighborhood on a regular basis, then you really don't know what you're talking about.

Unknown said...

I occasionally get the throat clearing, I wonder if it's for real, or I'm making something out of nothing.

I guess my best advise is to try harder with the people who show a level of generosity, intrigue or friendship. I went to the local vegetable shop today, the people there are always friendly towards me, on the way a few old ladies stared a bit longer than normal at the foreign guy on his bike. I figure I should make more effort, give the ladies a wave and a smile, say bit more to the people in the shop. Say hello to the 'angry guy' before he passes and spits a lung. Make an effort and see the world differently.

H. T. said...

Kelly, don't take the words muttered behind seriously. "KAERE/Go home" is for foreigners, "USERO/disappear or dismiss" can be for Japanese. They say the same things to all randomly. They are not happy, just poor guys.
There *might* be more reasons. They may have bad experiences with foreigners who mess up the Japanese rules or the ways of behavior. This is unfortunate. I know you are following and respecting Japanese rules. I am, as one of Japanese, sorry to hear that.
I think, however, this is a proof of getting blended in with Japanese community and culture. At the beginning of the dwelling, we see only good things, then eventually notice negative things. Both positive and negative make you understand the culture more.

Please let me write down what I experienced in the US. It's been more than ten years since I came to the U.S.A. from Japan. I saw many grimaces at my poor English pronunciation in the first three or four years. I got used to, fortunately less people do so in California where I live in now. Apparently, there are some racial discrimination in renting apartments. This is illegal but lurked in some places in the US as well. There are many tiny difficulties here and there, but I can say it is a very good experience and am glad to be here. Hope you will feel the same in Tokyo soon.

nightnday said...

Learning Japanese was a big mistake, it is not good enough to get me a job but I can understand it perfectly when the Japanese talk about foreigners around me, and usually they don't say nice things.

I am surprise by your post because I thought the situation was a bit better in Tokyo, I thought the Japanese there were more used to see foreigners, I have been living in another part of Japan and I have see some really weird stuff, like kids shouting "hakujin" at me in a supermarket or a old lady in kimono throwing herself on the floor at the station and screaming, you have to see it to believe it, still now when I go to the local convenience store, 8 of 10 young people working there freak out when they see me. and the think is I am pretty average, I wonder what would be their reaction if one had an extreme look. If I go to the supermarket there will be at least one old lady to give me "the look". And it's better not to talk about work.

To be fair there are also nice people and people who actually like foreigners, but the "racist" people just ruin the experience, after a while you just fear to go out because you don't want to have a bad encounter.

Kelly Yancey said...

@nightnday: I think your impression of Tokyo is probably more accurate than my post let on: the vast majority of the people don't react strangely to foreigners here. But in a metropolitan area of over 30 million, it is still quite possible to encounter an odd reaction or two on an daily basis.

Yonatan said...

I'm living down here in Oita, in Kyushu, and I can tell you that you will see some of it here.

To be honest, I expect people to stare and talk. I'm one of maybe 4-5 noticeably foreign people living in all of my area besides exchange students, and it's natural that people will be shocked to see a non-Japanese person here. That's never bothered me, even if I've never experienced the "celebrity status" receptions that I hear from others in Tokyo, etc.

What does piss me off is how young people my age treat me. If someone in their forties or fifties hates my guts when they see me, then shou ga nai. Older generations may have their reasons for being racist- I can't even begin to unravel that. But when a 19 year-old starts talking trash to his friends right in front me, watching me the whole time as if to make sure that I really don't understand (because he wouldn't be doing it if he thought I could), that's inexcusable. I've been stoned by kids in front of their parents in a public park during a holiday; had three guys follow me out of a building into a parking lot while debating what to do about me the entire time, then finally deciding to call the police (who told them to handle me themselves...); and get called "kimoi" and "kawaisou" at least twice a week in public places like family restaurants and shopping malls. My Japanese fiancee is even continuously confused for a Korean and treated like dirt accordingly when seen with me, because "no Japanese would ever associate with gaijin", as the thinking in this area goes.

All of that said, there are wonderful people here that will make you reconsider reverse racism even on your darkest days. Living in Japan away from the big city centers (especially in rural Kyushu, where the Right Wingers are especially strong) will require you to be tough however. Some may never experience anything like what I'm talking about. I hope that will become the case for everyone in the near future. In addition to maintaining humor and positive thinking, it may help you to remember that you are not weak: they cannot break you. A tough-as-nails but take-nothing-too-seriously frame of mind may work best in Japan.

jjinux said...

Ouch! Thanks for telling me about this.

Glowing Face Man said...

Whoah... people actually said "die" and "go home" behind your back?

I had a much better experience when I was in Tokyo (and yes I know enough Japanese that I'd've known if people were telling me to die behind my back). I wrote my own article on this subject here. Takes kind of the opposite slant as yours.

About being denied in hotels and stuff: I don't think they do that because they hate foreigners, so much as it's just the staff doesn't know English (or Spanish or German or whatev), and they've had bad experiences with trying to host foreigners without being able to communicate with them.

blackpassenger said...

you sound like the typical angry white male I encounter in Japan. I've been here 10 years and it never fails: one of you angry white males are always approaching me, crying on my shoulders about how racist the japanese are to you. my usual response is, now you know how black, yellow and brown people feel in your home country: america, england, canada or australia.

Kelly Yancey said...

@blackpassenger: I bristle at the suggestion that my skin color or gender somehow indicates that I excuse racism in any context.
I believe people shouldn't be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.