DISCRIMINATION AND RACISM IN JAPAN
Conservative notions about ethnic purity remain strong. Theodore Bestor, a professor of Japanese Studies at Harvard, told the New York Times: “Japanese tend to have a fairly strong kind of inherent belief that genetics and biology really matter in terms of people’s behavior. So I think Japanese might be much more predisposed to thinking about a kind of genetic basis for personality than most Americans would.”
Good Websites and Sources: Map of Places that Exclude Foreigners debito.org/roguesgallery ;Tokyo Times Article wordpress.tokyotimes.org ; Wikipedia article on Ethnic Issues in Japan Wikipedia ; My Nippon Article mynippon.com ; American Chronicle Article americanchronicle.com ; wa-pedia Article wa-pedia.com ; Japan Focus Article japanfocus.org ; Mitsubishi Racial Discrimination Suit kamalsinha.com ; Foreign Workers Workers Foreign Workers in Japan (2003) pdf file idbdocs.iadb.org ; Chinese Migrant Workers in Japan pdf file gsti.miis.edu
Japanese View of Japanese
Japan is regarded as one of the world’s most insular countries. Law enforcement officials and scholars sometimes begin their explanations of Japan's low crime figures with statements like "we are a homogeneous race" or Japan is a "monoracial society." Hundreds of studies and books have been published and read voraciously by Japanese on the attributes of collective Japanese culture and what makes the Japanese different from everyone else in the world.
In Japanese newspapers, renowned scholars write things like: "The Japanese are Mongoloid... Mongoloid children should be raised slowly and carefully in large families and be exposed to complex social relations. This kind of environment is essential in raising Japanese children to ensure their frontal lobe develops properly." The same scholar wrote this also wrote the traditional Japanese fish- and rice-based diet is "most suited for the brains of the Japanese."
An extremist bureaucrat once explained to a an American audience that Japanese couldn't eat foreign rice because they had longer intestines than other people.
Japanese strongly desire the praise of foreigners. Television commercial feature foreigners complementing Japanese over their kindness and expressing admiration for Japanese technology. The media runs stories about what foreign textbooks and newspaper say about the Japanese.
Europeans were first refereed to as batakusai (literally "stinking of butter") because the Japanese, like the Chinese, didn't eat milk products and they regarded cheese and butter that Europeans ate as smelly.
Foreigners generally say they are treated well but some complain about people staring at them and children giggling when they walk by. One Japanese-speaking American writer told the New York Times, "Giggly school girls on the subway will and talk about me, thinking I don't speak Japanese, about how pink I am, how hairy."
There are also stories of Japanese getting out of public baths when a non-Japanese enters, standing up or moving away when a foreigner sits down next to them on the subway, and ignoring foreigners who ask them questions in English.”
One foreigner working in Japan wrote in the Daily Yomiuru, “In Japan, I have been banned from dinning establishment, denied service like taxis, snubbed and even physically accosted by strangers. I hear people whispering about me in every city I visit. The public seems to believe that all gaijin are ignorant of Japanese customs and language; that we are all rude and that we are all guilty of some crime we will inevitably commit.”
Globalization and job losses due cheap imports have fueled anti-foreigner feelings. Some places have "Japanese Only" signs. Outside a pachinko parlor in Sapporo there was a sign that read: “Japanese only. Caution: Entering in the foreigner will be held back.” A sign in Aomori Prefecture has a picture of a chubby Statue of Liberty urging citizens to “report suspicious foreigners.”
Jorge Bustamante, a United Nations labor rights expert, told Kyodo News, “racism and discrimination based on nationality are still too common in Japan, including in the work place, in schools, in health care establishments and housing...Japan should adopt specific legislation on the prevention and elimination of racial discrimination” as current laws are not effective in doing so.
Racist Comments by Japanese Politicians
Yasuhiro Nakasone, the conservative prime minister of Japan in the 1980s, angered minorities in Japan by referring to Japan as a “homogeneous nation” with “one ethnicity, one state and one language." He angered American and American minorities when said that the "intellectual level" of Americans was below that of Japanese because of "people like blacks, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans."
Tokyo mayor-governor Shintaro Ishihara used the word sangokujin, a derogatory term that means people from third countries, to refer to the immigrants. The term was used after World War II to tell Koreans and Chinese to leave Japan. He has also blamed Iranians in Japan for dealing drugs and Chinese immigrants for playing a major role in Japan's rising crime rate and warned of “genetic pollution” from China if too many Chinese immigrants were let in. These and other remarks won Ishihara the title of the Le Pen of Japan.
Ishihara also said, "Third-country nations and foreigners who have entered Japan illegally have perpetuated heinous crimes. In the event of a major earthquake, riots could break out, and there is a limit to the police's ability to cope with such a situation alone." He later apologized for this remark which was particularly insensitive in the light that as many as 7,000 Koreans were lynched after they were blamed for looting and setting fires and even causing the Great Tokyo Earthquake in 1923.
Japanese Discrimination Against Foreigners
Many foreigners have complained of being denied admission in minshukos and ryokans. A survey in 2008 found that 38 percent of inns didn’t have any foreign guests and 70 percent of the owners of these facilities said that they were unwilling to accept foreign guests.
In a survey with real estate companies 70 percent of respondents said apartment owners were reluctant to accept foreign tenants. About 46 percent said they were concerned about foreigners causing problems while 40 percent to 50 percent were concerned about foreigners obtaining suitable guarantors and if the foreigners could understand the rental rules in Japan.
In a 1996 survey of foreign residents, 36.5 percent of the respondents said they had been refused accommodation on the basis of their nationality. About 40 percent of the Korean and Chinese citizens said they had been refused accommodation while 35 percent of the Latin Americans and 29 percent of the North Americans and Europeans said they had.
There are no laws in Japan to prevent against discrimination against foreign tenants. But when Japan ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination it effectively indicated it would create such laws,
Japanese Racism Towards Blacks
"The Japanese," wrote Karen De Witt in the New York Times, "do have stereotypical images of black Americans, gleaned from American television and press accounts. Some of the assume that blacks are either entertainment or sports figures or slow, lazy, strong and destructive." Some housing contract in Japan have clauses that state "no blacks and no animals."
A black American film maker told the New York Times that the Japanese form of racism is generally non threatening. "The Japanese may be phobic and insular," he said, "but they are not going to bother you. There's no physical threat there. As a black male in America, you always have to consider, if I go there, how will I be received. Is it safe?"
Japanese television shows feature “Rast Man,” “Soul Man and “Afro Man” doing blackface skits and Tinga Beauty in a gorilla make-up and a golden earing. A commercial for facial wipes shown in the mid 2000s showed a group of rastafarians inexplicably hanging out with a chimpanzee.
Several prominent Japanese have made offensive remarks about blacks, including former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. One Japanese government official compared prostitutes in Tokyo to blacks who move into white neighborhoods and "ruin the atmosphere."
Young Japanese admire blacks and hip hop culture. Some perm their hair and get sun tans so they look black. Explaining why she had corn rows made from her mid-back length hair, one Japanese teenager told the New York Times, “Japanese copy black fashion out of adoration. I was into hip-hop dancing in high school. And I watch videos with rappers and R&B singers. They are proud of their culture, and they’ve got firm opinions. Many Japanese can’t say what they think. I want soft dreadx next, because my friend wore them and they looked cute.”
Japanese Racism and Crime
There is strong tendency to blame crime and social problems on foreigners. Even when Japanese are the perpetrators foreign influences are regarded as the root of the problem. One Japanese sociologist told the Los Angeles Times, “The crime rate among foreigners living in Japan is actually lower than among Japanese...But many Japanese still have a biased image.”
The media has frequent reports about crimes committed by foreigners. A televison survey in 2003, found that 40 percent of the Japanese population did not want foreigners to come to Japan because they are fearful there would be an increase in crime. More than half the crimes committed by foreigners are victimless crimes, mostly overstaying their visas. Most of the crimes that do involve victims are thefts.
Court Cases Involving Japanese Discrimination
In 1999, a Brazilian journalist was awarded damages after being refused service at a jewelry shop in Shizuoka Prefecture.
In 2000, public baths in the town of Otaru on Hokkaido displayed a a "Japanese Only" sign to keep Russian sailors from entering. The Russians had been accused of bringing in alcohol, making a lot of noise and not following Japanese bath etiquette. After the press drew attention to the issue, the bathhouses took down the signs and let foreigners in on the condition they followed the bathhouse rules. In November 2002, the bathhouse was forced to pay $30,000 in damages to the two foreigner refuged entry.
In January 2005, Japan’s Supreme Court ruled that public employers can refuse to give senior posts to ethnic minorities, even second-generation South Koreans living in Japan, on the basis that foreigners do not have the right to hold position of authority over ethnic Japanese. The case was brought by a second-generation South Korean who felt she was unfairly denied a promotion.
Japan’s Police Duties Execution Law
Japan’s Police Duties Execution Law is used to crack down on people suspected of being illegal immigrants. It states: “A police officer may stop and question any person who has reasonable ground to be suspected of having committed or being about to commit a crime.” [Source: Kumiko Makihara, New York Times, July 7, 2010]
Kumiko Makihara wrote in the New York Times, “The Japanese law is broader than the controversial legislation in the U.S. state of Arizona...which allows police to confirm someone’s immigration status only after stopping the person on other grounds. “The same thing as in Arizona has been in place in Japan for a long time without much criticism,” says my cousin and lawyer Genichi Yamaguchi.
Racial Stereotyping in Japan
Typecasting of foreigners in Japan can take on racist overtones. Brazilians are accused of being too loud and flashy. Vietnamese and Chinese are blamed for having a lack respect for Japanese culture and flaunting rules. Vietnamese living in Japan are not very well assimilated. Intermarriage is rare. Foreign students are accused of coming to Japan just to work. One small university town was so worried about crop theft by students a special dormitory was built for them that was surrounded by a fence.
Kumiko Makihara wrote in the New York Times, “‘Chinese don’t know train manners,’ I overheard a man say recently in response to a Chinese woman talking loudly on her cellphone in the compartment. On a bus tour of the Western city of Nara, several Japanese passengers complained that the Filipinos aboard who had trouble keeping up with the rushed sightseeing pace ‘don’t understand dantai kodo ,’ or group behavior. When one of the Filipinos went to the restroom, a Japanese woman grumbled that she should have held back in deference to the group schedule. [Source: Kumiko Makihara, New York Times, July 7, 2010]
Often times the typecasting seems to be more a matter of harmless naivete on the part of Japanese. Americans and Europeans are told repeatedly, often to their annoyance: 1) Oh what a surprise, you know how too use chopsticks; 2) Did you know Japan has four seasons?
Racial Profiling in Japan
On her experiences being mistaken for an illegal immigrant Kumiko Makihara wrote in the New York Times, “I am a Japanese woman living in Japan” but “a few years ago when I started getting pulled aside by police, apparently to see if I was an illegal immigrant. On three occasions, officers sidled up to me at busy train stations, flashing their badges and asking me where I was headed. When they concluded I was a Japanese national, they sent me on my way. Earlier this year, two officers approached me as I was exiting Tokyo Station and asked to see an ID and the contents of my purse. I refused their repeated requests while demanding an explanation until one of the officers finally told me, “You are tall and dark-colored and look like a foreigner.” He then added, “Every day we catch four to five overstays this way,” referring to immigrants with expired visas. [Source: Kumiko Makihara, New York Times, July 7, 2010]
“I was stunned by the officer’s blatant profiling of me based on what I perceive as my only slightly unusual features: a bit taller than average height and a shade of a sun tan. But microscopic vision for sniffing out differences is a common trait among the Japanese who are often uncomfortable with dealings outside of their familiar zones. The officers who approached me on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant were presumably acting on Japan’s Police Duties Execution Law.”
“Most Japanese are unaware of these racially motivated checks. But even if they knew about them, it is questionable how much they would object. Profiling is a common practice here with casual exchanging of personal information. The details collected from a business card or queries such as asking where one attended university or what blood type one is serve as clues to allow people to predict how each party will behave...The next time a police officer stops me, I plan to explain that suspecting me of a crime simply because I look foreign constitutes racial profiling. Only there is no term for the practice in the Japanese language.”
Anti-Foreigner and Anti-Korean Protests
Reporting from Kyoto, Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “The demonstrators appeared one day in December, just as children at an elementary school for ethnic Koreans were cleaning up for lunch. The group of about a dozen Japanese men gathered in front of the school gate, using bullhorns to call the students cockroaches and Korean spies. An armband worn by a member of the Japanese group Zaitokukai. The red characters say ‘The Volunteer Corps Against Lawless Koreans’; the black characters say ‘Expel barbarians.’” Inside, the panicked students and teachers huddled in their classrooms, singing loudly to drown out the insults, as parents and eventually police officers blocked the protesters’ entry.[Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, August 28, 2010]
“The December episode was the first in a series of demonstrations at the Kyoto No. 1 Korean Elementary School that shocked conflict-averse Japan, where even political protesters on the radical fringes are expected to avoid embroiling regular citizens, much less children. Responding to public outrage, the police arrested four of the protesters this month on charges of damaging the school’s reputation.” [Ibid]
“Teachers and parents at the school said the protests had left them and their children fearful. “If Japan doesn’t do something to stop this hate language,” said Park Chung-ha, 43, who heads the school’s mothers association, ‘where will it lead to next?’” [Ibid]
“New ultranationalist groups are openly anti-foreign in their message, and unafraid to win attention by holding unruly street demonstrations,” Fackler wrote. “Since first appearing in 2009, their protests have been directed at not only Japan’s half million ethnic Koreans, but also Chinese and other Asian workers, Christian churchgoers and even Westerners in Halloween costumes. In the latter case, a few dozen angrily shouting demonstrators followed around revelers waving placards that said, “This is not a white country.” [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, August 28, 2010]
Japanese Anti-Foreigner Ultranationalist Group
The largest new anti–foreigner group—which are collectively known as the Net right because they are organized on the Internet—goes by the cumbersomel named “Citizens Group That Will Not Forgive Special Privileges for Koreans in Japan,” known here by its Japanese abbreviation, the Zaitokukai, which has some 9,000 members. [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, August 28, 2010]
Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times,” The Zaitokukai gained notoriety in 2009 when it staged noisy protests at the home and junior high school of a 14-year-old Philippine girl, demanding her deportation after her parents were sent home for overstaying their visas. More recently, the Zaitokukai picketed theaters showing “The Cove,” an American documentary about dolphin hunting here that rightists branded as anti-Japanese.”
In interviews, members of the Zaitokukai and other groups blamed foreigners, particularly Koreans and Chinese, for Japan’s growing crime and unemployment, and also for what they called their nation’s lack of respect on the world stage. Many seemed to embrace conspiracy theories taken from the Internet that China or the United States were plotting to undermine Japan.” “Japan has a shrinking pie,” said Masaru Ota, 37, a medical equipment salesman who headed the local chapter of the Zaitokukai in Omiya, a Tokyo suburb. “Should we be sharing it with foreigners at a time when Japanese are suffering?”
“While the Zaitokukai has grown rapidly since it was started three and a half years ago with just 25 members, it is still largely run by its founder and president, a 38-year-old tax accountant who goes by the assumed name of Makoto Sakurai. Mr. Sakurai leads the group from his tiny office in Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district, where he taps out announcements and other postings on his personal computer.”
“Mr. Sakurai says the group is not racist, and rejected the comparison with neo-Nazis. Instead, he said he had modeled his group after another overseas political movement, the Tea Party in the United States. He said he had studied videos of Tea Party protests, and shared with the Tea Party an angry sense that his nation had gone in the wrong direction because it had fallen into the hands of leftist politicians, liberal media as well as foreigners.” “They have made Japan powerless to stand up to China and Korea,” said Mr. Sakurai, who refused to give his real name.
Mr. Sakurai admitted that the group’s tactics had shocked many Japanese, but said they needed to win attention. He also defended the protests at the Korean school in Kyoto as justified to oppose the school’s use of a nearby public park, which he said rightfully belonged to Japanese children.
Racism Toward Japanese
According to a survey in Japan, 70 percent of the people in their 20s felt that the Japanese are hated by other Asians.
In the United States, Japanese are sometimes referred to as Nips, a derogatory terms that is short for Nippon. In the old days Japanese were stereotyped as being small and having buckteeth and thick glasses and depicted as living in rabbit hatches. These days they charactered more as naive tourists with cameras slung over the shoulders or robot-like workers.
From the 1890s through the 1940s, newspapers regularly featured articles about the "yellow peril." One Hearst tabloid proclaimed "The War in the Pacific is the World War, the War of the Oriental Races against Occidental Races for the Domination of the World." Many Americans believed that most Japanese suffered from myopia. That is why characters of Japanese often had them wearing spectacles.
The 1990s film Rising Sun was criticized for portraying Japan as a nation of ruthless, conniving businessmen intent on taking over America. When a Japanese-translation of the Michael Crichton novel, on which the story was based, was released in Japan, the Japanese found the caricatures so preposterous they found the book humorous rather than insulting. [Source: New York Times]
See World War II
To reflect cultural sensitivity, the sign language sign for "Japanese" was recently changed from twisting the little finger next to the eye to putting the thumb and index finger together to outline the shape of the country of Japan.
Image Sources: 1) 2) 3) 4) 5) 6) 7)
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated July 2011