What being a minority allows us to see


Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before — many times. Someone called your child hafu (half) and you take offence. Or your contract is only one-year renewable, whereas your Japanese coworkers have “lifetime employment.” Or maybe someone called you a gaijin as you walked by. I’ve heard these stories dozens of times and while having myself been in some of the same situations, and while I can empathize, I also feel these “victims” are missing the point.

First of all, I’d like to say that discrimination is never acceptable. We all know that. Yet it continues to happen every day in Japan. Perhaps you have been told you are not allowed to enter a public bath because you either you have a tattoo, or because you’re a foreigner (and thus, it is believed, will behave inappropriately). Or maybe it’s that the clerk at the convenience store is visibly nervous that a foreigner has approached the counter, and that she, the clerk, may have to speak English. Or worse, the clerk doesn’t even listen to your flawless Japanese and responds inappropriately because she wasn’t listening to what you said in the first place.

Yes, this is Japan. Now, let’s jump to the rest of the world. Everyone admits that while discrimination (and stereotyping) are wrong, they happen all over the world, even in our own countries. So why is it that the very people who are discriminated against in Japan can’t empathize more deeply with those who are discriminated against in their own countries? Why is it still, as long as they are in their home countries, something that doesn’t concern them?

The Japanese are no more racist than Americans or people of many other countries. The only difference is that when you come to Japan, for the first time in your life, you are a minority and get to see what it’s like to be one. But for some reason, while here in Japan, discrimination suddenly becomes a personal affront, because it’s happening to you. And unfortunately, what follows tends to be the same conclusions: “The xenophobic Japanese!” Or “The Japanese are racist!” Now who is doing the stereotyping?

After being subjects of discrimination here, we scream like spoiled children, “Unfair!” While we have suddenly gained insight and an ability to see though the eyes of minorities around the world, we are blinded by our own self-worth and don’t suddenly empathize with other minorities struggling to achieve equality. No light bulb goes on in the head making us think: Aha! This is why the pilgrims fled England for North America! Or: So this is what the African-Americans in the U.S. struggle with every day!

Your small brush with discrimination in Japan is something that has been a lifelong battle for others who were born into a life of being a minority in our own countries. And many of them suffer far worse than we do in Japan.

Try being an African-American in the U.S. Or an aboriginal in Australia. Or a LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) in any country in the world. Every day people will judge you by your appearance. They may even fear you enough to walk down the other side of the road to avoid you.

I lost a job in Japan once due to discrimination. It was the worst year of my life as I grappled with the meaning and ramifications. But now I look back on it and realize it was one of the best things to happen to me because it made me have a better understanding of the world. It’s very hard to understand discrimination, and equally easy to deny its existence, if you have never experienced it.

As a result of my experience, I have developed a sense of “compassion,” a word not used nearly enough, and rarely even understood, in the US. Compassion should be the most basic of seeds planted in every person’s heart who has had experience with discrimination.

Before I came to Japan, I readily admitted there was racism in America. But it didn’t have anything to do with me — it wasn’t my problem. But now I think differently. Racism is everyone’s problem.

Such an experience should make you to take a good look at yourself-and see how you — yes you — have also, albeit inadvertently, discriminated against others. Are you tolerant of other people’s race and religion? What about that person with a speech impediment, the extremely short person or the extremely tall? The fat girl or too skinny guy? The gay community? It could even be a simple matter of being judgmental in a situation you have no business judging.

If you ask minorities about their own “micro-aggressions,” I think you’ll be surprised. Have you ever asked them?

If you have never been discriminated against, you are lucky. But at the same time, you are also ill-prepared to understand discrimination on the deepest levels. You will most likely deny that you discriminate against others. Yet we all do, whether we realize it or not. After all, I’ve never met anyone who thinks they themselves are racist.

Our own experiences should allow us to reach out to others and try to understand them better. It’s a great opportunity to take a deeper look at our own behavior right and our own hidden evils. While no one is perfect, there is a huge difference between trying to right our imperfections and not trying at all. It’s the difference between playing the victim, and using your experience to empower others.

This is the role of compassion. To accept that these problems are your own and be willing to not just admit they’re wrong, but to do something about them. Speak on the behalf of other minorities, help raise their profile. Especially you — you who have had a taste of what it’s like to be in their shoes!

Just once I’d like to hear someone who has been discriminated against in Japan say, “Now I know what it is like to be an African, Iranian or Muslim in the U.S.” or “Now I will work harder to eradicate all forms of discrimination, to make the world a better place for everyone.”

It’s not a case of us and them but “we.” We need to work together on this. The best way to fight discrimination is by using your experience for personal growth, and to spread the idea of compassion while working to develop a mind that is non-judgmental.

All too often what happens when a majority suddenly enters the minority, is accusations toward the other culture. When really, it should make us look more closely at our own.

Amy Chavez is the author of “Japan, Funny Side Up” and “Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage.”

  • K80

    I appreciate this article very much, as my hardships of being a foreigner in Japan were hardships I had never experienced in my home country, which then allowed me to put myself in the shoes of minorities elsewhere.

    For example, being seen as a threat to public safety just by looking different has made me very sensitive to cases of injustice that minorities are subjected to–the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, for one. Although the hardships I endured in Japan were unpleasant, it was certainly a learning experience that has helped me understand the feelings of discriminated groups, and there is no other way to understand than to go through discrimination yourself.

    I see the author’s point that some foreigners in Japan do not appreciate this learning experience, and should put it into perspective for the sake of others in the world, and I agree that it is something valuable to take away from time spent in Japan.

    At the same time, though, it sounds like she is making a blanket statement that ALL foreigners in Japan act this way. It’s simply not true.

    “Just once I’d like to hear someone who has been discriminated against in Japan say, “Now I know what it is like to be an African, Iranian or
    Muslim in the U.S.” ”

    I have heard foreigners in Japan say things like this. My question is, How could one live in Japan as a foreigner for so many years and never meet any other foreigner there who has come to this realization? Has the author really never met many different kinds of foreigners in Japan?

    I think the article’s topic is valid and must be addressed, even if only to defuse negative assumptions about a foreigner’s perspective of Japan. However, I think it would have been more effective to accurately convey that this is an attitude held only by some members of the foreign community in Japan–not all–and just focus on how this kind of discriminating experience relates to the rest of the world.

  • DragonAsh

    How do you know you lost your job to discrimination, and not because you just sucked at your job?

  • Ian LLewellyn Davies

    very nice and timely article given the ridiculous pro/anti Japan ‘arguments’ that have been doing the rounds recently. You made me smile!

  • scratchy888

    nice article

  • Steve Blanchette

    This is a deep truth. I myself have never been subject to discrimination and i’m not sure if i should consider myself lucky for it not happening or unlucky for not having the possibility for better comprehension.
    From the moment i learned what ‘gaijin’ meant, i felt uncomfortable at the idea of being called that or to be treated as such. I think i never treated others in a likewise manner where i live but one nevers knows, as you said. I prefer treating everybody from their personality rather than from a trait like religion or color of skin.

    Still, i like the message that this text sends.

  • Diane E Johnson

    So true!

  • JusenkyoGuide

    YES! Thank you! Thank you for writing this, this is exactly what we need to hear more of.

  • blondein_tokyo

    It’s a good thing to be made more aware of one’s privilege and develop empathy for those who experience discrimination. But this piece still needs some work, because as it’s written, it’s almost like the author is saying, “Don’t complain about the discrimination you receive here because minorities in your own country are experiencing the same thing.”

    To finish the article, I want her to explain what we should actually DO with our new found understanding and empathy. Is she encouraging activism? I hope so.

    I also wonder if the author doesn’t realize that some of us complaining about discrimination in Japan ARE minorities who have had similar experiences in our own countries. Hello author! You can’t assume that every person reading this is ignorant of racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination. Some of us are quite well aware, and this piece doesn’t address that.

    All in all, it’s a weak piece of writing, and not well thought out.

    • Ian LLewellyn Davies

      Possibly you are one of the “grumpy gaijin” the writer is referring to? Always making a storm out of a cup of tea. Some people seem to look for offense.

    • Yamashiro44

      I agree. In The USA I have worked to fight the listed types of discrimination. In Japan, about 15 years, i saw no one who would stand up to the obvious ‘gaijin’ discrimination.

      When I made mention of the situation, the standard reply was, “This is Japan.”
      Tom Mountcastle

    • Mark Makino

      I agree. The author seems to have started out wanting to make one point and ended up making another one, a very familiar one to boot.

    • IanPG

      Thank-you. Yes, it is entirely possible for a minority in America(say a Puerto-Rican American) to travel to Japan, attempt to integrate into Japanese society, and face discrimination all over again.

    • A Gawd Dang Mongolian
    • Henro99

      “what we should actually DO with our new found understanding and empathy.”

      Short answer: live your life as a decent human being. Make apologies where you feel they are appropriate. Share your experiences with other people. Encourage others to think critically as you have.

      Take your new found understanding and empathy and be a decent human being.

  • GoGoBrenChan

    “Try being an African-American in the U.S. Or an aboriginal in Australia.
    Or a LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) in any country in the
    world. Every day people will judge you by your appearance. They may
    even fear you enough to walk down the other side of the road to avoid
    Tell me, Amy- what does a LGBT person look like? Can I tell based on their appearance only? What clothes, hairstyles, or mannerisms should I look for in order to avoid them?
    In your own words: “Now who is doing the stereotyping?”

  • Henro99

    Actually, the fear and hurt I felt while dealing with certain bureaucratic nonsense in Japan absolutely allowed me to understand a small piece of the American minority experience.

    When I was younger, we’d jokingly say to friends who were upset with us, “Is it because I’m black?” We thought it was soooooo funny, because, really, what was it with black people always acting defensive? “Is it because I’m black?” We laughed at the absurdity of their oversensitivity.

    Then I came to Japan. And I found myself being maltreated by bureaucrat after bureaucrat – and I looked at them and I asked, quietly to myself, “Is it because I’m foreign?” And…right there, in that moment, I remembered all the times we laughed at that phrase, and it stopped being funny. Because I finally understood the fear and pain behind that question. Because I genuinely, truly did not know why these bureaucrats were treating me with such…bile. WAS it because I was foreign? WERE they being racist?

    I didn’t know. To this day I don’t know. No one else I know has had the same experience in the same department, and no one can tell me what was going on. I simply do. not. know. what motivated that nastiness from them.

    And I realized that…neither do black people in America. They just don’t know sometimes, what motivates the actions of those around them, but unlike me – they have to live with that fear every day. i had to deal with it a few times in a city office. I never feared for my life. A black man in America…every time he sees a cop car…

    Sometimes…not always, but sometimes, when a black man asked, way back in the 80’s and 90’s when I was young, “Is it because I’m black?” It was a sincere question – he really didn’t know, and maybe he wanted to know. “Seriously, are you doing this because I’m black?” Just as, for me, it was a sincere question that I desperately wanted an answer to: “Is it because I’m foreign?”

    So, I didn’t even finish this article, because, frankly, in my eyes this is an asinine observation. It’s one of the first things that should come to mind when you experience racism in Japan. Frankly, if you DON’T immediately sympathize with minorities in your home country – if you DON’T immediately reflect on and repent for your past racism that you now understand better – if you DON’T use your experiences to better understand and sympathize with your fellow man…then…well…you are stupid. Period. Stupid. Only a stupid man could go through the horrible crap we sometimes put up with in this country and NOT reflect on what it means in his life. Only a stupid man can face racism and NOT reflect on his past racist transgressions.

  • Japanish

    The author is basically telling foreigners to be grateful for being discriminated against. Imagine telling your child that the discrimination and bullying they suffer makes them better people. It’s just a take on “nobility through suffering” fetish” that has led to terrible social, gender and environmental exploitation being unquestioned in this country for decades. The results of this are there for all to see.
    Also, there seems to be a quasi religious strain through this article, a sort of Buddhist “it’s karma” attitude.If so, given the huge profits that major Buddhist groups reap in Japan, and the luxury that their leaders enjoy, I”ll have to call BS on that one too.
    Pretty appalling attitude, but typical of a certain strain of comfortably off foreign residents IME.

  • Paul Tatsuya Nakashima

    “Just once I’d like to hear someone who has been discriminated against in Japan say, “Now I know what it is like to be an African, Iranian or Muslim in the U.S.””

    Wow I said these exact words while trying to explain to my Japanese friend my position in Japan! I knew that there was racism in my country, but it really opens your eyes when your on the receiving end. I am Japanese Canadian, but I encounter more open racism in my supposed “mother country” than back home. I took Canada for granted, makes me appreciate the muticulturistic upbringing I had!

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    “Just once I’d like to hear someone who has been discriminated against in Japan say, “Now I know what it is like to be an African, Iranian or Muslim in the U.S.” ”

    Well Amy, I have heard white, English-speaking (mostly male) Japanese residents say that, and it sounds as dumb when they said it as when you wrote it down.

    Have you ever gone aboard an airplane only to have the person in the next seat complain to the crew that they did not want to sit next to you? And did the airline respond by booting YOU off the flight? No? I didn’t think so.

    Have you ever walked into the wrong neighborhood or business in Japan and been made to fear for your personal safety? No? I didn’t think so.

    So no, I have no real idea what it must be like to be black in America, or Muslim in a Western country, or for that matter a non-Muslim in a Muslim country. And I never will. This is not to say I don’t have empathy for those who face discrimination due to an accident of birth, for I do. But I also know I have no real idea what they go through every day and to suggest that I, or any other white English-speaker in Japan, does as a result of the trivial or (all-too-often, sadly…) outright imagined slights we must “endure” is an insult to those who have to face real discrimination.

  • Sam Gilman

    It’s rather unfortunate that the author’s message has been rather misinterpreted by a lot if commenters here. The message is not “Westerners are discriminated against in Japan just like African-Americans and Muslims in the US.” That would be a daft thing to say.

    Instead the author is clearly asking people to use their experience of being a minority here to reflect on prejudice back home and gain a little bit more empathy and awareness about prejudice everywhere.

    Perhaps a more threatening, but more relevant question to think about is not whether or not westerners in Japan can have special access to the feelings and experiences of ethnic minorities in their own country, but whether back home they, or their friends or family, have displayed or expressed the kind of prejudiced behaviour there that they dislike here?

    Ever made a comment about Mexicans or Hispanic immigrants? Ever joked about Irish being drunks? Said something about how “blacks need to sort themselves out” over crime? About Asian-American parenting? About Poles in the UK or Lebanese in Australia? About white people’s coldness or innate racism? Ever made a joke about what Chinese eat? Have any of your relatives disapproved of a partner to another relative who’s from the “wrong” ethnic group? Have you or friends made fun of or expressed frustration with someone’s inability to speak good English in America/Australia/UK etc. Have you or anyone you know ever decided to avoid going through a certain area of town because the ethnic make-up makes you nervous? Ever slagged off the French? Joked about Jews controlling Hollywood? Ever wondered out loud “what is wrong with these Muslims?”

    Have you done any of these but want to say “it’s not the same” – ie justify or forgive behaviour that you would strenunuously object to a Japanese person doing or saying about you? Do you feel like saying “it’s different when the Japanese do it”? In fact, have you ever sat around and just b**ched about “The Japanese”?

    The point here is not to make light of racism in Japan, but to raise awareness of how it exists everywhere, and in particular for those of us who grew up as the majority ethnic group in our countries of origin (including Japanese in Japan), raise awareness of the contrast between how we too often don’t notice it, or give it a free pass, or downplay the significance when it’s our group doing it, but are hypersensitive when we are suddenly the minority elsewhere.

  • Enteringsandman

    “The Japanese are no more racist than Americans or people of many other countries. The only difference is that when you come to Japan, for the first time in your life, you are a minority and get to see what it’s like to be one”

    This may be true (or not, you provide no evidence), but I think there is a key difference, which is that compared to the US, UK, Germany etc. the racism is actually somewhat institutionalised. For example, if someone refused to rent an apartment to you because you were a foreigner in the UK, you could take them to court. Or the fact third generation Koreans can’t vote or hold high management positions. I agree that it is good for people to use their own experience as an outsider to show more empathy in their home country, but Japan definitely lags behind a lot of the other developed countries in terms of race relations…

  • Jon C.

    I feel that I have been discriminated throughout my life and for many reasons, and, at times I have discriminated against persons as well. Nevertheless, the effects of discrimination can be quite serious and whether you are a manager, a leader, or simply the average Joe (Judy), you should be aware of how to avoid discriminative behaviour and the reporting of such behaviour.

  • Jon C.

    I have been discriminated for my sexual orientation, for my opinion, and, for being who I am. I have witnessed racial discrimination on social media in my country, and, I have talked to victims of rape. Whilst some tradition or religion (e.g. Catholic faith, Islam etc.) might allow for stronger influences of tradition over an open-mind towards diversity and multi-cultural tolerance, minorities still lack political power in societies. On the other hand in some societies some minorities (e.g. Islam) tend to attempt to dominate other cultures due to them being strong minded, and, for this they might be labelled as well sometimes by the ‘norm’.

  • Fight Back

    This article is a direct attack on Debito Arudou and his struggle for our rights. By undercutting any criticism of Japan the writer is attempting to silence the one man who has been brave enough to speak out. Hating other NJ for not being ‘Japanese’ enough and shutting the door on their faces is the agenda here. Shut up and suffer in silence or stand with Debito and make your voices heard. I know whose side I’m on.

  • Max Erimo

    Good article to a point.
    “Now I know what it is like to be an African, Iranian or Muslim in the U.S.”
    The people in the U.S were most probably born there.
    Minorities(Foreigners in Japan, let’s not beat around the bush), with the probable exception of second or third generation Koreans who were born here, have all chosen to come Japan. I have lived here for seventeen years and it is tough sometimes.
    My advice is if you don’t like it, go home. Tough yes, cold maybe. Uncaring definitely not. I know when I get to the point that I can’t take it anymore I will leave.
    Now before the, ‘ what about the refugees..’ comes, let’s just say that Japan takes very very few .

  • Gordon Graham

    The irony of statements like “The Japanese are racists”, never fails to give me a chuckle.

  • Hanten

    I generally love Amy Chavez’s writing as her insights into Japan have taught me so much. Here, though, I have a couple of bones to pick.
    Firstly, Americans are not the only gaijin in Japan. I am sure I am not the only non-American gaijin who is sick of being invisible in your gaijin generalisations. Next, Japan’s workforce is being casualised at an alarming rate so lifetime employment is becoming rarer. A lot of women, young people as well as foreginers are only offered one year contracts.
    Thank you for stimulating conversation amongst many foreigners!

  • http://ameblo.jp/cluttered-talk/ Michiko

    I see, one thing I can offer might be, “fairness” is not a notion existed in our cuture in the first place.
    We’re not a tribe weighing fairness first.
    I don’t tend to discuss its just or unjust at all, it’s only a fact, culture.
    And I don’t tend to display its why either, since people in here rather not like to here that.
    What I know else is, there’re Western people much weighing fairness, I can almost guess their why, and sometimes it’s useful when I deal with them, maybe I’m a cunning Japanese, sorry.

  • blackpassenger

    Thanks for this article. I find it so incredibly ironic when white people complain about their encounters with discrimination in Japan to me. Me, a black man who’s lived extensively BOTH in the US and the UK. My response is always, “well, you understand.” Funny thing, having been a foreigner most of my life since I left my native Jamaica at 15, 33 years ago, discrimination in Japan is like water off a duck back to me.

  • AzraelSRK

    “The only difference is that when you come to Japan, for the first time in your life, you are a minority and get to see what it’s like to be one.”

    Um, speak for yourself. I was born a minority.

    You want to hear something funny though? I spent my first 21 years in America. I’ve been living in Japan for the past 10. I have encountered way more stereotyping in Japan than in America. Hands down. In America I was lucky to have lived in nice, open-minded communities for the better part of those 21 years. So while that’s fortunate, I can still safely say that I’ve never encountered as much racism and stereotyping as I do in Japan.

  • Jenna

    I live in Taiwan, not Japan, but the two countries are not totally dissimilar (in some ways – in other ways they’re completely different).

    My experience in Taiwan doesn’t quite mirror this: yes, there is the experience of being a minority and therefore “noticed” more. Yes, there are times when people just assume I don’t or can’t know something (like how to speak/write Chinese) or understand what they are saying. Yes, I’ve been treated badly – mildly so – as a minority (but only twice that I can name specifically – an older guy in 7-11 who told me “you can never understand our 5,000 years of culture” because I was buying a newspaper with a political bias he didn’t agree with, and a taxi driver who quite clearly passed by me in favor of the local person about 50 meters down who was also trying to hail a taxi).

    But as a white foreigner in Taiwan, it’s really NOT the same experience as being a minority in, say, the USA. There are similarities and insights but it’s not the same thing. For one thing, as a white person in Taiwan, I’m treated pretty well – at times better than locals. It’s almost a neocolonial Stockholm syndrome at times. It’s totally different for foreigners in Taiwan who are not white (be they black, Indian, Hispanic or SE Asian) who are treated markedly worse. In some ways the old strata of discrimination in the West is just recreated in Taiwan, but possibly worse, because people are more open about it.

    Second, there is a developed country I can go back to, that I am from, where people who look like me are the majority, if I decide I just don’t want to be a minority anymore. But for minorities in the USA, either they are *from* the USA (go back? to where?) and minorities in their own country, or they are from another country but if they “go back” they’ll be in a place with fewer economic opportunities and advantages of development. So no, IMHO it’s not the same at all.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to reflect, think and be conscious of discrimination and racism worldwide, and of course one should strive to be as empathetic to others as possible using their own experiences as well as stories from and observations of others as a springboard. Just that I don’t happen to find my treatment in Taiwan all that comparable to what minorities face in the USA.

  • Someone with eyes

    Amy, you need to make it clear from the beginning that you’re writing to other white foreigners in Japan. White people are a minority of the foreigners here, in case you didn’t notice!

  • blimp

    I can sort of understand (although not necessarily agreeing) that one could look at one’s own country when experiencing discrimination in japan, but Amy, what should my children do, born and bred in Japan?

  • Susan Kelly

    You make a good point, but it would be a better piece if the tone weren’t so flippant.

  • Diane E Johnson

    Okay, so now the foreign-born visitor or resident can understand the experience of being a minority, perhaps a good life lesson. That being said, it doesn’t mean such person has to like it. Nothing will change if we quietly acquiesce.

  • Murasaki

    OK I really am missing something, I am an Australian born Brit, had racism thrown at me daily in Australia because not Australian blood, but here in Japan in a total of 11 years only twice had to deal with racism.

    I think the problems gaikokujin have in Japan is problems they have brought on themselves.

  • Shams

    I agree that it is common to be treated badly or to get a discrimination if you are the minority. Most of us are discriminating others but we do not see ourselves as being one if we are the one who is majority. Discrimination happens by wildly different reasons, including religious difference, being from different nation, being different than others, and much more.

    I dont think discrimination is never acceptable, sometimes minority will have to be discriminated if that minority is or to be the cause of problem. Yes, there is a lot of population that is involved in discrimination but not everyone. For those who have been to different nations or have been enrolled into international community, they do not participate in discrimination and that is clearly visual.

    This kind of problem that is created between majorities and minorities can be seen in different point of view or ways. For example, if two different groups have different ideas it naturally causes them to discriminate each other. In other words I think discrimination is one of the sense that humans naturally got in order to maintain their opinions around others.

  • 思德

    I have lived in Taiwan, and now Japan. It was only in Japan that I had the thought, “Now I know what it means to be an immigrant or minority who is discriminated against in America.” I don’t believe I fully understand what it means to live under discrimination, but it has caused me to have respect for minorities and understand some of the emotions they feel, and the difficulty of exercising restraint and not acting out of their frustrations. It has also caused me to understand how easy it is to slip into paranoia, and that it is important to give people the benefit of the doubt. It is very, very hard to put yourself in the shoes of an ignorant or insensitive majority, but it needs to be done (to an extent) or you will see racists behind every bush, and that is not reality.

  • John Cole

    Because of history, it seems the US is accepted as a racist country, in general it is not! It is exploited by many to their advantage; keeps them working! Am I hiding my head in the sand, possibly. Are there racists, yes and there we always be. Today,in the US, I believe it is more a lack of understanding than it is pure racism. We have worked very hard to “outlaw” the “tattoo” refusal and job discrimination except for equal pay for women; another topic for later. That is probably just as true with many country’s. However, the US is a “melting pot” of cultures, a very difficult nation to manage let alone understand. Where many other countries are well, not so much “melting pots”.