Past victimhood blinds Japan to present-day racial discrimination

Like the abused who then go on to abuse, Japan is too psychologically scarred to see discrimination going on within its borders


Readers may be expecting this column to have something to say about the Supreme Court decision of July 18, which decreed that non-Japanese (NJ) residents are not guaranteed social welfare benefits.

But many have already expressed shock and outrage on these pages, pointing out the injustice of paying into a system that may choose to exclude them in their time of need. After all, no explicit law means no absolute guarantee of legal protection, no matter what court or bureaucratic precedents may have been established.

I’m more surprised by the lack of outrage at a similar legal regime running parallel to this: Japan’s lack of a law protecting against racial discrimination (RD). It affects people on a daily basis, yet is accepted as part of “normal” unequal treatment in Japan — and not just of noncitizens, either.

This brings me to an argument I wanted to round off from last month’s column, about how Japan has a hard time admitting RD ever happens here. Some argue it’s because RD does not befit Japan’s self-image as a “civilized” society. But I would go one step further (natch) and say: RD makes people go crazy.

First, let me establish the “hard time admitting it” bit. (Apologies for reprising some old ground.)

As covered in past columns, Japan’s government and media are seemingly allergic to calling discriminatory treatment based upon skin color or “foreign” appearance racial discrimination (specifically, jinshu sabetsu).

For example, take the Otaru onsen case (1993-2005), which revolved around “Japanese only” signs barring entry to hot springs in Otaru, Hokkaido, to anyone who didn’t “look Japanese” enough (including this writer). Only one major Japanese media source, out of hundreds that reported on it, referred to jinshu sabetsu as an objective fact of the case (rather than reporting it as one side’s claim) — even after both the Sapporo district and high courts unequivocally adjudged it as such.

Public discourse still shies away from the term. That is why the reaction to the “Japanese only” banner displayed at the Urawa Reds soccer game in March was such a landmark. After initial wavering (and the probable realization that the World Cup was approaching), the team’s management, the J. League and the media in general specifically called it out as jinshu sabetsu, then came down on it with unprecedented severity.

Bravo. Thank you. But so far, it’s the exception that proves the rule.

This see-no-evil attitude even affects scholarship on Japan, as I discovered during my doctoral dissertation literature review. Within the most-cited sources reviewing discrimination in Japan, not one listed “skin color” as among Japan’s discriminatory stigmata, or included RD as a factor (calling it instead discrimination by nationality, ethnicity, ingrained cultural practice, etc.). Indicatively, none of them (except some obscure law journal articles) mentioned the Otaru onsen ruling either.

Now peer into Japan’s education system. Jinshu sabetsu happens anywhere but Japan. The prototypical examples are the American South under segregation and apartheid-era South Africa. But homogeneous Japan, the argument runs, has no races, therefore it cannot logically practice racial discrimination. (Again, the Otaru onsen ruling disproves that. But, again, see no evil.)

So why can’t Japan own up? Because RD inflicts such deep psychological wounds that whole societies do irrational, paranoid and crazy things.

Consider this: Harvard University anthropologist Ayu Majima, whose chapter in Rotem Kowner and Walter Demel’s 2013 book “Race and Racism in Modern East Asia” I cited last month, also discussed the aftermath of the United States’ Asian exclusion policy of 1924 — under which Japan, despite all its attempts to “Westernize” and “de-Asianize” itself, was subordinated as a “colored” nation.

Japan’s public reaction was (understandably) furious, and visceral. The Kokumin Shimbun called it “a national dishonor” and demanded that U.S.-Japan ties be severed. In the words of one liberal Japanese journalist at the time: “Discrimination from the United States was due to regarding the Japanese as a colored people. This is a disgrace to the most delicate matter of the Japanese ethnic pride.”

Public outcry morphed into mass hysteria, including countless letters to the government urging war on America. Several people even committed suicide outside the American Embassy!

Although these events subsided, Japan’s elites never let go of this slur. The Japanese ambassador wrote the U.S. secretary of state, saying that the issue was “whether Japan as a nation is or is not entitled to the proper respect” that forms “the basis of amicable international intercourse throughout the civilized world.” Emperor Hirohito later called the act “a remote cause of the Pacific War.” It has also been connected to Japan’s rejection of the West and invasion of Manchuria.

See how crazy RD makes people? Mass hysteria? Calls for war? Suicides? International isolation? Invading China?

RD also psychologically wounds people to the point that it can feed illogical exceptionalism, denialism and perpetual victim status.

It short-circuits the ability to run self-diagnostics and see the fundamental hypocrisy behind the idea that, for example, Japanese are perpetual victims of RD, but rarely, if ever, perpetrators of it — as if Japan is somehow an exception from the racialization processes that happen in every society.

Seriously. During Japan’s colonial era, when Japan was “liberating” and colonizing its neighbors under the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, officials argued that under Japan’s Pan-Asianism, where (unlike Western colonization) her new subjects were of the same skin color, Japan could not practice “racism” in the Western sense.

But the historical record indicates that Japan’s colonized subalterns were subordinated and exploited like any racialized minority — something Japan’s similarly psychologically-wounded neighbors have never forgotten.

Then, in the postwar period, Japan’s national narrative mutated from “heterogeneous Asian colonizer” to “pure homogeneous society.” How did official illogic accommodate this shift? Again, with fallacious ideas such as “Japan has no races, therefore it cannot possibly practice racism.”

This claim is easily disproven by pointing to the country’s “Japanese only” signs. But then what happens? Relativism, denialism and counterattack.

Either deniers repeat that Japan has no RD (patently false; again, that pesky Otaru onsen case), or they argue that everyone else in the world is racist and Japanese have been victims of it (citing wartime examples such as the U.S. and Canadian Japanese internment camps, or the atomic bombings) — as if racism is just how the world naturally functions, and two wrongs make a right.

Then the focus turns on you. You face accusations of racism for overgeneralizing about Japan (e.g., with the counterargument that only a few places post “Japanese only” signs — just don’t point out the standard practice of denying NJ apartments . . .). Or you are charged with being remiss for not acknowledging the “positive discrimination” that “esteemed NJ” get (some, that is), and that positive discrimination somehow compensates for and justifies the negative. Then the debate gets tangled in red herrings.

But the point is that the reaction will be as swift, clear and visceral as it was way back when. The milder accusations will be of cultural insensitivity, Japan-bashing or Japan-hating. But as you get closer to the heart of the matter, and the incontrovertible evidence moves from anecdotal to statistical, you’ll be ostracized, slandered, harassed by Japan’s shadowy elements, stalked and issued death threats. Believe me, I know.

Again, racism is not seen as something that “civilized” countries like Japan would do. To call it out is to question Japan’s level of civilization. And it conjures up an irrational denialism wrapped within a historical narrative of racialized victimization.

Thus Japan’s constant self-victimization leads to paranoia and overreaction (justifying even more tangential craziness, such as defenses of whaling and dolphin culls, international child kidnappings after divorce, and historical amnesia) due in part to fears of being besmirched and discriminated against again. Like a jilted suitor heartbroken by an exotic lover, Japan thus takes extreme precautions to avoid ever being hurt again — by forever forsaking close, equal and potentially vulnerable relationships with anyone with a whiff of the exotic.

Until Japan gets over itself and accepts that racialization processes are intrinsic to every society, it will never resolve its constant and unwarranted exceptionalism. Bigots must be dealt with, not denied or justified. Like the abused who becomes the abuser, Japanese society is simply too psychologically damaged by RD to stop its RD.

This remains the fundamental hurdle Japanese society must overcome before it can empathize fully with outsiders as fellow equal human beings. As was evident in last month’s Supreme Court ruling.

There — now you have my comment on it.

Debito Arudou’s most recent publication is the Hokkaido and Tohoku Chapters in Fodor’s 2014 Japan travel guide. Twitter: @arudoudebito. An excerpt of Ayu Majima’s chapter can be read at www.debito.org/?p=12122, and more of Debito’s analysis of the Supreme Court ruling at www.debito.org/?p=12530. Just Be Cause usually appears in print on the first Thursday of the month. Your comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Steve Jackman

    “But as you get closer to the heart of the matter, and the incontrovertible evidence moves from anecdotal to statistical, you’ll be ostracized, slandered, harassed by Japan’s shadowy elements, stalked and issued death threats.”

    Debito, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this sentence. This is the very reason why more people in Japan don’t come out against racial discrimination and other such problems facing Japanese society. It is fear, pure and simple. The “shadowy elements” you refer to are always there lurking behind the shadows. They make sure that no one gets out of line, using all the tactics you have noted. The beauty of such a system is that it has all the makings of a Police State, without ever needing a visible “Police” to carry out the dirty deeds.

  • Ken Yasumoto-Nicolson

    Dr Arudou says:

    “Like the abused who becomes the abuser, Japanese society is simply too psychologically damaged by RD to stop its RD.”

    So, if we accept what he writes to be true, how does he propose the damage is healed? Or does he think that it cannot be healed? Surely such a bold statement by him requires him to advise us or Japanese society how this illness can be stemmed? His usual call for a law against racial discrimination is surely not feasible as he claims that Japanese society, which must includes lawmakers, is too “damaged” to accept a law against racial discrimination.

    • Steve Jackman

      The first step to solving any problem is to admit that a problem exists. A problem cannot be addressed as long as a person or a society is in denial about the very existence of the problem.

      I think Debito’s article is quite clear about how the Japanese are in denial about the existence of racial discrimination in Japan and how they need to move beyond this state of denial in order for any meaningful progress to be made in tackling racial discrimination in Japan.

    • Really? Ken !

      Really Ken?
      I think Dr. Arudou has made many suggestions on how we as Japanese can move forward as a whole and as individuals who want to take a stand.
      Laws guarantee that those who are denied then have a leg to stand on in society. I know I’d like that for my Japanese – British children.

      It seems to me that you are in major denial, after all you have a whole website dedicated to this denial and take it one step further by bashing, threatening those who want to make a difference. Perhaps your time could be spent more productively by trying to come up with a single suggestion on how we might move forward?

    • Francesca Nakauchi

      Do “we” have accept yet another bigot in denial on this forum? For Japanese Society, Suicide is cultural and well accepted. Wouldn’t you commit suicide in order to prove your point? Please be my dear guest.

    • K T

      Some people, apparently not you, feel the process for making things better is to first identify a problem, then determine how best to fix it.
      In the real world, where most people live (apparently not you), the person who highlights the problem is not always the person who fixes the problem.
      This is a widely accepted, time honored process. I am surprised you have not heard of it before.
      But it seems that you don’t think Japan has a problem. And we all know it is difficult to help someone who won’t admit that a problem exists…

  • Earl Kinmonth

    Amusing that the good “doctor” should be fulminating over “Japanese only” signs while people in St. Louis, Missouri, are mourning the death of yet another unarmed young black man shot by cops. If Japan is “racist,” what terminology is left for the US?

  • Richard Solomon

    As Koreans are also considered to be ‘Asian,’ how would one categorize the discrimination which they have encountered in Japan? Even when there were 600,000+ of them who were and had been living in Japan for many years at the end of WW II the government decided not to allow them Japanese citizenship. This was done with the blessings of the American Occupation, by the way. So, the USA decided to sanction this ‘law’ with which Japan continued its colonial relationship with Koreans even after the Japanese had lost the war and adopted democracy.

  • K T

    A well worded, if long, article, by Debito Arudou.
    While many of you argue over;
    – Japan’s racial discrimination vs. that of other countries,
    – What good would laws in Japan outlawing racial discrimination do when discrimination against ethnic Koreans is not racial, therefore would not be covered?
    – and my favorite = “don’t even mention a problem, unless you also bring a palpable solution”

    For those of you who got lost in the fog, here is the solution:
    Whatever the problem – START with something. Then build on it.
    But while the boat sinks, don’t sit around and argue the pros & cons of plugging one hole over another. Start with the biggest, and continue from there.

    The fact is that Japan is behind all other developed nations in NOT protecting the human rights of non-Japanese. It is behind all other developed nations in NOT having laws against racial discrimination.

    Going forward:
    It is the tactic of people who want to shut down a conversation to question the credentials of people expressing their opinions. I honestly don’t care if someone has a PhD – I will judge them by their comments, not by their degree. Further, someone with a higher level of education is not more “correct” than me – or anyone else, for that matter – just because they have a degree.

    I think some of the expat community in Japan is confused about their place in the Universe (or Japan) – you don’t have basic human rights protection in your country of residence. The locals who may discriminate against you don’t care if you have a degree..

    I hope the more vocal members of the foreign community can put their insignificant differences aside, and cooperate towards a common goal – equal legal protection for all humans that will level the playing field, and bring Japan up to the level of other civilized nations.

    Thank you Debito Arudou for another thought provoking topic.

  • iago

    “RD also psychologically wounds people to the point that it can feed illogical exceptionalism, denialism and perpetual victim status.

    It short-circuits the ability to run self-diagnostics and see the fundamental hypocrisy behind the idea that, for example, [the subjects] are perpetual victims of RD, but rarely, if ever, perpetrators of it…”
    Yes. Indeed.
    (Though I believe RD could equally stand for “Reading Debito.”)

  • MZ

    Some data would have been helpful. The article is just a rant in its current form, despite some relevant point.

  • Mark Flanigan

    Seems like this gent has a PhD in whinging, lol…living in Japan may not be perfect, but I’d be willing to bet that most of the world’s population would happily relocate there in a heartbeat, RD notwithstanding.

  • Steve Jackman

    That is only because one cannot make a legal case for damages against another party in Japan based on racial discrimination, since racial discrimination is not illegal in Japan. Got that?

  • Michieie

    There must be an pride issue in this whole thing, too. Being called out for racism and whaling and other stuff Japan does that the world doesn’t like certainly rubs them in the wrong way.

  • Pat

    To my eyes, bringing up the US here comes off a rather tacky attempt to obscure the struggles of individual immigrants to Japan, most of whom come from backgrounds poorer than the average Japanese person, in favor of a caricature of Debito shaking his fist at a few lone signs. Of course the US, UK and other liberal states are racist. Is that really up for debate?

    You go on say that you don’t condone police brutality, then attempt to deflect criticism of Japanese police brutality through relativist arguments for the rest of your comment. In effect you DO condone it by:

    – Arguing that it’s something that happens of its own accord, while neglecting to the examine the underlying power dynamics between majority-ethnic government officials and minority immigrants from less-developed countries.
    – Ignoring the more fundamental point that immigration detention centers are racialized places in which, by your own admission, authorities routinely abuse disfavored classes of people for the crime of living peacefully within a given geographical region.
    – Disregarding the fact that there are Japanese people of Yamato ethnicity who do recognize the discriminatory nature of the case and its relation to wider social problems (週刊『前進』06頁(2567号6面5)), instead dismissing it as a marginal “foreign” opinion. Although the family’s public statements should be taken into consideration, it seems bizarre to grant those statements a central position as social analysis.
    – Expecting that racism will in all instances boldly declare its name. This standard of proof obscures more than it reveals, which is likely why white supremacists in English-speaking are so apt to fall back on it. Opposition to the civil rights movement in the US, for example, often took the form of dismissive statements that Soviet Union was trying to rile up black people.

    Little about Japan is unique, certainly least of all its racism. But as one of the wealthiest and most populous countries in the world, it can surely do better.

  • http://www.turning-japanese.info/ Eido INOUE

    Where are you copy/pasting your snippets of the Japanese Constitution from? A traditional Chinese website? Those are not the characters that are used in the original.

  • Scott Reynolds

    Surely Japan is not the only advanced nation that periodically receives criticism from the UN? I hope the issues with the legal system are addressed, BTW. But being criticized by some UN body or another is hardly unusual or unique to Japan. Many countries have deficiencies pointed out in these reports, and sometimes steps are taken to correct the problem. That is the whole point of constructive criticism.

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  • Earl Kinmonth

    I know where he got his doctorate. I put it in quotes because I find it amusing that anyone should feel the need to advertise that they have a doctorate.

  • Roan Suda

    I have long said that there are two advantages to holding a Ph.D. or its
    equivalent: (1) it enables (or may enable) one to obtain a cushy academic job;
    (2) it allows one to make cynical remarks, with no appearance of sour grapes,
    about those who parade their degrees. As the years have gone by, I have come to put more emphasis on (2). When I heard that Arudou Debito was working on a doctorate, I correctly predicted that he would (1) make much of being “Dr.
    Arudou” and (2) be otherwise even more insufferable than ever.

    The latest Just Be Cause once again consists of rambling arguments and unproven assertions, hardly something that any self-respecting academic journal would publish. Arudou-san reveals just how ethnocentric he himself is by tacitly assuming that just because Americans are obsessed with skin color, so must be the Japanese, even if they are in denial. (Actually, even in the bad old days, Americans were inconsistent in that regard: It was not so much pigment as class and ethnic identification that counted.)

    Arudou-san has, it seems to me, two problems: (1) he is an incurable egomaniac, as anyone who has had even slight dealings with him can testify; (2) he hasn’t been around long enough to gain perspective. For one thing, he simply does not remember when, about the time he was born, racial discrimination in his homeland was still truly vicious, far worse than it was and is in Japan. Moreover, it was not confined to the much-maligned Deep South, and its victims were not only African-Americans. Japanese-Americans (I am not making this up) would call up a real estate agency in California and ask about a property in a lily-white neighborhood. “Oh, come on over and see it,” they would be told. And then on showing up, they would get first funny looks and then mumbled excuses: “Oh, too bad! We just sold it.” RD in one country certainly does not excuse the same in another country, but the goal is to get rid of it, not to exploit it endlessly for one’s own purposes. America’s Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are not civil rights leaders; they are race mongers. Japan does not need their ilk, and neither does the Japan Times.

  • http://www.helloyoga.com/ HelloYoga

    Question: is there any kind of education in Japanese schools about what racism is and what is/isn’t appropriate behavior for a harmonious global society?

  • J.P. Bunny

    Just another in a long line of public rants by some overly paranoid guy with a giant ego. Each column some combination of complain, refer to a past article, mention the onsen incident, make up a new word, complain some more. Zzzzzz.

  • http://www.turning-japanese.info/ Eido INOUE

    Interesting find, thanks. The technology to represent all the characters digitally in the original usually common tech is a relatively new development (it’s not possible to represent it faithfully with JIS X 0208, and even with Unicode, there are a few characters outside the BMP/Plane 0 for supporting JIS X 0213, which not all computers/browsers/phones/fonts can render).

  • HSSL

    As a West-European Caucasian, for the first time in my life I have the privilege to experience actual racism in Japan sometimes. I find it hilarious and strangely compelling.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    I don’t recall asking for your help.

  • Testerty

    Racism in Japan is kind of ironic. The Japanese won’t mind been racially discriminated by Whites, but they felt racially superior to other Asians.

  • tiger

    i think the japanese people are entitled to run their country their own way. even if foreigners have to pay their government and not get anything back, they can go if they benefit from being in japan despite paying for it. japanese people are entitled to disrespect other nations or deny their own past sins, but other people are also entitled to hate them a little for it. they choose their destiny just like they chose Abe as their PM, and like foreigners choose whether to hate them or go to their land.

  • Thomas Ralph Nissen

    Shorter Debito: Not only does Japan have RD, the society is FUBAR.

  • Steve Jackman

    First, you insisted that discrimination in Japan is class-based and not race based, and now you are comparing Yellow Fever to the problems faced by foreign women in Japan. You are WRONG on both counts.

    You seem to have a basic lack of understanding of Yellow Fever. It is generally referred to in the West in the context of Western men who have a preference for Asian women in terms of dating or marraige. It does not mean that these Western men sexually harass, physically and emotionally abuse, inflict violence, rale or murder these women, as is often the case with Japanese men who are infatuated with foreign women.

    In contrast to the passive and romantic nature of Yellow Fever in the West, the problems often reported by foreign women in Japan have to do with encountering physical and sexual violence, harassment and abuse by Japanese men (not to mention, the high profile murders of foreign women by Japanese men). Does this make it clear enough for you that the problems encountered by foreign women in Japan are worlds apart from Yellow Fever?

  • blondein_tokyo

    This reply is nonsensical and a red herring.

    You are not interested in sincere discussion, so we’re done here. It’s a waste of my time.

  • Gordon Graham

    Ho hum…different day, same article

  • Tharaka Namal

    The thing is that most Japanese think they are above (superior) to those of the rest of the world . We (humans) in general are all racists which proves that they (Japanese) are just mere mortals just like the rest of us . At lease they haven’t started a Japanese KKK . Oh i forget they do have the national party don’t they ?

  • Daniel Hicks

    Just as we create sanctuaries for wildlife, both flora and fauna, too little thought is given to creating sanctuaries of human cultures. Cultures vary wildly on this planet, and many are worthy of safeguarding. I think Japan is aware of this about their own culture, but because cultural heritage sites aren’t a thing the way wildlife ones are, they don’t know how else to express it.