A high price to pay for a little peace of mind


Sometimes it’s hard to believe the American that emerged, naked and naive, from Narita International Airport back in 2004 and the person writing this column are one and the same. Life in Japan has made me, unmade me and remade me. I’ve unpacked and sorted through all sorts of koto (generally, things without material form such as ideas and feelings), uncovering things about myself that I likely wouldn’t have if I had stayed in the U.S. Some of these changes have been minor, others major, yet each represents “the Creator’s hands in molding your character into the wiser, more worldly, man you are now,” as my mama once told me.

Mama would be pleased to hear that some of those values and ideals she instilled in me have managed to remain intact. I still respect my elders as well as people who respect me. I still think for myself and stand behind those thoughts — right or wrong. I’ve even managed to retain a value she has often lauded: in almost all situations, whether or not it places you in a good light, honesty is the best policy — particularly in regards to oneself. However, there has been one casualty that would certainly disappoint her. My life in Japan has often called into question the universality of an ideal she held in high regard: One should refrain from judging other humans by anything other than the content of their character.

I put up a good fight but it’s hard to overcome the perception that one’s character and abilities are indelibly linked to one’s race or nationality. It’s a perception that many Japanese people (and, to be sure, many non-Japanese living here, too) will convey every day in 100 different ways: “We are exceptional,” they say, “uniquely different from everyone else in the world.” I resisted with all the evidence to the contrary I’ve accumulated over the course of a lifetime. Nevertheless, I have slowly succumbed to judging Japanese people as a group of exceptions rather than exceptional. I realized this, sadly, marked the beginning of the end of an ideal I held most dear.

At first, I would catch myself joining the chorus of legal aliens here who generalize about the friendliness, kindness and politeness of Japanese people. The superiority of customer service here and the overall safety and cleanliness of the environment would somehow be linked to Japanese character and, sometimes, even their race.

And later, among my boys, I would chime in on jam sessions, where remarks such as “Japanese girls are so …” and “Japanese guys are so …” are frequently spat from non-Japanese mouths. Unless someone disagreed, there would only be nods of agreement all around.

Generalizing about the positive and negative traits of Japanese people as a whole is the norm among non-Japanese here. Of course, if you make the very same generalizations but replace “Japanese” with “black” or “white” or “Polish,” it would give many of these people pause for thought. I’d be among the first to say “Whoa, bruh! We’re not gonna have any of that.”

Before coming to Japan, I found generalizations problematic and so I refrained from doing so. However, once I found myself in an environment where this is done, ad nauseam, by natives and foreigners alike, I felt entitled to bend that golden rule from time to time. Living here among the Japanese so long and experiencing these often generalized qualities, both good and bad, first-hand on a regular basis (as opposed to, say, seeing them appear on TV) only helped reinforce this view.

However, it was the persistent dehumanization that typically occurs here that licensed me to go beyond bending and, ultimately, break that golden rule.

A Japanese man or woman walking ahead of me will often turn and spot me in a crowd of people walking behind them. They will then proceed to behave conspicuously as if they have spotted a predator stalking from the tall grass. (If you need a detailed description of how to tell if someone believes you are following them, consider yourself very fortunate.) I used to keep moving forward, telling myself to simply ignore them. The person walking ahead of me might suddenly shift gears and increase their walking speed or even break into a run. Or they might stop and peer into a shop window and watch me until I pass, then resume walking. I would pretend not to notice. I would sometimes label it paranoia and let it go at that. Other times, though, I’d stop and do something that an agent conducting surveillance in a movie might do, such as tie my shoes, and then resume once they’ve passed me again — just to distress them for criminalizing me. By the time I got home, I would have identified something funny or poignant in the scenario and sometimes write a blog post about it.

I remember thinking of a conversation in James Clavell’s 1975 novel “Shogun,” where the Lady Mariko explains the meaning of an ancient Japanese poem, “The Eightfold Fence,” to captured British pilot John Blackthorne, who is given the title Anjin-san (which is often translated as honorable pilot in works referencing the novel). “Sunset watching is a great help or listening to the rain,” she says. “Anjin-san, have you noticed the different sounds of rain? If you really listen, then the present vanishes, neh? Listening to blossoms falling and to rocks growing are exceptionally good exercises. Of course, you’re not supposed to see the things, they’re only signs, messages to your hara, your center, to remind you of the transience of life, to help you gain wa, harmony, Anjin-san, perfect harmony, which is the most sought-after quality in all Japanese life.” I wanted to cop some of that wa in the worst way.

In a last-ditch effort to hold on to this ideal, I used to focus on my own version of “The Eightfold Fence.” Instead of concentrating on all the obvious acts of anxiety and discomfort that erupt when my presence is noticed — for instance, a woman who shifts her pocketbook away from me or a guy who suddenly changes queues on a subway platform upon seeing me behind him — I’d tune my ears to the recording of a bird warbling over the station’s loudspeakers. Instead of wasting any energy on a salaryman securing his wallet in his back pocket, or a panic-stricken mother suddenly shielding her child or a young man shamelessly throwing himself between his girlfriend and I in a bizarre act of unwarranted heroism once he notices me in close proximity, I’d lock my eyes on a certain kanji character in an advertisement, dissect it by its radicals and let its meaning wash over me like a waterfall of wa.

Yeah, not so much, Mariko. That didn’t work for me (nor Anjin-san, as I recall) — I just ain’t built for nirvana-seeking amid habitual incivility.

Nowadays, I simply ignore this behavior as often as possible. When this proves impossible, I give them a plastic grin, move away or say something in Japanese, which tends to help at times.

I walk an ultrathin tightrope between alleviating the anxiety of mostly innocent victims of irrational fear, misinformation and ignorance, and maintaining my dignity, but I walk it almost like it’s a natural reflex these days. I’ve modified my soul’s response to this behavior that has effectively become part of me. Anger has been replaced by a pitylike emotion I don’t really have a word for.

I refrain from labeling such people as racists. I simply think of them as exceptions and hold them to a different standard — a decidedly lower one — than I reserve for most people. This allows me to enjoy all the great things Japan has to offer.

This stance is a high price to pay for a little peace of mind, at least as far as I am concerned.

If I told my mother all of this, I know exactly what she would say.

“I hope you know what you’re doing, boy,” she’d grumble. “I raised you right, you’ve got a good head on your shoulders and the Creator knows you’ve got a good heart. But I don’t want those people over there damaging it, so you need to seriously think about booking your butt a ticket on the next thing smoking outta Asia!”

And yet the latest snippets of news from the United States — militarized police officers killing unarmed black men at an alarming rate, including a teenager who was shot two weeks ago in Ferguson, Missouri, an event that has sparked violence across the country — doesn’t exactly suggest that “home” is a sanctuary either.

Besides, I wager neither Japan nor the Creator are done with me yet.

Black Eye, which appears in print on the third Thursday of every month, focuses on the experience of living in Japan from the perspective of people of African descent. Baye McNeil is the author of two books and writes the Loco in Yokohama blog. See www.bayemcneil.com. Comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • AdMortem

    I would assume that white Africans like myself will be treated as a bit of an oddity in Japan.

  • Michey Peckitt

    I wonder if something like the French word ‘pathetique’ might capture you ‘pitylike emotion’. Another nice piece Baye!

  • NoSurpriseToMe

    Another fascinating article. You have an incredible gift in communicating the tragedy of profiling and discrimination, the complexities of emotions they provoke and with eloquence and restraint. Yes, America is a hot mess for all the reasons you describe but we need talented journalists like you that can communicate these experiences powerfully to a wide audience without alienating them.

  • Kayode

    Mariko shared another Japanese concept, Baye, that I think is relevant to this. She spoke about putting thoughts and emotions into mental compartments in order to maintain balance. I feel like it’s sort of what you’re doing.

    I had my first of those irrational fear experiences last year during a trip to the UK (I’m from the Caribbean). Some guy started scrambling for his things when he noticed me standing behind him, and later, an entire family sat staring at me in a train. I felt that exact same sort of pity that you described. I felt genuinely sad for them, and not in a bitter way either.

    The rest of the trip was fantastic, and literally everyone else I met was friendly and helpful.

  • Ignatius

    Awesome article. It was very interesting.

  • Gianluca G.D.

    I thought it was a little slow in the beginning, but then I “saw where this was going” ;)

    I laughed at some point, don’t recall exactly when. It was “sadly funny”
    the description of some of your evasive manoeuvres. Anywho, thanks for
    sharingj! Ciao, j

  • Jay

    Interesting read, and delicately expressed. I have always said, somewhat less delicately, that the Japanese are the most racist people I have ever encountered; not of the malignant dangerous sort that characterized Naziism, but a benign form that consists of a hyper-sensitivity to others and themselves according to fixed concepts of race. Everywhere I go, I hear whispers, “ara, gaijin da.” Some embrace it as a chance to practice their language skills; others turn and flee; some ignore me so completely that I’ve wondered if I wasn’t a ghost. My children, born here and fluent in Japanese, are constantly being asked to speak English and surprising people when they speak Japanese. It never ends. Yes, most are polite, friendly and helpful, but most are also completely unaware how their thinking is racially constructed.

  • Mark Makino

    Very nice article. I’ve also been disappointed with how quickly liberally-educated citizens of multiethnic countries can abandon their democratic principles for the dream of a simple, one-country-one-culture worldview that seems prevalent in Japan.

  • Hella Jiggy

    I’ve only experienced this in Tokyo. To put it very frankly, Tokyo people are their own kind. In Osaka, Fukuoka, hell, even in Hiroshima I’ve been embraced with open arms.

  • Hella Jiggy

    When Japan realizes that they’re dying and finally allow foreigners to flood into the country, they’ll change their ways. It won’t be easy, but I doubt it’ll be violent.

  • Arianna Hayes

    When I first decided I wanted to move to Japan, I expected this sort of thing. I love Japanese culture, but I stomach these kinds of articles because I know that I’ll be in the same situation. However, as of late, I’m not sure I could handle it as well as I thought. I’m about to graduate from university and although I’ve exposed myself to many different types of people, both American and foreign, I realize now that I’m still in that university bubble. I’ve only recently experienced a few out-of-the-bubble incidents and both of them shook me to the core. I’ve begun to worry about how strong I actually am, and if I can really survive in a country where I’m the absolute outsider. Even more so than in my neighborhood. Reading these types of things have made me more nervous about my impulsive decision, because I’ve been working towards this for four years. Working my ass off. Putting in hundreds of hours of volunteer work and studying just to get to Japan. My heart’s been absolutely set on it and I have no idea why. I don’t know why Japan. Perhaps because I’m black, I feel some subconscious obligation to decriminalize my culture? I don’t really know, but I hope I can be as strong as you when my time finally comes!

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    I wish I could say my 15-plus years in Japan have been different Baye, but sadly I can’t. People crossing the street when they see me, choosing the stairs instead of the lift ‘cos I’m there first, empty seat either side of me on a packed train, etc, etc. It’s probably one of the big reasons I’m a semi-hikkikomori on my days off. Naturally not everyone is like this, but it’s my estimate the bigger percentage are.

  • ceugb

    “I give them a plastic grin, move away or say something in Japanese, which tends to help at times.”
    This may be something I need to learn to do, the plastic grin part. Catch me on the right or wrong day I do say something in Japanese but it doesn’t really help much. I think in all my years living here I went through a couple of phased. The first one was the one you described as your first, second I ignored them, now the third is the mouthy person that has something to say (in Japanese of course) …and a lot of times not so nice.
    Don’t get me wrong, I see Japan for what it is and over the years I’ve come to know its not all Japanese people, a few but sometimes those few really do rub you the wrong way.
    Another great read Bae, I actually found myself doing the Japanese “um, um, um, as I read it.

  • Wuppimon

    The longer I stay in Japan and the more I get to know Japan and its people the less I respect them, the more I feel sorry for them and the less bothered I become about the petty racism that some complain about! Don’t worry about Japanese, they are very, very ‘little’ people who, on average, don’t add up to what you are!

    I have less and less respect for them because of their refusal to accept responsibility for their historical or current wrongdoings and their grubby attempts to sweep everything under the carpet and continue pretending that they are perfect and ‘exceptional’! They were exceptional at one point only because they were the only Asians copying the West. Now however, everyone is doing it and hence the Chinese and Koreans have overtaken Japan. I really enjoy reading about the decline of corporate Japan and what this means for their ‘exceptionalism’!

    I feel sorry for Japanese because while trying to maintain the facade of being ‘unique’ and ‘exceptional’, they are (individually and collectively) putting themselves under great strain and hence the high rates of suicide, depression, anger and mental illness. Japanese just need to let go an act normal!

    I understand that the idea of Japanese ‘exceptionalism’ arose because they weren’t accepted as equals by the West and of course didn’t want to associate with their FELLOW Asians. I find it hilarious because Japanese are so obviously NOT exceptional in ANY way and I also find it rather sad because Japanese aren’t happy with being Asian and I think that it’s very sad when people get up everyday and aren’t happy with the way they look and what they are.

    I look at myself and most of the foreigners I come across and can say that WE are quite exceptional: most of us are very intelligent, educated, well-travelled and come from good families. All of this has given me a certain sense of confidence and stood me in good stead. I’m NEVER bothered with what mostly provincial and ignorant Japanese people think and neither should you be!

  • Court Merrigan

    During my time in Japan, I finally concluded that Japanese without significant international experience (i.e., the vast majority of the population) are akin to hillbillys with TVs – they’ve simply no experience with difference, and so gawk as someone out of the hills might on their first trip to the big city seeing all the big tall buildings & different-looking people in meatspace for the first time. This is as true in Aomori as it is in Tokyo. It’s not their fault, really; but it sure does get tiresome.

  • Steve Jackman

    I have seen more intellectually lazy people in Japan than anywhere else in the world. This intellectual laziness and numbness is one of the reasons why they would rather judge people as groups and not as individuals. It is easier for them to stereotype and generalize groups, but it takes more effort to get to know people as individuals.

  • Squidhead

    I’m confused…is this article about Japanese or Americans?

  • A GG

    Having travelled to Japan on several occasions for long periods of time; I can really relate to the author and some of those who commented… I travelled throughout Japan but primarily in Tokyo. While in Tokyo I stayed in Roppongi Hills with a buddy who was temporarily transferred there from the states. Totally different culture in Roppongi Hills from the norm in other parts of the city or country. Very westernized. Almost felt a sense of belonging Roppongi. Outside of that comfort zone it felt like I was constantly being judged or stared at. Was it because I was a foreigner; maybe because I was American or was it that I didn’t know the culture. Tell you what, you learn tradition fast and whatever you do don’t display your tattoos!!Definitely felt many moments of not belonging there and wanting to be back in my comfort zone. It’s felt strange to try and make friends because I always felt judged or made to feel stupid, but in the Japanese culture I guess I really was… It hard to be a foreigner living in Japan. You either make it or don’t. It’s a balance of your tradition and theirs. You must make friends with the locals but always have friends your familiar with, otherwise you’ll feel alienated by one or the other. Life can be difficult for Americans there and adjusting at times seems pointless. I love the culture, love the locals and the few dear friends I’ve made there’re will forever be part of me. For those who wish to travel there I say it’s a wonderful experience and something to always remember. You’ll definitely bring back a piece of Japan back home with you. Those wishing to work and live there; whether short term or long. Be prepared for the adjustment.

  • Steve Jackman

    I agree, this is a very well written article. It is the best one yet of Baye’s series in The JT. After reading this, I feel bad for my somewhat harsh comment criticising Baye’s style of writing, which I posted after reading his first article in this series. Good work, Baye, keep it up!

  • bball jones

    I feel you on the search for wa stuff and “eightfold fence” man. just trying to stay mindful– by listening to the bird chirps on the station platform or whatever– and finding a way to transcend it all.

    Japan is like a wise old teacher beating us over the head with a stick. Ideally at some point during our stay in Japan, we conquer our Pai Mei’s and graduate to the next level. Like you, I’m on a personal quest to “leave” the struggle here, but remain in Japan physically. Going back to the States to me seems like “giving up too soon.” Jumping ship, before things really start to get better…
    AND/OR its just scary to think about going back to the hood.

    It may feel like we are giving up/trading something off here, but its more about learning to enjoy this time we are blessed with and the embracing our own true sense of being.

    “Want what you get at this moment.”
    — E.T.

  • BRad

    Good read. Very interesting but I definitely agree. The history represents the xenophobic ideology of this country. Its sad to see this because I am Japanese (American). I feel like time and globalization(which is happening now) are key things we need right now. By 2020 when the Olympics come around, things will hopefully be easier/better.

  • Oliver Mackie

    This article deserves some credit for its writing style, and clearly comes from sincere emotions based on real experience, but I must confess I am a bit confused. The articles is entitled ‘A high price to pay for a little piece of mind’ which suggests that, either the author has acquired a little peace of mind but has had to pay a high price, or that the author has decided that the high price of a little peace of mind isn’t worth paying.
    He states, “(m)y life in Japan has often called into question the universality of an ideal she held in high regard: One should refrain from judging other humans by anything other than the content of their character.” As I read this, the author is saying that he is starting to generalize about the Japanese like other NJ do (he cites some examples) but that he feels some conflict about this, versus the principle that his mother tried to instill in him, i.e. treat each individual only by their character.
    The author them goes on to detail various acts of ‘racism’ which he has encountered, which have led him to start to generalize about the Japanese (that they are racist.) I have no doubt that the incidents happened as reported. He then details how he has decided to label these acts as those of ‘exceptions’ in order to avoid abandoning his principle and starting to generalize by calling all Japanese racists. What the article is basically saying, however, is that in general, Japanese are racists of a certain type (labelled by some in the comments as ‘benign’ but this qualification is disputed by others.)
    If I have read the article correctly, then the problem I have is this: the incidents that he has reported are, in fact, very much the exception rather than the rule. I don’t know how often the author has to go though such incidents but, even of it were an average of one per day, in a city as large and crowded as Tokyo, it would mean that the of the several thousand people he must encounter/travel alongside/pass by each day, less than 0.1% of them react in such ways. Given that some of the acts he has detailed can be seen in a more benign light (though some most certainly cannot) and the fact that I doubt he has had such experiences anything close to every single day he has been here (though I am of course willing to be corrected on that if I am wrong) then I don’t see how the evidence given points at all to racism among the Japanese in general.
    I think the author may be confusing the frequency of occurence of all kinds of behaviour, simply due to the vastly increased number of contacts (in the broadest sense) with people, due to the nature of the crowded existence all of us lead here. Should I infer that in general Japanese play their personal stereos too loud on the train (I encounter this almost daily)? That they are selfish and don’t give up their seats on the train to elderly people? Or that they are kind and do? (I encounter both behaviours almost daily.)
    I don’t want to dismiss the emotional impact of the negative experiences that the author has encountered, but I see very little evidence given to allow him to justify abandoning the very sound principle his mother tried to instill. The same glass can be seen as either half empty or half full. At the very least, the author’s glass seems to be very much full, leaving no other justification necessary for labeling exceptions as such than the fact that that is what they truly are.
    (Now, if you want to talk about the Japanese media, then I would likely be much more in agreement with many of the comments here….)

  • nellsonne

    I have a recommendation for anybody who wants one. Throw away your suit, cash in your chips, go to the website If you want to live your dreams like I’m living mine go to the website Traders Superstore, I believe you can just Google them and find them. These guys will teach you how to trade and you can make all the money you need to in order to live a great lifestyle. Then move to Thailand like I have from Florida and really enjoy yourself like I am. The Internet here in Thailand works great for trading! Plus you can’t beat the women.

  • LinguaJunkie

    Very well written. Thank you.

  • JatinChittoor

    Great article!! I truly understand how you feel. Unfortunately people are afraid of change and don’t tend to change so easily. I hope for a world where stereotypes, discrimination and racism are non existent.

    If Japan wants to improve its economy and wants to host the 2020 Olympics, their attitude towards gaijins has to change. But then again Japan is quite a socially backward nation. I’m looking forward to my trip to Japan during the Olympics and see how people react to my color lol.

  • Oliver Mackie

    Oh, so it’s Japanese children you’re referring to. Give them a break, they’re only kids. And I find it hard to believe that this is the case with anything close to every Japanese child they encounter, as your use of ‘whenever a Japanese child’ suggests. Finally, asking someone to ‘say something in English’ suggests simply curiosity, not something that we want to discourage in our young ones. Does every Japanese child then refuse to converse with them any further in Japanese and insist that they converse in English only? Seems unlikely…..

  • Oliver Mackie

    “2017/18, this is when the racism of this country will truly hit everyone hard. When everyone starts losing their jobs just because their companies/schools don’t want to give foreigners permanent positions and have to give them all the extra benefits that go with it.”

    Please clarify your prediction here. Why will everyone start losing their jobs? And why in 2017/18?

    If domestic companies find that they need foreign labo(u)r to fill positions that were previously filled by Japanese workers, why will they stop giving the benefits that previously went with those positions?

    If you are referring to an influx of manual workers to do construction work, then those positions have never included such benefits, whether the employee is Japanese or not.

    “You’ll always hear Japanese people and most foreign people tell you how polite Japanese are.”

    Actually, you’ll hear most Japanese people whom you come to know better than just meeting them once agree that Japanese are not particularly polite, compared to people anywhere. They will agree that Japanese tend towards formality in many situations, not the same thing.

    You’ll hear most foreign short-term visitors to Japan, or those that have met Japanese overseas, tell you that Japanese people are polite, because that is their experience.

  • Wuppimon

    I NEVER said anything like that! All I’m saying is that when people think that they’ve been badly treated by Japanese, they should remember that (1) Japanese aren’t as angelic/perfect as they’d like you to think and (2) the affected person should NEVER forget their worth as a (equal) human being, which as some have pointed out can be affected by microaggressions.

  • Steve Davis

    This discussion is a little funny to me, its like having a bag of foreign cry babies, worrying about someone not liking them. Yes if you look at the world in a negative light you will see a negative world. I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, I am an African American male, my mother taught us that there will always be people that don’t like us, but we have to stand tall and shown the world the beauty within us and people will feel it and appreciate being around you. Most people don’t know what racism is,I am from a country that was built on racism, enslaved black people, denied them rights and black men was strange fruit hanging for trees in the southern parts. Today young black men are still being killed by the Police and other black in certain cities. So, I know about black history and racism. People on here are just crying about nothing. My wife and I look at the world as something beautiful, and we see the beautiful things, not the negative. We really don’t see the people who don’t like us. Here is Yamauchi, Japan the people have treated my family and I wonderfully, my kids are treated good at their schools, and have a tons of friends. many old people stop and talk with them and even give them gifts, my kids love it here in Japan. My self, I been treated amazing, people smile and greet me, and many try to talk with me. they can tell I have respect for them and Japan and enjoy being around them. The Arthur see people crossing the street when he coming, I see middle school kids and others smile and trying to speak to me. The Arthur see people afraid of him and walking faster, I see 20 or more extra people show up for Judo practices, because my family and I are doing judo with them and they are curious about our life experience in the states. Basically, I am saying a person will see what they choose to see. If, you are culturally sensitive and care about what everyone thinks about you, don’t leave home or move to places where you are not the majority. I am from Texas and if you don’t like Texas, get the hell out, and if you don’t like Japan and its people, please leave. People want to cry about a place they decided to live. I never let being black stop, me from doing anything, I will like everyone and I will never expect everyone to like me. Most people will be more comfortable being around people whom are more like themselves, its not racist, it a fact. I choose to look at the world in a beautiful way, and Japan is a beautiful place.