What being a minority allows us to see

by Amy Chavez

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.

    • Mark Makino

      I think I know better now than I used to the trap of either being rejected for not matching a stereotype or pigeonholed for matching one. Not to nitpick, but one stereotype-inviting word we would do well to avoid is “foreigner”. You may have noticed it has connotations in Japan beyond its technical definition.

      • “one stereotype-inviting word we would do well to avoid is “foreigner”. You may have noticed it has connotations in Japan beyond its technical definition.”

        It has “connotations” *everywhere*.

      • Mark Makino

        You’re right, of course. What I meant to say is that we should avoid using it as a technical term to mean “people with other nationalities” when what most people in Japan hear is “white people with funny accents who eat bread and meat”. If we were having this discussion in the US I guess it’d be something more like Borat, assuming a “foreigner” stereotype exists there. There are other words we can use that validate common chauvinism less than “foreigner”.

  • DragonAsh

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

    • blondein_tokyo

      Ordinary claims do not require extraordinary evidence. Since we all know that people do indeed lose their jobs due to discrimination, I think it’s safe to take her at her word.

  • 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.

      • guest

        Yeah, just like you did when writing this comment. Pot, meet kettle.

      • blondein_tokyo

        She isn’t saying that foreigners’ complaints about discrimination in Japan aren’t justified. Quite the contrary- she states that discrimination does indeed happen, and is unfair.

        Her main point is that members of the majority are often unaware of the privilege that they enjoy, and now that the table is turned, they are finding out what it is like for minorities.

        Her failure, as I said, is that she doesn’t say HOW people should use this new found empathy and understanding. She’s only saying, “Hey you- now you know what it feels like to be discriminated against, don’t you? Well, THERE!”

        Well, so what? Now that people know how it feels, what should they DO about it? Is she encouraging activism? Is she saying people should stand up and fight for minorities’ rights here as well as in their own countries? Or is she simply saying “tough shit, deal with it,” which at best is unhelpful and at worst is quite dehumanizing.

        She also doesn’t take into account that many of us reading this ARE minorities in our own countries, and experienced discrimination even before coming to Japan. Does she think that knowing that the people around us are finally understanding how we have felt all along in our own countries is helpful to us? IMHO, she should check her OWN privilege.

        Overall, the article is not well thought out, has no conclusion, and adds nothing new, helpful, or particularly insightful to the dialog.

    • 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.

    • carlos

      Sorry, this is the failure of western thought. The assumption that absolute morality is possible or even desirable.

      People will treat different people differently. This is never going to change. You can ask for politeness, but that’s about it.

      You must allow some degree of racial and ethnic self-interest, misunderstanding, and othering or people start feeling like they have no group agency. The power to discriminate as a group, against another group, IS part of being a group. Forcing people to empathize with each other is precisely why multiculturalism works poorly in the West. Westerners are just blind to it because they think good intentions backed up by moral outrage = practical solutions. It doesn’t.

      • Corey Coleman Alexander

        Carlos, the only problem with that thinking is where does it end? Where does this racial predominance that we all need to have end? Globalization is here to stay, and we all have to communicate with each other. Without mutual respect, communication breaks down and wars start. Humans naturally want to dominate each other, where culturally or physically or otherwise. It’s playing with fire I think when you promote racial separation as it naturally leads to racial predominance.

      • Henro99

        Hey, Carlos, thanks for the non sequitur and irrelevant commentary, but you may notice I never, ever said that there was an issue of “absolute morality” here.

        In fact, I notice that nothing you say has anything to do whatsoever with my comment. My point is this:

        When I came to Japan, it made me feel a certain way about my position in Japanese society. Because I am a decent human being with a sense of morality, I reflected on how my experiences relate to the experiences of other people and used my time in Japan to imagine what those people might be going through in their lives.

        There is no “absolute morality” at issue here – only a sense of human decency, an ability to sympathize with your fellow man, and critical thinking skills; i.e., I am not completely and irredeemably stupid.

        If, as you say, multiculturalism has failed in the West, then it is not because multiculturalism is impossible; it is not as you claim, wrongly, because”othering” is necessary for group agency. Group agency can quite easily be created without “othering” outsiders, and any group agency founded on “othering” will be fundamentally empty and meaningless. “The power to discriminate” is in no way whatsoever necessary for group solidarity, and to suggest as much is absurd.

        No, multiculturalism fails to work only when the members of a population fail to exercise basic human decency, sympathy and critical thinking – i.e., multiculturalism fails when people are too stupid to figure it out.

        This is, in fact, a practical solution: don’t be stupid. Don’t be selfish. Don’t lack sympathy. Do use critical thinking. Do educate yourself about your fellow man. Do think about people who are not you. Do be selfless. Those are absolutely practical solutions to racism and prejudice – I do it with my children all the time. “Do you REALLY think it’s nice to say that to someone?” “…well…no.” “Then don’t fucking say it.”

        Guess what: when you tell a human being to reflect on whether or not something is nice…most kids can and will do that, and will realize through introspection that, no, this is not nice. So there is the “practical solution” you demand: actually educate your children and make them think critically. Think for yourself. There is no need to force people to empathize – just talk them through their prejudices until they figure it out. It might take time and energy, but guess what: that’s what being a responsible adult means – you take time and energy to think.

        In all honesty, it is neither difficult nor complicated to do this unless, again, you are completely and irredeemably stupid. Explaining to a child how to think of other people and be a decent human being is not rocket science. Looking at your own life and thinking about your experiences is not difficult. Sympathy is not rocket science.

        So, there ya go Carlos. Ask yourself: is multiculturalism impossible, or am I just stupid? You’ll be surprised by the answer (hint: multiculturalism is NOT impossible!)

  • 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.

    • Toolonggone

      >”The author is basically telling foreigners to be grateful for being discriminated against.”

      Right. That’s “because that allows them an opportunity to make a collective response to the society.” That’s the premise of her argument. This pretty much depends on how you look at. It could be misinterpreted in any way, so we might want to give her the benefits of the doubt. I personally don’t see her attitude appalling, but I agree she’s kind of naïve about the challenges of raising collective consciousness toward racism.

  • 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!

    • IanPG

      Unfortunately, many of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, especially residential school survivors, weren’t able to enjoy a nice, multicultural upbringing.

      • Lynda

        Which was reprehensible but residential schools happened long before the official multicultural policy came into effect. No one is saying that Canada or any other country or any individual is free of racism or discrimination–now or in the past. However, as a non-Japanese coming from Canada to Japan I do experience the racism, sexism, ageism and stereotyping much more overtly than in Canada. Paul is quite correct in stating that the experience non-Japanese face in Japan can give them a new perspective and appreciation of their own culture. More especially if that person has identified as Japanese (Canadian).

    • Lynda

      Well said, Paul. I’m non-Japanese Canadian, and that was the point I was going to make. So ironic. Nisei and Sansei from Canada or Peru or Brazil aren’t Japanese enough and are lumped in with all the rest of the gaijin and discriminated against.

      • Yes, because white people *never* discriminate against other white people, right? Darn those Japanese for refusing to recognize that those Brazilians with Japanese blood are *just like them*! I mean, they’re Japanese, right? So they are all the same!

        Isn’t that just a tad, oh, I don’t know… *racist*, Lynda?

      • Lynda

        Your line of argument is both an assumption and a non-sequitur. I was not implying that whites never discriminate against whites–if they didn’t a term such as “white trash” would not exist. I merely addressed Paul’s point–a single point. This is a comment thread, not an article. I never said, nor do I think that others with Japanese blood are “all the same.” You did. As usual you are mainly waring by baiting others.

      • Excuse me, but you are the one who said, and I quote:

        “So ironic. Nisei and Sansei from Canada or Peru or Brazil aren’t Japanese enough and are lumped in with all the rest of the gaijin”

        Why *wouldn’t* they be “lumped in” with the rest of the foreigners, they *are* foreigners! But since you wrote “how ironic” you really come across as thinking that, for whatever reason, Japanese should recognize Nissei and Sansei as “fellow Japanese” and not “foreigners” – which makes no sense at all.

      • Paul Tatsuya Nakashima

        To be fair, I am adamant in identifying myself as the *gaijin* term. I find since Japan is an old and more homogenous society than say modern US or Canada, there is less exposure of the general Japanese population to real foreign citizens and they just see what is portrayed by the JP media. When I start to think that if I was to be raised in Japan and end up like the general population here I count my blessings to be Canadian and have had the opportunity to be raised with most major cultures around the world.

        I encounter so much puzzlement when they identify me as JP looking, and speak JP and yet I want nothing to do with them. I have had many people say offhand condescending remarks about gaijin when I am in their presence. Then when I mutter “Gaijinですけど・・・”, they remark im Japanese! I shouldnt take any offense. This train of thought alone disgusts me as a Canadian.

        Its really a shame, if only Japan didn’t have this us and them mentality and nationalistic pride, it would be a better place. Then who am I to say? As it would rob Japan of one of its characteristics that helped them progress this far. There are movements of Islam in Britain going on along the same thought, but viewed as extreme by many others as it promotes violence. Wanting to change their new country because they think their own views are better, but willing to take much more action in their beliefs. As minorities or immigrants in a new country or culture, I think everyone goes through the same as we do now in Japan. We may have no other choice than learn how to cope in our own way.

        Sorry for the wall of text, if anyone manages to read this far I recommend this video I found on the net the other day regarding human psychology and racism/stereotypes.


        The racism section starts around the 18 minute mark and may help others accept and deal with the racism and stereotypes they may encounter here.

      • Mike Wyckoff

        “I took Canada for granted, makes me appreciate the muticulturistic upbringing I had!”

        same here, Paul!

      • 思德

        I’m an American from the east coast; I feel similar.

  • “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

      To be fair, I don’t think that Amy Chavez is saying there is an equivalence, but you are right that equivalence is often rather hysterically made by white men in Japan.

      • 思德

        I’m a white male in Japan, and some things make me grit my teeth, but I do remember that up until now, I have never had to endure any of it in the US.

  • 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.

    • qwerty

      you sound like yet another “guest gaijin” – ie, you came to Japan (a relatively long time ago), you liked it – your life was so much better here than where you came from (a bit like charisma man (or カリスママン or Karisuma Man), you feel such gratitude that you think it’s your duty to defend this enchanted land of any criticism, because you feel you are defending your new (and much better) life. In effect, you are defending yourself (so you defend it “tooth and nail”)

      • blondein_tokyo

        I don’t think you got the gist of Sam’s comment. He is not making light of the racism in Japan. He’s saying people have double standards when it comes to judging how pervasive racism is. When it happens to someone else, we don’t even notice it, but when it happens to us, suddenly it becomes a huge problem. He’s making a point about privilege which is quite similar to the one the author made.

        I also didn’t realize that you can tell, just by reading one comment, how long someone has been in Japan. Interesting. :)

      • And you sound like someone who has been here a few years, hangs out exclusively with your fellow gaijin at the local Hub, doesn’t speak the language worth beans (although you claim to be “fluent”), can’t read a newspaper and therefore has no actual idea what Japanese are talking about. So you fill in the blanks with a fertile imagination, fed by feedback from the gaijin echo-chamber you live in, and imagine that you are a black living in apartheid-era South Africa.

        How close did I come?

      • Moonraker

        Looks like Captain Mainwaring has something against people who drink in the local Hub. My local one in Umeda, Osaka is full of Japanese and very few “gaijin” (seems to be the in-vogue appropriation, right?). Still, he is one of the long-term, knowledgeable people who can speak Japanese and read a paper and lives with the locals and is rightfully proud of that. I appreciate it is one long struggle against false impressions, just like for the bumbling character he uses as a moniker.

        “Don’t Panic, Captain.”

      • qwerty

        I bet you’re brilliant at using chopsticks too!

      • Sam Gilman

        No, I stated explicitly that Japanese prejudices against minorities in Japan are part of the problem. Perhaps you should read people’s comments before replying to them.

        By the way, qwerty, you should be aware that with the Disqus commenting system, I get to see who has replied to me and what they have written, whether or not their reply is eventually accepted by the moderator. This comment is the first in about seven attempts across two different threads that has managed to get through moderation (you wrote three rapid replies to this one comment!). Like this one, the other replies have been fairly abusive, although I particularly enjoyed the one where you bizarrely suggested only people with a fetish for tea ceremony would bother to learn Japanese.

      • qwerty

        I’m glad you got my posts – it seems pretty hard for me to get anything past the censors here. the sad thing is, you and the other guest gailjin, although you are wrong, can probably live happily ever after here in this fairytale – you stick together like rice and attack any criticisms like your lives depend on it – your “new” lives, in a way, do depend on it – your past lives are banished, never to return. carry on with your deluded, passive-aggressive arrogant schtick (do tell us again how good your japanese is)

      • blondein_tokyo

        You haven’t actually MADE any criticisms. All you’ve said is “you’re wrong” without actually making an argument for WHY people are wrong. And on top of that, you’re throwing around the term “guest gaijin” in an ad-hominem attack (what does that even MEAN?) and acting as if you could possibly know something about the private lives of other commentors.

        Do tell us again what your actual argument is?

      • qwerty

        my argument is that there is a lot of discrimination and racism in japan – like many other countries? or not as bad as many other countries? – maybe. the first time for many to experience it? yeah, maybe, but it’s here, and it’s wrong.
        the guests say – aww, poor you, get over it, it’s not “apartheid-era South Africa” – go back home if you don’t like it. but, I live in japan, so I’ll talk about japan – the argument that other countries are worse, doesn’t get anyone anywhere – it keeps the status quo, which is what the guests want – I’m not sure whether they are delusional or just don’t want to face the truth, but they defend pretty much any criticism of this magical land, which gets my goat.

    • Selchuk Driss

      Sorry, you have good points but an occasional joke at the expense of someone else’s ethnicity is hardly racism but often it is actually making fun of racism. Same goes if Japanese make a joke about Westerner’s big noses. Who cares? It doesn’t hurt me since it’s just a stereotype that doesn’t apply to me.

      Only utopia will be free of cruel jokes, racism, crime. Such a place will only exist if we give all our freedoms away.

      • Sam Gilman

        Apologies for not being clearer: the problem is not whether someone has made a light-hearted joke at the expense of another nationality or ethnicity, but whether they then find the same action by a Japanese offensive when directed at them. It’s about whether they brush off an older relative’s meanderings on race as “just an old person sounding off” while being outraged when a Japanese pensioner does the same about them. It’s about hypocrisy.

        You may not find comments about big noses offensive, but, for example, Japan Times columnist Debito Arudou does, even as he makes “satirical” comments about yellow skin.

        Does that make better sense?

      • qwerty

        condescending twaddle – yes you are making “light of racism in Japan” – saying it’s everywhere, or worse in some places is trying to do exactly that. your joke analogy is also nonsense – as was pointed out – a good joke is “actually making fun of racism”. I’m not talking about jokes, but about a serious, and growing problem of full-blown, often open and accepted racism. and by the way. I’m not just talking about first-time minority, white westerners

  • 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…

    • “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.”

      Japan has those laws as well, and landlords have been sued for refusing to rent based on ethnicity.

      “Or the fact third generation Koreans can’t vote or hold high management positions.”

      Foreign nationals in most countries, including most developed ones, cannot vote (or if they can, only when certain very specific conditions are met, and only in certain elections) nor can they hold certain public-sector jobs.

      And before we get the “in most developed countries the Koreans would already be citizens” – No, in most developed countries they would *not*, unless one of their parents was already a citizen, which is the exact same set of rules Japan uses.

      • Enteringsandman

        Most of this isn’t true. Not certain about Japanese accommodation laws, but this article has a law professor (near the bottom) saying so https://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2013/04/23/issues/student-seeking-kyoto-flat-told-no-foreigners-allowed/#.UhLxuJLI3g8. Do you have any evidence you can link to about suing occurring?

        I’m not talking about what most people would call foreign nationals. I’m talking about people who’s grandparents moved to a country, and parents lived their for their entire lives. In the UK (can’t be bothered to look up other developed countries, but I’m fairly sure they’re similar) if your parents are legally resident (i.e. not citizens) then you can opt for dual citizenship. See here http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/britishcitizenship/othernationality/Britishcitizenship/borninukorqualifyingterritory/. In japan Koreans must forgo their nationality to become Japanese citizens: something they are often not willing to do given recent history of Korean invasion and assimilation.In the UK you do not, see http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/britishcitizenship/dualnationality/.

        So basically no, the rules are different.

      • Suing landlords for refusal to rent based on race/color:


        Also while I cannot find the exact law that governs renting apartments etc., it was updated over a decade ago and refusal to rent based on employment, race, religion etc. is specifically forbidden by law. With all due respect to Colin Jones, he is talking about generic anti-discrimination laws and the Constitution, or trying to swat a fly with a very large tree. He’s going too broad-based.

        Re. citizenship issues, while the UK and some other countries may allow dual nationality to those who naturalize, most nations do not. Examples would include, but are not limited to, Japan, Republic of Korea, Holland, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Spain and Poland. The US does not require one to prove they have formally renounced their previous nationality but does require those who naturalize as US citizens to take an oath in which they renounce all allegiances to the country of their pre-existing citizenship. The US position is that while they do not endorse dual nationality, they cannot force someone to formally renounce their previous citizenship.

        Incidentally Japan does allow nationals of countries, such as Iran for one example, which do not allow their nationals to renounce to become Japanese nationals while keeping their previous citizenship.

        As I said, Japanese laws are not at all at variance with international norms.

    • C.J. Bunny

      “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.”

      Don’t be so näive, Enteringsandman.
      UK landlords frequently request letting agents not to let their properties to certain nationalities based on appearance*. If letting agents want the business, they sadly comply.
      Unlike Japan, this is not the reason given out, so there is little that can be done about it. At least in Japan, you will know about the why and then talk to the landlord either via the agent or directly and they may reverse their policy based on your circumstances.

      Every silver lining has a cloud.

      *people from certain countries are supposedly more likely to cause problems with neighbours or overcrowd the property by moving in additional family members.

      • Enteringsandman

        Thanks for your patronising post. I agree that having a law against something doesn’t stop it from happening, but it at least projects a positive viewpoint, the idea that the democratically elected goverment of your country does not see discrimination based on race as acceptable.

      • C.J. Bunny

        Don’t mention it, the pleasure was all mine.
        But I thought it has been established that this sort of discrimination was illegal in Japan.
        Anyhoo, the refusal to rent is really a business decision than from racial hatred. Just as a poor credit history discriminates you as a potential poor payer, being males discriminates you as an increased car insurance risk, being foreign in Japan suggest an increased likelihood of problems with neighbours, damage or payments or just from running away after earthquakes. This is just business.
        As George says, the Japanese are just honest about the reason and this gives you the chance to have individual circumstances looked at. In my limited experiences a landlord that initially refused foreigners was happy to accept once they heard how wonderful I was. In other countries, excuses given mean that the discrimination is under the table and totally based on race. I didn’t get where I am today by knowing the difference between one country and another.

      • Indeed – if there is some unique fault with Japan it is that they are brutally honest. In other countries, all you would get is a rejection without reason from a landlord or business or a “we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”. well, except for that (in)famous US restaurant which had a “spoken English required for service” sign. They got sued for “discrimination” – and the restaurant owner won in court!

        Sometimes I can’t help but wonder how different things would be today if a certain onsen owner had been smarter and posted a “We reserve the right to refuse service” sign instead of the one he did post…

  • 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.

    • Toolonggone

      I don’t think she has any dealings with him in the first place. Debito also made it clear in his blog that he would not engage in the critique of this article, and instead, let other folks have their say. He doesn’t see her as one of his enemies, either. You’d better be careful when you judge who she is. She’s not the same kind of person like Paula Dean or Ann Coulter for preaching white cultural supremacy. Not even close to a notorious Gregory Clark. Her claim that racism is everyone’s problem is pretty fair. The problem is that her argument does not account for the difference between what people experience in real life and the way people express their feelings of bitter experiences as the message to the general public. That’s why her message is misconstrued by some people.

      • ” Debito also made it clear in his blog that he would not engage in the critique of this article”

        And then proceeded to critique both Amy’s column and her personally, now didn’t he?

        “I’m not going to engage “Japan Lite” columnist Amy Chavez’s recent ill-considered column on racial discrimination; she essentially makes the argument that we “foreigners” should stop acting like “spoiled children”, and instead essentially be grateful for being discriminated against as minorities in Japan — as it will give us “compassion” for the plight of minorities in our “home countries” (as opposed to insights on how to prevent discrimination happening to our friends and children in Japan). I’m avoiding it for the same reason I didn’t engage columnist Gregory Clark back in 2009 when he claimed that “antiforeigner discrimination is a right for Japanese people” (also because Chavez has a history of writing silly racialized columns like this one in 2009). It just seems that everyone has an opinion about “racism” and “discrimination”, but few have either the training or the insight for how to deal with it in ways that don’t simply reflect their biases arising from their position in society (something CRT calls “structural determinism“). In Chavez’s case, her argument (which she unsophisticatedly tries to apply universally to “we foreigners”), has simply become a self-loathing expression of her White Guilt;”

        A bit rich for him to complain about others not having the “training and insight” to deal with issues of racism and discrimination, considering he himself has no formal training and has been shown time and again here in the Japan Times and elsewhere to have “insights” that are factually and verifiably wrong.

        “That’s why her message is misconstrued by some people.”

        Including Debito, apparently.

      • Toolonggone

        Funny the way you flip the switch of your light when you see his name appear right in front of your eyes as if you heard the pins drop. I thought you and Debito are exactly on the same page over the issue. You’re correct in saying that “proceeded to critique both Amy’s column and her personally,” with the exception that he decided not to make it entirely on his blog this time. Looks like he did it in the past. You said he’s complaining? Maybe. But, not the way you throw your temper tantrum toward her on the article, which is exactly the same tactic you are using to critique him.

    • Ian LLewellyn Davies

      Debito Arudou? He’s just one man you know, not the be all and end all when it comes to life in Japan. Time to step out from under his shadow and make your own way son.

  • 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!

  • “Unfair!”
    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.

    • Passuer

      I have to call BS on this. I am a minority in the US. I grew up as the only black family in a high school of over a thousand. During my junior year, another family of blacks moved in and suddenly, there was a problem. Really? I fully understand that people have a right to the heritage, but I absolutely know that a lot of people take every slight as an opportunity. So when I visit Japan (three times now) could I be a jerk and complain, sure. Does it help anyone? No. I continue to live my life by judging people by their character. But I have no hope that everyone everywhere ever will.

  • 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.

    • 思德

      I lived in Taiwan last year and moved to Japan this past March 2013. One of the elements of culture shock that I went through was desperately missing Taiwan (as opposed to America). How I was treated in Taiwan had a lot to do with that. In America, I always had the feeling that I’m at best an unconscious purveyor of white privilege.

      It is definitely true that Taiwanese treat white foreigners better than all others. In retrospect, if almost feels like they look up to us in some way or feel we have some magic quality that will rub off on them or their children (if you are an English teacher like I was). I did have two irritating incidents, mostly involving elderly people, but overall my culture shock there didn’t have much to do with racism. Actually, if anything, there were times when I found the way whiteness was seen as a positive to be frustrating, because at times I felt like I hadn’t done anything in particular to merit any favor, and because I felt (shocker!) other races should be given a chance, too.

      I didn’t realize how much that “being looked up to” feeling meant to me until I came to Japan where foreigners, at the very least, must endure the same difficulties as Japanese people, barring some inevitable exceptions regarding taking out garbage at the wrong time or social errors that can’t be helped due to a lack of training. I found myself missing that place of social elevation and respect without suspicions of being some kind of racist or participant in / peddler of privilege.

      Thus far, having wrestled with a much nastier breed of culture shock than what I felt in Taiwan, I am coming to the conclusion that unless I find some extraordinarily compelling reason to stay in Japan (read: a spouse or a genuinely interesting career path), I will do my tourism while I’m here and be out in a year or two and go back to the US. To resume being the suspected closet racist, rather than the Same Race As Steve Jobs demigod or the whinging, sideshow barbarian.

  • 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.

    • 思德

      Life is hit or miss like that. It’s tough to say how valid anyone who claims they are victims of racism are; we weren’t there. I’m sure someone would come out of the woodwork to say Australia’s not racist because of their positive experience. Sometimes you have to thank your lucky stars, and hope people handle their problems with grace.

  • 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”.