J. League and media must show red card to racism


On Saturday, during their J. League match against Sagan Tosu at Saitama Stadium, some Urawa Reds fans hung a “Japanese only” banner over an entrance to the stands.

It went viral. Several sports sections in Japanese newspapers and blogs, as well as overseas English media, covered the story. The banner was reportedly soon taken down, and both the football club and players expressed regret that it had ever appeared. Urawa investigated, and at the time of going to press Wednesday, reports were suggesting that the club had decided that the banner was discriminatory, reversing a previous finding that the fans behind the incident had “no discriminatory intent.”

So case closed? Not so fast. There is something important that the major media is overlooking — nay, abetting: the implicit racism that would spawn such a sign.

None of the initial reports called out the incident for what it was: racial discrimination (jinshu sabetsu). News outlets such as Kyodo, Asahi, Mainichi, Yomiuri, AP, AFP, Al-Jazeera — even The Japan Times — muted their coverage by saying the banner “could apparently be considered/construed/seen as racist.” (Well, how else could it be construed? Were they trying to say that “only the Japanese language is spoken here”?) Few ran pictures of the banner to give context or impact.

Japanese media appended the standard hand-wringing excuses, including the cryptic “I think the meaning behind it is for Japanese to pump up the J. League,” and even a reverse-engineered claim of performance art: “I think it was just tongue-in-cheek because the club is not bolstering the team with foreign players.” (Oh, and that’s not prejudiced?)

The Internet buzzed with speculation about the banner’s intent. Was it referring to the fact that Urawa was allegedly fielding a Japanese-only team for a change (notwithstanding their Serbian coach)? Or were the bleachers to be kept foreigner-free?

Doesn’t matter. “Japanese only” has long been the exclusionary trope for Japan’s xenophobes. The phrase came to prominence in 1999 in the Otaru onsen case, which revolved around several public bathhouses in Otaru, Hokkaido, that refused entry to all “foreigners” based on their physical appearance (including this author, a naturalized Japanese). Later, exclusionary businesses nationwide copycatted and put up “Japanese only” signs of their own. “Japanese only” is in fact part of a social movement.

The upshot is, if you don’t “look Japanese,” you are not welcome. That’s where the racism comes in. Why should the Urawa banner be “construed” any differently?

The better question is: Why does this language keep popping up in public places? I’ll tell you why. Because Japan keeps getting a free pass from the outside world.

Just look at Japan’s sports leagues and you’ll find a long history of outright racism — excluding, handicapping and bashing foreigners (even the naturalized “foreigners”) in, for example, sumo, baseball, hockey, rugby, figure skating, the Kokutai national sports festivals and the Ekiden long-distance races. So much for a sporting chance on a level playing field.

Nevertheless, Japan keeps getting rewarded with major international events, such as the FIFA World Cup in 2002, the Rugby World Cup in 2019, and the Olympics in 2020. So be as racist as you like: There’s no penalty.

Anyplace else and soccer governing body FIFA would probably take swift action to investigate and penalize offenders in line with its policy of zero tolerance for racism, as has been done in the past, most recently in China. In January, the Hong Kong Football Association got fined for shirking its responsibility to stop racial discrimination against Filipino supporters by Hong Kong national team fans during a “friendly” match.

The Urawa Reds incident is still fresh. I await FIFA’s reaction (if any) with anticipation. But after more than two decades of watching this stuff — and even doing a doctoral dissertation on it — I’m not hopeful.

After all, Japan is not China. The developed world sees Japan as their bulwark of democracy in Asia, and is willing to overlook one very inconvenient truth: that a racialized narrative in Japan is so commonplace and unchallenged that it has become embedded in the discourse of race relations. Foreigners are simply not to be treated the same as Japanese.

People often blame this phenomenon on legal issues (foreigners are not treated exactly the same as citizens anywhere else either, right?) but the pachyderm in the parlor is that the practical definition of “foreigner” is racial, i.e., identified by sight. Anyone “looking foreign” who defied that Urawa banner and entered that stadium section would have gotten — at the very least — the stink-eye from those (still-unnamed) xenophobes who put it up. What other purpose could the banner possibly serve? In any case, it has no place under official FIFA rules.

Make no mistake: “Japanese only” underscores a racialized discourse, and the media should stop making things worse by kid-gloving it as some kind of cultural misunderstanding. It does nobody any favors, least of all Japanese society.

Consider this: As Japan’s rightward swing continues, overt xenophobia (some of it even advocating murder and war) is getting more vociferous and normalized. Not to mention organized: The Asahi Shimbun reported that in Tokyo’s recent gubernatorial election, about a quarter of the 611,000 people who voted for extreme-right candidate Toshio Tamogami, an overtly xenophobic historical revisionist, were young men in their 20s — a demographic also over-represented at soccer games.

Giving their attitudes a free pass with milquetoast criticism (J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai said that he will act if the banner was proven to be “discriminatory” — meaning he could possibly find otherwise?) only encourages discriminatory behavior: Be as racist as you like; there’s no penalty.

Point is, the only way to ensure Japan keeps its international promises (such as by creating a law against racial discrimination, after signing the U.N. Convention on Racial Discrimination nearly 20 years ago!) is to call a spade a spade. As scholar Ayu Majima notes, Japan has a fundamental “perception of itself as a civilized nation,” an illusion that would be undermined by claims of domestic racism. Remember: Racism happens in other countries, not here.

By always denying racism’s existence, Japan preserves its self-image of civilization and modernity, and that’s why calling out this behavior for what it is — racial discrimination — is such a necessary reality check. FIFA and media watchdogs need to do their jobs, so I don’t have to keep writing these columns stating the obvious. Stop abetting this scourge and show some red cards.

Debito Arudou is the author of the “Guidebook for Relocation and Assimilation into Japan” (www.debito.org/handbook.html) Twitter: @arudoudebito. Comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

What were they thinking? What do you think the culprits behind the "Japanese only" banner at the Urawa Reds game actually meant to say?

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  • Gordon Graham

    I doubt anyone is denying that racism exists in Japan, I’m certainly not. However, claiming that racisim is “endemic to Japan” because the Japanese consider it “natural” reveals more about a person who would make such a claim than the claim itself. If you want to pin the sentiments of right-wing nationals on an entire people then, as a Westerner, you also have to take ownership of the likes of the EDL, and KKK as well as own up to the rampant bigotry and racism that is awash across Europe, Australia, Britain and North America…The racist graffiti I saw in my native Canada aimed at Pakistanis and Muslims this past summer would make the graffiti in this BBC report look like a Hallmark Card.

    • Toolonggone

      Well, Japan is certainly not an exception to problematic racial assumption that goes unchallenged by legal and political institutions–regarding that the country has rarely experienced the incidents like the ones you brought up. Clearly, there is an attempt by some people who jump down on their enemy’s throat before identifying the point h/she makes, like “h/she is making an unfair comparison for arguing “Japan’s racism is even worse than the US, Canada, or Europe, etc.” Funny, I have rarely seen people openly suggesting “Japan is the worst among all.” This kind of things happens to any country, but if people find someone making the case for Japan, they start behaving like Ed reformers or pro-corporate welfares attacking public schools, teachers, firefighters, police officers for economic recession…

  • Chris Clancy

    Oh, the scurge of multiple choice questions. At first, I was thinking the “No Japanese” banner was a political, albeit racial, jab at Korea asthe Sagan Tosu team is managed by a Korean & includes a number of Korean players.

  • HarryNYC

    It’s pretty arrogant of the author and most of the commenters to just assume that, well, all countries need to a melting pot and accept everyone. Is there some reason the Japanese can’t live as they please in their own country?

    • Toolonggone

      Well, it was Japanese government who made choice in the first place. If people had second thoughts on that, they should have done something to lobby the legislature–like the US or Europe did in the past at the risk of national alienation.

    • Gordon Graham

      People should be able to live as they please in any country as long as it’s not at the expense of others. Foreigners who have been welcomed into a country to live and work should be given the courtesy and respect to be treated as equals. Otherwise do your own grunt work and keep your doors shut…and stay in your own backyard

  • Teaparty01

    Let them alone.
    If they want a closed society that is their business
    no need for everyone to poke their nose foreign affairs

  • cobrawolf

    I live and work in Japan. If you look different in Japan, you will be singled out. no argument. There is a saying in Japanese, “the nail that sticks out, hammer it down”. Funny thing, I asked one of my Japanese co-workers when they are in America, are they “gaijins/foreigners”? … he said .. no, I’m Japanese! They just don’t get it.

  • Adam

    Heya. It was just a mindset that I often saw there, this kind of obsession about the world being composed of outsiders. I think Japan would be improved by being more inclusive. Sorry about my tone before.