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.
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