You’re in the middle of a conversation with your Japanese co-workers when one suddenly quips, “Most foreigners are job hoppers who don’t have any loyalty to their company.” “Wow,” you think to yourself. “Where did that come from?”
The conversation continues but you’re stuck on the comment. It’s not fair to generalize about such a large group and, on top of that, you have opinions on how Japanese HR practices may be part of the cause of that behavior. Now, you’re faced with a dilemma: Should you rise to the defense of fellow non-Japanese workers by pointing out that not all of them change jobs frequently, or should you quietly dismiss the comment and wait to see if this person says anything similar in the future?
Many non-Japanese workers know what it’s like to be in a situation in which their Japanese co-workers make comments that contain stereotypes about other cultures or races. Some comments may be flat-out racist (unfortunately, every country in the world has its share of jerks), but more common will be micro-aggressions, passive prejudice and stereotyping. This article focuses on the latter type of problematic behavior.
What’s behind the words?
Working in Japan in 2019 is very different from what it was 20 years ago. Attitudes toward non-Japanese residents and foreign cultures have progressed markedly. Still, there’s always room for improvement and even today you might hear comments that range from “Foreigners are lazy” to “Jews are smart.”
For people from cultures where diversity is emphasized and voicing stereotypes is considered to be in bad taste, it can be surprising and uncomfortable when a Japanese co-worker makes a blanket statement about a specific group, especially if it’s the one that you happen to belong to.
When at home in the United States, the advice I typically give to people who encounter problematic speech is to tell the person who said it that you are uncomfortable with such talk, and ask them to stop. It becomes a bit trickier when in Japan, however, as confrontation is generally frowned on here. It’s entirely possible that you could be making matters worse when you call someone out for something they’ve said.
A strategy is helpful, starting with considering what might be behind the comments. The following are possible reasons:
Ignorance: Some Japanese absorb stereotypes they hear about different groups from the media or the people around them and, due to a lack of exposure to people who are different from themselves, they can be susceptible to problematic ways of thinking. That’s not an excuse for bad behavior, but it’s important to keep in mind that some comments are more ignorant than malicious.
In addition, some Japanese don’t realize that making generalizations can be harmful or hurtful, because such a way of thinking is common in the environment around them. Take the language, for instance. Japanese is built around knowing who is part of your group and who isn’t so that you can address them with the proper terminology — it’s “us” and “them.” Again, this background environment is not an excuse for bad behavior but it’s important to keep in mind.
An attempt at humor: Some problematic comments are made as an attempt to be funny. This can be as simple as parroting jokes that were heard on TV, or trying to use your presence in the workplace as an opportunity to get a laugh.
Stereotypes aren’t funny, but some people may mistakenly think that they are (and unfortunately there is a lot of that kind of thing on Japanese television).
While the West’s main form of comedy is stand-up, Japan has a tradition of manzai, a comic duo in which a tsukkomi (straight man) will berate a bokke (fool). It doesn’t always translate into English well, and to the uninitiated it can resemble anything from a good-natured teasing to light-hearted bullying. This dynamic may be the effect your colleague is aiming for, however ham-handed.
An attempt to get a rise out of you: Sadly, there are trollish personalities in every country. It may be the case that a Japanese co-worker will throw stereotypes in your direction in order to try to get you to react, particularly if they think you might react angrily. Then, if you do get upset, they will point to your anger as a way to criticize you or drive a wedge between you and the rest of the team. It’s best not to fall for this Machiavellian trap, office politics are a tricky game in any language.
Choose your battles
How you handle problematic comments depends a lot on which of the aforementioned categories you think the offender falls into, how offensive their comments were, how often they repeat such comments, how deeply you think they believe what they’re saying and what your overall relationship with them is. Depending on those factors, one or more of the following approaches might work:
Give immediate feedback: Sometimes it is best to say something immediately to the offender. Delivered in a calm tone and with a smile, responses like “I don’t think that’s true,” “That’s an over-generalization” or presenting an opposing viewpoint may be a welcome part of a good discussion. If the person who made a problematic comment did so out of ignorance, they could be open to being corrected.
Another strategy is to not speak up solely when the group you belong to has been maligned. I’m a white American woman but if I were to hear a Japanese colleague make a derogatory generalization about the Chinese, then I might counter it with, for example, “When I went to China I found the people to be really nice.” Not only will you be helping someone else’s situation, you’ll be taking a step to eliminate such problematic ways of thinking overall. Just remember to keep the mood light and don’t be so forceful or emotional that the person you’re talking to feels overwhelmed or attacked.
Take them aside later: Rather than saying something in the moment, when the offender might not be ready to listen or others are present to overhear it, in some cases it might work better to take the person aside later and speak with them in private. Rather than being accusatory or trying to make the person feel bad, it’s best to focus on how hearing the stereotype impacted you, and your request that they avoid such statements in the future. Be prepared that some people may be genuinely surprised to be called out on a stereotypical statement, as that kind of conversation might not happen between Japanese colleagues.
Snappy comeback: Humor can sometimes work well to convey your disapproval of a statement while keeping things light. This won’t work in all situations, of course, and you need to be a quick thinker. However, especially for those who are deliberately trying to annoy you, a lighthearted response shows that you aren’t easily perturbed.
Self-deprecating humor also works well and you can aim to show how ridiculous a stereotype is without directly saying so. For example, the response to “Well, everyone knows that foreigners are lazy” might be to say something along the lines of, “That reminds me, I need to take my break,” or to deliver a light retort such as, “Well then, I must have been born in Japan because I work tons of overtime!” The benefit of doing this is that you remain approachable and the Japanese colleagues who also didn’t agree with what was said will feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts about it with you later.
Ignore it: Yes, this may sound like a cop-out but in some cases it might be better to simply bite your tongue if you hear something questionable, especially if the offender doesn’t normally say such things. Of course, if you don’t speak up then the person in question will never realize they said anything wrong and nothing will change. However, if you don’t have the right relationship with them in the first place, then speaking up is more likely to make them feel targeted and defensive — harming any chance of progress in the future.
If a lot of problematic comments are being made in your workplace and you jump on every one of them, you could get a reputation for being sanctimonious and that is also counterproductive.
In Japan, it’s best to pick and choose your battles, and save direct confrontation for more egregious cases.
Education: While it is not your job to educate your colleagues, look for opportunities to expose them to information about different groups and cultures that challenges their stereotypes. This is an indirect approach but can be effective, particularly in the long run.
Bring it up with your boss: If the stereotypical comments continue unabated despite your either ignoring them, countering them with humor or giving feedback, you should sit down with your boss to discuss your concerns. Before taking that step, however, you might want to start a log so that you know the frequency of the comments and to remember precisely what was said. If other people have been offended, it will help to have them add their voices to a complaint.
Actually, this kind of bureaucratic approach to filing a complaint is also one of the steps taken when a company is looking to fire an employee for bad behavior. The main takeaway here is that when the conversation gets serious, it’s best to be able to back up your accusations.
It may be a sign
Stereotypical comments can run the gamut from something that comes up occasionally to continuous aggressive teasing, so your response needs to be proportionate.
However, what if the stereotypical comments are reflective of deeply held beliefs that form the basis for policies and decision-making in your workplace? (For example, the assumption that a non-Japanese employee will “job hop” being used as a reason to not give them better work assignments.) Or what happens when the attempts to get you to react start to feel like bullying? Well then, perhaps this particular workplace is not the best match for you. If you have the means, you may want to look for a workplace that has a more positive atmosphere toward diversity, one in which you can thrive.
Rochelle Kopp is a management consultant working with Japanese firms operating globally and foreign firms operating in Japan. She recently published “Manga de Wakaru Gaikokujin to no Hatarakikata” (“Learn How to Work With Non-Japanese Through Manga.”) Find her on Twitter at: @JapanIntercult in English and @JICRochelle in Japanese.