The longer I live in Japan, the better I get at reading the atmosphere. And at the moment, the atmosphere is hinting at some significant changes.

The Asahi Shimbun recently published a cartoon depicting several types of child abuse, and the perpetrators in most of the panels were illustrated with darker skin. The idea that “blackness” is an indication of evil intent has a long tradition in Japan — and pretty much every majority-white society — but these days it’s a particularly problematic artistic choice to say the least.

To those of us of a darker hue who call this country home — both Japanese and non-Japanese alike — the cartoon was clearly the perpetuation of an idea that has resulted in discriminatory behavior toward us over our entire lives. From student to job-seeker to person on the street, the likelihood of someone linking our darker skin to a darker character is unacceptably high.

Once I saw the cartoon, I headed to Facebook where, naturally, there was a litany of complaints from the darker-skinned people of Japan as well as from their allies of lighter hues. I’m used to these cries going unheard, but this time our displeasure reached representatives at the Asahi and, a couple of days later, an apology was issued in the paper itself.

What’s noteworthy, though, is that the Asahi didn’t put out a half-hearted mea culpa suggesting people there didn’t understand the problem, nor was the language they used filled with platitudes about diversity or that all-too-common line, “we’re sorry you’re offended.” No, this apology reflected what I believe to be a sincere and empathetic stance, and a complete comprehension of the problematic nature of such depictions, as well as an outline of measures the paper plans to take to prevent such blunders from happening in the future.

Maybe some of the newspaper’s employees are mixed race or non-Japanese themselves? The Asahi has a left-leaning reputation, maybe their journalists pushed for the response? In any case, what the paper did deserves some applause and left me feeling a bit, dare I say, optimistic.

Painted faces

Can you remember where we were on this kind of corporate responsibility at the start of the decade? Wasn’t it simply met with a shoulder shrug and a “shōganai” (“it can’t be helped”) from our Japanese friends?

Small steps were taken in 2014 when national airline ANA took things a nose too far in one of its TV spots. The company put out an ad in which it announced an increased number of international flights via Haneda Airport, with comedian Bakarhythm (Hidetomo Masuno) ending a chat about “changing the image of Japanese people” by donning a blond wig and a Pinocchio-length schnoz — essentially, “whiteface.” The social media response to this unfortunate depiction was fierce and widespread, and it wasn’t long before the outcry was picked up and covered by major media outlets outside of Japan.

ANA apologized, stating, “It was not our intention to cause offense and we apologize to anyone who was upset by the advertisement.” The ANA spokesperson added that the company’s “intention was to show Japanese becoming more active and essential in the world.” The offending scene was then cut from the commercial.

Following the ANA reaction, expat Twitter used social media to confront other social ills, including that unfortunately all-too-popular comedic trope of blackface. First, there was backlash in 2015 to a picture of idol-pop act Momoiro Clover Z posing with a Japanese group that based its whole career on blackface, Rats & Star. Then, comedian Masatoshi Hamada “paid homage” to Eddie Murphy by showing up in blackface on a 2017 New Year’s Eve program.

Earlier this year, yet another Japanese ad was the target of global outrage for “whitewashing” Haitian-Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka for a Nissin Noodles anime ad online by depicting her with lighter skin and “Europeanized” facial characteristics.

What we started seeing toward the close of the decade, however, is that some Japanese companies are beginning to understand that Japan’s (ancient) history of isolation and the country’s ignorance of what constitutes an offense are no longer acceptable excuses for this kind of questionable behavior. They’re starting to get that in order to gain a better understanding of the changing social climate — and financially benefit from it — they need to take some responsibility and be proactive.

Some major media organizations, such as Asahi and TBS, have embraced the changing dynamics of Japan — the increase in tourism, immigration, international marriages, mixed-race children and the identities of LGBTQIA individuals. In short, they’re getting the idea that their customers are diverse.

TBS even invited yours truly to conduct a seminar for its employees (which was televised) so that the staff and the station’s viewers could gain a better understanding of how and why racialized depictions like blackface and whiteface are offensive and need to stop. Actions speak louder than apologies.

Every customer is right

It’s not just the media that’s changing. Some of Japan’s oldest businesses, I think, are starting to wake up to a better form of customer service. A recent incident at a JR train station illustrates this best.

Professor Avril Haye Matsui of Nagoya City University was at Kozoji Station in Kasugai, Aichi Prefecture, to purchase tickets to Kyoto to attend a conference being held there. The staff on hand was rude to her in a way that is unfortunately not unfamiliar to many visible minorities living here, regardless of their Japanese-speaking ability. In a letter written to JR following the incident, Haye Matsui described it as “if I did not exist. As if I were some disembodied voice.” When spoken to directly, in polite Japanese, the staff member instead directed his responses and queries to the professor’s friend, a white woman.

If the friend were Japanese, it would be a familiar moment to most non-Japanese here. This type of gaijin (foreigner) ghosting is common, and can often be remedied within a few responses in Japanese on behalf of said gaijin. But this show of white preference perplexed and offended both customers.

The professor, who, funnily enough, was purchasing the ticket to attend a conference with the theme being “living in Japan as a person who is considered different and the challenges that may arise,” believed this to be a clearly racist act, and put it this way in her letter to JR: “I understand, of course, that some Japanese people may be unfamiliar with foreign people, but it seems strange to me that when confronted with two foreigners, one — the white one — should be treated with dignity and respect, while the other — the black one — be treated in an undignified manner.”

JR could have ignored the letter, but it didn’t. The company sent two representatives — the head of human resources in the area and the manager of the station where the incident took place — to Nagoya City University to formally apologize and explain how JR intended to make sure this kind of thing won’t happen again.

The reps told Haye Matsui that they had copied her letter and given it to all the staff in the area during a three-day training session. They asked her questions, listened to her answers and took notes on the different types of bad experiences many non-Japanese endure here on the trains. They told her that they would send her letter to all the JR stations in the country and include conversation about it in their training nationwide.

There will be follow-up on this, of course, to ensure JR keeps its promises, but even the fact that the company would take such measures and make promises as extraordinary as these is deserving of praise.

From 2010 to 2019, I believe the general trend in Japan concerning societal attitudes has been improving. Tokyo getting the Olympics likely helped, but social media undoubtedly played a big role as well as did every person who spoke up when they saw something was wrong, like Haye Matsui did at the train station, and Kevin Glenz, who was the person who contacted the Asahi, did when he saw that foul illustration. However, I’m of the mind that while the international community can introduce ideas that may or may not be embraced, only the Japanese can truly create change. We need to start more conversations about the insular mindset that discriminates unintentionally or otherwise, and how best to address it.

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