The recent surge of anti-racist action around the world has not left Japan behind. Local actions such as the Black Lives Matter marches in Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka and Osaka, and the ubiquity of overseas protests in the news, have reignited discussion of racism and xenophobia in this country. This development is as welcome and necessary here as it is everywhere else.
An interesting element of this discussion, which has come up repeatedly over the years, involves non-Japanese people’s experiences of living in Japan. You’ll often hear white people say on Twitter and elsewhere: Now that I’ve lived in Japan, I understand what it is like to be discriminated against and therefore I understand racism in my own country. The short response to that sentiment? You don’t.
The oppression, danger and systematic and institutional racism Black people are subjected to around the world is nothing like what white people face in Japan.
White people do, however, experience one foundational aspect of discrimination upon living here: For the first time in their lives, they are seen primarily as members of a social category before being seen as unique individuals. Walking into a room and being reacted to as a “gaijin” (foreigner), with all its associated stereotypes, comes before being seen as an Australian, a parent, a professional or any other characteristic that makes you who you are. It’s an experience that is harder to have when you’ve been a member of the dominant group in the society you grew up in.
For many white people, particularly those who don’t fall into other minority groups, being in Japan is their first taste of being a minority — of being “othered” — especially for extended periods of time. In this sense, when a white person says they understand discrimination first-hand they are partly correct because they’re experiencing being othered; their error is in thinking that this experience gives them a full and genuine understanding of what it feels like to be the object of racist attitudes and structures. After all, non-Japanese people who aren’t white are treated completely differently from those who are white in Japan, too. Understanding what it feels like to be othered is not the same as experiencing oppression. So tweeting that you understand racism while not actually being oppressed turns out to be a demonstration of privilege, and that can sometimes prompt angry responses.
Japanese people listening in on this discussion may not think this issue involves them, but they’d be mistaken. It is they who are doing the othering in Japan — whether it’s stereotyping in the media, employing discrimination in housing, or turning a blind eye to brutal and discriminatory practices in the country’s police and immigration systems.
Consider the campaign of some 20 Japanese fashion imprints that have collaborated on producing a T-shirt with the slogan “Japanese Solidarity with Black Lives Matter.” The intent of this project is good, but the phrasing of the slogan can read as if Black Lives Matter is not a Japanese issue, but an external one. This is, of course, false: Racism is obviously an issue in Japan as much as it is in every other country.
Solidarity is not enough; we all have to do the work, especially those of us who are not the objects of oppressive structures. There is no feminism without anti-racism, no trans liberation without black liberation, and so on. It is long past time for all of us, in Japan and elsewhere, to recognize that we are part of the problem, to work on our own internalized attitudes and unawareness, and take action to address issues of structural discrimination in our social institutions.