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When I recently read the news about tennis star Naomi Osaka’s struggle with mental health issues, her bouts with depression in particular, I could immediately relate.

I bet all of us can now relate a little, especially during this ongoing pandemic. However, there’s an added dimension related to being visibly non-Japanese in Japan — or a person of color in a majority white society in the West — that can make the struggle a bit more intense.

I’m sure the situation is similar for other people facing discrimination, whether it’s women, those who identify as LBGTQIA, those with a disability or people in more than one of those categories.

To gain a different perspective on this, I decided to reach out to Mark Bookman, a colleague of mine. Based out of the University of Tokyo, he’s a historian of disability policy and connected social movements in Japan, and works as an accessibility consultant, collaborating with government agencies and corporate entities around the world on projects tied to disability inclusion. Mark has a rare degenerative neuromuscular disease similar to ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) that affects only six people on the planet, so he uses a motorized power wheelchair for most of his daily activities.

Two weeks ago, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike was hospitalized due to fatigue. Mark and I thought this would be as good a time as any to do a quick mental health check by talking about our experiences as non-Japanese residents invested in this country. We are also pretty sure that many readers will be able to relate.

Baye McNeil: My experience is that discrimination is par for the course for a conspicuously foreign-looking individual living in Japan. While it’s true that cops here are not routinely opening fire on Black people, we are subject to an overabundance of pesky microaggressions that act like paper cuts. These are emotional and psychological assaults that, when you point them out, can sometimes draw reactions from both Japanese and non-Japanese alike telling you to “man up” or “tough it out.” That can lead you to remain silent about this stuff in fear of appearing oversensitive and being accused of playing the victim card. I say “accused” because when “victim” is used this way it somehow comes off as a slur. What’s your experience of discrimination in Japan, Mark?

Face to face: When it comes to interacting with people who have a disability, sometimes a person will interact with a caretaker rather than the disabled person themselves. This can lead to misunderstandings. | GETTY IMAGES
Face to face: When it comes to interacting with people who have a disability, sometimes a person will interact with a caretaker rather than the disabled person themselves. This can lead to misunderstandings. | GETTY IMAGES

Mark Bookman: My experience with discrimination in Japan as a disabled individual is, in a way, quite similar to yours. No one has explicitly or intentionally used ableist slurs against me, but I often encounter barriers in the built environment that make life a lot harder. For instance, public toilets are not set up to accommodate my large foreign wheelchair, so it is difficult for me to travel too far from my home. Lack of accessibility has kept me out of many spaces and prevented me from telling others about my needs, so people frequently make incorrect assumptions about what they can do to help me when I need support.

I remember one incident in particular in which I called ahead to ask if a restaurant was accessible. The owner said that the place had accommodated wheelchair users in the past, so I decided to go for it. When I arrived, I saw that there was a step outside the entrance that my chair could not overcome. The owner insisted he could lift my wheelchair over the step, despite the fact that it weighs 300 kilograms.

I knew that if I refused his offer, it would cause a scene and lead others in the area to get involved. Not wanting to deal with the hassle of explaining to so many onlookers why they could not help the owner, I decided to say, “I’m not sure if it’s a good idea.” Before I finished my statement, however, the owner was already pulling at my chair. I am sure that he meant well and was trying to help. Still, he injured my arm, and the psychological damage was more scarring: I had no easy way to stop such incidents from occurring, as I could not correct misunderstandings like the owners’ in the moment.

Baye: What should he have done?

Mark: He could have simply asked me directly about my needs. It’s possible to do so in a polite way that furthers understanding of the situation. I appreciate this goes against the Japanese concept of omotenashi, in which the host must anticipate a customer’s needs, but if he had just engaged in a conversation with me then I could have explained why pulling at my chair would put us both at risk, and we could have worked together to find an alternative solution to the accessibility problem.

Additionally, a lot of times a person will interact with a caregiver who is present instead of the individual with the disability. Not only does this dehumanize the disabled person, but it also creates misunderstandings as caregivers only know so much about the individuals in their care.

Baye: I recently interviewed Kinota Braithwaite, a Black Canadian who learned that his 9-year-old biracial “Blackanese” daughter — a future Naomi Osaka — was being bullied at her elementary school here in Japan. No physical attacks, just persistent efforts to other her and stigmatize her skin color that disturbed her and harmed her mental well-being.

So, he wrote a children’s book titled “Mio The Beautiful,” which is in Japanese and English, about his daughter’s experiences with discrimination to be used as a teaching tool. Not everyone can write a book, but I bring it up because this was a loving father who did something positive to help his daughter and the wellbeing of the greater community.

Myself, I periodically go through bouts of self-imposed seclusion for mental maintenance. During these “sabetsu (discrimination) sabbaticals,” I venture out in public only if absolutely necessary.

There are very few foreigner-friendly spaces that are “safe” from the psychic onslaught of othering. A man refusing to board an elevator with me, a woman clutching her pocketbook tighter upon noticing me or a shop clerk telling me they can’t speak English in response to my speaking totally comprehensible Japanese to them — that stuff can be disturbing, it can trigger me. So, these restorative sabbaticals are what I’ve prescribed myself to try and get a break. And, more recently, these breaks include my Japanese wife and our two adopted kittens. It’s amazing what a bit of time with some kittens can do for the soul.

Mark: I hear you on that idea of friendly, safe places. We need them to be able to talk with others about the physical and social barriers we face that create significant hardships.

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can provide some relief and solidarity, but there are many individuals who cannot use those outlets due to stigma, shame or lack of resources. We need to remember that fact and do our best to construct multiple and diverse venues where we can hear from affected individuals about their experiences of discrimination. Then, we can learn more about those people’s needs and begin to build a more inclusive society.

Personally, I’ve found comfort in private online settings that I’ve made with friends. We’ll play games, watch videos, listen to music and discuss problems that we face each day with the goal of brainstorming solutions. We try not to be too judgmental and pool our resources to keep everyone happy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But with community members joining from around the world, we know that somebody will always be there no matter the time zone.

Baye: I spoke to my friend Selena Hoy from TELL about this. TELL is a certified mental health nonprofit that serves the international community in Japan and it acts as that safe space for a lot of people. She told me, “If you’re overwhelmed, you’re not alone. And you don’t have to struggle alone. Talk with someone — a friend, a family member, a colleague … or if you’d rather keep it private you can always call the Lifeline, which is anonymous and non-judgemental.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency in Japan, please call 119 for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. For those in other countries, visit International Suicide Hotlines for a detailed list of resources and assistance.

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