Earlier this month, I met with a group of 16 American students visiting Japan through the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission’s Summer Institute. The students, who were all in their early 20s, are interested in Japan, and they wanted to hear my thoughts on what life is like here for people of African descent.

I decided to share with them an experience I’d had the morning before, but truth be told it’s an experience that I’ve had many mornings before.

I left my house for work at 6:30 a.m. and, 15 minutes later, I was in line for the morning train. I stood behind a gentleman who, upon noticing me standing behind him, patted his back pockets and turned his body so that he could keep a wary side-eye on me without, I guess, having to constantly glance over his shoulder. When we boarded the train, he scurried away to the other end of the car.

I took a seat. There were plenty to choose from, but once all the passengers were on board, I noticed that all the seats in the car were taken, except the two on either side of me.

They were empty.

And they’ve been empty, off and on for going on 20 years now. Color me unsurprised. I took out my iPhone and pretended not to mind or even notice.

But I did notice. And I did mind.

To my surprise, I notice and mind more now than I did earlier in my tenure here. I’ve just gotten better at pretending I don’t mind — I even fool myself sometimes.

At the next stop, the train started to get really packed — except for those two seats on either side of me and the standing room in front of me. It was like I had a force field around me.

I couldn’t help but take a minute to inspect myself. Was something out of whack? Did I forget deodorant? Did I step in dog poop? Sadly, there doesn’t need to be any superficial reason to rationalize the space — no giant booger hanging from my nose, no cockroach perched on my shoulder — this situation just is.

At the next station, even more people piled in. One woman made a beeline for the seat on my right. She gestured politely at the seat first, like maybe she thought I was holding it for a friend that hadn’t boarded the train yet.

I shrugged and turned away to hide my annoyance.

Then, another woman got on the train, and I saw her eyes dart toward the empty seat on my left. She spotted me beside it and then screwed up her face. But wait — she wasn’t screwing her face up at me; she was staring daggers at the people standing around the seat, ignoring it. She’d discerned the situation in what seemed like seconds and appeared to be utterly displeased at the state of things. She sat down and did one of those hybrid bow-nods at me almost as if to apologize for the behavior of our fellow passengers.

I nodded back, indicating, “No biggie!”

A big part of life in Japan for a Black person is having to deal with a barrage of microaggressions.
A big part of life in Japan for a Black person is having to deal with a barrage of microaggressions. | GETTY IMAGES

She smiled and took on the demeanor of someone who knows they’re above the foolishness of others. There was pride in her posture, the kind of self-confidence that, when interacting with foreigners, is rarely encountered here unless the person has spent some time abroad.

A decade ago, I would have responded differently to this empty seat scenario. Maybe I would have put my bag on the seat next to me, or maybe I would have “manspread” so it would’ve been difficult for anyone to take it even if they wanted to. At that point, I would have rather had those around me blame my “selfish foreigner way of thinking” than have to acknowledge the humiliation that nobody was willing to sit next to me.

In the years that followed, my reaction to the empty seat evolved. There was the phase where I tried to ignore it, then came the phase where I would study kanji cards or practice my Japanese so it was easier not to notice the behaviors. Sometimes, I would just smile when there was nothing to smile at, to try to look harmless and signal to people that I was OK.

That’s the thing with microaggressions and our relationships to them, especially when we’re drowning in them. Sure, the ticks, oddities and offenses that result from Japan’s pervasive xenophobic and exclusivity mindset will likely evolve over time — just like I’ve evolved over time — but they still ultimately come to define your experience as a non-Japanese person in this country.

Write your truth

The students were rapt. One asked how to keep any negative feelings at bay, and I told them that, while you need to find outlets that work for you, I’ve found that exercise, eating right and trying to connect with people who can see past my hue work for me. And, of course, I write and speak my mind and truth as often as possible.

Long-term, if you can tolerate, dismiss or ignore being the object of constant stereotype-laced presumptions, irrational fear or untoward curiosity — you’ll probably have a great time in Japan. If you’re not that person, you can still power through and reach your objectives. The students understood, sadly it’s familiar ground to many Black Americans. It’s not the first time they’ve had to choose how to respond to ignorance. But, how do you process these interactions in a way that doesn’t negatively impact your self-esteem? Figuring that out will be your key to success here.

Keep in mind, too, Japan might change because of you or your actions, but it will not change for you. If you decide to stay here and tough it out, you will be the one being changed or making the changes, altering your perspective — and your mindset — to wrap around life here.

The students had already been in Japan for a week and they’d done their homework, so I wasn’t shocking them. Still, it seemed like they took this anecdote as something critical to their decision-making process. Several even told me afterward that it was relatable.

A pleasant surprise

Japan does change, of course. Nothing alive stays the same forever, but I believe progress here is very slow — or at least slower than I would have hoped for. Patience is not a virtue here; it’s a necessity. A nation of nearly 126 million people will only change according to its own design and self-interest, and only on its own timetable.

That said, sometimes Japan is aligned with the interest of non-Japanese, biracial Japanese and nontraditional Japanese living here, and things change in ways that I never saw coming. I love Japan when it surprises me like that.

One of my tasks as a writer here is to make sure when that happens that as many people as possible know it’s happening. I try to document this alignment, expose how broad it really is and prove that what we have in common is more powerful than that which differentiates us; to try to encourage change in the areas where it will be beneficial to Japan, which should include all of us who call Japan home — and this is my home.

My task as an activist, when I slip that cap on, is to encourage these kinds of happenings to go further and keep the momentum going if possible.

If you decide to stay in Japan and tough it out, you will be the one being changed or making the changes, altering your perspective.
If you decide to stay in Japan and tough it out, you will be the one being changed or making the changes, altering your perspective. | GETTY IMAGES

I was encouraged by that woman whose confidence enabled her to sit beside me on the train. The number of people who are like her is increasing. Young Japanese citizens are being exposed to ideas that incline them to be more inclusive, much more than their parents were. And a new generation of biracial Japanese is coming of age who are visible, outspoken and proud. They’re in the media and in the streets but, more importantly, they’re in the classrooms with other Japanese kids. The diversity that Japan needs to recognize in order to grow is right here, right now.

In the meantime, we conspicuous foreigners still have to ride the trains every day and make peace with the empty seats — and the mentality that manifests them. Living here will challenge you psychologically, emotionally and spiritually in unforeseeable ways. In my case it has unleashed potential I never knew I possessed and likely wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. So, I’m here to tell you, in the end, it’s worth it.