OSAKA – As Japan opens its doors to more and more foreign workers, the problem of racial harassment in the workplace is under renewed scrutiny.
While racial harassment — including slurs, jokes or the targeting of a person due to their race or ethnicity — is considered offensive and illegal in many countries around the world, awareness of the problematic phenomenon is still lacking in Japan.
Although no regulations and punishments exist to curb such behavior at companies and in society at large, more foreign residents have been speaking up in recent years about the discrimination they face and are now calling for change.
Pundits have argued in the past that the nation’s homogeneity precludes it from the type of racism seen in the West, despite historical evidence to the contrary, including discrimination against long-time resident ethnic Koreans and Chinese.
Although minority and progressive groups in Japan largely welcomed U.N. Special Rapporteur Doudou Diene’s 2006 report on racism and ethnic discrimination that criticized the country’s “deep discrimination,” the report was harshly condemned by nationalists.
Julian Keane, a researcher at Osaka City University, born to an American father and a Japanese mother, recalls bitter incidents from his childhood. His schoolmates would often make remarks such as “Why can’t you speak English?” or “It’s a pity that even though you’re hāfu (biracial), you aren’t talented in sports.”
Born in Nagoya and raised in Fukuoka and Osaka prefectures, Keane, 30, studies the daily lives of biracial people in Japan as well as non-Japanese with roots overseas.
Keane says that, unlike explicit hate speech that fuels animosity toward a large, unspecified group of people, racial harassment is insidious — hurting people with deceptively casual biases.
Stressing the need to deepen the public’s awareness of racial harassment, Keane has called for the introduction of statutory countermeasures and laws as well as the incorporation of penalties against violators into companies’ employment regulations.
There were a record 2.73 million foreign residents living in Japan as of the end of 2018, an increase of 170,000 from the previous year, according to the Justice Ministry. Moreover, some 300,000 foreign nationals have obtained Japanese citizenship over the past 30 years.
In a 2016 government survey, 30 percent of foreign residents surveyed said they had “frequently” or “occasionally” been the target of discriminatory speech — 53 percent of whom say such prejudice came from “strangers.”
Furthermore, 38 percent said they were subjected to discrimination by superiors, colleagues or subordinates in the workplace, or by their clients.
Taminzoku Kyosei Jinken Kyoiku Center, an Osaka-based nonprofit organization that aims to foster a multiethnic coexistence through education, has produced a booklet and video to deepen understanding. It has also conducted fact-finding surveys regarding racial harassment.
Compared with sexual harassment and “power harassment,” or general workplace abuse, measures to tackle racial harassment have been close to nonexistent.
The nonprofit is urging the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to add racial harassment to policy guidelines under the law for women’s empowerment and harassment regulations this June. Companies, experts argue, also need to address the root causes of such biases.
Moon Gong-hwi, the secretary-general of the organization, gave a racial harassment lecture to personnel managers at a training seminar held by the Osaka Prefectural Government last November.
Moon, 51, talked about speech that is used based on the assumption that all participants of a conversation are Japanese or other instances in which a specific race or ethnicity is regarded with hostility.
For example, one might assume everyone’s race in the room by saying: “You understand what I mean because we are Japanese, right?” More extreme cases could include derisive comments directed toward a specific race or ethnicity.
If victims of racial harassment take to social media to expose such biases, that would invariably damage the worldwide image of Japanese companies. There have even been cases of racial harassment developing into lawsuits.
A seminar participant, who is a personnel manager at a company in the service industry, said, “We want to be more conscious of creating a friendly environment for people of various roots as we continue to hire more foreign workers.”Moon admits he is fighting an uphill battle.
“There are cases in which employees were forced to relocate or even quit their job after lodging complaints about racial harassment to their companies. Businesses are being tested on how they address this issue. I hope people who witness such examples on the job come forward to voice (opposition) to this.”