Commentary / Japan

Face the reality of racism in Japan

by John G. Russell

Recent events continue to suggest that discussions of racism in Japan typically prove problematic. This is largely because those discussions typically present it as a “uniquely” Western phenomenon, a matter of black and white or white and nonwhite, from which a mythic “uniquely monoracial” Japan has been spared.

Rather, when the issue is broached, as it was recently following controversies provoked by blackface performances, it is dismissed as arising from Japanese racial naivete. And while a conscious antipathy may not motivate some of these acts, a more insidious implicit bias remains.

A recent study of implicit bias by Matsumoto University psychologist Kazuo Mori notes that Japanese have an implicit bias against blacks, concluding that “Japanese participants showed an implicit preference for ‘white people’ over ‘black people.’ ” Mori suggests that this bias may be the product of the “media in which whites are used ‘for delivering a good message.’ ”

In a letter to The Japan Times last month, a reader complained of racial profiling at Chubu Centrair International Airport’s arrival area where, while waiting to greet an older relative with his 4-year-old son, he was approached by airport police, the fourth time out of six trips to the airport. Of 40 people in the area, it was only they, two conspicuous non-Japanese, who were singled out.

Those who have attempted to dismantle the myth of a racism-free Japan have usually faced harsh criticism. U.N. Special Rapporteur Doudou Diene’s 2006 report on racism and ethnic discrimination in Japan was largely ignored by the Japanese media and severely criticized by right-wing commentators.

Perhaps, as his critics asserted, nine days was too short a period to accurately assess the problem. Yet, whatever its putative flaws, Diene attempted to accomplish something that the Japanese government had long refused to do.

When 11 years later the Justice Ministry released its first-ever nationwide survey of racial and ethnic discrimination in Japan, it reported that 30 percent of non-Japanese respondents (the majority ethnic Koreans and Chinese residents) reported they had been the target of discriminatory speech. Over 40 percent reported they had been the victims of housing discrimination.

Not all racial/ethnic bias is implicit, however. Indeed, if the Japanese government — or anyone else for that matter — wants to know about explicit racism in Japan, all it need do is surf the internet or turn to the Cabinet Office’s own online forum, the now defunct Government Monitoring System (GMS), which until disbanded in 2017 had no problem posting hate-filled comments, many calling for the expulsion of ethnic minorities and foreigners.

Despite a disclaimer that it would not publish user comments deemed “slanderous and discriminatory,” it continued to do so on the grounds that it had to “respect the opinions of users,” a decision that speaks volumes about the seriousness with which it treated hate speech and the proclivities of its users.

Although Japan has been a signatory to of the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination since 1995, it — like the United States, another bastion of venomous racial invective and resentment — does not criminalize hate speech. The Japanese government rationalizes its own inaction on the grounds that racial discrimination in “racially homogeneous” Japan is so minimal that legal action to combat it is unnecessary.

For its part, the Justice Ministry has argued that such statements as “sokoku e kaere” that urge non-Japanese or persons thought not to be sufficiently Japanese (often despite their actual nationality) to return to their “homeland” do not constitute hate speech. Yet the ministry’s own home page displays both “Stop! Hate Speech” posters and a YouTube video on the matter that define hate speech as words that “call for the expulsion from Japan or killing of persons from a specific country.”

Apparently, the Cabinet Office did not get the memo, though as the Moritomo Gakuen, Kake Gakuen and Ground Self-Defense Force mission logs scandals have proven, Japan’s ministries have an uncanny penchant for not keeping track of their documents.

The problem, however, is not confined to the GMS. Social networking services and online forums are also rife with racist and xenophobic vitriol, and any criticism of Japan and the current administration is likely to result in their critics being accused of being “anti-Japan Japanese,” foreign agents and terrorists.

Ironically, such discriminatory trolling is often, well, indiscriminate. Hatred for one group coalesces into a putrid miasma of disdain aimed at any and all groups that are non-Japanese, or as the case may be, “insufficiently Japanese.” Consider the case of Ariana Miyamoto, a hāfu (biracial) whose selection as Miss Universe Japan in 2015 prompted a tsunami of online nastiness, raising issues of not only Japan’s racial complexes but also of its contempt for a wide range of others.

Among the comments: “Ignoring the reality of American racism, she blames everything on Japan — just like a Korean,” and, “She should be shot to death by one of America’s racist cops. She doesn’t deserve to live.”

These online missives (and there are hundreds more, many far more extreme) appear to have been motivated, in part, by the fact that Miyamoto dared to call out Japan’s racism in interviews. As anyone who follows online forums knows, Japanese (and Miyamato is Japanese) who criticize Japan have their Japanese bona fides questioned and run the risk of being denounced as Japan-hating crypto-ethnic Koreans, as was suggested by many of the attacks on Miyamoto.

Anyone who imagines that the comments on Miyamoto are atypical might take a look at the Japanese online comments posted in response to the marriage of Meghan Markle, another hāfu, to Britain’s Prince Harry. A small, comparatively mild sampling: “[Prince Harry] married a nigger whore”; “The end of England.”

Japanese “ignorance” of the racism in its midst is not limited to questionable blackface performances, though the Japanese media does little to educate the public on such matters.

How ironic it is that in Japan, which former Prime Minster Yasuhiro Nakasone once boasted was a cutting edge “information society,” much of the information it spews forth is spiked with racist acrimony. Not so Cool, Japan. But then again, judging from the current direction of world events, racism does appear to have become the new black. Indeed, there is little solace in the fact that hate-fueled rumors like those spread by mouth following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that resulted in the massacre of ethnic Koreans at the hands of vigilantes, are today spread via the internet, sometimes by the government’s own sites and with its tacit approval.

John G. Russell is a professor of cultural anthropology at Gifu University.