There’s this meme among the English-speaking population of Japan that white people who come here finally understand what it is like to be a minority in their home countries. First, can this possibly be true, given that the dominant stereotypes of white people here are worldly, fashionable, and good at English? Not exactly. I do think though that life as a visible minority equips you with a vocabulary to understand other people’s experience as minorities elsewhere, and white people in Japan are often better able to understand concepts such as othering and faultability, provided they had any social perspective in the first place. Whether they use this understanding for good or evil depends on their political orientation. Let me give an overview here of the types of racism that white people are likely to experience and what they (or we) might take away from it.
Half disclosure: I am not quite a white person, but I’m close enough that I’m not constantly reminded of my race when I’m in the USA. If one definition of “white” is “the absence of race”, then I am that a lot of the time. I’ve only been mistaken for a Japanese person once in all my time here (well, sort of. A clerk saw me writing my address on a warranty form and asked “are you Japanese?”, which I took as a compliment on my handwriting), and once was asked in the US if I was part Asian. If racism is a magnetic field, then when I’m in the USA I’m plywood.
Racism in Japan
While racism in Japan rarely takes the form of open hostility, racial identity is part of the commonsense definition of Japanese society. Because it lacks many of the conspicuous symptoms of racism that we in the US are accustomed to, many are prone to denying it even exists here. Of course, it does, and when you define it a bit differently than “hanging people in public” it starts to appear everwhere, even in the founding myths of the nation. Racism in Japan is the at-first-innocuous-sounding notion that your race plays a large role in determining your beliefs, capabilities, and behavior. This is a modern, PG version of what was actively disseminated during the war (which held in addition that Japanese racial characteristics made them uniquely virtuous and qualified for world leadership) – no longer District 9, but instead Lord of the Rings or Street Fighter. Of course, it just so happens that most of the beliefs, capabilities, and behaviors associated with Japaneseness qualify one for high-status positions in Japanese society, so a result of this benign-sounding racism is that minorities are considered out of place in all but a few contexts.
Even in cases in Japan where racial discrimination seems clear-cut, such as refusing service at restaurants, the justification is more often anticipated communicative or cultural differences gleaned from racial difference than the racial difference itself. This also yields a convenient rationalization in Japan for racial discrimination, that it’s not 差別 (discrimination, written with a character meaning “gap”) but rather 区別 (discrimination in the sense of logical sorting).
In sum, the fact that there’s a lot less racial hatred here doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist. The categories given by a racist worldview are very much in play, and much like the WW2 propaganda cited above, still tends to play up the superiority of Japan and the Japanese rather than denigrating other races or one race in particular. Citing a poll conducted by NHK:
「日本は一流国だ」および「日本人は、他の国民にくらべて、きわめてすぐれた素質をもっている」と考える人が、ともに1983年までは増加し、その後は 減少していたが、最近の５年間で再び増えた。また、「今でも日本は、外国から見習うべきことが多い」と考える人も減少し、日本に対する自信がやや回復して いる。
The number of people who think “Japan is a leading country” or “Japanese people, compared to people of other countries, have a definitely superior quality” had been increasing until 1983, and decreased since then, but in the last 5 years has increased again. Also, the number of people who think “Even now, Japan has many things to learn from other countries” has decreased, and confidence in Japan has returned somewhat.
Due to race being a common shorthand for culture and language, white people are automatically considered cultural ambassadors from valued international partners, and therefore their default station in Japanese society is not as low as that for other racial minorities. People are rather unlikely to look at white people as strong backs for the construction industry, inarticulate but natural musicians, or anonymous villagers in a travel movie. Discrimination corrals white people not into tenements but classrooms. This is not so for other minorities in Japan for which there may be no positive Brad Pitt or Taylor Swift stereotypes to balance out your delegitimatization in most areas of society.
What we can learn from this
So white people’s experience of Japan is unlikely to square with that most minority groups in the US or UK. If so, what can white people learn by being a minority in Japan? There is actually quite a bit of knowledge on how the race game works that a person with his or her eyes open can take home with them.
First, whiteness is no longer neutral here. White people are not the default for all positions of authority; in fact white people in any context other than an English classroom are marked to the point of quarantine. If you don’t know what it’s like to constantly be reminded of your race, Japan can teach you. Doubly so if you’re a woman.
Second, you will become well acquainted with the feelings associated with stereotype threat. For me, writing my place of work and name on a sign-in sheet is surprisingly anxiety-producing. If I write flawlessly, I can expect a comment on how unexpectedly well I write. If I hesitate, I can expect either a reassuring compliment or a remark on how hard Japanese is. In the end all this running through my head as I write makes me much less likely to write kanji well. You might realize that female engineering students might feel this way as well, and it’s the stress of dealing with expectations rather than any inborn incompetence that keeps you from doing as well as you could.
Third, you might come away with an appreciation for the patience people have to show in the face of clearly unacceptable behavior. You either politely tolerate someone refusing to give you a menu in a restaurant, or by giving a completely reasonable angry response, justify to that person all the stereotypes about your group that they have. The policy always has to be that no matter what intolerable situation the majority foists on you, you smile and forgive immediately or it will only get worse and everyone will blame you.
Fourth, you might realize that the sympathetic half of “[Racism] is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others” is also corrupting, and that being unreasonably selective with positive feelings has a negative effect on society. I have one incident of clear and malicious discrimination that sticks out in my memory, but what makes that incident far worse for me than the initial inconvenience of being denied a service is that when I mention it to people in Japan, their first reaction is always to show sympathy with the discriminator. Turn on Fox News anytime the police shoot an unarmed black person to see a much more depressing example than mine.
Last (for now), the longer you stay here you realize that part of the definition of stereotypes is that they resist refutation. Sometimes you come across justifications of poor service for non-Japanese in restaurants that say something like, “well, they’ve come across 100 foreigners who didn’t speak Japanese before you, so how were they supposed to know that you were the exception?” First, it’s just as likely you’re the first, but the real problem is that the gap in their knowledge caused by not having met many people with your particular phenotypical characteristics was filled with a stereotype, and will continue to be filled by that stereotype even if the next 100 customers are all Japanese-fluent NBA players. I’ll defer to Black Like Me:
Surely one of the strangest experiences a person can have is suddenly to step out into the streets and find that the entire white society is convinced that an individual possesses qualities and characteristics which that person knows he does not possess.
Oh, and speaking of Black Like Me, that thing where white people learn about black people only from other white people, that’s true here too.
Unfortunately, we should not expect even people who have experienced a macro amount of microaggression to be humbled by the experience – people’s reaction to being oppressed is often to oppress someone else even harder. Conserative-minded people seem especially likely to see racial discrimination, even discrimination that they have been the victim of, as an admirable example of cultural unity and punishment of non-conformity. And of course some liberals take umbrage at the idea that another culture could have a problem educated Westerners can comment on.
A liberal education teaches you, as it should, that racial categories are the legacy of a particular type of history rather than a particular type of biology. We are social animals though, and a phenomenon’s being socially constructed doesn’t make it less real. Language itself is a type of conspiracy whose existence depends only on the agreement of its co-conspirators, and its influence on our behavior is hard to overestimate. Japaneseness and whiteness are similar ideational varnishes covering thousands of years of naturally diverging human development, which depend on the existence of non- (unvarnished?) members for cohesiveness. I hope the white liberal in me remembers that being smart enough to know these categories aren’t real doesn’t make me or anyone else immune to their effects.