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Racism In Japan

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Over the past century the rich and well-protected culture of Japan has fascinated people of all nationalities and cultural backgrounds. This fascination has prompted many people to leave everything behind and experience the unique world of Japan firsthand. However, Japan has a history of excluding foreigners despite all of the contributions Western and Asian civilization has made for Japanese society. Even today there is a sense of exclusivity in many areas of Japan, which has lead to many recent issues involving racism. Most of the demonstrations of racism are subtle, and the obvious displays of prejudice are few and practiced by a very small minority. It is important to consider the reasons behind some these accounts, as many may simply be due to a colli
sion of cultures or a misunderstanding.

Thousands of shops, restaurants, bathhouses, and small businesses have signs hanging up above their front door saying “Japanese Only.” This is often considered blunt racism by the rest of the world, however, many of the people who hang these signs above their businesses claim that racism was never intended, but simply a way to avoid inconvenience and awkward situations. Many of these business owners speak only Japanese and don’t want to deal with foreigners who can’t speak Japanese. Even so, there have been situations where naturalized Japanese citizens with non-Japanese ethnic backgrounds were still denied entry. Arudou Debito, formerly known as Dave Aldwinckle, is one of said naturalized citizens who is an activist against racial discrimination in Japan and the founder of www.debito.org, where he shares his stories of how he was refused services and accommodations at different establishments even after he presented his passport proving that he was a Japanese citizen. He also monitors a gallery of pictures of establishments that have refused foreign guests. On his website he states that since 1993, the number of signs has “gone up, making an unspoken undercurrent of fear of the outsider into clear, present, and brazen exclusionism” (Debito).

Along with everyday services, foreigners looking to live in Japan will also have to overcome a few hurdles, especially if they have no initial Japanese connections. According to law, a foreigner can’t rent out an apartment or a house unless he has a cosigner. The cosigner must be a Japanese citizen. This law seems to show a general mistrust of foreigners despite the fact that a Japanese person is just as inclined to miss payments as a foreigner. There are businesses that will cosign the contracts for a monthly fee; a fee no Japanese would have to consider. Many landlords won’t consider renting their property to foreigners at all. Their reasoning for this is that they don’t want to deal with the language barrier between resident and landlord for important issues such as payment or renovations to the property. Although this is an understandable reason, it can still be easily misunderstood as racism.


Many foreigners who have visited Japan have attributed the many stares they get from the locals to racism. However, these accounts are more than likely just a misunderstanding as Japan has mainly a homogenous population and for many natives seeing a foreigner is very rare, especially in the more rural areas of Japan.


The more obvious accounts of racism are few, but do get a lot of coverage from the media. The Yamanote Halloween Train Party, an annual event founded by residing foreigners in which they would rent out a few train cars from the Yamanote Line in Tokyo on Halloween and have a costume party inside the train, was sabotaged in 2009 by a group of angry Japanese nationalists with signs saying “Go to hell, get out of Japan!” and “This is Japan. This is NOT a white country” (James).
Another article in the New York Times from August 2010 writes about how a group of about a dozen Japanese men stood in front of the gates to an elementary school for ethnic Korean children and called the students cockroaches and Korean spies. The article stated that “the groups are openly anti-foreign in their message, and unafraid to win attention by holding unruly street demonstrations“ (Fackler). Despite the hate-filled message in their protests, the groups have never gone past pushing and shouting, and “have so far been careful to draw the line at violence” (Fackler).

There also seems to be different levels of racism demonstrated toward different ethnicities. Chinese and Koreans seem to take most of the abuse, which can be attributed to the fact that China and Korea have been longtime rivals of Japan for centuries. Japanese news media will often blame foreigners, especially Chinese and Koreans, for the rising crime rates even before any facts are known. Another New York Times article writes that “Japanese experts on racial stereotypes say... a tendency to point a finger at Chinese reflects a mixture of fear and contempt that has been present since a failed Mongol invasion of Japan in the 15th century” (French).

While there are certainly plenty of accounts for racism, many of these accounts are aimed at foreigners in general and not at any particular race. Japanese culture in itself is very unique from the rest of the world. Many of what is considered the social norm in Japan for the most trivial of subjects such as bathing are completely different from western society’s social norms. Japanese are known to avoid uncomfortable situations at all costs, and they understand that their culture can be hard for foreigners to adapt to, and so they try to avoid contact with all foreigners with methods such as the “Japanese Only” signs. Of course, many foreigners will quickly attribute this to racism. It should be noted that there have been businesses that have taken down these signs when given enough pressure by the media and foreign residents. They usually replace the old controversial sign with a new one stating a set of rules in English that foreign visitors must follow. A common rule found on these signs is that all foreign visitors must be accompanied by a Japanese citizen or be able to speak fluent Japanese in order to avoid problems due to miscommunication. This shows that some business owners do not have racial prejudices.

Despite racism seeming to be rampant in Japan, the younger generations seem to be growing more interested in the foreign world, especially for young Japanese women. In a survey of one hundred young Japanese women done by Fukuoka Now, a magazine from the city of Fukuoka, 44% said they wanted to have a gaijin (foreign) boyfriend, 38% said they didn’t mind, leaving only 11% saying they didn’t want a foreign boyfriend (“Gaijin Guys – Japanese Girls”).

Although racism is an issue that is struggled with around the world, it seems that Japan has some major catching up to do with the other major civilized societies such as those in Europe and North America. Even so, racism is merely a small blemish on the face of a wonderful country with a long history and unique culture that has much to offer for the world. The common visitor will often not even run into such issues, especially those who are just visiting for a short time. As for the ones in it for the long haul, most simply shrug it off when racism rears its ugly head, and go on to enjoy their life in Japan. The land of the rising sun is home to a civilized and polite society, and although racism still holds a tangible influence there today, it is slowly dying, just as it has for centuries in other civilized nations that value freedom, justice, and equality for all.



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