Let’s Nagoya – Part 3: Racism!

This is kind of a tough topic. As anyone who’s brushed up on their internet will know, any time you write something about a controversial subject the entire internet will immediately descend to call you a bastard. Approximately half your audience will do so because you’re obviously a raving fascist, while the other half will do so because you’re quite clearly a thought-policing, smoking-ban-endorsing, why-are-all-my-bananas-bendy, can’t-even-say-niggardly, also-why-do-I-have-to-measure-the-weight-of-my-bananas-in-kilograms, the-EU-has-banned-Christmas, I-bet-they-wouldn’t-ban-islamic-christmas, loony liberal.

But here goes nothing. The topic is Japan and racism. I’ll try my best to walk the impossibly thin line between Hitler and the Guardian:

I don’t think I ever experienced racism before I came to Japan, but now I encounter it every day. Now, after a brief moment of silence for my white tears, let’s continue:

If you are white and you come to Japan you too can encounter racism everywhere you go. And while I can only speak from my own experiences, I wouldn’t be surprised if the same is true for members of any other non-Japanese ethnic group. I’ve not encountered any explicit ‘get out of my country’ shouty racism, nor have I ever felt violated or unsafe. And while I’ve heard some pretty worrying stories about friends’ encounters, that brand of Ronseal racism doesn’t seem very common here.

In my experience, racism in Japan generally isn’t aggressive or confrontational. Instead, it’s the racism of turned heads, patronising greetings, and the occasional staring contest with old men on trains. The racism of ‘Oh look, a gaijin’, and of people not knowing how to control themselves because they’re so amazed by the sight of a foreigner.

And while most people in Japan obviously don’t care that you’re foreign, racism is still a constant presence. Even in a big city like Nagoya, but especially when you venture to smaller, more remote places. I recently went on a business trip to Kagoshima, on the southern edge of Kyushu, and while it’s hardly a country village I noticed far more people staring, convinced they’re being incredibly subtle while they do double take after cartoon double take.

Usually, you filter it out. Sometimes, it’s actively amusing – as when a gabble of drunk salarymen call out to you and literally almost fall over themselves in the hilarity of the moment. Luckily* I’ve led a privileged enough life that these kinds of things generally bounce off without leaving any real impact. But there are definitely moments that stick. Moments like the time some guy hassled me on the way back from an awful day at work, or when I caused a line of passing schoolchildren to recoil from me in an impromptu but perfectly choreographed Mexican wave of revulsion.

It took me a while to realise that gaijin bars don’t just exist because people like experiencing things they’re familiar with, but also because sometimes you just get tired of feeling like you’re a walking novelty.

I like Japan a lot, but stuff like this freaks me out. Even if I stayed here for twenty years, became entirely fluent in the language and developed an in-depth understanding of the culture, I’d still have just as many people staring at me on the street. Unless something big changes in Japanese culture I have no chance of ever really fitting in. And it also scares me because the UK is currently going through a prolonged, fairly intense knee-jerk reaction against immigration, and this is what happens when your country is almost entirely homogeneous. You get people gawping at foreigners in the street. You get people losing their minds that you just said ‘thank you’ in serviceable Japanese rather than English. And you get fully-grown adult students insisting that no you must like McDonald’s because all British people love McDonald’s.

The differences in Japanese and British culture are clearly pretty huge, but when I talk to Japanese friends, co-workers, and students here I don’t feel like there’s any kind of important barrier between us, at least not one that can’t be overcome. But when people stare at me or bother me because I’m a foreigner it feels like such an incredibly weird and alien thing to do that I can’t help but think of them, even if just in that moment, as somehow weird and alien people. Not just stupid, mean, or ignorant, but different.

I dismiss the thought as soon as it crops up, sure. And I don’t think it affects the way I see Japanese people as a whole, certainly not consciously, but it creeps in man, it creeps in. Almost none of us are as objective and as egalitarian as we want to believe.

And stuff like this can go from the individual to the societal very easily. I think it already has: foreigners feel frustrated and patronised and othered, so many become increasingly impatient and blunt with perceived offenders. This reinforces the widespread stereotypes of foreigners, which leads to newly arrived foreigners being met with an increasing weight of societal baggage. It’s phenomenally easy for ‘This person is patronising me’ and ‘Why is this foreigner being rude?’ to turn into ‘Japanese people are always bloody bothering me’ and ‘Foreigners are always so rude’.

I think Japanese society is, to one extent or another, trapped in this vicious cycle, largely through understandably frayed patience and perhaps understandable ignorance (I can’t really get too angry that someone who’s grown up in a culture has turned out to be influenced by that culture). I don’t really have an answer to this, apart from ‘whoops, human interaction is hard’. If you were expecting an answer then sorry, I guess, but I never promised you anything. Well, I guess I did promise I’d try to avoid saying something horribly offensive, so if you think I’ve failed at that feel free to take to the comments and call me a bastard.

Anyway, Japan is lovely, really. There are cat cafes and great music and firefly festivals and Teekyu. There are also nasty people, lovely people, and everyone in between. People like Kokona, an eight year-old girl in one of my classes who is funnier than almost any adult I know. And people like Hayato, an eight year-old boy in another one of my classes who is composed entirely of snot and malevolence.

I don’t want to make it seem like my time here is dominated by racism (which is why I wrote a 1000+ word blog post solely about racism), but it is a surprisingly large part of my life here, and one that’s pretty difficult to explain to friends and family back home. So come to Japan. Come to visit, or to live, whatever takes your fancy; it really is a great place. Just don’t come expecting to fit in any time soon.

*and please understand just how much I realise that I’m incredibly lucky. My experience of racism is safe, airbrushed – a novelty, even. I’m not getting routinely stopped and searched by the police. I’m not being systematically pushed around and punished for being born into a certain racial group. I’m getting quite a lot of people looking at me funny, sometimes. As a result, most of the time I find it pretty easy to laugh about or entirely shrug off the racism I experience. And if there’s a more explicit indication of my privilege as a financially comfortable white guy, well, I’m certainly not aware of it.

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