Breaking Down Barriers: My Experience With Racism in Japan

The sunset as seen from Shin-Inokuchi Station, Hiroshima, Japan. Photo by the author.

One of the main questions asked by a lot of minorities travelling to the Far East for the first time pertains to the subject of racism. Primarily, their chief concern is whether it exists in the country they are travelling to and if so, how bad it is. There’s an overwhelming amount of media posted by people citing real-world experiences and examples in support and denial of this. As I delved deeper into the subject, I was surprised at the (overall) polarized opinions on the presence and severity of racism in Japan; specifically, I generally found that Caucasian expats that had been in Japan for an extended period of time often claimed that racism in Japan was rampant, while black expats claimed next to no negative experiences at all. This distinction was very interesting to me, but not all that surprising; white people are obviously not very likely to be on the receiving end of racism or prejudices in the West, so they would be more attuned to any differences in treatment towards themselves in Japan comparison to in their own country. Of course for black people, especially African Americans, this trend is the exact opposite. With this in mind, I was curious to see what my own experience would be like once I hopped the pond. However, once I arrived, what I found surprised me almost as much as how I reacted.

Now, before I go forward, I think it’s important, for the sake of this piece’s subject matter, to clarify the definition of racism and pinpoint its different aspects. When you Google search the definition of racism, it reads: “prejudice, discrimination or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”. The two key words in this definition that I feel are important to examine here are “prejudice” and “discrimination”. If one were to ask a random person down the street what the difference between the two are, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you. However, this differentiation is key to the argument. First up is prejudice, defined as, “a preconceived opinion that is not based on the reason or actual experience”. Simple enough! Next up is discrimination, which is defined as, “the unjust prejudicial treatment of different categories of people especially on the grounds of race, age or sex”, With these definitions we can see that prejudice deals mainly with an idea, while discrimination is the manifestation of this idea into action.

So, now to the nitty-gritty: have I faced any discrimination or prejudices in Japan based on my race? From the adults of Japan: NO (I’ll come back to this distinction in a bit, but follow me down this rabbit hole first). I personally have experienced nothing of the kind specifically due to the color of my skin. I have, however, experienced both because I’m a foreigner. With this distinction made, the next inevitable line of questioning is, “What kind of discrimination?” Well, mainly the kind that assumes that, as a foreigner, I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.

I’m imagining most readers shrugging already. Most of you are probably saying, “So what? If I was in Japan, I probably wouldn’t have any idea of what to do.” You’re probably right — no offense, of course. Moving to Japan from North America or Europe is a lot like I’d imagine landing on another planet for the first time would feel like. However, this isn’t necessarily true for the 50,000 expats currently living and working on this tiny, shiny island from the future on a daily basis. Believe it or not, most of us do know how to use chopsticks and navigate the subway. We know how and when to bow, when to take off our shoes and what pair of slippers to use in the bathroom. Nowhere, though, is the discrimination and prejudices about the competence of foreigners more profound and resounding than when it comes to speaking the language.

The dining room at Le Garage, a restaurant just outside of Hiroshima Station, Japan. Photo by the author.

The best and easiest example of this happening is in a restaurant. Prime example: I went into downtown Hiroshima to grab a bite to eat at a gourmet burger restaurant to celebrate Pay Day (yay money!). I’m seated, given a glass of water by my server and left to my own devices with a stack of menus. At this and other establishments in Japan, I have found that if I wait for a bit “too long” to place my order, one of two things will happen: either the waiter will slyly step over and start stumbling through an explanation of the menu using the little English they know, or they’ll slowly slide a copy of their menu in English in my direction. On one hand, the latter is pretty cool — no restaurant in the States (at least in Pennsylvania, anyway) have menus in other languages just laying around, unless it’s an establishment specializing in a specific kind of cuisine, like Spanish or Vietnamese. The first time this happened to me, I was pretty surprised. In the instance at the burger joint, it was a combination of both examples: the waiter tried his very best to tell me which menu was which while asking his associate if there were any more English menus behind the counter.

Here’s the kicker though: I never asked for either of those things. I was fully capable of placing my order completely in Japanese; while I struggled with some of the kanji, I understood the gist of what I was looking at on the menu, and was able to clearly tell him what it was that I wanted (Double cheeseburger with onion rings and herbs and a large draft beer). Immediately after I finished, the waiter looked at me like I had just invented fire: “Oo! Nihongo jouzu desu, ne!” (roughly translated: Wow! Your Japanese is very good!). This was not the first time this had been said to me; I’ve heard it a bunch of times, ranging from when I ordered fast food at McDonald’s to when I asked an older lady what floor she wanted to get off at while riding an elevator. The first time I’d heard it, I took it as a sort of compliment — after all, I have been studying Japanese for years, so to be able to use it effectively and get a comment in the positive about it was very exciting to me. That being said, after the 5th time or so it began to get downright annoying. After all, I am in Japan — why wouldn’t I speak (or at least attempt to speak) the native language? If an Asian American person walked into a restaurant in the United States, ordered, and their server said, “Wow, your English is very good!”, they would probably be very upset. While I will be the first to admit that my Japanese is far from perfect, it is pretty upsetting when it is assumed I cannot speak the language based solely on the fact that I am a foreigner.

Even so, I try to take instances such as this one with a grain of salt. Being who I am (a young Black man) from the country that I’m from (The USA), I can honestly say that this is the most benign form of discrimination that I have ever experienced. It doesn’t make me any less grateful to be here. Plus, has to take into account the fact that Japan’s interaction with the Western world has, historically, been very limited. The ability to speak Japanese is very much juxtaposed to the homogeneity of Japanese society on the whole. This identity and its peoples’ hypersensitivity to any differences are more overtly displayed through interaction with Japanese children.

Teaching grade school in Japan is a learning experience for me as much as the kids. Before I took this job I never had any experience working with children, and I knew teaching tiny humans with whom I didn’t share the language would be a particular challenge. Not only that, but I was willing to bet my (nonexistent) life savings that none of them had existed long enough to see a brown skinned person that wasn’t computer animated. In other words, I knew it was going to be just as nerve-wracking for them to see me as it would be for me to see them. I would tell myself this before every new preschool class I stepped into and it would calm me down.

Sometimes I work in a private school where the kids come to see me. Other times, I’m assigned to a local preschool and I go to them. Either time, I get raw reactions, ranging from cautious fascination to sheer terror. When I enter the room, they lower their voices to faint whispers. They point at my lips and rub their own, giggling. Some of the kids laugh, point at my afro, hide behind their friends, clutch their mother’s leg or start bawling their eyes out. It can be pretty disheartening when a kid is afraid to high-five you because they don’t want their skin to turn black like yours. For these kids, it’s not about being from another country, it’s about being a different looking person. They are consciously aware of the (literal) contrasts between us, and that wariness petrifies me.

But only for a second.

I take a deep breath, put on a smile, and greet them with as much cheer as I can. I make funny faces. I pretend to lose my balance. I “fall asleep” standing up. I put my pen in my Afro, lose it, then find it again. I do vocal impressions. I teach them secret hand shakes after they say a word correctly. I show off fancy dance moves while we sing the A-B-Cs (thank you, MJ).

By the time the class is over, they’re laughing and cheering, they can’t contain themselves. They ask me to pick them up. One or two are even bold enough to ask to touch my hair. They wrap themselves around my arms and legs to try and get me to stay in class with them. I give them a high-five and wave as they (or I) leave. Some of them even run to me to get another and say goodbye again. It is without a doubt not only the best and most rewarding part of my day but also of my job. It is one and the same with what happens when I order a meal in Japanese at a restaurant, but exponentially greater. Within a half hour, I destroy fear. I lay waste to prejudice. I help people learn not to be afraid of what’s different, and realize there is even more that makes us the same.

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