Living Japan #8: On Racism

I saw on Quora a story by non-Japanese Japan residents who felt hurt because “people in the train would get up to find another seat” to avoid sitting next to them, or because a co-worker was friendly only to practice English and stopped talking when they found out their English was not good enough.

Do these stories sound crazy? They do. But you know what, similar to the first story, I used to feel insecure about my existence too.

In your first months of living in a new country, you will be extra sensitive to social interactions. You will analyze how some people look at you: is that condescension, curiosity, lust? You will avoid meeting their eyes. You will observe and over-analyse every little thing you encounter in daily life.

It takes more than a day to realize that it’s not always about you. Especially if you live where there is low diversity, like Japan.

After some years of living in this country, both in its big and small cities, I’ve understood that it’s not me – I’ll always be an outsider or a newcomer, but it doesn’t mean that I’ll always be a victim.

Next time you get on a train in Tokyo, observe and you’ll see that many people avoid sitting next to anyone, not only to foreigners. I believe this is because keeping personal space is an integral part of the way of living (I’ve in fact adopted this habit too). If you spend some more time to observe, you’ll see that it’s not about you.

This is not to say that Japan is racism-free. Racism exists in Japan.

For example, it’s a fact that some apartment owners refuse to rent out to non-Japanese people. There’s a girl (who wears head cover) who had to confront two teenage boys arguing in front of her on whether sitting next to her is dangerous or not. There’s a mindset that Japan is a ‘big brother’ superior to other Asian countries.

A big difference between the culture here and in other places that I know of, in terms of treating foreigners who came to live, is that every foreigner is expected to be and to act the same with the locals. Everyone is expected to speak fluent Japanese, to behave in the same way, to dress in uniform. It wasn’t how I was expected to be when I was living in different cities in Indonesia, in Italy, and Malawi.

I’m not only speaking about the language. Of course I suffered because no one spoke English here. But the ordinary Japanese people are under no obligation to learn English to cater to non-Japanese speaking residents, and the English part of the education system didn’t do them justice. Coming back to the second story on Quora, it’s obvious to me that the colleague stopped talking because he was embarrassed.

Honestly, it’s like living in many other countries in Asia. “Except they are a developed country and the third largest economy in the world!” you say. Well, the education system was designed to build discipline and harmony in the highly equal society that we are looking at now. English was traded-off. And not that it’s not changing, it is, albeit slowly. Three years ago at train stations you wouldn’t find signs with Roman letters or English-speaking shopkeepers.

Social immersion involves mastering the local language. I get that. But what I mean is that there are standards beyond language and general manners that are expected of you and for you to feel accepted. The vibe I got is ‘you are behaving a lot like a Japanese, therefore you are a good person.’

And that sucks sometimes.

The above disturbing stories haunt some people who came to Japan with the high hopes of being embraced. Many of them disillusioned with the hospitality of Japan during their two weeks of travel, which they confused with friendliness.

Hospitality and facility are admittedly world-class, safety, comfort, and cleanliness are hard to beat. But Japan, especially Tokyo, isn’t the warmest place in the world, although outside Greater Tokyo people are warmer.

Portrayal of the Japanese society on viral videos is over-generalized. Nothing, no society is perfect, and you just don’t see videos of people deadly drunk scattered on the street. You’re not exposed to the information that there are shop with a sign that says “Japanese only” (granted I haven’t seen this in person). How sexism exists and embraced. How TV shows take foreigners as guest stars and ridicule them for their body size.

Some people who came to Japan had a long culture shock, frustration, adopted the personal space principle and keep their solitude. Combine with general stress from work and you’ll get lot of stress or depression. Those were the phases I went through, actually. Some are lucky to return to being themselves.

Now, after three years, I still get the “looks”, but I care less and have become comfortable in my own skin again. Now, I stare back at their eyes and I can tell, at least to myself, which type of stare that is: “are you Japanese?” (curiosity), “what you’re doing is wrong, but okay, you’re not Japanese” (condescendingly), “you’re cute, I wanna sleep with you” (lustfully), “you fucking gaijin” (rudely). I’m back under my thick skin. I still feel when people are being sexist, though.

But I’m not saying you should not move here. By all means, get out of your town, your country, see the world. Take that opportunity. Beat your insecurities. At the same time, don’t expect it to be easy. I was uncomfortable, I changed, I complied, and now I am back to myself, with the knowledge of what to keep to myself and what to expose. Not every local person will expect you to behave as Japanese people do, will accept you for who you are, find these people and stick with them. Don’t listen to nosy questions. Remember that Japanese culture has “honne” and “tatemae”*, and I suggest you adopt that to some extent and to certain audience.

Fight and be strong; be yourself and don’t restrict yourself too much because of what’s expected. This way, at least you’ll make yourself comfortable.


*Honne may be contrary to what is expected by society or what is required according to one’s position and circumstances, and they are often kept hidden, except with one’s closest friends. Tatemae is what is expected by society and required according to one’s position and circumstances, and these may or may not match one’s honne.

Fight and be strong; be yourself and don’t restrict yourself too much because of what’s expected. This way, at least you’ll make yourself comfortable


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