Last month an article was posted on The Japan Times. It was written by Debito Arudou (出人有道、a naturalised Japanese citizen who rallies against the “Japanese only” mentality of Japan). The article dealt with the idea of micro aggressions. These were described as;
“the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities, and denigrating messages sent to (visible minorities) by well-intentioned (members of an ethnic majority in a society) who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.”
Most first time interactions with Japanese people are the same. “can you use chopsticks?” “can you eat raw fish?” “you speak such good Japanese!” (after all you have said is 2 words). Many non-Japanese (NJ) who have been here for longer than a normal visit will have heard these questions so many times the responses come automatically. First time encounters can be run on autopilot. Finding a real conversation is rare and usually happens with someone who has had experiences outside of Japan.
That is not to say Japan is not welcoming to foreigners. There is not the violent aspect attached to the racism that can be found in other countries, trains, restaurant menus, buses (in Tokyo at least), police stations, museums, and countless other services have English help (and a handful of cases Chinese or Korean).
There is a very strong undercurrent of Us vs. Them, and enjoyment of Japanese institutions such as sake, onsens and sushi is regarded as a cultural phenomenon (what person doesn’t enjoy alcohol, baths and healthy fast food?).
Being asked if you can use chopsticks is a small issue. It gets more depressing and alienating when people would rather stand than take the seat next to you on a crowded train or (a personal experience) seem visibly terrified when sharing the elevator in the building you have lived at for 3 years. Another micro aggression that grates many people is the automatic omission of the suffix -san, foreigners often find themselves relegated to first names only in a country that highly respects social standing, to turn the tables and omit the honorific for a Japanese person would be seen as social faux-pas. If this is ever mentioned or other annoyances over the separate treatment NJ get are voiced, the foreigner is labelled as over-sensitive, or it is remarked “I’ve heard foreigners are difficult to deal with”.
The social commentator and activist Debito has faced harsh criticism on his stance of forcibly entering “Japanese only” establishments (as a holder of a Japanese passport he believes that these signs are not about citizenship but about blood lines) and one time suing an onsen for refusing him service. He calls out for a wider understanding of what it means to be pigeon holed by deep-seated stereotypes. His main critics say that he chose to live in Japan, if you don’t like the status quo, feel free to leave. Debito claims that the fight is not for the NJ who come to Japan but for the growing number of mixed children that are not given the choice of what society they were born into.
Are you going to let Japanese society “microaggress” them into The Other, gaijin category, just because they look more like you than your Japanese spouse?
The underlying problem in Japan is looks. Uniforms and outward appearances are extremely important in every day social interactions. As are black and white judgements that are ingrained into the social fabric.
For a country which only open its doors in 1854 (and only then because it was forced) Japan has come a long way to foster internationalism. It is an extremely easy and comfortable country to live in as a foreigner. I personally have never been refused service anywhere and have only experienced minor confrontations usually with a drunk member of the older generation. Japan’s younger generation is definitely more focused on change than the old establishment. In the summer of 2012 the old seperate system of alien registration will come to an end. For years foreign people who wished to stay in Japan for longer than the tourist allowance of 90 days had to sign up for an alien registration card which was to be carried with you at all times and presented if you were asked without question. This year foreign residents will be offered the standard juminhyo. As big as a change as this is, it has not been unknown for towns and cities to give honorary juminhyo status to animals, characters and statues. In 2002 the Nishi ward of Yokohama gave a bearded seal who has taken residence in the river a juminhyo. This provoked NJ residents to paint whiskers on their faces in protest.