Japanese Only

by Pallavi Aiyar

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)


The Japanese have a low tolerance for noise. Even during the notorious rush hour crush, Tokyo's subway cars are hushed and talking is frowned upon. The jarring exceptions to this norm are regular weekend processions carried out by members of far-right organizations screaming virulently racist invective through loudspeakers.

In 2016, the Justice Ministry revealed that between April 2012 and September 2015, a staggering 1,150 rallies in Japan featured hate speech, including calls for ethnic Koreans “to get the hell out of Japan” or threatening to stamp them out like “cockroaches.”

Racism in Japan is a deep-rooted, multifaceted and conflicted phenomenon, with much of society in denial that it even exists. There is a widespread idea that racism is about discrimination by white people against those of colour, so that a   non-white country like Japan is exempt from the need to redress it. Moreover, the notion that Japan is a uniquely homogenous, racially pure society, with few ‘outsiders,’ is deep seated, reinforcing the ostensible irrelevance of “racism”.

And yet, a survey carried out by Japan’s Justice Ministry last year reveals that nearly a third of foreign residents say they have experienced derogatory remarks because of their racial background, while about 40 percent have suffered housing discrimination. Among the 4,252 foreigners surveyed, the majority identified as Chinese and Koreans. Over 40 percent had lived in Japan for more than a decade.

One in four job seekers said they were denied employment because of being foreign, and one in five believed they earned less than their Japanese counterparts for similar work. Putting paid to the notion that such discrimination is related to language, 95 percent of foreigners whose job applications were rejected, and over 90 percent of those whose housing applications were denied, were able to speak Japanese “conversationally, professionally or fluently.”

Debito Arudou is the author of Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination. Originally from the United States, Arudou lived permanently in Japan from 1991, taking Japanese citizenship in 2000.  He makes the point that in some ways, visible minorities like himself can present an even easier target of racism than North East Asians. He recounts how over the years he has been repeatedly stopped by the police in Japan and asked to show his identity card, the result, he claims, of racial profiling by Japanese police. His protests that he is a Japanese citizen made no difference.

Arudou became an anti-racism activist after encountering a “Japanese Only” signs at a hot spring bath in the late 1990s. He recalls how he and his family were refused entry at a public bathhouse in the northern city of Otaru in 1999 on the grounds of his being foreign. When his Japanese wife asked whether this exclusion also applied to their daughters who had been born and raised in Japan, the manager said that one daughter who was “Japanese-looking” could enter, but not the other one. 

"I swore then to combat this racial discrimination,” Arudou said. “Just because my daughter looks more like her daddy than her mommy should not be the reason to spend the rest of her life being denied equal treatment in Japanese society.” 

In fact, signs making it clear that certain businesses, ranging from hairdressers to restaurants, are only open to Japanese (looking) clientele are surprisingly common in Japan.

Justifications for barring entry to foreigners range from worries about communicating with non-Japanese speakers (although many foreigners do speak Japanese), to the notion that foreigners don’t know how to behave in Japanese settings (such as taking off their shoes and speaking softly). Some maintain that the real aim of these restrictions is to keep large groups of loud-mouthed Chinese tourists from “spoiling” the atmosphere. Other foreigners are merely collateral damage.

On Arudou’s blog (http://www.debito.org/) visitors and foreign residents in Japan share examples of exclusionary signs with alarming regularity. Recent posts include refusing entry to a golf course in Hokkaido to Sapporo Consadole soccer player, Jay Bothroyd, on account of his not being Japanese. Other examples feature a ‘Japanese Only’ sign spotted at a diving and hiking tour company in Okinawa, and another at a bar in Tokyo’s popular Asakusa district.

There have even been cases of ‘Japanese Only’ signs at Japanese-run establishments abroad.

It takes considerable disingenuity to claim that keeping certain establishments exclusively Japanese is a benign decision taken in the interests of preserving social harmony, rather than a blatantly racist and discriminatory act. Underpinning this kind of rationalization is the uncritical manner in which the media and education system continue to propagate the myth of Japan’s uniqueness and racial purity. In 1889, the Meiji constitution established a state based on the notion that the Emperor was a direct descendant of the “original” Yamato clan, and that all Japanese were organically related to the emperor, giving birth to the idea of a single, homogeneous, racial identity.

Today, there is scholarly consensus that the Japanese are in fact a mixture of Korean-like “Yayoi” people who immigrated to the archipelago around 400 BC and an indigenous population who walked over land bridges that connected the Japanese islands to the continent during low sea levels of ice ages some 12,000 years ago.

The average Japanese however, remains unaware of academic research into demographic origins. Even the Ainu - a people in northern Hokkaido who are markedly distinct from the majority of Japanese - were only recognized as a minority group with “distinct language, religion and culture” in 2008. 

The lack of a nuanced public discussion on racism is made worse by the rhetoric of far right politicians, many of who are repeatedly elected. Hugely popular, three-time Tokyo governor, Shintaro Ishihara, for example, suggested to Japan’s military that they needed to prepare for the fact that in the event of a natural disaster, foreigners would likely riot and cause civil disorder. He also repeatedly blamed Japan’s crime rate on foreigners.

Arudou relates the kind of racial profiling that is common practice among the Japanese police to the policies and views propagated by the former Tokyo governor. But the idea that foreigners behave nefariously in the aftermath of natural disasters has long antecedents. After the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, for example, rumours that “Koreans are poisoning the wells” and “Koreans will attack us,” caused Japanese vigilantes to murder thousands of Koreans and hundreds of Chinese.

Even today these ethnic groups are subject to similar “panic” rumours amplified by social media.  In 2014, for instance, mudslides in Hiroshima prefecture, led to false allegations of burglaries of evacuated homes by Zainichi, as ethnic Koreans in Japan are known as. More recently, following the June 18 earthquake in Osaka, an outpouring of anti-foreigner sentiment was rife online. The Japan Times reported on twitter posts suggesting that Chinese and Koreans were likely to start robbing convenience stores and ATM machines.

It is however, becoming harder for attitudes like these to go unchallenged as Japan is witnessing record numbers of tourists. In 2017, 28.7 million tourists visited the country, up from 10.4 million in 2013. The government is targeting a massive 40 million annual tourists by the time of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Moreover, given its ageing population and shrinking demographics, immigration is also on the rise. In June this year the government created a new “designated skills” residency status that will allow up to 500,000 guest workers into the country. The result of these combined shifts is to force the recognition of a more complex social demographic beyond the traditional platitudes of a harmonious and homogenous Japan.

Reflective of these changes, two consecutive titles for Miss Japan, a national beauty contest, were won by women of mixed race.  Ariana Miyamoto, who is half African-American, and Priyanka Yoshikawa, who is half Indian, won the title in 2015 and 2016 respectively, indicating a small, yet perceptible shift towards greater acceptance of diversity.

In 2016 the government also finally enacted an anti-hate speech law targeting the kind of murderous sentiments that are common at far right demonstrations and rallies. The law calls for “efforts to eliminate unfair discriminatory speech and behaviour… against persons originating from outside Japan and their descendants".

Although it does not outright ban hate speech or specify any penalties for it, the law has helped raise public awareness and led to the acknowledgement that such speech is a problem for Japan. Some knock on, positive effects are being felt. This year the city of Kawasaki, south of Tokyo, for example, became the first in Japan to introduce guidelines enabling officials to refuse the use of municipal facilities for gatherings where they believe hate speech to be likely.

Necessary, if insufficient, steps down the long road to Japan’s coming to terms with the challenge of racism. 



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