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Japan's Thinly Veiled Racism: An Asian's Perspective

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Hailing from Singapore, Fraser has been a university student in Japan and now leads the life of a typical Japanese salaryman.

On my first day of work in Japan, I remember my supervisor telling me that business would be conducted in Japanese, and in order for me to have a better grasp of the language in time to come, I should speak and be spoken to in Japanese as much as possible. This was not, by any means, surprising, since I was in Japan and surrounded by Japanese people.

However, it did not take me long to realise that a colleague of mine, a white male hailing from New Zealand who had lived in Japan for the past two decades, was spoken to exclusively in English, despite him being able to speak Japanese better than me. At this point, things got confusing for me.

Double Standards for White Foreigners

In recent years, in light of a rapidly aging population and a diminishing workforce, Japan has finally opened its doors to welcome immigrating foreigners. It is worth noting that Japan has been touted to be the world’s shining example of a utopian society. From the unrivaled ‘omotenashi’ customer service, which you seem to find in even the most isolated of shops, to the uncannily unpolluted streets despite the aftermath of the devastating Typhoon Hagibis, Japan has had the world enamored for decades now.

The concept of a utopian society combined with the widespread proliferation of social media has therefore sparked an impetus of individuals from all over the world developing an interest in moving to Japan in search of a better life or to broaden their horizons, eventually resulting in a record number of immigrants in Japan at the time of writing. I, along with hundreds of thousands of others from other countries in Asia, made up those numbers.

Despite rapidly increasing immigration statistics, Japan still remains to be one of the most racially homogenous societies on this planet. Everything has, and always been about uniformity and maintaining the status quo. Bustling metropolises like Tokyo or Osaka aside, the sight of someone who looks atypical is enough to draw stares and murmurs. In any case, that aspect of Japan has been widely explored and elaborated on a plethora of websites and forums but there is another question here deserves some thought: 'What if a foreigner looked the same?'

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Once again, I would like to refer you back to the word that very much defines Japanese society—'homogeneity'. Simply put, if the individual in question resembles the typical Japanese person, that individual is ‘Japanese’ until proven otherwise and is expected to conform to the expectations of society. Perhaps the video below can give a little insight into the struggle that many foreigners of Asian descent face.

Comedy and exaggeration aside, there is no smoke without fire. At its core, the elements of the video definitely hold true to a large extent. Referencing my personal anecdote, despite being born and raised in an entirely different country and society, it was made known that I was expected to conform to societal expectations from the first day, while my Caucasian counterpart experienced the complete opposite despite being infinitely more familiar with Japan than myself. A baffling concept, to say the least.

While I would not classify this as outright racism, it inflicts unfair expectations unto Asians in Japan, and thus, I believe would qualify as discrimination to a certain extent. These expectations extend to even the most nuanced of interactions in daily life, including but not limited to using honorifics in language, behavioural etiquette and mannerisms, with little to no room for concession compared to our Caucasian counterparts despite the fact that all of us grew up in an entirely different culture. While it is true to a certain extent that Asian cultural values overlap somewhat, navigating Japan’s societal rules, with its plethora of unspoken restrictions of what can or cannot be done at which specific time, is almost equivalent to treading a minefield—one wrong step and you could find yourself in a wholly undesirable situation. Simply put, Asian immigrants in Japan are forced to adapt much faster and more effectively than Western immigrants, if they even have to adapt at all.

Another aspect of discrimination present in Japan begins at a fairly young age, experienced by children born of mixed heritage. Personal anecdotes written all over the internet have constantly claimed that Eurasian children are often admired and of all the rage due to their ‘exotic’ looks, while children of mixed Asian heritage are often discriminated against and bullied in school simply for not being Japanese enough. Of course, there are incidences of Eurasian children being outcasted for being ‘different’ as well, and this traces back to ‘homogeneity’—where the nail that sticks out is always hammered down. From the aforementioned cases, it becomes apparent that racism in Japan ultimately stems from society’s belief and quest for homogeneity.

Is It Really Racism, Though?

It really depends on how one looks at it and the context to which it is applied. Effectively, as long as one race is treated differently from any other to any degree, it can be classified as racism to a certain extent. 'By such a definition, isn’t racism everywhere then?' some might say. Well, yes. Racism is everywhere, but not necessarily harmful, the degree of which depends on whether or not it has been used as a weapon to suppress or victimise.

In summary, racism in Japan is as the title suggests, thinly veiled—very apparent yet extremely difficult to pinpoint. This has, however, not degraded the quality of life in Japan in any way for Asian or Western immigrants, as we all experience our own fair share of inconveniences from time to time. From a personal point of view, Japan has been nothing short of a wonderful experience and a great place to live thus far. However, that does not mean that it is perfect, and as the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, since Japan has graciously accepted us as immigrants, it is only right for us to do the same in accepting their society for what it is despite our obvious differences.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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