Racism in Japan?

Racism FI

Every few months something happens in Japan that sets off the expat population with cries of “Racism!” and “Scandal!”

Japan is a country with a 98.8% mono-ethnic population. The foreign population feel left out and ill-treated because of their ethnicity and often jump at every opportunity to show how they are martyrs.

I write that because I want you to know this post is NOT another rant about racism in Japan.

This is a post where I will describe my personal experiences living in Japan as a minority and how that has affected me and the way I think. Experiencing life as a minority has been a very eye-opening experience for me.

One of the more recent cases of “racism” in Japan setting off the ranting by foreigners was the news that a Japanese doo-wop group were to perform in black face on Japanese Television. Eventually, this broadcast was edited to no longer include said segment. The other thing happening simultaneously was the negative backlash in the Japanese community about the newly crowned Miss Universe Japan being half Japanese and half American.

ms universe

Miss Universe Japan, Ariyana Miyamoto. I love the dramatic Kimono she is wearing!

I think these things are both really sad and unfortunate, but I think we shouldn’t be so quick to call it racist. Most of the “racism” that people complain about receiving as a foreigner in Japan is the result of innocent ignorance by Japanese people and is more accurately described as stereotyping or prejudice.

The Japanese doo-wop group may not seem very innocent, but I genuinely think it was. The doo-wop group wanted to do a tribute to black people because they are fans of “black culture” and wanted to pay homage to it. There was no hate or ill will associated with their performance and they are most likely completely ignorant of the history of minstrel shows. As a foreigner, I have also experienced innocent and ignorant prejudice like this while living in Japan.

One of the things I experience living in the inaka on a regular basis is “the empty train seat syndrome.” (read a great article dealing with empty train seat syndrome here) Here’s the situation, I am riding on an extremely crowded train and been lucky enough to score a seat. Instead of people sitting next to me they will fill all the other seats and leave the ones on either side of me empty choosing to stand with the crowd rather than sit next to me. It happens so often now that I don’t even think about it anymore.

On the grand scheme of things, this isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe nobody is sitting next to me because they are afraid I might speak English with them and they aren’t confident in their English. Maybe they aren’t sitting next to me because foreigners are scary and commit crimes. I can’t know for sure, but I seriously doubt it is malicious.

Another common thing that happens has to do with Japanese people’s perception of foreigners. In Japan, they think all foreigners have blonde hair and blue eyes and they will put that mantle on you whether you actually have blonde hair and blue eyes or not.

A few nights ago I was having dinner with some recently graduated students and they were talking about my hair. One of the girls said that she was jealous of my beautiful blonde hair. She said this while looking at me. I pointed at my hair and told her that my hair’s brown.


We are all American foreigners with different hair. It’s a revelation in a photograph. I’m on the left, the one with BROWN hair.

Similar things have happened to other ALTs who have brown eyes. Their students will tell them your blue eyes are so cute. The ALT will just respond that their eyes are brown but thank you. This perception and idea of foreigners having blonde hair and blue eyes is stronger than the reality of what they see in front of them.

The “racism” that most foreigners in Japan complain about 90% of the time fits into this vein of innocent ignorance or preconceived ideas. This type of “racism” is more like racial stereotyping and prejudice to me because it is fairly harmless and a result of a lack of experience dealing with foreign people.

Unfortunately, I have also witnessed a few less than innocent examples of discrimination in Japan.

This would fall into the other 10% and is therefore much more rare and doesn’t reflect most Japanese people. The Miss Universe situation fits more into this category. I think the people who are more likely to experience this are non-Japanese Asian residents and people who are half Japanese.  However, it can happen anytime and in any city.

Earlier this year my friend, who is the FJET president (Fukui chapter of Association of JETs), was looking for a community center to host one of our events. The community center we usually use was full during the weekend we wanted so we decided to try and find a new one. We didn’t expect to have a problem because there are TONS of small community centers all over rural Japan.

This event was our annual thanksgiving/holiday dinner event. 6-7 ALTs volunteer to cook American style turkeys, which we order from Costco, and everyone brings a traditional food to share. It’s one of the best events we do all year for the local community because it allows everyone to share their cultures in a relaxed environment. Also, the event is alcohol-free, perfect for kids, families, and students (read my post about it here!)

At first my friend called the community centers herself but she was having trouble finding a place that would work with her. They kept saying they were full or they couldn’t accommodate her group size/needs. She enlisted the help of her Japanese friends and they also couldn’t find a community center that would book the event.

They called probably 30 different community centers in a single day. They all said that they either needed to check with their boss first or that because she wasn’t a member of their community they couldn’t book her event there.

It wasn’t until she had a Japanese friend of FJET go to a community center in person that he has worked with before that they were able to book a venue. The government brought us to this part of the country to plan EXACTLY these sorts of events (see part 4 of my Job description and the JET program website). Why were we having such a hard time getting the community to help us host it?

My friend and the Japanese people helping her suspected that these community centers didn’t want to deal with the hassle of an event full of foreigners and all the unknowns and complications of foreign people, but we can’t really know for sure.

Another common problem I sometimes see is restaurants or businesses refusing service to foreigners. While uncommon in large cities, you do see it every once in a while. Sometimes it’s because the owners don’t feel comfortable with English, sometimes it is for more complicated reasons. I will really never know because I can’t enter these places.

genki beware

A warning sign posted out front of a popular drugstore in Japan. There have even been cases of the police distributing similar leaflets and posters.

Along the same lines, sometimes foreigners are refused entry into apartment complexes with a simple reason that they don’t allow foreigners to live there. They also may not outright refuse you, but instead make it EXTREMELY difficult for you to jump through all the hoops to finish your housing application to try and discourage you. There was even this article recently in the news a few months ago about a prominent woman supporting segregated housing. She is denounced by most Japanese people, but you get the idea, it happens.

Let’s get some things clear for those of you don’t know or may have forgotten.

I am white, from a financially comfortable family, and born in America by 2 American parents. I have never been a foreigner before. Other than my gender, I have never been a minority before, and, as I said previously, most of what I experience in Japan is harmless.

I get stares, I get empty train seat syndrome, and every once and a while I see a store sign that says for Japanese customers only. It really isn’t so bad. I can deal.

However, I must say, it is exhausting. I grow tired of being treated differently. I quickly grow tired of the look of shock and fear on waiters’ faces when they come to my table and realize I am not Japanese.

Even positive attention about my foreignness often can drive me up the wall.

I get tired of being told how talented I am at Japanese after I stumble through a basic conversation with the grace of a caveman. I hate the awkward fawning that Japanese people give me over my “excellent chopsticks skills” as if only Asian people could possibly be able to use chopsticks with any competence.

Constant attention on my differences and my perceived differences annoy me. I know it is well meaning a lot of the time and I know that it is innocent, but it doesn’t change the fact that it makes me feel less than the people around me and like an outsider.

What country in the world is totally free of all prejudice and preconceived ideas about race? None. Let’s all just calm dow and give Japan a break.

I think most of the people screaming about racism in Japan have never been a minority before and don’t really have any perspective on their life and the lives of others around the world. It’s unfair to shout racism at Japan for feeling “misunderstood.”

I can only imagine what it is like for women who live in Afghanistan when I read stories like this. I can only imagine life as an African American when I read stories like this.

I experience just a small slice of discrimination while living in Japan and I feel outraged and the need to scream at the injustice from the rooftops with anger. My experience is nothing compared to the experience of so many others. Other people deal with racial discrimination that is also attached to hatred and violence. I can’t even begin to understand the amount of anger and frustration that it causes.

So where am I going with this exactly?

Experiencing life as a minority for the first time has been very eye opening for me.

Yes, there are unfortunate cases of both slightly malicious and well-meaning stereotyping in Japan and it annoys me. I try to not get angry and remember that the only way to change ignorance is to let myself be seen without any of the barriers I might put up to defend myself.


The truth is that there are unfortunate stereotypes all over the world based on perceived differences. While I am experiencing the very least of these in Japan, I feel it so deeply. I  believe strongly in treating everyone as equal without preconceived ideas of who they are based on gender, sexuality, race, or religion. I always believed this before coming to Japan, but I believe it much more earnestly now because I never totally understood what it meant in practice before.

It is hard to break the patterns of perceived differences based on race we have ingrained in our minds, but I never want to frustrate other people around me the way I sometimes feel living in Japan. So I will do my best to wipe the slate of my mind totally clean when interacting with people. People are people before they have any labels attached to them.

I have certainly learned from this experience.

Disagreed with something I wrote? Experienced something similar? I want to hear about it in the comments. Seriously, please let me know what you thought.

If you liked this post you may also like my post about sexism in Japan that I wrote a while back. Find it here.

47 Responses

  1. Azzahra R Kamila March 7, 2016 / 4:26 am

    I saw your blog when I’d searched more about Japanese schools. And I’m kinda interested in your blog because I’ve visited Japan before, and I know that you travel to Indonesia from your post, which I come from 😀

    Well I do not find any racism act when I went to Sapporo few months ago. Actually, they’ll help me even there is a lack understanding in language since I can’t speak well ( I just know some phrase). I’m even weirder than you because, hey, I am moslem and wear hijab, and I expect something like “there is a woman who looks like a terrorist, we must watch out!”

    Well, as a moslem, I don’t feel anything like discrimination although they are not so friendly. I think that is because they respect privacy. Meddling in other people business is not part of their culture. There are some people who seem to have never seen hijab woman before but I did not receive any strange look. They tend to help when I wanted to know the way to somewhere, even give me a map!

    Maybe because I am Asians, they do not feel “intimidated”. Reading your experience here, I think there is a difference between the older and younger groups in response to a stranger coming into their neighborhood. Young people are much more open because they are the generation that absorbs any kind of culture that goes to Japan, and they are madly crazy with American culture.

    For me, living in Japan is more interesting, because they accept the fact that hijab woman is not harmful for them. 🙂

    P.S: I’m sorry if my grammar is bad, I’m not really good at grammar.

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