I first want to talk about the already-well-covered topic of racism in Japan. It is without a doubt prevalent, whether you see it or not. In my experience, I was ignorant to a lot of it when I first came to Japan back in 2013. It only became apparent the longer I was here and this is probably down to a few factors, mainly thanks to learning the language and understanding the culture and people more.
Back in July 2011, my friend and I visited Japan for the very first time during our summer holidays. We landed in Osaka, and it was the hottest day we’d ever experienced. The only research we did on Japan was probably looking at Japanese hotel rooms during the booking process. Looking back, we should probably have researched the weather a bit more. Anyway, I’ll never forget walking down the street near our hotel, when a highschool girl was walking towards us. She stopped in her tracks as we walked by and gave us a mini bow. My friend and I both acted cool as we walked by and soon after, we both uttered at the same time, “whaaaat?”. We were in awe. “Was she scared?”, “Maybe she thinks I’m Brad Pitt!”. Whatever it was, it was something we had never experienced before and our impression of Japan started out very positive (except for that freaking humidity).
Seeing through their facades
One of my close friends from work, Ben, had lived in Japan for a very long time. He was a veteran-gaijin. He taught me one of his many amazing philosophies of living in Japan. This basic concept consists of 3 simple stages:
- First Stage – everything in Japan is rainbows and unicorns; you’re overwhelmed with amazingness.
- Second Stage – novelty wears off and you start to adapt. Japan is OK.
- Third Stage – you see past all of the bullshit and you’re ready to go home.
I call this the “Ben-o-meter” philosophy. At the time of learning about these extremely accurate stages, I was probably still at the first stage and he was pretty much at the third. Fast forward 8 years, I now fluctuate between the second stage and third stage like most expats in Japan.
I first started seeing through the false-fronts a couple of years into living here. My workplace is located inside a huge shopping mall, so naturally, my office is surrounded by a lot of different shops. On my way to work one day, I noticed a customer leaving a nail salon where she got some fresh, meaningless talons. The staff responsible for providing the decorated talons was waiting just outside the shop with a huge smile and waiting patiently until the customer was no longer visible. As the customer was leaving the staff’s field of vision, the staff member gave one last deep bow, before turning around abruptly, wiping the seemingly-genuine smile off of her face in an instant, and going back to the cash register with a face like thunder. Holy smokes! You’re telling me that the bows and smiles are done out of necessity and not out of genuine kindness? I’d been played all this time!? This led me to start edging towards stage 2 on the Ben-o-meter.
Now, what you read about racism in Japan is usually true and I have more than likely experienced it. There are a lot of classic examples which have been written about hundreds of times, and I can confirm that these have been true for me:
- It is especially difficult for foreigners to get credit cards
- Good luck getting an apartment if you’re not married to a Japanese
- Crowded train, but the seat next to you usually remains empty
- Japanese being disgusted at the fact you don’t like natto (OK, maybe not this one), but the list goes on.
What I have noticed over the years, is that this racism is typically indirect, or I guess a better phrase for it would be “ignorant racism”. There always seems to be a reason behind these typical acts, and the reasoning is always consistent. They are oblivious to the fact that they are being discriminatory, or if they are not oblivious to it, they sure as hell will pretend to be. To quickly go over the previous list respectively, it usually goes something like this: foreigners will rack up a huge bill and may leave the country, foreigners like to party and leave outstanding rent due to leaving the country, Japanese people are afraid foreigners will speak to them in English on the train. To be honest, I get it. As much as it is annoying for us foreigners, I do kind of get it.
The one that really gets on my tits, is receiving an English menu at CoCo Ichibanya (an amazing curry chain, able to somehow make a beef sauce and breadcrumbed chicken work together in harmony and perfect synergy). But let’s break this down; if this was my first day in Japan, I would think “oh this guy is very nice, he gave me an English menu”. But after 8 years-worth of buildup, my view on this now is very negative and is something a lot of new foreigners to Japan don’t seem to grasp. I understand that he is trying to be helpful, I respect that and bless his little cotton socks, but let’s turn the tables for a second. Let’s say he comes to my imaginary restaurant in England and I produce a Chinese menu, he or she would be internally livid, too. So now, whenever I receive an English menu, I tell him calmy in Japanese that “I can’t read English because I am from Russia and never studied it” (no disrespect to Russian people, imagine the irony). Unfortunately, most Japanese people assume that all white people can just… speak English. This is why I call it ignorant racism, it is not done intentionally, of course. That would be absurd. A lot to blame is their dire education system. I’ve worked in Japanese schools and trust me when I say “dire”. Now, I used the Chinese menu specifically for a reason and it brings me onto the next topic.
Ignorant racism vs. flat out
Now, if you’re from the UK, America, Canada, France, Germany, erm, let’s see, Spain, basically any country other than China or Korea, chances are you will experience the “ignorant racism”. Otherwise, the Japanese have a fierce wraith for the Chinese and Koreans. It’s all to do with history and some little islands that nobody uses anyway. Some of my Japanese clients have flat out told me that they “hate” Chinese and/or Korean people, while pulling a face of disgust. I ask them “why?” and all I usually get is an ill-educated response usually resulted from media propaganda. Bless. If only they knew that most of their own culture that they cherish so much is built on foundations from China. Of course, this isn’t all Japanese people, but probably most. A lot of the younger generation does seem to like the Korean culture thanks to K-pop, Korean dramas, and skinny guys who wear make-up and colorful, baggy clothes. This general hate towards the Chinese and Koreans is pretty much flat out racism. Luckily for me, I haven’t experienced this towards myself in my 8 years of being here. Fingers crossed it remains that way.
Before I start this section, it is definitely worth letting you know that it is somewhat a rant. So if my writing becomes a little crazy, it’s because my feelings become a little hectic when talking about this stuff.
Now, something I don’t put into the “ignorant racism” category but more into the “flat out” category, is something my friends and I have experienced far too many times, cockblocks. This is something that happens directly as opposed to indirect and out of ignorance. This is done purposefully with clear malicious intent, and if you’ve lived in Japan for some time and are experienced in the drinking culture, this has more than likely happened to you (guys, of course). So let me set a scene of what used to happen before I was married.
There the 3 of us were. My American friend, English friend and myself, drinking our highballs while sat at a big round table down at our local British-themed boozer. We have eyes in every direction. I’m looking over my American friend’s shoulder, he’s looking over the English friend’s shoulder, and he’s looking over mine. The ex-US Navy friend spots some prey and makes his move. His success rate for bringing girls to our table is second-to-none. Before we finished our drinks, there are now 3 girls sat at our table. While all this is going on, every hungry Japanese guy is pretty much locked-on to our table, either taking notes or thinking about how they can hurt us. Drinks are flowing, and there’s lots of laughter. Everyone in the pub is beyond merry, and merry Japanese people no longer have shy barriers. A couple of guys come to our table and seem to be extremely friendly. For some odd reason, they show no interest in the 3 girls sat here, but instead, compliment the boys on our “naisu massuru” (muscles), drinking abilities, or whatever else they could find. Now in these cases, whenever a gaijin speaks Japanese, they will insist on responding in shitty English. It is such an effort. Here’s a very common example:
Random Japanese Dude: “You are sooo… uhhh… ikemen!”
Me (in Japanese): “Oh yeah, you can say “cool” or “good looking” in English, but my friends and I are OK with Japanese”
Random Japanese Dude: “Oh! English is… DIFFACALT!”
Me (in Japanese): “Exactly, so let’s use Japanese so the girls can understand?”
Random Japanese Dude: “ooKAY!! YOU’RE FROM??”
All of this happens for a good hour or so, and while all of this is going on, they’ll walk around the table, switch up their seating arrangements slightly, but the ultimate goal here is to butter you up so you gain their trust. You would not believe how many LINE IDs I have gotten from random Japanese guys pretending to be my best mate in a bar. This has happened to us far too many times and always resulted in the same thing; they will ultimately turn their backs on us gaijin and start talking to the girls in their native language, maybe even say some negative things about us to them, too. Essentially, we act as their portal and they use this gateway to access the girls more easily. It is a very cunning method which they seem to have mastered quite well. For whatever reason, they are not as confident at approaching girls as they are at approaching foreigners. As soon as you open the door for them, they are tough to get rid of like a stubborn itch that just won’t go away. It’s better to be stern with them from the get-go.
Since I am now married, it still happens. Any guys approaching me in a bar during mid-conversation with my wife, they probably assume I just met her that night. I’ll look at them with piercing eyes, while my wife communicates to them silently through her eyes “you’d better go away before my white husband does something bad” – anyway, they usually scurry off to their little corner table after seeing rings on both our fingers.
If you hadn’t guessed, this annoys me. First of all, coming over to our tables with ill-intent and false facades is not good in anyone’s book. Second, it is extremely draining to not only decipher their poor English, but to also lower our level to a level they understand. My friends and I teach English on a daily basis, after which we would like to unwind after work with a nice cold one and converse in our native tongue. It feels like we’re working overtime and teaching in the bar.
Let me know about your experiences down below, whether it has been in Japan or elsewhere. I’d love to hear!