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The Digg effect and some additional thoughts on Japan and Racism February 23, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in blogosphere, Japan, Society.

Thanks to some link love from my friend Matt, whose post hit the Digg’s World News page and the top page of Digg, the post I wrote on the way the same statistics are described by Japanese and English versions of the same newspaper has been getting a ton of hits. I hope at least a few of them stay around or check in once in a while…..

Whilst Matt’s personal story seems to have struck a chord with Digg readers, I wonder how many of the wider population, especially those who questioned the existence of racism in Japan, were aware of the recent incident where an offensively racist magazine was widely sold in mainstream stores in Japan. (I wrote about that here)
Having read the comments on Digg and on Matt’s site, I would like to point out that I don’t think Matt is the paranoid type who sees a racist motive behind every unpleasant act he is subjected to.

Nor is he a boorish, loud, annoying, Roppongi type gaijin – I’ve observed these types of individuals violating Japanese social protocol (or at least the tradional protocol) many a time, acting like they own the place, and could be said to be responsible for the confrontation to a significant degree. When in Rome…..

Matt isn’t a newbie to Tokyo either.

I know that people like Gen caution reading too much into two random events (Was it my physics teacher who told us you should have 4 data points before attempting to speculate about a trend?). Gen is correct when stating that the comments are indeed a trainwreck. But I personally feel that Matt’s unfortunate experiences are a result of a worrying trend.

For the Japan apologists (and there were plenty of them too), I would like to offer my belief that racism is widespread in Japan, but most of the time it isn’t the kind of overt in-your-face racism which is thankfully less visible than in many countries. It is often a more subtle type of racism, and it is indeed difficult to distinguish between plain unease with dealing with a foreigner, and racism. We don’t have many reports of hanging foreigners by their ankles from a tree, or dragging them behind a pick-up truck, or generally lynching them.

The spread of the racist ideology is, I believe, also on the increase. I certainly sense a swing to the right in the general tone of political and media debate, and with Japan having plenty of issues with its neighbours (N Korea, the Chinese red peril jeopardising the Japanese economy, etc), it is just too easy to crank up the nationalist line, scream for a renewed sense of patriotism, and generally point the fingers of blame at outsiders. Japan is facing a difficult future, and not much has been done to prepare for it. Politicians and bureaucrats are getting ready to blame anyone but themselves for when things get rough.

I would not underestimate the level to which the general Japanese population values/believes in the racial and cultural homogeneity of its nation (or the belief that such a phenomenon exists). Such beliefs must inherently be due to a belief system which ascribes superiority to certain races ahead of others, or to racial purity at the very least. Such beliefs are fundamentally racist, therefore it must be concluded that racist beliefs are widespread in Japan. I think this used to be seen as an old fashioned belief, and had hoped that it was consigned to the rubbish bin of history, but it seems to have made a comeback.

Most Japanese are well aware that discussing such beliefs is not PC, and mostly shy away from discussing this topic outside closed circles of intimate friends and family, and only the most combative actually state their position to a foreigner. Many Japanese actively avoid conflict, much more so than Americans or many Europeans in my experience, and those ill at ease with foreigners are statistically less likely to stray into a foreigner’s path, especially if said foreigner hangs out in well known foreigner hangouts. (Such hangouts are signposted in ink which is visible only to the Japanese eye, so that people who don’t like foreigners can avoid) The fact is that a person’s experience can differ widely depending on the kind of lifestyle you choose to lead during your period in Japan, in the same way that a foreigner’s impression of the USA might differ widely depending on where they spent their time.

Of course, there are plenty of people who like the foreign visitors to our country, and treat visitors with equal respect.
Then there are those who seem to have a problem with their own national/racial identity and aspire to be something they are not….

To discriminate against someone (including yourself) based on some characteristic which the subject has no control over seems to be rather pathetic. [But if that discrimination is due to a flawed logic process due to the inherent lack of intellectual capacity in an individual, would I be discriminating against the intellectually challenged? Hmmm….. Perhaps, but I don’t think it requires any significant intellectual powers given that untainted kindergarten children can appreciate the wrongness of discrimination when explained to them at a level they can understand]

Final note: Yes, I’m fully aware that Japan doesn’t have a monopoly on racism, having been subjected to my fair share of unpleasant incidents in various countries around the globe. That doesn’t make racism right, nor this discussion any less valid just because it doesn’t address the situation found elsewhere.



1. M@Blog » Creepy crawlies comin’ out o’ the woods - February 23, 2007

[…] Update: I’ve been Dugg. Gen has a post. Shin does too. […]

2. baron - February 23, 2007

Well said, I realize that I took some liberties with the title as Matt left the ending as an open-ended question. However, as I commented on Gen’s blog, I reacted mainly because of the alarming developments I feel are brewing under the surface.

It’s as though the combination of coming out of the recession (hence greater confidence) and all the security threats in the region combined with America’s propensity to start wars is driving an “us versus them” mentality. Japan already suffers a persecution complex of sorts and also harbors subconscious insecurities about not having a proper military (my opinion).

Matt looks like a nice guy so I think it’s easy for some Japanese to “unconsciously” lash out on him. Well, I’ll spare you further from my amateur pseudo-psychology but that’s just my thought.

I love Japan and never got any treatment like this but I see it happen to the less assimilated people all the time (even if they’re full Japanese).

Nice blog BTW!

3. FA{ - February 23, 2007

“Such hangouts are signposted in ink which is visible only to the Japanese eye, so that people who don’t like foreigners can avoid”

WHAT?!? Since when is their an ink that can only be seen by certain ethnic groups?

4. visitor - February 23, 2007

very well said.
i came here from the blog in question. i am also a “foreigner” in japan, in quotes, because i blend in quite well, and maybe as such, have not noticed much overt discrimination.

i find it further interesting, and worth commenting, that i have a japanese friend i met in the USA, and although he spent most of his life there, and never received education in a “true” japanese school, has somehow developed a far-right-wing mentality, and speaks more conservatively than many japanese-grown folks i’ve spoke to.
in your “about” page, it seems like you also fall into the “third culture” group, but your analysis is wiser and intelligent than that one would expect from any japanese with an international background.

it seems like i was wrong to assume that an international upbringing actually results in a broader view and a sharper eye. mostly self-enlightenment?

5. jbrickman - February 24, 2007

digg is definately sweet. it weeds out crap headlines, like the ones about anna nicole smith.

6. kumanogengou - February 25, 2007

I think what you wrote here is largely accurate and insightful. I wonder, however, about how much racism, or perceptions of racism, in Japan is spawned or fortified solely by language barriers. I say this because I know foreigners who have become extremely fluent in Japanese and have told me they have seen a huge drop in seemingly “racist” responses to them as their Japanese abilities improve. As my Japanese proficiency increases, I’ve noticed too that Japanese people who at first appear to regard me as someone with a contagious disease become much friendlier when they find I can communicate in their language. It could even be some Japanese people are racist in part because they think something along the lines of “those insensitive foreigners don’t even bother to try to learn our language.” I know there is a flip side to this (that some Japanese people believe their language is somehow unlearnable), but still wonder how much improvement would result to Japanese/foreigner relations if everyone could communicate well.

7. Metroblogging Tokyo - February 26, 2007

Racism in Tokyo

Matt Romaine opens the proverbial can of worms that is Racism in Japan. He recounted two episodes of apparent racism and after being Dugg, the invevitable deluge came. I’ve experienced minor things that could possibly be due to racism, but…

8. fukumimi - February 26, 2007

Thanks for the comments…


Yes, that line was inserted as a sarcastic comment, not to be taken literally.


“i have a japanese friend i met in the USA, and although he spent most of his life there, and never received education in a “true” japanese school, has somehow developed a far-right-wing mentality, and speaks more conservatively than many japanese-grown folks i’ve spoke to.”

I’ll tell you why I think I went through a right-wing phase (which I grew out of – before the end of my teens). I too spent most of my developmental years overseas. From about the age of 3 for about 20 years. I never had the opportunity to go to school here in Japan, at least if you don’t count the odd weeks here and there where I was allowed to join classes at a school because the headmaster there was a family friend and thought the experience would be educational for both me and for my erstwhile classmates. I went to schools where the Japanese populations were basically non-existent. Elementary school, me and my siblings were the only Japanese there, and during secondary school of over 1000 students, you could count the number of Japanese on one hand. The schools also had a strong representation of students from a group for whom the holocaust wasn’t something happening to some unrelated group of people, so to say.

Being in such an environment, and then being subjected to history classes, in which 20th century and WW2 history play an important role, or with JG Ballard’s “Empire of the Sun” (a book I like, as it happens) being a required text for English Lit., you end up getting a lot of ribbing and some stuff which was actually quite malicious.

I think there is a limit to how much harassment an individual can be expected to tolerate. It wasn’t just WW2 related stuff either, by a long shot. I guess one response is to offer no resistance, and basically have your cultural self-esteem trampled upon. Another might be to renounce your roots, and distance yourself from the acts committed by people of your race. Another is to actively confront these people, and to do that you arm yourself with “facts” which question the other person’s point of view or antagonises them. I chose the latter. I guess it became a bit like sport baiting, or a rather vicious form of debating where both sides were looking to get the other riled up and on occasion descended into more physical forms of confrontation. I think in my case, I felt the need to take an extreme stance to make it easier to debate. Taking a moderate position probably seemed like a cop-out at the time, and in fact extremes are much easier to debate. I think I probably believed some of the right wing rhetoric at the time, but with more and more reading and research, I guess I formed a more balanced conclusion regarding many issues, although I don’t think most of my positions are mainstream by either Japanese or Western standards, but my own blend tapping the resources available to me as a bilingual student of the issues.


I do think language barriers can be an issue, but it is more than the spoken word. Body language is also a big issue, and this is something that also rubs off on a foreigner who becomes more accustomed to a locale.

It is the way that people can recognise a long term resident from a tourist, even if they wear the same clothes. The reverse of this is that a racially Japanese person (who looks the same as any other Japanese person) who has not lived in Japan can stick out like a sore thumb based on their mannerism alone.

I guess it is sort of like the psychological effect of mirroring, which triggers some sort of familiarity response which passivates the impulse to act in a hostile manner.

I think it is probably true that the longer you reside in Japan (or anywhere) the less likely you are to be violating their expectations for behaviour in public as well.

Most of the time altercations seemed to be rather spontaneous events, at least as far as the “victim” is concerned, but I suspect that there is a “silent conversation” which triggers the actual confrontational act.

I guess my point is that I don’t doubt the ability to communicate verbally in the local tongue is also another big factor, but I’d say don’t underestimate your absorption of the native body language which make you appear less hostile to the locals either. The fact that this language is absorbed much more subconsciously (though conscious absorption is also possible), leads many to overlook this aspect of interpersonal communications, IMO.

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