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A long post about racism in Japan

Caveat: This is a very long article, but I hope you will take the time to read through it. I do not like writing about the ugly side of Japanese society, but I feel it's necessary for the same of presenting a well rounded view of Japan that goes beyond its cliches.

Yesterday, I saw a tweet about a advertising poster for a hair care product, featuring a model who appears to be of African descent with very curly, natural looking hair. The copy on the poster read: 「ツヤツヤのサラッサラになりたい」, which means "I want [my hair] to be shiny and flowing". The implication read into this ad copy by the original poster and the many Japanese people who made it go viral very quickly was that there was something wrong with the model's curly hair, and so the ad copy was racist. Within just a few hours, word had reached the company who had put up that poster. They quickly posted an apology on their web site for causing distress, and said they were taking all the posters down.

The story struck me for a couple of reasons: first, that the tweet from an account with a modest number of followers went viral so quickly, and that the reaction and apologh from the company was so swift. I was also pleasantly surprised that ad images of this type would draw so much attention and criticism within Japan - because, just a couple of years ago, this would not have been the case at all. So I tweeted briefly about it, explaining for English readers what was going on.

One of the comments referred to an incident from December 2017, where a very popular comedian called Masatoshi Hamada of the comedy duo Downtown made a lot of waves internationally, when images of him in blackface imitating Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop on a national TV program in Japan were widely distributed via social media. This got a lot of criticism within Japan as well as internationally. It sparked a big debate about the use and meaning of blackface in Japan. This New York Times article covers it pretty well. At the time, a lot of people in Japan were defending Mr. Hamada's use of black face, although the international community and many long time residents of Japan were having none of it.

This is one reason why I was surprised by the swift and almost universal condemnation of the hair care product ad by Japanese Twitter users. (Of course there are other mitigating factors; the hair care company is a virtual unknown, while Mr. Hamada and his partner Hitoshi Matsumoto are tremendously popular comedians in Japan, whose fans were eager to defend him.) It seemed like a sign that Japanese people were moving in the right direction when it came to recognizing that some things were not acceptable.

The followup musings that I posted afterwards is where I ran into some Twitter backlash. I do want to emphasize this: In terms of racist behavior, especially but not limited to in-person racism, of course I believe you - especially when have experienced it yourself - that black people in Japan face it much more than white people. What I was talking about when I stated that white and black people are often regarded on equal footing was the greatly admiring yet complicated (and often confused) relationship with black people, in particular with black American culture, that a substantial number of people in Japan have; and that white people are not immune to all racism in Japan either.

Since I have your attention if you are reading this, what follows is a long post about my perception of racism in general in Japan - yes from a Japanese person's point of view, based on I have seen with my own eyes, the statements and attitudes expressed by the Japanese government[1], as well as what I've heard said outside of the presence of 'foreigners' about them by some Japanese people (some of which has been really hard to listen to).

(A note before proceeding: I am discussing racism in Japan, by Japanese people who live there. It has nothing at all to do with Japanese Americans or others in the diaspora. )

A very brief history of blackface in Japan

Blackface in Japan has a rather different history from blackface in the United States, simply because historically, there has been very few African Americans or people of African descent in Japan. It's only been in the past 3 decades or so that more people African descent (from the African continent, the Americas and other places) have been coming to Japan as long time or permanent residents. The only black people most Japanese people saw were on television, mostly via American TV shows and movies, music videos and so forth.

Until recently, there has also been a glaring lack of awareness of how it may be very disturbing blackface may be to people from elsewhere, especially the United States. Blackface, as well as imitating the fashions and hairstyles of black (mostly American) artists, has been a practice that went on mostly without criticism for years. There is for example an R & B group called Rats & Star who used to perform in black face, with slicked back hair and sharp, shiny suits. From their perspective, they did it as a tribute to the Motown artists they loved. In 2015, they caused a stir when they appeared in black face on national television in Japan, and video and screen shots spread internationally.

Current day Japanese musicians who perform rap, hip hop, and r & b type works mostly do not put on black face, since its become recognized - most prominently by the Rats & Star incident and the Downtown incident - that this is considered very offensive in other countries. But they certainly put on the fashions, hairstyles and mannerisms of the black musicians whose music they admire.[2] For better or worse, they tend to take their cues on these matters from US culture.

Japanese people vs. the rest of the world

It really pains me to say this, but unfortunately a sizable number of Japanese people regard anyone who is not Japanese[3] as the Foreign Other. Unlike in some other countries where one is always one of 'us' even if they go elsewhere, once someone emigrates, they no longer are really Japanese, and their children certainly aren't Japanese either. Even someone who is 100% Japanese born and bred with parents who are both Japanese are not quite "totally" Japanese, if they are somehow too 'foreign'. Kikokushijo (帰国子女), or the children of returnees who spent some time living overseas, often faced this discrimination, and some still do. Japanese people who marry a non-Japanese person face some discrimination too.

Multiracial people are discriminated against even more. There was a case just last year of a girl with a Japanese mother and a Canadian father. She returned to Japan with her mother when her parents were divorced, was severely bullied at school, and took her own life, leaving a note that said "I wish we'd never come back to Japan".

People from other countries all face various degrees of discrimination and racism. There are various ways in which "gaikokujin" (or "gaijin", which means the same thing, but has come to be regarded as a derogatory term) are discriminated against. Speaking Japanese well certainly helps, but doesn't always overcome.

Racism in Japan is rarely violent. You are very unlikely to get killed just because of the color of your skin. But there's plenty of verbal racism and body language racism. There's the phenomenon of a foreign-looking person (mostly male) having plenty of space around them on an otherwise crowded train; or not sitting next to them in a crowded coffee shop or restaurant. I've seen people furtively glaring at people not speaking Japanese. I've seen mothers lead their kids away from a shopping gaikokujin in a store. My friends have told me stories of being spat at by old men, shouted "gaijin!" at by kids, and more.

This includes white people. Nope, white people do not get a 'free pass' in Japan, and they are definitely not at the top of the social ladder - that'd be Japanese people. White people are generally considered to be American as a default, and to speak English as a default - which annoys people who don't fit those molds no end. (All black people are also assumed to be Americans who speak English, which annoys or amuses people who don't[4].) There's a repeated scenario, most famously recounted in a book by the late Alan Booth, where even if they speak Japanese fluently, a 'gaijin' is assumed to be 'too foreign' and denied service or even run away from. Light colored hair and eyes and 'having a small face' and long legs are all much fussed over, fetishized. If you are a white person who doesn't fit those stereotypes, you are considered rather disappointing. Despite pretensions to be being 'international', many Japanese people are still very parochial.

And the legal practice by the police in Japan called shokumu shitsumon 職務質問 or "shokushitsu" for short, where they are allowed to stop, question and ask papers of anyone they choose to at any time on the street - often targets people who the police officers judge to be worth questioning. This can mean the police can theoretically decide to stop and question anyone who doesn't look Japanese, especially (but not limited to) people of color. They are usually very polite about it, and you are off on your way if your papers are in order and everything, but if can be very scary too. (Japanese people get "shokushitsu" too if they look 'suspicious'. This overreaching power by the police has been cited by its advocates as one reason for Japan's low crime rate, but it's something you really need to be aware of before deciding whether you want to live in Japan and you think you might look 'suspicious' to a police officer.)

Besides this kind of in-person racism (for the lack of a better term) there's also systemic discrimination such as in housing - non-Japanese people typically have a very hard time renting an apartment unless they are guaranteed by an employer or other sponsor. If a landowner had a problem with another 'foreign' tenant in the past, they will assume that all 'foreigners' are the same and likely refuse to rent you an apartment. Although it's illegal, there are also some random businesses such as restaurants who blatantly display "no foreigners" signs. There is also hate speech (mostly online), and sometimes violence.

It is very easy to think of Japanese people as all being kind and respectful and polite, and this is the story that the government and unquestioning Japan boosters would like you to be believe. While I do think at the place of my birth has a lot to recommend it (and there are, to be clear, plenty of good, decent people), the politeness and respect "everywhere, all the time" is a myth. If you visit as a tourist, chances are you will not face any problems - or you may not notice any at least. Tourists, after all, are bringing in money. But the longer you live in Japan, the chances of you encountering racism in some form or another increase.

American black culture, white or black models in fashion magazines, and more

As I stated earlier, there's been a great admiration for American black pop culture for decades in Japan, especially the music. This may be a positive on its own, but on the minus side it has also led to black people being fetishized. Being fetishized is not a really a good thing, since it is mostly about stereotyping.

In terms of media representation, the perception in the West is that Japanese people have a great admiration of white people, and want to be white. I think the situation is more complicated - and not nearly as positive in regards to white people - than that. White or Caucasian models, for instance, have been used in quite a lot of fashion magazine spreads for years. Certainly, white models are considered to be very attractive - they are the worldwide default for 'beauty' after all.

But are they regarded as equals? As 'real' people? I once heard an art director of a swimsuit ad campaign state that when you used a Japanese model, their customers tended to focus on the model rather than the clothes - or in this case, swimsuits. When they used 'gaikokujin' models, they focused more on the clothes - because to the customers 'gaikokujin' were not very relatable as people. That could be just that art director's opinion, but it's an interesting one.

Black people do not appear a whole lot in these generic fashion spreads, although a few do crop up here and there. They may appear more in TV ads and so on when 'coolness' is supposed to be the message. Being black is really 'cool' in Japan, especially for younger people. The emergence of mixed race sports stars in Japan such as Naomi Osaka, Abdul Hakim Sani Brown and Rui Hachimura, as well as entertainers like comedian Antony, actor and TV personality Jun Soejima and others will hopefully further change perceptions of 'black people' beyond the stereotypes, and make people realize that Japanese people can be of other races.

Resident Koreans face the most deep rooted racism

In the present, and historically, the minority people who the majority of any given society are most in contact with face the most ugly, even violent racism. In the United States for example the group that has faced the most violent racism historically and in the present are black people.

In the Japan, the most familiar 'others' have been Korean residents of Japan. In 1923, after the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake which killed more than 105,000 people were killed or never found. An unsubstantiated rumor went around that Koreans were 'poisoning wells and 'blowing up fireworks warehouses'. This lead to an unknown number of Koreans being killed or severely injured by vigilantes (the estimates are as high as 5,000, or even more). This is mob racism of the worst sort.

During the Korean War, a number of Koreans from North Korea fled the country and were accepted as refugees in Japan. Most took Japanese citizenship (or their children did), and have effectively 'blended in' to Japanese society. Some still retain their Korean citizenship as "foreigners of special status". (There are also as of 2018 around 190,000 South Korean residents of Japan.)

It's the people who have chosen to keep their Korean citizenship, called zainichi (在日, residing in Japan) who face the most blatant racism, such as in the Kawasaki incident. Other East Asians have also faced blatant racism, especially South Koreans and mainland Chinese.

What makes me rather pessimistic about whether the young people of today will outgrow the deep rooted racism in Japan is that some of the vitriolically racist or xenophobic anonymous netizens of Japan who congregate in online communities or participate on social media are quite young, even in high school. And there is a general atmosphere that it's not that big of a deal to state something really discriminatory, especially towards the groups in the last paragraph.

I am certainly not stating this to deny that other groups face racism in Japan too. But - and this was the main point I was trying to make in the original phrase I used, the hierarchy of racism in Japan and how it may differ from where you are from - that it has been the groups above who have, and still do, face probably the most severe, hateful racism.[4]

Yes I am a Japanese person, speaking from my own perspective

Lastly, a few people gave me the 'stay in your lane' speech, that I should not be speaking about racism at all. I am just writing here from my own perspective of how racism is in Japan, yes from a Japanese person's point of view, because that's what I am. Because of having lived outside Japan for long periods (in the US, UK, France and Switzerland), I've faced racism directed at me too, so those experiences come into the equation also. Someone once called me an "inside-outsider" when it comes to Japan, and I think that label fits.

If you misunderstood and thought that I was saying that black people in Japan did not face racism, and that I was trying to deny your own experience from a position of privilege in Japan, as a person who is not black- that is a failing on my part (and probably a sign that I should refrain from trying to make complicated points in pithy tweets).

The bottom line is: I am not denying the racism that exists in Japan, at all.

Other perspectives

The Black Experience Japan YouTube channel features a lot of interviews of black people from various places, who are living in various East and Southeast Asian countries, not just Japan. There are lots of other videos from other channels about being black and living in Japan and East Asia.

Read the works of writer Baye McNeil, a long time resident of Japan and a prominent critic of the racism he perceives there. He may rip me to pieces for speaking out of turn or something, but I'm linking to his site anyway since I his work for years.


  1. Tellingly, Japanese government doesn't keep by-race statistics of the population at all. They don't really acknowledge it. There is a breakdown by citizenship., which may serve to emphasize the "Japanese" and "other" even more.  ↩

  2. Sometimes, Japanese fans of hip hop culture are called "b-stylers"...in the west. I've never read or heard the term in Japan. See this post.
    There was the very curious subculture called Ganguro (literally, black face) that was as its height in the late 1990s to early 2000s. Girls wore big hair, often bleached and dyed, exaggerated makeup, and either painted their faces black, got extremely deep tans, or both. This was generally considered to be a rebellion against mainstream Japanese culture and traditional expectations of women. But if you didn't know this background it would certainly look like black face in the American definition of it.  ↩

  3. By "Japanese" here I am mainly talking about the majority Japanese, who are often called the Yamato people. The minority indigenous people of the north, the Ainu, and the same of the Okinawan islands (formerly the Ryukyu Kingdon), currently called Okinawans, have also faced discrimination (something for another post though).  ↩

  4. Comedian Antony of the comedy duo Matenrou (real name Antony Seiki Horita), whose mother is Japanese and birth father was American, was brought up by his mother and his Japanese stepfather. Antony didn't grow up hearing any English at all, and admits his English ability is pretty bad. However when he attended an English language school, he says everyone just assumed he was one of the instructors because of his appearance. He also has a pretty funny routine about being annoyed about going to sushi restaurants in Japan and being served California rolls and the like, especially since his stepdad is a sushi chef! (Disclosure: I'm a big fan of Antony, especially since he works so well with my hero Funassyi.)  ↩

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