Philosophy  •  June 6, 2002

Japan and Racism

Racism in Japan manifests differently from it does in truly multi-racial countries like the US. As I have said in my past essays, there are two independent forms of racism: unconscious/psychological racism and conscious/ideological racism. They must be addressed separately. We are all racists to a degree in the former sense of the term. In the latter case, we choose to be or not to be a racist. Without distinguishing these forms of racism, we cannot effectively analyze racism in Japan. On one hand, Japanese people can be exceedingly nice to foreigners, but on the other, they can be as rude as any nation can be.

The average Japanese people idolize White, Black, and to a certain degree, Hispanic people. There are many reasons why they do. Some are simply about looks, while others are more deeply cultural and psychological. Every nation has a different form of self-hatred. Living on an isolated island, the vast majority of Japanese people have never been exposed to foreign cultures in any substantial manner. Even those who are proud of their own country cannot help feeling insecure because they do not know enough to compare themselves against others. This relative lack of confidence manifests itself in subtle ways in their everyday lives. For instance, in the US, even a little coffee shop would claim itself to be the “World’s Best Coffee” as a figure of speech. Most Japanese would not dare say anything is “world’s” best, because they simply do not feel like they know enough about the world. In most cases, you will only see “Japan’s best.”

Japan is not a very international country though they wish they were. Most Japanese artists and intellectuals strive to be internationally recognized. Even to this day, the average Japanese perceive the outside world to be a foreign territory. Everyone still has a Star Trek mentality when it comes to going abroad. Their desire to be internationally recognized can be so desperate that some would employ reverse psychology with a fervently nationalistic tone in speaking of the international community.

Being a cosmopolitan is a highly respected status. It is a natural consequence of being an isolated islander who consumes a huge amount of foreign culture in mediated forms like film, television, and print. It is like a domesticated cat that dreams of running around in the streets, but is too scared to actually step outside of the door. This is not unique to Japan, but their complex about being the frog in the well is quite deep.

An obvious trait of a cosmopolitan is to have friends and associates who are foreigners. Having one is equivalent in status to owning a European luxury car. For this purpose, any race other than Asian would do. Having a Chinese friend, for instance, would not have the same cachet, because he/she would not look any different from a Japanese.

As a Black or White person living in Japan, you would typically draw more attention than you wish to. Some are looking to practice English, while others may be looking for friendships. You would not have much difficulty finding someone willing to talk to you, but making a true friend might be more difficult. It is a situation somewhat similar to the one celebrities face. Even with the amount of attention you get, you might still feel lonely. True friendship is a difficult proposition to begin with; going across cultural boundaries only adds to that difficulty.

Personally, at some point in my life in the US, I crossed the line of being Japanese and being American, and now Japanese people seem foreign to me. I do not know a single Japanese person whom I could call a friend. If I still had some friends left in Japan, this would be something that I could brag about to them, but ironically I seem to have crossed the line a bit too far. Whenever I go back to Japan, people think I am retarded because I am unable to speak the language properly, and am unaware of many of the basic customs even though I look perfectly Japanese. A retarded cosmopolitan is still a retard in their eyes, so unfortunately I cannot enjoy the status of being a cosmopolitan.

As for the well-known Japanese prejudice of not accepting any foreigners into public baths, there is a good psychological reason. Since Japan is a very homogeneous country, many social systems are formed with vast assumptions about what is considered normal behaviors. Foreigners, who are not aware of these cultural norms, are simply not in these equations. When the norms are broken, very few feel comfortable in dealing with the situations. Especially when it comes to something as personal as public baths, everyone’s fear of the unknown becomes pronounced. This is where the fear speaks louder than the conscience.

To the average Japanese people, being international is a matter of fashion. They want to become international simply because it is fashionable. It is very much like foreign currency trading, where the profit is recognized only if you come back to your base currency. That is, the standard by which your accomplishments are measured must still be Japanese. For instance, some accomplishments may be highly respected in the US, but not in Japan, or vice versa. Whatever you aim to accomplish in your life, you must be aware of the context in which your accomplishment is recognized and valued. For this reason, most Japanese youths who travel abroad plan to go back to Japan eventually. That is, their base currency is still Japanese. Not many of them decide to permanently immigrate. If you so decide to stay, your accomplishments must be measured against the American standard. For instance, my achievement here as a graphic designer would mean very little since graphic design in general is seen as a job for a social dropout, somewhat equivalent to how we perceive hairdressers here in the US. Conversely, a degree from Tokyo University, for instance, would be significantly devalued. All the respect you could expect from it in Japan must be left behind as a thing from your past life.

Whether it is a conscious choice or not, we all operate on a base currency by which we measure ourselves and others. Many of those who are single-cultured do not realize how much of their values are culturally biased. This often is the cause of diplomatic conflicts; everyone is convinced of their own values, and is unwilling to learn or accept different views. When it comes to international diplomacy, Japanese are better than most Western countries about understanding, because they do not feel confident enough about their own standards. Their stance is usually very passive. American politicians and tourists are much quicker in pointing out what is wrong with Japan than the Japanese are with America. This is a product of American over-confidence, a problem at the opposite end of the spectrum.