You’re not from round ‘ere, are you? (part 1)

Discrimination and being a foreigner in Japan are extremely difficult to write about as so much depends on personality, personal experience and situations. No two foreigners experience Japan in the same way; nonetheless I will try to give some indications of the difficulties you may face when working here.

Though total integration into Japanese society is impossible, simply because you will always look different, acceptance is fairly easy. Japan isn’t such a closed book as you may believe: many of its citizens are open-minded and accepting of other cultures, often eager to learn more about the world. There are however two kinds of discrimination you’ll face when you move over here.

The first is a kind of benign “positive” discrimination. You will often be seen as ultra-cool and handsome as well as extremely clever because you are not Japanese-looking and speak more than one language respectively. Such is the social status of white or black people that when they move back home they often return to Japan eventually, as they can’t deal with being decidedly ordinary and plain looking in their own societies anymore. Keeping your feet firmly on terra firma and brushing off such compliments should stop your head from inflating too much.

The second type is actual “negative” discrimination. When dealing with older people or official institutions you can sometimes be confronted with the ugly side of Japan. From being denied an apartment or a loan to people being scared of you, these things happen. They do not happen often, mind you, but they happen. Another problem is your official status in Japan which, until you become a nationalized citizen or permanent resident, remains hazy. E.g. you will pay your residence taxes but will be denied residence papers. If you marry a Japanese national they will have a family register, but you won’t, and what’s more, you’ll be delegated to the footnotes rather than be entered in the appropriate “spouse” boxes.

The problem is much worse if you are of Asian decent. When Japan really puts its racist hat on, it’s usually aimed at its immediate neighbours. China and Korea specifically get the sharp end of the stick, with 3rd or 4th generation Japanese Koreans still being denied citizenship, and the Chinese having such a bad reputation when it comes to housing, for example, that they will have a much harder time finding somewhere to live. In fact when I was first confronted with the “no foreigners” option on realtor information sheets I was supposedly assured with the line “oh, no, that’s just aimed at the Chinese”.

To be honest I have no idea what your status would be if you’re of middle-eastern origin, but I have seen very little of the hysteric xenophobia that seems so popular in Europe and America these days.

Having said all that, you have to remember that this discrimination is only a very small part of daily life. When you’re dealing with government or banking institutions things are a bit more odious but I personally can’t remember the last time I met with discrimination, positive or negative, in any shape or form. Because of this it is important to remember, when being discriminated against, not to explode in rage. The best attitude is to let it slide. As mentioned before, the vast majority of Japanese people are open-minded and if they discriminate it will usually be genuine ignorance; something they’ll gladly be educated about if you just take the time. Some people go so far as to insist being referred to as “gaikokkujin”, literally “outside country person” rather than “gajin”, literally meaning “outside person” or “outsider”. Personally I can’t be bothered with all that. Though I do object to the automatic assumption I am American, little niggles like these aren’t really worth getting upset about.

Like each country, though, there are a bunch of right-wing nutters too. They distinguish themselves by driving around in black busses or white vans with loud nationalistic music vomited out from their speakers. They often park in front of Shibuja or Shinjuku station, dressed in their slightly militaristic uniforms, and give loud speeches about how the foreigners are corrupting Japan’s beautiful culture and language. These are best ignored, though I do like to scare their leafletters by creeping up behind them.

The police also often need a lesson in race relations. If you are ever in an accident or fight it will probably be your fault, even if it blatantly is not. Though these things are often solved with a groveling public apology, you really want to avoid getting into fights. Even if a Japanese person throws the first punch and you are merely defending yourself, you will be seen as the aggressor.
Random stop and searches are also not unheard of. I was once approached while waiting near some shops, but it ended with a friendly chat and no harm done. I guess it was my fault for hanging out in an area where dope peddlers are often seen. Alternatively, near my office my colleagues have been subject to possibly illegal bag checks by police recently. One colleague now takes a different route home after having been searched here times in quick succession. I, on the other hand, have not had this yet, but if I ever do get stopped for no reason I fully intent to have sudden language amnesia and force the offending officers to speak English.

When it comes to work and official matters, a little foreign gusto may be called for. You may or may not have heard of a certain Debito, a former American and now fully nationalized Japanese citizen, who demands some public attention for his legal fights against racism. Though his website offers some objectionable and tiresome essays on how he wishes life in Japan was a little more American, he also has some interesting and valuable information on legal matters. For example, where the Japanese saw a mole hill he tried to make a mountain out of a public onsen (bath house) refusing entry to foreigners. By law this is illegal but there are no powers to enforce this. So he went through a lengthy court case with resulted in, well, not much. He also protested when Yama-chan, the cute seal from the Bearing Straights who made his way to Yokohama river, was issued citizenship papers as a publicity stunt. The protest revolved around how happy the expat community was that a foreigner got citizenship papers and that hopefully soon all the other cute foreigners in Japan could expect likewise. We didn’t, of course, but an interesting side-effect was that many of my acquaintances were surprised and a little shocked of our plight as few were aware of it. Check out his site, but take his personal rantings with a pinch of salt.

There is discrimination in Japan. On the whole it doesn’t have any real bearing on my day to day life, and I usually don’t let it get to me on the rare occasions I am confronted with it. I enjoy the fact people think I am much more handsome than I am, and that some people are on occasion a little intimidated, but generally it is no big deal. As a milky white Caucasian westerner any discrimination I do suffer pales in comparison to that perpetrated on my non-Japanese Asian brethren.

Soon I’ll try to write a post about the specific pitfalls and perks of being a foreigner working in game development and how you may want to carry yourself.

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