Trials of the Mudbloods

There is a great moment in the Irish comedy Father Ted where a nun is talking to a black priest about Africa and missionary work to which the priest, in a deliciously thick Irish accent replies "I wouldn't know. I'm from Donegall"

Whether we are aware of it or not most of us make assumptions about people based on their looks. It's fairly obvious that the Japanese see me and think to themselves "ah, an American!”. My physical self sort of gives the game away somewhat, looking, as I do, so different from the natives. And this is fine with me; I have no desire to totally integrate, even if that was possible, and the extra attention I do get is more often the kind of benign, positive discrimination than not. I do wish they didn’t assume I am American, though.

Stories of discrimination, benign and malignant, in Japan are rife, of course, and apart from the one instance I was accosted and publications like Gaijin Crime File I can’t really complain. It’s usually the Koreans and Chinese, even if they’re third generation Japanese inhabitants, who get the worst of the xenophobia. Japan isn’t a racist country per se, but it is a country where racists, that exist everywhere in the world, can go about their business unchecked and unpunished.

But one group of people is often overlooked in these discussions: the Japanese foreigner. These are the Japanese people born and raised abroad or those of mixed parentage. For them life isn’t easy either! If you look Japanese you are expected to act Japanese and anything else will be seen as odd, corrupted or uncouth.

I knew of one guy, an American born and raised Japanese, who came to Japan and was asked something by a Japanese guy while waiting in line at the airport bus stop. Speaking very little Japanese he was a little dumbfounded and asked, in English and faltering Japanese, what the guy had said. But looking 100% Japanese the guy expected him to act and talk like one and so was taken aback and just looked at him as if he was mentally deficient.
Or there was the case of the Japanese woman who spent a fair number of years living and being educated in the US. When she came back she could not find herself a husband because all the guys were put off by her “Western ways”. Being abroad for too long corrupts the Japanese, apparently.
If you look Japanese and smell Japanese you had better act Japanese or you’re an outsider, as much as people like me, only worse because you really should have been Japanese.

People of mixed race, or “ha-fu” (“half”) as the Japanese call them, are something else altogether. As children they may be a little bit outside of the group at school, simply because they look different, but generally Japan thinks they are cute, beautiful, nice. There are quite a few “ha-fu” talentos on the television and music industry. A lot of Japanese friends (and, to be fair, Western friends too) are terribly excited by the possibility of my siring a half-Caucasian, half-Japanese baby. People have already sketched out career plans in the modeling industry for my, as yet non-existent, offspring.
As a “ha-fu”, of course, you won’t look 100% Japanese and as such you could get by without adhering to the strict social rules and etiquette required of Japanese citizens.

As an aside, I’m a “ha-fu” myself, though being half one kind of Caucasian and half another kind of Caucasian you can’t really tell. And I’ve never even been to the Caucasus! When people call me a “ha-fu” I always delight in telling them, ”No, I’m a DOUBLE!” ; a joke that works much better now I've lost some weight.

It is really quite mind-boggling to consider just how homogenous Japan is. Having lived in very culturally mixed countries myself the difference couldn’t be more extreme. Part of this is probably because Japan was a closed country for so long while the West was mixing and matching cultures with their empires. Partly it may be due to a kind of cultural closed-mindedness aggravated by a lack of skill in a lingua franca. Or maybe it’s the still strict immigration laws; whichever it is, Japan is very very Japanese. Though it is hard to pinpoint a universal “Britishness”, it seems it’s quite easy to find a universal “Japaneseness” and if you looks like you fit in that category but don’t act as if you do, you’ll face the same xenophobia, misunderstandings and problems as a ‘real’ outsider.

So if you’re white and living in Japan, count your blessings. You are one of the cool, ‘good’ foreigners. Sure, you’ll face some discrimination, which is bad and inexcusable, but compared to the Koreans, Chinese and often overlooked “Japanese foreigners” we still live on easy street.


  1. Interesting post, as always. Just curious, though, how do the other asians (non-Koreans and non Chinese) fare in Japan. Or, are they too few to make any real impression?

  2. I'm not really too much in the know of that, Jason. I have a feeling Asian foreigners are all low-wage scum and Western foreigners all rich, handsome Gods. A bit of an oversimplification, of course.

    There are quite a few Indians in Japan, a lot of them in the IT sector. I haven't a clue how the average Japanese sees them, though.

  3. I also think this is quite an interesting observation you make (in fact, having just stumbled across your site, I find your commentary on the ins and outs of Japanese culture to be astute and fascinating.)

    I particularly like the bit about Japanese raised abroad, since I can relate. As an Egyptian raised in the United States I'm confronted with the exact same problem every time I return to Egypt, of drawing bewildered stares that imply mental deficiency every time I try to stammer out a coherent sentence in Arabic.

    Good post.

  4. Some of my students in Iida were Mainland Chinese. They didn't seem to have trouble fitting in with everyone else, but the teachers were always quick to encurage them to speak Japanese rather than Chinese amongst themselves. A practical thing given the circumstances, but a part of you feels kind of bad for them nonetheless.

    I did have a troubling incident; while teaching at an elementary school, my friend and I conducted a class including a Chinese boy who spoke nearly no Japanese. Despite the fact that our classes were conducted entirely in simple English ( with abundant pantomiming), the teacher felt it necessary to interrupt our introductions, inform us that the boy could not speak Japanese, and promptly exclude him from the proceedings. The thought of that boy breaking down in tears while being excluded, yet again, still galls me to this day.

  5. Heartbreaking, Gene. Let me guess; the rest of the class was perfectly happy with him joining in, it was just the one, old-fashioned (read: narrow-minded) teacher that felt the need to make a point of it? Always the way.

  6. In my International Relation class, we've taked about differences between Nations and States. Nations are groups of people with similatites, and states are political bodies.

    My teacher always uses Japan as an example of a Nation/State, because the political boundreis of the state are filled with about 98% of the same type of people, Japanese. This type of Nation State is rare today, and I think your post did a good job describing the sistuation in Japan.

  7. I'm sure it wasn't a consciously malicious or racist act, rather than a kind of reflex for the teacher, who was actally sympathetic and consoling to the student. This kid was unable to take part in the classes' usual business because of his inabliity to speak Japanese, so his teacher thought it ony appropriate to swoop in and try to spare him the embarrassment of faltering through an English activity (I wish this guy had known some of my best students were Chinese). The cruel irony of the situation is that, if the teacher had explained the student's confusion a bit more delicately beforehand rather than summarily writing him off, I might have been able to stammer through an explanation with him in my caveman Chinese, and maybe for those forty-five minutes make him feel a little less isolated.

  8. I am a black man in Japan and I can't tell u how much hard time we get here. Most Japanese men think we (blacks) are taking advantage of their women. One time they called my Japanese wife a (Disgrace of the country) in front of me.....
    Well I learned to appreciate my culture; we westerns have really great culture. I can’t wait to go back to Boston.
    Hang in there Brother

  9. That's nasty stuff, anon. Sorry to hear that. My wife has been teased about marrying a foreigner but nothing outright hostile. It certainly makes you appreciate the sligthly more liberal attitude most Westerners have towards multiculturalism, that's for sure.

  10. Kind of makes me wonder how I'd be treated as a half-Chinese, half-British person that speaks English and lives in Britain.

  11. First of all, thanks for the great work on this blog. I was made aware of it through an old friend who knows that I'm trying to break into the games industry in Japan. Having spent a year over there last year, working in a Japanese company in rural Japan (Imabari in Ehime-ken!) I can really concur with what your saying (though 9:30 early starts?! We were in 7:30 every day to sing our company songs and do our Rajio Taiso!).

    Secondly, I know since returning back from the UK, I can also really appreciate how weird we are over here... You mentioned 'national identity' in your post and how its easy to identify the Japanese identity, but not so much ours. I think this is true, but sometimes it's really hard to see something when your part of it. I read a book recently called "Watching the English" which is an attempt to identify 'Englishness'. I found it a hilarious read when I returned back from Japan (at that point I'd been out of England for 5 years, 4 in Scotland, 1 in Japan). I really recommend it.

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  16. It exists everywhere in the world, can go about their business unchecked and unpunished.

  17. It is always interesting know that.Japanese people do not know the English.If you got to Japan then you have to learn the Japanese language.

  18. Japanese and anything else will be seen as odd, corrupted or uncouth...

  19. Nicely wrote . Simple thought , very rice article .

  20. Japan isn’t a racist country per se, but it is a country where racists, that exist everywhere in the world, can go about their business unchecked and unpunished.

  21. Japan bring good things but some of them should stay in japan.

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