Talking About Talking About JapanFebruary 20, 2008
No, that’s not a typo.
Racism and xenophobia in Japan is a fairly reoccurring conversation in certain circles of the Internet (probably because White People Like Japan), and since Japan has such a significant presence in the video game industry, the subject of racism and stereotypical imagery in Japanese-made video games comes up a lot; most recently (although briefly) at Insert Credit, which was then pinged by Kotaku. Perhaps somewhat tellingly, it seems to come up (and is certainly more readily discussed, at least, from my experience) than racism in American-made video games. I don’t know if it’s bad form to quote a Facebook note, but my colleague David Ayala sums things up pretty well:
“Japan is a racist nation, not unlike any nation that has come before it or after it. It has a long history of violence and imperialism against people whom it deemed inferior racially, culturally, etc. And the reasons for this, as has been discussed already, is the fact that Japan is still a homogeneous nation which receives most of its interaction with diversity through media.”
“So why make a post pointing out what we already know and what has been said before countless times? I’ll tell you why. It’s the endless struggle of whiteness and white culture in America to navigate their identity in a racist world, which by and large they created (and continue to perpetuate). Most of us here do not live in Japan and are not a part of Japanese society. So for us to sit around, furrowing our brows, and asking “What’s to be done about these racist Japanese?” is completely useless, self-serving, and blind to the actual problems we can help fix.”
Inevitably, these conversations tend to go in one of two ways: at their worst, the participants all chime in with experiences of their own discrimination in Japan or other foreign countries, to the tune of “See? People say the U.S. may have problems with racism, but they’re nothing like this.” – and thereby exonerate their own racism. What can I say. White people have it rough.
Possibly the best outcome I’ve ever seen in a discussion like this, however, is a bunch of well-meaning people standing around clucking and shaking their heads, while occasionally commenting on what a shame it is. Believe it or not, this outcome really isn’t that good either.
I’ve had numerous conversations with one Ms. Shiyuan about the pitfall that many white, middle-class, liberal classmates of ours have fallen into while trying to engage conversations about race and privilege. It reminds me of the “disaster porn” critiques my policy-debater brethren employed in the good old high school days; feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but as I understood it, the idea was that seeing things like pictures of starving infants and having an entire room of people acknowledge that it was a horrible, horrible thing made people feel really good about themselves. Plenty of conversations about “diversity” end up this way; you get a cookie and a pat on the back for being able to “see” racism and privilege in things like pictures of black people getting lynched and so forth. Extra bonus points if it makes you start a sentence with “I feel…” and maybe talk about some person of color who profoundly affected your life when you were little.
Let me clarify something.
Yes, discrimination and racism exists in Japan. A lot of it comes from sheer ignorance, plenty of it also comes from fear, and both of these are ultimately connected to Japan’s relative cultural and physical isolation. And that really, really blows. It’s never any fun to be reminded that the entire country tends to think that you don’t belong there, whether it’s the little kids staring at you or the widespread stereotypical imagery found in Japanese media, or the thousands of micro-interactions that come together just a little differently than they would have if you were Japanese, just to accentuate the fact that people are going to treat you differently because you’re not one of Them. Wherever these conversations about Japan and racism go, it wouldn’t do any of the participants justice to deny that – yes! Even well-off white people can face discrimination in Japan.
But by no means should the conversation stop here. Because, frankly, whatever sense of alienation and discomfort and righteous indignation that you might have felt when a little kid asks you why you look like a foreigner four times in a row is qualitatively different from being a visible minority in the U.S. Talking about these kinds of experiences only barely begins to scratch the surface of what it’s like to call a country that was founded upon the subjugation of people of color your “home”. It is profoundly unsettling to realize that, no matter how much you try, you simply can’t feel like you completely belong in your home. Yes, I imagine it must be a startling revelation to discover that there are places in the world you might not feel wholly welcome. Now imagine that you had to discover that you’re not welcome anywhere.
This experience often extends to American visible minorities who travel to Japan, as well. I hear of Asian Americans describing a certain ambivalence to phenotypically “passing”, especially for ethnic Japanese Americans, who constantly have to explain that they don’t speak Japanese natively because they’re third- or fourth-generation Japanese, not because they’re mentally impaired. I don’t even think Japan knows what to do with Chicano/Latino Americans. And, for the love of God, everything Japan knows about black people probably comes from Bob Sapp, Bobby Ologun, and the recent rape story starring a black Marine and a fourteen-year old girl. In my case, I get to deal with daily visible discomfort because people aren’t sure if I’m Asian or white or Brazilian or anything else. It was almost comforting to me to hear some of the white people among my fellow American students describe their own experiences encountering racism in Japan, but even then, the social reactions white people tend to inspire here are far different from any response anyone else gets.
Perhaps someday I’ll get to tackling an actual conversation about racist imagery in Japanese video games. For now, though, this will have to do.