Talking About Talking About Japan

February 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.

pat m.



  1. A lot of what you say here is spot-on. I have had the discussion of racism in Japan before in several different settings, to varying degrees of consensus, but all of which have ended in the same place: it sucks.

    But that said, white people should stop complaining. It does suck, but you chose to enter this place so if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. You have an escape plan. It’s called the rest of the world. Funny how many white people can acknowledge how sucky it is but do nothing about racism in their own home countries of colonialist history and everyday racism.

    Especially for racial minority groups of the United States, we don’t have that same escape plan, that safety net, We really have no home. Being Asian American I feel very unwelcome in many parts of the US. And visiting Taiwan certainly doesn’t feel like home either. White people can retreat to almost every continent in the world and feel safe and quite welcome (yes even in Japan, see next paragraph), whereas an Asian, Black, Chicano/a, or Latino/a from America struggles their entire lives to achieve something like that.

    Moreover, yes there is xenophobia against white people and all foreigners in Japan. But there’s plenty of white privilege that still exists as well. It’s not an either/or argument, both xenophobia and privilege exist simultaneously. Look at the advertisements glowingly displaying the standards of beauty: Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz in SoftBank ads, affecting the Japanese psyche so much that every young Japanese girl is either with a white male or has her hair dyed brown/blond to look more white (often both). For every person that performs some xenophobic action or racist remark to a white person in Japan, three people spend money on Italian fashion, a Swiss watch, and a Hollywood movie.

    – Vince

    Bonus fun fact: I noticed this blog’s theme reads “White As Milk”. Oh sweet irony!

  2. I have to say, that listening to people talk about Lost in Translation is one of the most head banging moments of my life.

  3. “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.”

    Does it help the discussion to include a stereotype in a discussion about stereotypes?

  4. mark: i’d hope you understand the distinction between hyperbole for emphasis and a stereotype. though, frankly, i haven’t seen a whole lot that would lead me to think much otherwise about Japan. not while they still have stores called REAL BLACK MUSIC.

  5. Were I being charitable I’d have thought, “Oh, he’s exaggerating,” but I really wouldn’t know. There’s a difference between arguing that some Japanese people aren’t educated about African Americans and and saying an entire nation is racist.

    Your friend is wrong from the jump. Japan is not “homogeneous” unless he means that “Japan doesn’t have many Black people.” We forget about the indigenous Ainu, the immigrant Koreans and Chinese that have been living there for ages (two cultures with a huge influence on Japanese culture historically), the Brazilians, the Japanese-Brazilians, the Japanese Peruvians, the Filipinos, etc. The fantasy of the pure Japan satisfies both the nationalist element in Japan and the Stormfronters in the US (who, somewhat inexplicably, want to give Japanese an honorary White badge). The fallacy also contributes to a misunderstanding about Japanese people.

    I never encountered any overt racism in Japan. I don’t know what was going on in peoples heads as I sat next to them on the train. No one moved away from me, nor, as I was warned would happen, “coughed in my ear.” I’ve seen the coonery of Sapp, but the man is adored, or was (his face adorns ice cream bar wrappers). That’s on him, as it is on Bobby O or any of the other guys who take that route to fleeting fame. There are brothers there in the ent. industry who say, “I can’t do that,” and sometimes the producers say OK. But there’s always someone willing to sell out.

    There are of course examples of racism and institutional racism (more important to me). Fortunately I’ve only read about them.

    Does this REAL BLACK MUSIC store proffer itself as selling music made by Black people (as opposed to Heartsdales) or is the name just a comment on the vinyl?

  6. Mark,

    Just FYI, I’m situated in Nagoya, Japan, studying the Japanese Brazilians, Japanese Peruvians, and Filipino immigrant populations. I do realize they are here. However, their numbers pale in comparison to, say, the number of Chicano/Latinos in Los Angeles alone. What’s more, they’re very, very easily pushed to the far margins of society.

    You want to talk about institutional racism? The education system here is practically designed to make it difficult for immigrant children (in the case of the Japanese Brazilians/Peruvians) to attain any kind of economic opportunity outside of manual labor. Most of the Filipino population are Filipinas who come over to work in the sex industry. Historically, the Ainu and the Okinawans have both been systematically subjugated like the Native Americans in the US. I even attended a conference last weekend where a professor from Osaka explained how the Zainichi Koreans and Chinese children almost always opted to try and ‘pass’ as though they were born in Japan than face social outcast status among their peers. But what’s worse is that little of this is widely acknowledged, and it’s largely because of Japan’s ideological homogeneity. People in Nagoya barely acknowledge the existence of the Japanese Brazilians, and when they do, it’s mostly because someone’s been accused of a crime.

    Never encountered any racism in Japan? Good for you. But riddle me this: would you like it if they treated you like Bob Sapp? I’m sure they’d adore you. But wouldn’t you be a little bit offended? And if you’ve only read about the examples of institutional/individual racism and are still stepping up here to nitpick, I’d suggest you hit the books again.

  7. So, what’s your personal racism in Japan story?

    I don’t get that last sentence. Seems like you’re only reading about institutional racism as well, or attending conferences about it.

    You aren’t telling me anything I don’t already know about Japan, though I appreciate you laying out the info for others.

    Would I like it if they treated me like Sapp? You mean if they paid me lots of money to act like a fool and fight? If they put me on TV with Momusu and whatnot?

    That was my point, mate. I wouldn’t do the things that Sapp does. His treament is on him because he agreed to play the coon. He’s well paid for it, rescued himself from obscurity in the US. If Sapp had said, I don’t like that, I wont do that, we wouldn’t be talking about him in that way.

  8. I got a handful. Discrimination in housing? Check. Not only is the alien registration card policy ridiculous, but landlords are perfectly within their rights to refuse tenants if they’re not Japanese. Unwarranted encounter with the police? Check. For using my laptop on the sidewalk in a fairly active street during the day. I could do this all day.

    You don’t seem to realize that what Bob Sapp and Bobby Ologun do in the Japanese media affect perceptions of African Americans all over Japan, which in turn affect the lives of actual, real African Americans in Japan. Just like Long Duk Dong paved the road for generations of ching-chonglish and penis jokes for Asian American males.

    What you are doing is trying to posture like you’re having a reasonable discussion instead of actually bringing something interesting to the table. Or, as a wise man once said,

    “If you can’t slam with the best, then jam with the rest.”


  9. You don’t seem to realize, probably because younger peeps always think they know everything, that you aren’t saying anything new. The argument that Sapp (or gangster rap, or Africans pretending to be from Brooklyn, or marines on a bender) makes all Japanese people think all Black people are like Sapp is common, and isn’t reflected in reality in largesse, not to mention it isn’t a very thoughtful argument.

    I’d actually hoped you’d have something new to say, a reflection of a younger person experiencing life in Japan rather than only reacting to preconcieved notions, but you don’t. Then, the know nothing’s final resort, the ad hominem attack to finish.

  10. If you disagree that media and media images have a profound effect on the way people’s bodies of knowledges are constructed and negotiated, you’re not going to have a whole lot of fun reading this blog. I may not be saying anything new, but you’re not saying ANYTHING except “you’re wrong” without the slightest attempt to warrant your claims.

    This conversation ends here. I have better things to do than argue with someone whose only contribution is an irrational attachment to Japan. I don’t know why your feathers are so ruffled and I don’t really give a shit.

  11. hello, pat!

    wow, you’re having an awfully heated comment-conversation/debate with mark! were you partially inspired by ahmmad’s essay to write this? as i read the entry and comments, i somehow visualized ahmmad’s term paper. you could have used it as a rebuttal to mark’s comment.

    i didn’t know you were researching filipinos, too! lucky. hopefully you’ve learned some tagalog (i don’t know if you already speak it)!

  12. Don’t forget that they now fingerprint all incoming foreigners, even those of us who have visas. I’m pretty sure that they implemented that policy in reaction to America’s increasingly paranoid “War on Terror”, though.

    Discrimination in housing? Check. Not only is the alien registration card policy ridiculous, but landlords are perfectly within their rights to refuse tenants if they’re not Japanese.

    Yeah, I ran into that one. Although I Oh, and it doesn’t help that your guarantor needs to be Japanese. Since I don’t have a Japanese guarantor, I get to pay a company hideous amounts of money to act as one for me. Not to mention that not all apartments are willing to use the company as a substitute.

  13. […] than it’s ever had before. Nice to know that no matter how many people I piss off about Japan, or Indigo Prophecy, all it takes is some straight up old-fashioned objectification of hot men of […]

  14. Get over yourself and stop blaming your prpblems on whites. Most of us are Obama folks as youve seen. The only thing holding you back is your continued agression and lack of action. MLK would be ashamed of your passive complaints. The Africans in Japan claim to be American because they are aware that some stupid girls will sleep with them. I always interupt when I see it and set the girls straight defending black americans.

  15. Vince, you say you are an Asian American and you don`t feel welcome in the US and when you visit Taiwan you don`t feel at home either. Then let me ask you one thing, whose fault is that? I hate it how Americans always seem to complain about everything. Maybe here in this racist debate kinda thingie on the web you will say i`m racist because i have such a stereotypical view of Americans, but you always confirm it. Americans complain about everything and everything and act like they can`t help anything. Vince, as you say you`re Asian American, and because you specifically mention Taiwan i assume you are Chinese-American you won`t face any discrimination in Taiwan because of your looks. The only reason people in Taiwan could ever find to discriminate you is because you are not fluent in the Taiwanese-Chinese language. Or because you are not adapted to the Taiwanese-Chinese culture. Ever heard of the word ‘adaption’? Just learn the language and adapt to the Taiwanese culture. Then you can feel at home there! So you say that you don`t have any place to feel at home, but that`s just not true. You COULD feel at home in Taiwan if you tried hard enough. You can never become caucasian so if you face discrimination in America, well then it`s beyond your control. But just don`t complain too much. Success you build yourself, complaining will only hold you back, don`t complain too much. And as i see it, you do have a place you could feel at home: Taiwan, why not come if you feel unhappy in America? (Provided you can get a visum though i have no idea abt the rules of re-immigration of Taiwanese ppl living in America).

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