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Arudou Debito and “Closed” Racism

I’ve pretty much backed off my coverage of Debito over the past year. This is not just due to the fact that I’ve left Japan, but also because I started to disagree with his tactics. True, I think he makes a valid case for the rights of foreigners in many cases:

– Children born to international couples, i.e. what are their rights, will they experience discrimination as a Japanese born in Japan just because they don’t "look Japanese"?

– Not sitting still in many English schools because you’re fresh off the boat and uncertain how to react when your rights are stripped away or you feel more like a pet than an employee. This isn’t limited to Japan; many English schools across Asia, South America, and Africa draw you in with empty promises of fair wages, benefits, and decent housing. There are some cases where employers will "request" to hold on to your passport while you’re working for them: they have no right to do this, of course.

I don’t really have any strong objections to the new gaijin cards with IC chips when it comes to first-time visa holders and short-term residents. But, as is often the case, the rules apply to everyone, from permanent residents with families to American douchebags fresh out of college looking to get laid and drink too much while blowing off work at eikaiwa

I believe Debito fulfills a need in Japanese society, by "injecting a different view into the debate." He brings awareness to issues that many Japanese have been complacent about and many foreign residents are ignorant about. But I honestly think he’s becoming too much of an extremist (I hate putting labels on things like FoxNews, but I need something).

The key to understanding Debito’s line of reasoning (and yes, he has good reasons for thinking the way he does) is understanding racism in Japan. Strictly speaking, Japan is not a racist society. I say again, Japan is not a racist society. The reason for this is we need a new definition to define the type of discrimination which occurs far too often in Japan. Japanese people don’t treat foreigners differently because they have strong objections to white or black skin; they treat them differently because they are not Japanese. They don’t fit into society’s rules and therefore, must be treated like they don’t belong. Ironically, this is more of an attempt to make foreigners conform; it doesn’t work, because we can’t (very similar to the mentality behind ijime, bullying).

So let’s talk about this. Many people around the world, Japan included, are completely openly racist: yelling at those with different skin tones, screaming slurs with offensive language, causing physical harm in the worst situations. Dave Chappelle explains it far better than I ever could (rated R by KPIJ):

More often than not, what we see in Japan is "closed" racism, occurring almost behind closed doors and making foreigners second guess what actually happened. When you feel like you’re the victim of racial discrimination in Japan, Japanese don’t outright say things like "I’m doing this because you’re a foreigner." More often that not, we’d get a calm, rational explanation:

"From now on, we’re going to take your fingerprints every time you cross our borders."

"May I ask why?"

"No, you may not. But if you must, it is because we fear terrorists may attempt to attack our beautiful Japanese cities."

"I see. Have any foreign terrorists ever attacked Japan?"


"Even if they did, wouldn’t they be likely to not have their fingerprints on file?"

"Well… you see…"

"Isn’t it true the only terrorist attacks in Japan have been committed by Japanese?"

"I don’t believe so."

"So if you discover this to be true, you will be fingerprinting everyone, including Japanese?"

"Of course not. They are Japanese."

Or, in the work environment…

(approximation from Fear and Trembling, Amélie Nothomb)

"You served the tea as if you spoke perfect Japanese!"

"But, Saito-san, I do speak it reasonably well."

"Well, from now on, you no longer speak Japanese."


"You must forget Japanese!"

That’s a rather extreme example, but still, it does describe the essence of "closed" racism; Amélie didn’t have a problem at her company because she was foreign, or a woman (well, that may be debatable). She had a problem because, despite her best efforts, she was incapable of acting, thinking, and looking like a Japanese. Some people who read blogs on Japan hear stories about Japanese on trains moving to avoid sitting next to foreigners; overhearing Japanese coworkers at English schools speaking about foreign teachers in Japanese to their faces in the belief they won’t be understood; being turned away at hot springs because it would make other people "feel uncomfortable" in the bath; policemen demanding to see gaijin cards after foreign residents innocently approach the box asking for directions; and the like. Rarely do we hear accounts of foreigners being beaten or verbally assaulted as African-Americans might in the American south (oh yes, plenty of open racism down there).

In this sense, closed racism is practically institutionalized in Japan by trying to make foreigners conform to the group (an impossible task when we can’t "look Japanese"), but it is by no means a certainty. Nor is Japan limited to closed racism. The media does its part by focusing a great deal of attention on crimes committed by foreigners in Japan; the police by issuing media instructing the public that foreigners are the #1 cause of their problems (terrorism, crime, SARS, swine flu…); schools by not providing enough information and adopting more of an attitude like "foreigners are different from us and I find that funny, don’t you?"

Maybe I’m wrong. Thoughts?

Thanks to Japan Probe for the video.