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Why, Japan, Why? JULY 2020

Why the did NHK try to Japansplain the global anti-racism protests with this excruciatingly embarrassing video?

Ai yi yi, you don’t have to understand Japanese to instantly grasp that this video produced and aired by NHK (the Japanese equivalent of the BBC) is exactly how NOT to explain why anti-racism protests have exploded across America and the world. 

Racist stereotypes of black people? Check!

Blaming it on coronavirus and poverty? Check!

No mention whatsoever of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or other victims of police brutality? Check, check, check!

But NHK is a mainstream, government-owned network! How the heckin’ heck did this piece of WTFery get made, let alone aired?

You’re not the first to ask. Some chalk it up to a production and decision-making chain that didn’t include any foreigners in the process (undoubtedly true), while others attribute it to racism not existing in Japan, so they had to make it relate to inequalities that do (Uh, no. Just…no.)

Actually, the source of this particular blind spot is something much stranger. I’ve run up against it myself, when attempting to discuss discrimination with Japanese friends.

Japan is 98% ethnic Japanese, and none of them have ever experienced racial discrimination themselves. Ever. Trying to explain racism to most Japanese is like trying to explain breathing air to a fish.

Most Japanese have no idea how awful it feels to be treated as “other.” They’ve never experienced the unfairness of being targeted for abuse or denied things everyone around them takes for granted, just because they’re Japanese. And because almost everyone around them is Japanese too, people who have personally suffered from racism aren’t among those whose experiences they can sympathize with.

The only time most of the 98% majority comes in contact with the 2% that doesn’t look like them is when they pay the exchange student working the counter at the local Family Mart for a pack of cigarettes. Most Japanese aren’t personally acquainted with—or work with—any non-Japanese, so foreigners continue to be comfortably slotted into stereotypes that everyone around them agrees with, rather than being genuinely known as real people who have the same hopes, fears and feelings as themselves.

And because holding these stereotypes isn’t always malicious—might even be flattering—most Japanese would indignantly deny that treating non-Japanese as “different” constitutes racism, even when there are blatantly different rules for foreigners than for ethnic Japanese. For example, it’s entirely legal to refuse restaurant service or apartment rental to someone on the basis of not looking ethnically Japanese. But that’s not seen as “racism,” it’s because “non-Japanese don’t understand the rules and that will potentially cause trouble/discomfort for everyone else.”

Nearly every Japanese friend I’ve discussed it with sees absolutely nothing wrong with discrimination like this, as long as they’re convinced that it benefits the majority (i.e. the 98% of the population that’s Japanese).

Some would say that’s an innocent form of racism—ignorance, not malice. But if the effect is the same (treating someone differently because of how they look, not who they are), even small discriminations are hurtful.

A case in point

Recently, SoraNews24 reported that @annaPHd9pj, a half-Japanese woman who has lived in Japan for fifteen years got so tired of being treated as “other” that she tweeted a photo of the cards she hands out when she meets someone for the first time and they ask her one of the inevitable “foreigner” questions:

Photo thanks to SoraNews24

Here’s what it says:

♡First Meeting Card♡

Are you half Japanese?  Yes, I am.
Which of your parents is a foreigner?  My dad is American.
How many years have you lived in Japan?  All together, about 15 years.
Can you speak English?  Yes.
Which language do you dream in?  Both.
Which language do you use when you’re thinking?  The language I’m speaking in at the time.

On the other side:

Which do you prefer, Japan or America?  Both have good and bad points.
Are those your real eyelashes?  Yes.

But…why are these questions so bad? On the surface, they’re not insulting or derogatory. They seem pretty innocuous, right? The sticking point is, no Japanese person would ever ask those questions of another Japanese person who they were meeting for the first time. These questions are being asked because she’s already been classed as “other” and every one of them makes that clear. None of these questions are about “being interested in,” they’re all “being curious about.”

In other words, it’s not like seeing a jellyfish washed up on the beach and being inspired to learn about it, it’s like walking up to it and poking it with a stick.

Which is why she adds this explanation:

“I’m always asked these questions when people meet me for the first time. I’ve grown tired of answering them every time, so I made this card. I’d like for those who ask these questions to know that it’s rude to ask questions about a person’s appearance or race upon first meeting. From now on, before you ask someone these questions, please remember this card.”

And how do people react? I was sorry to read that most get angry, some even to the point of throwing the card on the ground and walking away. (Which, come to think of it, is how some people are reacting to the worldwide protests about racism too.) She says that the exceptions tend to be women, who might be taken aback at first, but when they think about it, acknowledge that they understand what she’s saying. (Not super surprising, since Japanese women are widely discriminated against for being women, so they do have personal experience with a form of discrimination, if not racism itself.)

But let me bring this 360: who do I know who grew up in a community that was 98% like herself, and didn’t personally know someone who was of another race?

Oh. That would be…me.

Yeah. Ouch. It wasn’t until I shared Anna’s experience of living in Japan that I learned first hand what it feels like to be that jellyfish washed up on the beach. In Japan, I am treated differently (and sometimes unfairly) because I’m obviously not Japanese. Needless to say, the first time it happened, I was outraged, even though it was such a minor form of discrimination that someone who hadn’t enjoyed clueless privilege all her life might not have even noticed.

Obviously, the discrimination and everyday threats imposed on people of color in America and elsewhere is magnitudes of horror larger than these tiny examples of discrimination in Japan. But the NHK video shocked me into the very uncomfortable knowledge that unless I want to share the bubble with those clueless video producers, I need to be someone who doesn’t deserve to get one of those question cards handed to her when I’m back among people who mostly look like me.

If you love a good read, you might enjoy The Last Tea Bowl Thief too

“Patrick’s keen eye for the telling detail reveals her great love for and knowledge of Japan. A great read!” —Liza Dalby, author of Geisha and The Tale of Murasaki

Two women from opposite sides of the globe have nothing in common, until they discover that both their futures depend on finding a missing tea bowl that disappeared before they were born...read more

Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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