Thursday, June 22, 2006

Discrimination in Japan

Japan is not usually synonymous with racism in Western media, unlike Mississippi or Soweto, but its society is pretty racist nonetheless. However, it is an issue that is rarely studied as openly as the racism in the West, or the one that is perpetrated by Western individuals such as in the US, Canada, S. Africa or the UK. There two main reasons for this:

First, in a place like the US, they have had the historic Civil Rights movement for a very long time. The US has a Constitution that states that all men/people were created equal. It has powerful organizations such as ACLU and AAACP. Also, the US has been bringing many races and ethnicities under its fold and, later, it has been listening to their vocal anti-discrimination protests for decades and changing the laws and the attitudes of its people. Plus there is the Christian guilt thing something that few Asians seem to share.

The same can be said about Canada or the UK- they generally teach their populations that racism is bad. However, in Japan there have been traditionally few minorities, not many powerful civil rights movement, the laws mainly seem to be designed to protect the locals against foreigners, and there is not much racial guilt as part of the culture. Also, the Japanese racism is non-violent- they are, as rule, not burning crosses on your lawn or beating people up. It is expressed more in the form of polite, but firm exclusion. Because the number of foreigners is small, there are no numerous protests, no one million foreigners march on Tokyo and no cry: “I have a dream!” uttered by a victim of Japanese discrimination in front of the Diet building that is heard all around the world.

Asian foreigners living in Japan who suffer from discrimination do not as a rule protest against it since it is just not the Asian way of doing things. You are supposed to grin and bear it and not admit that you are being victimized. To do otherwise will cause you to lose face.

The second reason is that Western expats in those countries often seem to be reluctant to admit that there is racial discrimination against them. It will make them look like pitiful victims and fools, because only a fool would move to a country where he/she is not welcome. And, after so many decades of Political Correctness, an average Westerner has learned (erroneously) that racism is, generally, a white phenomenon, and all other races are victims of the white man, so how can they be racist? They are probably behaving like that because they a) do not speak English or b) are “shy” of foreigners or c) are just not very informed. How can a Japanese or any other Asian be prejudiced? We were the ones who had put Japanese Americans in camps and bombed SE Asians. Asians- racist? What are you talking about? Ridiculous!

In fact, all peoples are, to one extent or another, racist, nationalistic, sexist, ageist, economic or intellectual snobs, etcetera, etcetera. What changes as we go from country to country is the degree, the frequency, the intensity, the main targets of, and the way the prejudice is expressed. Most expats will agree on one thing, though- the more cash you have and the higher your status is, the less prejudice you will experience. That, however, means: ‘less’, but never “none”.

So how can prejudice against non-Japanese (and, in our case, non-Japanese teachers) be expressed in Japan? Our social and cash status is not terribly high as a rule.

Well, first and foremost, it is the apartment situation. Basically, one needs to understand that most Japanese landlords will not rent to a foreigner. There are some that do and now, with the advent of the Internet, one can find apartments in Japan by those few agencies that welcome us, gaijin.

Also, the Japanese landlords do not normally hang out a “For Rent” sign at an apartment building. They go to a “fudosan”- a real estate agency to help them find tenants. However, try and check out some signs near your local “fudosan”- you can usually see those that say: “No Animals, No Prostitutes, No Foreigners.” Lovely, isn’t it?

Your saving grace is that if you look for a job in Japan, your employer will normally provide you with housing. However, if he does not, you will be in for a big shock. I once left an employer and mistakenly assumed that the new one would get me an apartment as he had hinted he would, but he had backed out at the last moment and I was left to my own devices. I was then riding around Tokyo like the African-American guy in the movie “Roots” who was vainly trying to find a place to stay in the Old American South.

Complaining to Japanese friends does not usually help. Some call to ask their landlords if there is a place and then the landlords say: “no vacancy” or “no foreigners” or, as I was told: “the owner is prejudiced against foreigners”. Again, keep in mind that all those who are not Japanese by blood, race and culture are foreigners. There are no hyphenated Japanese. A naturalized Japanese citizen who is not ‘racially’ Japanese is still a foreigner.

I did not really know about how things were in Japan and did not know much about agencies that specialized in renting to foreigners. I called all around the Japanese agencies, but had a very poor response. Eventually, I ended up in a “Gaijin House”, a sort of a small hotel for foreigners where I was paying twice of what my Japanese neighbors were paying, and sharing one kitchen with a bunch of Australians, Brits and an Ghanaian.

So, your lesson number one: when getting or switching jobs in Japan, make sure that the new employer will provide a place to live. However, do not mistakenly think that because everyone is so nice to you (Japanese people are, as a rule, very polite) that you are now “at home” and can just move into any neighborhood in Japan. You are still an undesirable tenant in most cases.

In all other situations, please look for agencies on the Internet or in English language ‘magazines’ that provide apartments especially for foreigners. If you start looking for apartments in The Japan Times newspaper, you will often be staring at $20,000 a month places in Shinjuku. Stick with the Web and The Hiragana Times magazine and other expat magazines and do an online search on “Apartments in Japan”.

Second, there are quite a few bars, hotels, and nightclubs that are for “Japanese Only”. Just like those “White Only” places in the US or South Africa in the times of old; except that in the latter case, worldwide outrage had removed those signs, while the Japanese signs are still hanging just like before, and few people care. You see, the Japanese are not white, so it is OK for them to be racist. Plus most UN human rights activists do not read Japanese and do not hang out near such real estate agencies.

The Japanese Onsens, or public baths have also become more and more reluctant to accept foreigners as bathers. The reason is that Russian sailors made some boo-boo at some Onsens in Hokkaido and now all foreigners are marred. Hey, we all look alike to them.

On the main drag in big cities, big department stores, big international hotels and bars on the main street of town or along the tourist trail, everyone is generally welcome, but once you swerve into smaller alleyways, things get funny- either the people are very friendly, or they do not want foreigners and slam doors in your face – “Gaijin Dame”- no foreigners allowed. And it does not usually matter if you speak Japanese or not.

Lesson number two: when going to a small bar or a karaoke place or a hotel/onsen in an outlying area, it would be nice to go there with a Japanese person first so that they would introduce you to the locals and “vouch” for you. It helps if you speak some Japanese, too.

Incidentally, the famed Japanese red light district of Kabuki-cho in Central Tokyo is almost entirely “Japanese Only”. That goes for most red-light type establishments.

Lesson number three: you may want to fly out of Japan to more welcoming red light districts as in the country you now call “home” you may have hard time getting into those. I do not know how about if you go there with a Japanese friend. I have never tried.

Now, as far as the employment goes: most commercial language schools in Japan generally prefer younger, Germanic- Anglo-Saxon looking people- the “real” Americans and Canadians/Brits. For some reason a Mr. Levine and a Mr. Katz qualify. So do most Italians. They are Anglo-Saxon enough to the Japanese eyes.

Now, you may argue and try and explain to a Japanese school owner that a Mohammed Ibrahim Ibn Hattab from London is “British”, and that a Jose Rodriguez from East LA is an “American”, but the owner will probably have other ideas. Good luck convincing him.

Lesson four: The less “Anglo-Saxon” you are in name and physical appearance and the more you are approaching the wrong side of 30, the more professional qualifications you will needs, such as an MA or a PhD so that you could get out of the more business/customer service-oriented establishments and more into the real Academia.

Having said that, I have known of only one Black American who was an ESL teacher at a Tokyo technical school. I am sure Black Americans do find jobs, but it is an uphill struggle in many cases.

Another case would be: naturalized citizens of the US, UK, Canada, etc. This is another category which deserves special attention. The deal is if they are European-looking, and do not have too exotic a name such as Wenceslas Przesidevski, Jose Maria Lopez de Vega or something of the sort, and have graduated from universities in US, Canada, UK etc, there is usually very little problem coming from the Japanese employers or students. The problems, however, may come from the Western staff, who are often the ones hiring you. Since there are no more anti-discrimination laws in effect during the process, a, say, American personnel manager during a job interview can ask you a simple question: “Where are you from, originally”? And what if you say: Iran? Or Russia? Or Iraq? And you went to the US at age 3? You are often still an Iranian./Russian/Iraqi to your American hirer. And then you will have to fill out an application form that states your birthplace- ouch! In the US it is illegal to ask for that but not in Japan. And they (the Western hirers) may just treat you as the citizen of that old country whose name you have just put on the application. It’s been known to happen.

If you are naturalized non-white person, you will eventually find work but you will have to sieve through a lot of rejections.

Lesson number five: a naturalized Western citizen may face more problems than a native born one, hence, he/she will need to apply at more places and get ready for more rejections than what would befall the latter. And preferably, he/she should get hired by a Western company in the West. But whether in Japan, or in the West, it is all a numbers game. There are plenty of jobs and people find them, it is just that you may have to look a bit harder. And, also, such naturalized citizens are better off aiming higher than mom and pops’ Mickey Mouse language schools near one’s local convenience store.

To give credit to Japan for something- as prejudiced as they can be at times, they can also be very hospitable and respectful and welcoming. I had great friends there, people picking me up on the streets and taking me to restaurants and their homes; people meeting me on airplanes, total strangers and all, and telling me that I was now their son and that I should go and visit them as I would visit their parents. So, that is why some call Japan “the Land of Contrasts “: either they are very good and helpful, or they are rather unfriendly and prejudiced.

The Japanese are by and large, great people. I like Japan, its food, culture, music and things history. And most Japanese seem to like me and like and admire most foreigners and roll out a welcome mat of the size that few other nations would unroll. However, something happens when they become landlords, bar and red light district/small hotel owners as some xenophobic valve invariably opens up. For some reason, it is easy to get invited to a home and be fed and put up to sleep in the most honorable place in the house ,but it is so hard to find a tiny place to live. Go figure.

All in all please be aware of the above facts and carefully weigh how well you will do in Japan. One needs to be soberly aware of how things are in that country. But also, please keep in mind that Japan is a safe place and most Japanese want to keep it that way. They are also into quality and they want to make sure, in their own ways, that their students get high quality education from whom they perceive to be the ones deserving to transfer such knowledge.


Still, there are plenty of jobs in Japan and more than one million foreigners in Japan, they are employed, have apartments and live there for a long time- some, their entire lives. So, they do it and you can do it, too if you are willing to take a bit of heat at times. The above information is not meant to discourage you, but simply to warn you not to go there with starry eyes concealed behind a pair of rose colored glasses.

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