Warning: This is something of a rant and contains personal opinions based on personal observations from living many years in Japan, half of the time with kids. You may find that it makes sense or not. I do not usually write like this, so check out the blog again next week for more ordinary tips on bringing your kids to Japan and having a great time.
Japanese people can be awful racist. Usually this is not noticeable, and most of the time they are extremely friendly. But then, you come across a sign saying "no foreigners allowed", usually in badly spelled English. They are rare, and actually illegal.
This usually means the owner does not speak English (or any other foreign languages) and would be embarrassed to try. But there are darker sides, and Arturo Debito, an American turned Japanese citizen, famously fought a long court battle to end discrimination at a local bathhouse.
He won, and in the process became friends with the proprietor. So discrimination based on race is illegal. That is easy to say in a country which has hundreds of years of tradition discriminating against the "casteless", who would handle dirty things like dead animals. To say nothing of how Koreans and Chinese were treated during the time both Taiwan and Korea were part of the Japanese empire.
Korean and Chinese look pretty much like the Japanese, especially if they get their dresses from a Japanese store and go to a beauty parlor to have their hair made. So racism in Japan is not a matter of looks only. Or probably at all. It is more a matter of being different.
You are equally likely to be discriminated against if you are colored, Indian, or blond and blue-eyed. You are not them. If you are different - look differently, then talk differently - you are likely to be discriminated against. This could be a simple thing like not getting a tissue outside the station. But you may also be the wrong sex. Many of the tissue packs, especially outside certain stations, are handed out to women only. The tissue packs contain advertising for beauty salons and other places where men are typically not customers.
If you have been discriminated against, you are more likely to be thin-skinned. The cause may not be racism, it may just be ”foreigners will go away and so are not worth investing time in”. You do not know. But one thing you do know is that in Tokyo, where the percentage of non-Japanese living there is more than 10%, the discrimination has decreased. It is just a personal observation, and I do not think that the people who are racist are less racist now. But the discrimination has decreased, so if that is true, then it had other causes than racism.
There is another type of discrimination that famlies is more likely to be subjected to, which has nothing to do with race but everything to do with family. That is when you enter a restaurant and they are ”full” despite your being able to see that there are free seats.
You can of course not prove that the restaurant has taken reservations for the tables and that the customers will come 10 minutes after you have left. You do not want to eat in a restaurant that does not want to serve you anyway. But the reason they do it are your children. First, they do not have any tableare or high chairs for children. Second, they are worried about your kids disturbing other customers.
So how does mesh with the famous omotenashi concept, that arguably won Tokyo the 2020 olympics. Here is my attempt at explaining, but first let me explain what ”omotenashi” is.
Omotenashi means ”without front” - i.e. Something that is transparent and honest. The Japanese culture has two concepts that do not exist, at least not to this extent, in other cultures: Honne and tatemae. Tatemae is what you say because you think the person listening will like it. Think white lies and flattery rolled into one. Honne is what you actually think, but traditionally you do not express it to anyone except in your closest family.
Harmony, making everyone get along, is more important in Japan than anywhere else, and even though people are the same everywhere, Japanese try to hide their feelings to make things flow smoothly. If someone throws a racial slur at you they are intentionally being disruptive, which probably means they are drunk. Or anyway idiots. Other people will look aside and not try to be involved.
This is also why the police will not go out and knock on the door of business owners who put up discriminatory signs. They want to preserve the harmony in their in-group. The tourist will be gone in a few weeks, the business owner is there forever. But this suddenly changes when the foreigner is going to stay and live there. The policemans contract changes and he will go to talk to the business owner.
It helps to think about Japanese hospitality, and actually any relation in Japan, as a contract. When you make a contract with a ryokan to stay there, they also contract to give you the best experience possible. And that is not all. You become a member of their inner group. When Japan was still a mysterious and hard to access place, there were books and books written, and academic studies done, on what made the Japanese so different. One of the theories had to do with social organization. The thinking was that Japanese tend to organize their relation in terms of the social distance from themselves. If you were a member of a group close to a person, you were entitled to a much better treatment than someone who is not a member of their in-group. Since racism is more a fear of threat to somebodys status quo than an automatic hatred of people with different eye color (or other perceived group characteristics), this means the outgroup automatically overlaps racism.
The policeman, in our example, wants to preserve harmony. If the foreigner is going to be a bigger pain in his behind than the owner of the place not letting foreigners in, then he will act. If the foreigner complains. Change does not happen by itself, in Japan or anywhere else.
So what was it about omotenashi again? Omotenashi is being honestly delighted at being able to host you. It is being helpful and delighting in it. Kind of hard to say ”this guy looks like a German so I will not help him”. Delighting in being helpful does not mesh with being a racist. Even saying ”I want to help everyone but people who look German” grates. You will not find many racists in service industries, it does not go well together. There will be other reasons they refuse you service, if they do.
The basis of racism is objectification, that you see the other person as a thing. You will find it happening to you if you have blond and blue-eyed kids. The in-group consists of real people whom you have relations with, the out-group is everyone else. They are not people in this way of reasoning.
In Japan, children have a strange position. They are cuddled and sheltered but they are somehow the property of their parents. older Japanese may reach out and pet your children, Japanese children too, but especially blonde and blue-eyed children. They remind these older Japanese of the dolls they had as children, which were sent from the US as support for the bombed out country. Even today, Licca, the homegrown Barbie alternative that is much chubbier and shorter, outsells the American doll toys. They just do not look Japanese enough.
Did you hate this post? Check out some other pieces on my blog to see how I write when I am not emotionally annoyed but try to be helpful. I am writing guidebooks to Tokyo, and I can tell you they are much more fun to read and much more helpful than the above.
One more thing: If you write trollish comments below, and do not try to help the conversation, I will delete them. I want us to have a helpful discussion.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.