Hi! My name is Dave and I read books about Japan and Racism Pt. 2 of 2

Yesterday, I exposed a few of my more minor (ha) quibbles with the book Hi, my name is Loco and I am a racist. Today, we crank it up one notch to the things that really irked me:

That stuff about racism (in Japan).

I am a little hesitant to dive into that murky swamp of a topic, especially considering it has already been covered to exhaustion on practically every Japan-related English-speaking blog, resulting in previously mentioned wave of publicity for the book (exhibit A, on your screen).

For all its merits, I just don’t think Loco’s book is very good at addressing the ever-fascinating problem of Japanese racism. I doubt I would do any better, and I am too lazy to even make an articulate summary of my problems with his approach, so I’ll just randomly throw a few items here:


To his credit, the guy is very upfront about coming with his own prejudices and developing a few more along the way (hell, it’s right there in the title), but ironically fails to notice the most glaring (and irritating) one of them: the relentless ethnocentrism, or more accurately: “cultural narcissism” that pervades his narration. This here is not about cultural relativism (more on that later), but about failing to realise that not all countries share the US’s very peculiar history, especially when it comes to race relations. That is obviously not to say that institutionalised racism did/does not strive elsewhere, but trying to interpret something as culturally-centred as language through the prism of American 20th century history (as he does repeatedly), when the story takes place 10,000 miles from NYC and does not involve any US citizens but him, is not only ridiculously misguided, it is, well, kinda culturally insensitive. And this is coming from someone with a little more experience and patience than your average pale-arsed European with regard to the specificities and sensibilities of US political correctness.

Perhaps the most flagrant example would be the author’s dealings with his fellow English-teaching Australian and New-Zealander flatmates. There is no doubt that both are, at best, casually racist ignorant rednecks. But his american-centric interpretation of some of their language bias, brought to mind memories of well-meaning morons landing in London and insisting that their host called the local Chinese restaurant proprietor “Asian” instead of “Oriental”. In my experience, people who actively rage on Political Correctness as a concept do turn out to be racist assholes. But understanding the underlying concept behind some language taboos before blindly applying rules is not a bad thing either. Some words are universally offensive, most depend on cultural context: ignore the difference and you will be the culturally-insensitive jerk.

Beyond the superficial aspect of language, Loco very naturally tends to apply the lens of his personal history to all experiences of daily life in Japan. Problem is: Japan is not the US. And sure, Japanese will casually spout some pretty stupid shit (about whites, yellows, blacks and pretty much anything that’s not from around here), but it does not make them Racist™ in the same way a 21st century US politician spouting some random offensive crap about one minority or other (and they do, on a regular basis) would. For a better point of comparison, you could look at the prevalent-to-universal prejudices harboured by people in western countries toward Japanese or other Asians1. Sure some are downright vile and most are technically racist, but they tend to be covered by the ever-convenient umbrella of “should know better but never went farther than the end of their street”.

I guess my point is that everybody is a “racist” (not too far from the book’s own thesis, as far as I can tell), but my immediate follow-up would be that, unless you are writing a tome on the Psychology of Racism or some such, such a narrow definition has little point. There is obviously a difference between thinking that African-Americans are all into hiphop (or that Japanese are all anime-watching pedophiles), and donning a KKK hoodie to go set the local African-American church on fire. The latter gets addressed by a court of law with — occasionally — a long stint in some federal prison2, the former essentially takes education and lots of time (generations’ worth of).

Let me be clear, I thoroughly loathe standard “Japan-apologist” statements looking to absolve the Japanese of all responsibilities for their xenophobic traits: from “this is their country, go home if you don’t like it” to “the Japanese are just overgrown children that don’t know right from wrong, you can’t hold it against them”… The wide-eyed idiots spouting these, justifiably get bashed by anybody who has given a modicum of thought to the issue. My point is (hopefully) a little more subtle: before you start turning your own subjective experience into a deeper theory about the nature of society in a country that you barely understand (literally so, unless the Yomiuri Shinbun is part of your morning reading routine), you better triple-check that you are not merely analysing your own baggage.

The Japanese (as a statistical, and therefore completely abstract, entity) are racist. Or maybe rather xenophobic: the line is blurry in such a homogeneous nation as Japan. You’d be an idiot to argue otherwise and you don’t need to dig very deep to find ample evidence, all happily contributed by the Japanese themselves, who do not see what the big deal is. Of course, they’d rather you call it “日本人論” than “racism”, which is such a downer of a word. I would challenge anyone going to a random street-corner of Tokyo to find one single Japanese that does not think there is something inherently “blood-related” about being Japanese. A mysterious set of genes that explains all the unique skills that only Japanese-by-blood can truly master (from chopstick-holding to Japanese-speaking). You can get to a pretty high level in the academic world and still encounter Japanese “scientists” that hold as self-evident that there is a DNA-centric explanation for practically all specificities of Japanese culture. If this is not the textbook scientific definition of racism, I don’t know what is.

But it is also not what most people have in mind when they denounce the evils of racism.

While certainly not very nice, the particular brand of racism widely exhibited by modern Japanese society is quite benign compared to the one that prompts a people to declare themselves the Masters’ race and go about enslaving their neighbours. The connection does exist (Japan sure did make it in the past). But these same Japanese who don’t see the harm in endlessly theorising about the innate differences between ethnicities will be more than happy to coexist with foreigners. In fact, in a comical reversal of standard racist behaviours, a sizable share of the Japanese population will actively seek to mingle with foreigners and emulate what they perceive as “race-bound” traits of other cultures, on account of some perceived racial inferiority. So much for widespread nihon supremacist movements.

Wait. I did not claim that Japan’s casual racism/xenophobia never resulted in discrimination and mistreatment of foreigners (or even non-ethnically-Japanese citizens): trust me, I would know. Merely that “theoretical” racism does not automatically translate to “actual” racist behaviours (the kind MLK had in mind). And I am all for fighting the former along with the latter, but short of instituting harsh punishment for thought crimes, it is going to take a lot more time and patience.

Back to the book and its anecdotes about Japanese racism: the empty train seat story (or rather stories, because Goddess does this one get milked to exhaustion through multiple chapters of the book). These seats on either side of a foreigner, that mysteriously remain empty for the entire duration of a ride, regardless of how crowded the car gets. I had it, friends had it, anything not Japanese that ever rode a train here had it.

Starting by heaping some well-deserved ridicule on the typical “this has nothing to do with race” hypocritical rationalisation, from Japanese and foreigners alike, Loco quickly shifts to building an army of strawmen, before settling into purely emotional response territory. There is no question that this is affecting him on a deeply emotional level. I generally prefer to shrug it off, but I also realise I owe this luxury to not sharing the collective memory of a time where my skin colour meant riding at the back of the bus.

Obviously, ethnicity and skin colour have something to do with these behaviours. Unquestionably, there is a racist component. But as usual, there are also a whole bunch of other, less straightforward, messier angles to it, that Loco conveniently omits to explore.

Three in particular:

If you spend enough time in Japanese public transportation (and stop focussing all your attention on who sits next to you), you quickly notice a multitude of other interesting behaviours, from the wholly innocuous to the equally unpalatable3. One of the subtler quirks I have noticed over time, is that when a seat is or becomes empty in the middle of a crowded car anywhere else than at a train stop, the vast majority of people will not make a move for it. Be it because someone removed a bag, or people scooted over, or any way space could mysteriously free up without a clear explanation as to why: people just eye it suspiciously and universally come to the conclusion that, if all the good people in that car have abstained from sitting down, there must be a good reason for it, and who are they to break the unwritten rule about not sitting there. I have seen it countless times: people standing in front of that empty seat for minutes on end, until some more oblivious teenager or exhausted salaryman finally break the curse and take it. As an exercise to the reader: connect this with the usual socio-babble about Japanese society’s love of groupthink, fear of sticking out etc.

Next observation: the Gaijin seat rule is far from universally applied. Based on Loco’s description (possibly amplified for the sake of the book), he experiences it on a near-permanent basis. I only get it every once in a while, which might have to do with my successful avoidance of commuter trains at peak hours, or the fact that I have all the physical deterrence of an underfed substitute math teacher. Even with blue or red hair and even by Japanese standards, I am not much of a threat to anyone who has passed their teenage growth spurt.

A pretty extensive polling over years of discussion with friends and acquaintances, not to mention observation of my fellow subway-riding foreigners, shows an overwhelming correlation with size and gender, way before ethnicity. The average (female) Japanese commuter isn’t afraid of black (or white) people, so much as big, male foreigners. At the other end of the spectrum, some of your blonde female friends would probably gladly take the ostracism over the unwanted extra attention they sometimes get from their male seat neighbours.

Does being afraid of foreign men but not foreign women (or kids, or elderly, or mixed groups) constitute racism: I guess so. Would it still be racism if you are a bit nervous stepping into a train car filled with physically dominating men of a different origin than yours (be they a bunch of white rednecks or black teenagers)? Damn this stuff is complicated.

Lastly, being a naturally inquisitive person, I did something Loco apparently never considered doing: I asked Japanese people why they did it. And not just a couple random westernised friends or shy students who would either have no idea why or laugh uneasily while apologising on their fellow citizens’ bad manners. I asked the most random people until I got at least a few actual answers that made sense.

And by far the most common answer I got, from many 20/30-something Japanese women, had to do with wanting to be left alone and having past experiences of random foreigners insistently trying to chat them up on the train.

And yes, inferring based on a couple bad experiences, that the quiet foreign guy reading a book on his seat is just bidding his time to start asking you to “be his Japanese teacher” or some equally smooth roppongi move, is technically racist. But there is a subtle line between staying clear of prejudice and being oblivious to the odds (talk to my friend Bayes about that). Unlike some of the more outlandish Japanese xenophobic tropes4, this one is pretty damn close to home. I have seen my fair share of unsubtle gaijin nampa attempts in the subway, sometimes from people in the group I was riding with. By and large, they are completely harmless, often received semi-positively and would not even register in some western cities where riding the subway as a female requires wearing a permanent “don’t fuck with me” frown to discourage wannabe Romeos. But that is hardly the point: in a country where speaking at normal volume in the car will get nasty looks and the only disturbance you can expect through your commuting nap is the conductor announcing the next station, being talked to, let alone chatted up in broken Japanese, is considered a major annoyance by most women.

This is where it gets funny: in the lighter parts of the book, Loco doesn’t miss the chance to recap a few typical Life-in-Tokyo episodes, complete with descriptions of charisma men and their court of Eikaiwa groupies. He does not make it a secret that he had his share of adventures in the domain (though thankfully that’s not the book’s central topic). These are the same people who usually assume that their newfound popularity within the walls of the local english-school/gaijin-bar translates to country-wide sexual appeal. These people tend to start a lot of their sentences with “Japanese girls…” followed by some self-selective minority trait misconstrued as universal truth in their thick skull. Some even write books about it. These are also the people who eventually graduate to chatting up anything with two breasts and the local skin tone, no matter where and how, failing to realise that their non-zero success rate merely reflects basic statistics rather than any outstanding interest from their target group: as long as you don’t mind being violently rebuffed by 99 annoyed women, the 100th will eventually be bored or clueless enough to respond positively to your advances (entire realms of douchey self-help techniques are based on this obvious finding).

Analysing the bona fide racism that is implied by the casual dehumanisation of Japanese women by these foreigners (the only way to avoid any inhibition or feeling of humiliation that would be experienced, being rebuffed in a similar way by women from their own country), would make a pretty good topic for a book.

Apart from not inviting this type of foreigners to any parties I would attend, I generally could not care less about their antics. But I am still all too aware that in my more casual interactions with the vast majority of female Japanese, I come automatically pre-labelled with their image. Perhaps because of this, I have slowly taken to assume it myself about most foreigners I meet for the first time in Japan.

Damn.

Hi, my name is Dave and I am a racist.

Note: Loco (the author) replied in the comments, with some strong suggestions that I missed the point of the book entirely. Please make sure to read his response along with the above.

  1. And in my experience the closer you get to another, possibly discriminated against themselves, minority community in said countries, the most disturbing the prejudices []
  2. Whence they will usually come out just as racist and ignorant, only better organised, thanks to the ultra-punitive openly-segregated nature of the US prison system, but let’s not get off-track here. []
  3. such as the infamous ability of seated salarymen to instantly doze off, the second an elderly or anybody with a rightful claim to their seat shows up in their peripheral vision []
  4. My favourite would have to be that elusive “foreigner” who ostensibly sold drugs to every single Japanese ever arrested for possession. []