Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column May 1, 2012, “Yes, I can use chopsticks: the everyday ‘microaggressions’ that grind us down”


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UPDATED MAY 12, 2012

Hi Blog.  Before I get to the text of this column, I just want to say thank you to the readership for making IT probably my most read and most positively-received.

It stayed for well over a week within the Top Ten Most Read Articles on the Japan Times Online (almost every day in and out of the #1 spot), and garnered more than 4300 Facebook “Likes”, a personal record for me.  I wonder if it is for the JT too.  It also occasioned a JT Poll, which received more than 6000 responses (well over double the usual number), with nearly half saying “I’ve got a point”:

A piece of your mind: Gaijin and ‘micro-aggressions’ 

Debito Arudou’s column this week denounced rote questions aimed at gaijin [sic] as “micro-aggressions.” What do you think?


He’s got a point. Those little things wear you down.

Annoying, yes, but real communication can come later.

It’s not a big deal. People are just naturally curious about non-Japanese.

It’s beyond annoying. I find it very offensive.

Well, I didn’t want to take hits away from the JT while it was still trending, so until this update I just had a link to the column there and approved comments in real time below.  Now I’ll attach the text with links to sources.

Again, I want to thank everyone for their reading, commenting, and support.  I really appreciate it.  I hope to do columns that resonate as much in future.  Arudou Debito


The Japan Times Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Yes, I can use chopsticks: the everyday ‘microaggressions’ that grind us down
By ARUDOU, Debito
Column 51 for the Japan Times Community Page, version with links to sources.
Courtesy http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20120501ad.html

Have you ever noticed how many interpersonal interactions in Japan are like “speed dates” of set questions?

For example, the taxi drivers who have the odd fascination about where you’re from, whether you’re married, how much you like Japan, and how hard you think the Japanese language is?

The barkeeps and clientele who try to slot you into their hackneyed preconceptions of some country and nationality, what you can and cannot eat, and (as things get drunker) how much you enjoy having physical liaisons with Japanese?

The neighbors who have a white-hot curiosity about how differently you raise your kids, what you fight with your spouse about, and how much you like Japan — regardless of how many years you’ve been interacting?

In the beginning, these were dismissible as just acts of awkward friendliness by people who didn’t know how else to approach you. It at least made you really good in certain areas of Japanese conversation.

But after years of repeat games, boredom sets in, and you begin to realize two things: 1) that you can sleepwalk through most conversations, and 2) that, if you stay awake, you see there is a larger issue at play here: social control — something increasingly recognized by social psychologists as “microaggressions.”

Microagressions, particularly those of a racialized nature, are, according to Dr. Derald Wing Sue in Psychology Today (Oct. 5, 2010), “the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities, and denigrating messages sent to (visible minorities) by well-intentioned (members of an ethnic majority in a society) who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.”

They include, in Japan’s case, verbal cues (such as “You speak such good Japanese!” — after saying only a sentence or two — or “How long will you be in Japan?” regardless of whether a non-Japanese (NJ) might have lived the preponderance of their life here), nonverbal cues (people espying NJ and clutching their purse more tightly, or leaving the only empty train seat next to them), or environmental cues (media caricatures of NJ with exaggerated noses or excessive skin coloration, McDonald’s “Mr. James” mascot (JBC, Sept. 1, 2009)).

Usually these are unconscious acts grounded in established discourses of interactions. Nobody “means” to make you feel alienated, different, out of place, or stereotyped.

But microaggressions are also subtle societal self-enforcement mechanisms to put people “in their place.” For NJ, that “place” is usually the submissive status of “visitor” or “guest,” with the Japanese questioner assuming the dominant position of “host” or “cultural representative of all Japan.”

It’s a powerful analytical tool. Now we have a word to describe why it gets discomfiting when people keep asking if you can use chopsticks (the assumption being that manual dexterity is linked to phenotype), or if you can eat nattō (same with taste buds), or if you’ll be going “home” soon (meaning Japan is just a temporary stop in your life and you don’t belong here). It can even help you realize why it’s so difficult for the NJ long-termer to become a senpai in the workplace (since NJ subordination is so constant and renewed in daily interaction that it becomes normalized).

Now let’s consider microaggression’s effects. Dr. Sue’s research suggests that subtle “microinsults and microinvalidations are potentially more harmful (than overt, conscious acts of racism) because of their invisibility, which puts (visible minorities) in a psychological bind.”

For example, indicate that you dislike being treated this way and the aggressor will be confused; after all, the latter meant no harm, so therefore the NJ must just be overly “sensitive” — and therefore also “troublesome” to deal with. Resistance is not futile; it is in fact counterproductive.

Yet do nothing and research suggests that “aggressees” become psychologically drained over time by having to constantly question the validity of their position and devote energy to dealing with this normalized (and after a while, predictable) “othering” that nobody else (except — shudder — the alienated NJ barflies) seems to understand.

So in come the coping strategies. Some long-termers cultivate a circle of close friends (hopefully Japanese, but rarely so: JBC, Aug. 2, 2011), others just become hermits and keep to themselves. But those are temporary solutions. Sooner or later you have to take a taxi, deal with a restaurateur, have words with your neighbors.

And then, like it does for the hikikomori (the “shut-ins,” who are also victims of other strains of microaggression), you begin to dread interacting with the outside world.

Therein lies the rub: Microaggressions have such power because they are invisible, the result of hegemonic social shorthand that sees people only at face value. But your being unable to protest them without coming off as paranoid means that the aggressor will never see that what they say might be taken as prejudiced or discriminatory.

The power of microaggression is perhaps a reason why activists like me occasion such venomous and obsessive criticism, even online stalkers.

I happen to fight the “big fights” (such as “Japanese Only” signs and rules, official propaganda about foreign crime). But I also fight microaggressions (the racist word “gaijin,” the oddly destructive platitude of “ganbatte,” the effects of NJ being addressed by name without a “san” attached), because after decades of experience I know where they lead to: perpetual subordinate status.

Alas, my actions to stem or deter this just make me look alarmist, reactionary and paranoid in the eyes of the critics (especially the NJ ones, who seem to think I’m somehow “spoiling” Japan for them), either because they haven’t experienced these microaggressions for themselves, or because they live in denial.

“Know how to pick your battles,” some decry. Fortunately, the battle is partially won, because now this dynamic of low-level aggression and “othering” is less invisible. We finally have a word in the English language (hopefully someday in Japanese too) to identify it, and social scientists endeavoring to quantify it.

Someday we just might be able to empower ourselves away from our own microaggressive self-policing of preconception and prejudice. And we will gain the appropriate respect for those brave enough to stand up to it. And at least the daily questions might become less boring!

Arudou Debito has written the Hokkaido section for the 20th edition of Fodor’s Japan guidebook, which is out now. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community pages of the month. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp


184 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column May 1, 2012, “Yes, I can use chopsticks: the everyday ‘microaggressions’ that grind us down”

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  • Fred Dagg says:

    Jim, I have noticed the same reactions to my walking-while-white, but I also often get “kuso!” said under the breath just after passing just loud enough to make you wonder if you really heard what you thought you did. It happens often enough to be more than a co-incidence and not my imagination. I usually repeat it back to them just loud enough for them to wonder. If the friendly chopsticks and nihongojouzu things are micro-aggressive then this is major-aggressive.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Debito #150

    Thanks! Yeah, I know, it sounds kind of paranoid which I why I wanted to ask a wider spectrum of people. I will be quite satisfied if this is just me ‘paying too much attention’, and ‘reading too much into’ these things, rather than something sinister.

  • Fight Back says:

    Jim! I totally agree with your observation! Maybe not every time but it happens regularly enough for it to be a phenomenon.

    It even happens to me at work as a deliberate form of othering and rejection by my “colleagues”.

  • Mark Hunter says:

    I agree with Debito to be careful with this. However, to dismiss Jim and Fred’s observations would be a mistake, as some apologists might be tempted to do. I can’t personally say this has happened on a regular basis to me, but it has happened. It was usually older men.

  • Anonymous says:


    Yep, the sound of disapproval which you wrote as “tutt” can also be written as “tsk”.

    And yes, when a gaijin is walking around without a japanese chaperon, it happens a lot.

    The sudden spitting on the ground when seeing a gaijin without a japanese chaperon is common.

    They practice this less when you are with a japanese chaperon, because japanese know this is rude.

    Japanese even feel that clearing one’s throat is a message of disapproval, they control that: around Japanese.

    These are the kinds of things whites were still doing to blacks 60 years ago, let’s admit: humans do racist things.

    The deniers-of-Japanese-racism say “No, japanese don’t practice such racism. Whites did, but japanese don’t.”

    The Japanese racism against gaijin today mentioned above is very much like white racism against blacks in 1950.

    The deniers-of-Japanese-racism say “No, the japanese are positively unique, they DON’T practice such racism.”

  • @JDG: I know what you mean, there is a certain demographic in Japan and China seemingly naturally inclined to display the “damn foreigner” attitude by way of a intake of breath or tut – it merely displays first their cowardly nature to use non-direct gestures.

    DO NOT focus on it! Debito is right, it will only lead to you becoming paranoid and funny-in-the-head. It will bring you down to their level of pettiness and you’ll end up as a strange (even stranger) gaijin who strides around aggressively muttering at middle age J-men by way of preemptive strikes on your “enemy” which will only lead people to treat you even worse than they do now, therefore justifying your actions and continuing the cycle of pain.

    Think about this: In China (and I’m guessing Japan) people can sometimes stare at foreigners. For ages this really annoyed me and I would stare back. However, after a while I realised that half the time, people were mostly staring because I had been looking at them first as a kind of defensive preemptive staring competition: I look at them, they look back, I feel stared at and annoyed. Not always the case, but just like with the tutting, when stared at now (unless in a terrible mood) I just smile to myself, look away and carry happily on my way, in the full knowledge that I have the moral high ground and I’m not letting their dumb little opinion matter.

  • Fred and Jim – I noticed the same thing. But my personal conclusion is these are just nervous reactions/ticks. Definitely my presence is causing them, but more nerves than anything malicious.

  • @ Jim Di Griz @150
    @ Fred Dagg @ 151

    Ditto…I second that. It does not happen that frequently, but it does happen often enough that I’m familiar with this pattern (especially, when it comes to a certain type of person, as Jim Di Griz noted).

    I think the reason no one has brought it up before is that most of us try to ignore it, lest, it lead us down the rabbit hole to mental illness (to use Debito’s words above). The way I justify ignoring these types of people to myself, is by thinking that I am not going to stoop down to their level.

    Debito, this is one of those rare occassions, where I’ll have to disagree with you. I think there is definitely something to Jim Di Griz’s point, and it’ not just paranoia.

  • Jim Di Griz:

    To test your hypothesis, do you know (or do others) whether other East Asians who appear outwardly to be Japanese receive similar treatment?

    And I should see whether other marginalised groups that are not foreigners see this.

    I know that some J transvestite friends tell me that they are often the object of bad treatment, but I have not heard this specifically referred to.

    And what of the handicapped? Are they so treated?

  • @ above, my experience too, I say or do the same thing back immediately, only more loudly and several times. I have never got into a fight doing this, but that doesnt prove anything. Debito is right about the mental illness aspect, and I think living in Tokyo or another major Japanese city will make one slightly mentally ill to a small degree, but it is so widespread but not admitted that it is nothing to be ashamed of, probably like a nervous tick (which I also developed in Tokyo after sensing that certain indirect actions tended to mean I was being blamed for something in the office which I would not be blamed for in a western country) or a common cold.

    Tokyo is paranoid inducing at the very least.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Thanks for all the considered replies!
    I don’t want to be paranoid or hyper-sensitive. I am reassured (to a degree) by the comments, since this means that maybe I am not just imagining it (as my J-wife suspects). I can handle this in so far is it an impotent display of disapproval from powerless and cowardly oyaji, and shoot them back a beaming smile (^-^)b (maybe with a super genki ‘konnichiwa’ thrown in).
    As an indicator of disapproval, it seems to suggest a rather large number of older J men don’t like NJ, which is rather depressing.

  • Fight Back says:

    Although the tsk sound is the most common, I have also heard the quiet “kuso!” amongst other choice phrases. These have included:

    “kaeri” – go home
    “baka gaijin” – stupid NJ
    “kusei” – bad smell
    “dette iki” – get out

    Sometimes I have turned around and loudly berated people but they often ignore me or pretend they don’t know why I am angry. I think this phenomenon is particularly bad in Osaka. It’s not just older men either, rather a cross-section of society, men, women and children and it’s shows just how deeply discrimination is ingrained into the national psyche.

    Does anyone have any suggestions on the best way to deal with this problem?

  • I used to get the tongue clicking quite often where I live in Osaka, and I trained myself to click back louder instantly and without a thought.

    These days though I don’t get it nearly as often. I suspect that part of the reason is that I’ve got more grey hairs than brown on my head, and that affords me a little more civility from the other ojisan.

  • @ Fight Back: As I said in my post above (#156), the only way to deal with this is to rise above it.

    Just smile to yourself with the knowledge that you’re the one with more than two brain cells to rub together and carry on your way.

    If someone is THAT ignorant and petty that they mutter “stupid gaijin” under their breath, then the chances of you being able to convince them otherwise (either by civilized conversation or a shouting match) are next to none.

    The way to stop this kind of behaviour is via the actions promoted by Debito and others – ie fighting for and end to the negative portrayal of NJs in the J media and classroom.

    Having a shouting match with a bigot in the street is only going to result in the ingraining of their stereotype of “crazy gaijin” and your blood pressure going through the roof.

  • giantpanda says:

    @JDG and the other tsk experiencers – I don’t get the *tsk* that often – I put this down to being petite, dark-haired and female, therefore not so in-your-face foreign as a 6-foot blonde, but I noticed it excessively so when I was heavily pregnant. And it was the same demographic. Old men. Women would smile, young men would make no reaction, but old men would stare to a degree that was positively rude and mutter comments under their breath. One even said in a loud voice while walking past me “debu dayo na – hara ga!” (literally – “your belly is so fat!”) I sensed a powerful disapproval like “how dare you foreigners breed!”. This kind of thing happened often enough that I became almost paranoid about leaving the house.

  • Fight back, must be the old cliche of Osakans being more outgoing and aggressive, or direct! I have never had it that bad in Tokyo, it has always been more passive aggressive and exclusionist. I did once get repeatedly kicked in the shins on the Yamanote though.

  • alsoexperiencethis says:

    @Fight Back

    I have dealt with the same sort of thing being caught caucasian while walking the street. Not sure about the Osaka comparison though. I probably had a worse time in Tokyo with regard to this issue. I have had people in Tokyo yell this kind of thing at me in a train station. Mind you, this would be the most extreme of occurences though. I think they are either trying to get a rise out of you or just think they can do it because they sincerely believe you can’t understand them and they are just blowing off steam or showing off to their friends.

    The reason our significant others don’t notice all the subtle snubs I think is for a few reasons. One is that people tend to keep to themselves when out as a couple as the Japanese partner is probably seen as our “ally” who would alert us to such attitudes. So they end up keeping quiet. Another reason might be that they notice is but actively ignore it on a sub-concious level. Our Japanese better half might expect this kind of thing as normal because we are NJ.

    I suspect its a combination of both. I have ceased pretty much all mention of this kind of issue with my significant Japanese other. We may be their main squeeze, but they still have the Japanese voice inside them that can’t help but think “If you can’t deal with it then why are you in Japan?”

    I tend to bottle any unhappy experiences up until I can blow off some steam with an understanding friend over a beer or sing my heart out at the karaoke.

    I am a frequent reader but never comment . I felt I just had to comment on this and let other people know they aren’t dillusional.

    I recommend either ignoring it flat-out (as in don’t even take notice to occurences) or by putting on the headphones and blasting music. I don’t like music all and like to know what is going on around me so I do the former.

    If you give it any of your energy it will have a negative affect on you.

  • The spitting on the pavement and the making of comments as the foreigner passes by has happened to me and to many of my friends with whom I was discussing this issue this evening. Just makes you want to chin the culprits but you can’t do that so you just end up ignoring it. Disgusting though.

  • 16 years in Japan and I’ve never noticed this sort of behaviour happening to me. I’ve had a few fist fights with chimpura types in my time, when I was younger, but never experienced this from ordinary Japanese.

    If I did, sorry, but these passive ‘smile above it’ types on here, have it wrong. Any person behaving like this to me would get a good sly kick in the shins at the least, I don’t care who was doing it. Just in the same way that if I saw someone making derogatory remarks to a southern Asian or Afro-carib in my home country would get a likewise reaction from me. Racists are nearly always cowardly and unhappy people, and understand only one language.

    16 years in Japan has made me jaded and rather doubtful that I might convey the same interventionist reaction to a north east Asian guest in my own country. I am a rather strong believer in reciprocality is the best educator when empathy is missing. ‘Do onto others …..

  • @ Scipio 169

    I think a reason you may never have experienced this is that, judging from your comments, you don’t seem like the kind of guy (or, gal, which would be even cooler!) who would take this type of thing laying down.

    One thing I’ve noticed about these types of micro-aggressors is how perceptive they are about their victims, and will only do it to a person if they think they can get away with it (goes to the point above of these guys being cowards). It’s a power thing.

    I bet it is more likely to happen to a NJ when he/she is going about passively doing their own thing, as compared to if the same NJ was walking about with a more muscular or aggressive stance (or, just looked more intimidating in general).

    The problem is that most of us cannot act preemptively and always have our guard up, since these jerks seem to suddenly come out of nowhere, and the micro-aggression happens without any advance warning. It’s the equivalent of a hit-and-run.

    I’m working on developing an iPhone app which beeps anytime one of these guys is withing five meters of approaching you, so one can act preemptively (sorry, just being facetious).

  • Just one more comment from me that might help some of you experiencing these microagressions and not finding any support with you incredulous friends/partners.

    Get yourself an up-to-date digital voice recorder. They are small, light, relatively inexpensive and record around 60 hours straight and very high quality. Just turn it on in the morning and put it in your jacket pocket and forget about it.

    I started doing this when I had some trouble with a co-worker (superior) who was harassing me in private but never in public when others could hear. People just didn’t really believe me when I told them what he was doing.

    A voice record does wonders at opening people’s eyes. The guy who was harassing me was eventually fired.

    I wish I could tell the whole story, but for various reasons, I can’t tell it here.

    — I agree. I did the same when people in my former “university” were academically harassing me. Recording all of their conversations made it so that I could expose them properly when I quit. Recommended.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Giantpanda #165

    Thank you for your comment. I am saddened to hear that you were insulted for being pregnant- that’s pretty low behavior. I have heard from other western female friends in Japan about much more ‘physical’ incidents with oyaji, of the type that would have been classed as a sexual assault in my home country (three female friends; one German, one Swedish, and one American have all had older Japanese men masturbate onto them whilst riding commuter trains in the Osaka area. I don’t want to derail this thread, but surprised that this hasn’t come up amongst NJ women as an issue either here or at some other blog; or maybe it has, but I missed it?).

    Thanks for all the other comments for confirming I am not just imagining it!

  • Amused Foreigner says:

    Yesterday, I got grunted at (that throat clearing sound) by a guy most likely younger than me in Shibuya while passing by heading towards the Apple store. We weren’t even close enough in distance to bother each other’s presence. Be as it may, I decided to test the theory and grunted back, which I’ve done before. Usually from my previous experiences those guys just move on, but in this guy’s case and being with his girl, I guess he was feeling like he had to be “strong”. So, he gave out this really obnoxious grunt and that confirmed it wasn’t paranoia.

    Micro-aggressions or not, it just seems all so pitiful. Just minding my own business, but I guess according to some apologists…just recalling this story makes me a racist. Never mind the three times I’ve been checked by the police just this year already and once wasn’t even for my ARC, but my passport while on vacation. So I guess it’s getting to the point where they don’t even care for tourists’ money??

    FWIW, I am a young black male.

  • Debito, sorry to hear that you had to quit your university because of academic harassement. That really sucks. I really hope you found some other decent position?

    — Yes. I’m an Affiliate Scholar at the East-West Center, thanks for asking. And the academic harassment was only part of the reason I quit. I’ll get into it sometime. Just not now. I have much more important things to do here.

  • Baudrillard says:

    @TJJ. exactly; part of life medium to long term is regrettably, adapting to and training oneself on how to deal with these little “tsk’ slights without 1. thinking too much about them and 2. without developing mental problems. The easiest way is what you do; as soon as you hear a “tsk” automatically also say “tsk” slightly more loudly or 2 or 3 times while going on your way (dont be put out by these grumpy oyaji) and without bothering to make eye contact.

    Debito, I know you dismissed this “Tsk!” phenomenon at first for lack of evidence but I think it needs to be written about,(perhaps with an eye catching title lke “Tsk!”); it is one of the great unsolved mysteries of street life in Japan. It would also be interesting if a survey had been done, of Japanese people such as
    Q1. When someone says “tsk” what does it mean?
    Q2. When someone grunts (@ Amused foreigner) what does it mean?
    Q3. When a Japanese (typically oyaji) spits on the street near you, what does it mean? (Since spitting carries a heavy fine in many places in Asia.)

    Most Japanese tend to ignore other Japanese in public if they do not know them, to ignore is a virtue, to confront is not acceptable. The best answer I ever got for Q1. was “He must be pi$$ed off about something” (i.e. no direct consideration that it could be directed at the passing NJ).

    Westerners tend to glamourize or exoticize Japan (its why we came here)and look for deep meanings in everything, but there is in fact none. I am afraid that I will be disappointed again and in fact a “tsk” in Japan means the same as a “tsk” in the west!
    It would also be interesting if there was a way to find out if Japanese body language and grunts/tsks are a recent phenomenon or not, as a result of Americanization after WW2, yet once again claimed as “Japanese”.

  • giantpanda says:

    @Jim Di Griz – the groping, the masturbating, the flashers, the panty thieves – that kind of thing happens to women of all nationalities in Japan, and probably most of all to Japanese women. Much more an issue of sexism than racism.

    By the way – although covert recordings of conversations are illegal and/or inadmissible in court in some counties, Japan is not one of them. Covert recordings can and are produced in court, and are routinely accepted as evidence. @TJJ’s suggestion is a good idea if you are being subjected to any kind of unfair treatment, or even if you are discussing things with the authorities (your visa issues, your taxes, etc.) that you will want to rely on.

  • Fight Back says:

    I believe these kinds of ‘invisible’ micro-aggressions to be the most insidious because often the experience is denied by others.

    I mention this because it one of the reasons leading up to divorce with my spouse. Whether you could say that she simply didn’t believe me or she was protecting her countrymen I don’t know but the accusations of paranoia ran counter to my own experiences and it’s great to see that backed up here.

    Please do be aware that when you enter into marriage with a Japanese that there will always be situations where you are on your own. Apologists may dismiss this as compromise but it’s a cold hard fact of life in Japan.

    — Many Japanese would say (and they have many times in my experience) that “There will always be situations where you are on your own, even for Japanese. After all, everyone dies alone. Therefore become an adult.” It’s not exactly engendering of empathy.

  • @ Scipio #169

    As the the great Mark Twain said: “Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and win by experience”

    That is why arguing with these guys will not work. Fighting them will just re-enforce the notion of the “crazy gaijin”.


    We could campaign to educate Japanese society that people who look NJ are to be treated like everyone else – just like those African Americans were campaigning for in the US in the 1950s-60s.

    The civil rights movement in the US prevailed by way of peaceful protest. Yes, there are still plenty of racist sh*ts in the US and other Western countries, nevertheless, at least the majority now look down on them and we can hope that they die a natural death.

    May the dumb old men of Japan also meet a quick but natural end to life’s mortal coil, while modern Japan finds a more enlightened route.

  • @ Fight back Comment #177, I feel for you. Westerners are looking for partners with whom they can share every thought and emotion on an equal footing.

    A Japanese marriage is more of a social contract along these lines, not an equal partnership; you get one thing and have duties, he/she gets another. Certain things are not attractive or acceptable to Japanese, even to ones with considerable overseas experience. Source? I speak from bitter experience.

    I thought my ex would be the last person to expect a man to be silent, stoic, uncomplaining, bringing back the bacon while putting on a fake, brave smile (tatemae) on the complete abuse he was suffering at work, but actually she took their side and berated me. The last thing a man needs is a nag after a day of nagging.

    If you are looking for a sympathetic ear after a hard days’s work, this is not the place in my experienced opinion (it is still just an opinion).”Just shut up and provide” is definitely deeply engrained as “otoko rashii”. Sure, this happens in the west too, but this is gender roles with a Japanese twist (e.g. emphasis on silence, gaman as a virtue, limited role of wife/role of hostess as alternative shoulder to cry on). Natch, I generalize, but I generalize because its widespread.

    — We’re getting off track.

  • Interesting discussion.

    I’ve experienced most of the microaggressions mentioned by Debito in his column.

    I’d just like to throw out a couple questions for everyone, mainly out of curiousity.

    1. Does the magnitude of the MA problem change depending on what part of Japan you live in? I’ve only ever lived in the Nagoya area. I wonder whether it would be worse in inaka places, or worse in areas with more NJ, like parts of Tokyo for example? One good thing about Nagoya is that probably since there are very few tourists, I’ve only experienced the English menu thing once in my five years here.

    2. How does your appearance affect the problem? I’m a white male, but I have dark eyes and dark hair. It seems to me that blonde people get the dumb gaijin treatment a bit more than I do. And I know blonde women a lot of creepy/annoying male attention. How different is it for Asian or African NJ, for example? I’m only asking this out of curiosity. I think all minorities in Japan have to stand in solidarity together against all forms of discrimination.

    Anyway, when you experience MAs, I think the best thing to do is say something back to them. But my problem is I’m often not prepared for them, so I can’t think of a good response quickly enough. But really tiring, though. I think if the number of immigrants increase, though, the problem will fade away after some decades. But in the meantime we should do every little thing we can do in our daily lives to try and broaden people’s minds. In history, unjust structures very rarely go away of their own accord.

  • Seth Wallace says:

    Sir, Your article, which I just read for the first time, is incredibly well-layered and its central theme very eruditely and descriptively captured. It describes the essence of the leash placed upon us for choosing to live, stay,be effective in Japanese society and show some level of respect. Indeed, I have observed that my J mother-in-law’s interaction with her J daughter revolves around constant microagressions as do many JHS,HS and workplace relationships between Japanese, one would note from experience.

    It is ever present and I would go as far as to say is the oil which gets people cowed sufficiently to do things not only troublesome but also against self-interest. It is the cane of Japan. With such eloquence and thought, you enable both closure and resistance development. Your eloquence leads to hope and in the future as enough people escape “don’t give-a-shititis”, movement which your pen elects you to lead.
    Wow-thank you. I’m ready.

    As foreigners from non-microaggressive based cultures, thus aware of perspective, we still notice. Many Japanese I might suggest, have gone past caring into not noticing. That’s how endemic and damaging this process is, I might say.

    — I’m just impressed that yesterday it was back in the Top Ten Most Read Articles on the Japan Times Online again, more than two years after being first published. Thanks for reading!

  • My favorite aspect of discriminatory microagressions is “gomi bunbetsu” (garbage separation). I can’t even remember how many times I have been chastised all over Japan, from inaka in Kumamoto-ken to big cities like Kyoto, Nagoya and Yokohama (yes, I lived all over the place in Japan!) about not separating my garbage the right way. When I protested that the at fault was not the gaijin family (i.e. we), and even showed the neighbor pictures of the Japanese person throwing their garbage in the wrong place, or on the wrong day, or without signing their name on the garbage bags (that was the rule in inaka Kyushu), I did receive the immediate and mandatory “moshi wake arimasen”s (preceded or not by “taihen,” depending on the person), but that person never talked to us ever again. I guess I overstepped my gaijin boundaries instead of admitting my mistake, which, in turn, shamed my interlocutor… I must admit that I ended up feeling bad for challenging that person…

  • So I was thinking that with Japan’s declining/aging population that J-society would lay-off the racial superiority arrogance long enough to let us NJ wipe their geriatric bottoms for them, but now I’m not so sure. In the face of a declining population, and a refusal to accept immigration, the Japanese have realized that they may well preserve the myth of their racial homogeneity with all the racial arrogance they carry with it by passing the ‘entitlement’ to be racist onto their robots!

    BBC’s RW-H meets a Japanese robot with AI. It micro-aggresses him by laughing at his ‘poor Japanese’. Research money well spent then? There’s more. The robot’s designer asks him if he tried a ‘negative’ conversation, because the robot will get angry just like real (Japanese?) people do. Great, they’ve developed a robot that can’t take constructive criticism and reacts hysterically if you point out that it’s racist.

    A total Galapagos product that will have no market outside of Japan.

    This is the future.


    And while I’m on the subject of Japan’s robots, ever noticed how many of them are designed to customer service/front of store roles in the manner of the myth of the traditionally ‘subservient’ Japanese woman? I guess that if real women won’t stay at home and have babies voluntarily, then they’ll have to forced into the role of ‘baby-making machines’ by replacing them in the workplace with artificial women who don’t talk back (except to NJ! These robots have really been well designed to fill women’s perceived level in the bullying J-social hierarchy).


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