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

    Posted by Dr. ARUDOU, Debito on May 3rd, 2012

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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.

    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


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

    1. snowman Says:

      Again you have written a masterful article Debito. I so agree with what you have said but I’m sure the apologists amongst the Japan Times readers are once against sharpening their quills……

    2. Mark Hunter Says:

      Awesome article. I don’t see how the apologists have a leg to stand on. Debito clearly states that people don’t usually intend to be ‘microaggressive’. That said, I don’t think the article will cause too many local readers to change their thinking regarding how they interact with foreigners in Japan. If the default mode of thinking is that foreigners can’t possibly understand / master Japanese cultural actions, then being ‘microaggressive’ will continue to be the normal way of interacting. I have found that sarcasm does not work in changing people’s ways of acting either. So, asking if someone can use a fork, for example, is met with a reaction of how could you ask such a stupid question. The reaction is like – of course we (Japanese) have forks, but there is no way you (foreigner)could know about chopsticks so I’m really surprised you can use them at all.

      Another question this article begs is how people become educated to be microaggressive in the first place. It’s not unique to Japan, so the ‘default’ way of thinking that allows microaggression to occur must come from some process (or lack of process). (?)

      (If I may, the ‘article’ in the JT about the Eric thread is pure nonsense that I wouldn’t accept from a junior high school student.)

      Well done, Debito!

    3. Jim Di Griz Says:

      I just checked the link to the poll, voted, and looked at the results. At the time I looked option #3 ‘It’s not a big deal. People are just naturally curious about non-Japanese.’ was the leading answer with 44% of the results.
      I think that #3 is a rather odd attitude. Japans been opened to the world since 1868, but remains so insular that ‘People are just naturally curious about non-Japanese.’ Still? I think that says rather a lot about Japan’s ‘revolving door’ immigration policy. I would love to know how many of the 44% that chose #3 have been in Japan for more than say 1 year. When you’ve just got off the boat, you don’t realize that these types of questions never end.

    4. kelly Says:

      Wow, you hit the nail right on the head. I never heard of micro-aggressions before but I have certainly lived through them!

      I’m foreign in another country and the speed-dating thing, the “when you going home”, the stereotyping and the “you’re being sensitive/looking for things to be angry about” is true here. Oh and the obsessive personal criticism of me for writing about it, is also the same.

      Best of luck fighting it in Japan.

    5. jim Says:

      I agree with your article because I also feel the hostility over here on a daily basis and it becomes really stressful after awhile.

    6. Oscar_6 Says:

      The article is good, but IMHO it could use more insight into how “microagressors” do not realise they are being agressive, moreover often think they are being nice, while in fact their actions are revealing their deep-hidden beliefs and views so unpleasing that “microagressors” themselves are naturally and unconsciously afraid of admitting having them. And that is the issue, because you cannot solve a problem without admitting it exists.

    7. Jiong Says:

      @JDG: You’re right, a lot of NJ fresh off the boat (jumbo) don’t know that those questions will remain as background noise ad nausea. Another point to consider is that some of those voting for option #3 might be J, after all, the whole point of microagressions is that the perpetrator does not normally intend to insult, therefore J assume other J are asking these questions out of pure curiosity over NJ: “We Japanese are so different to you NJ and so we are naturally curious to learn more about you, we mean no harm”, kind of thing.

      Interesting what Mark said about sarcasm not working (wow, you’re Japanese but you can use a knife and fork?!), I have lived in China for 10 years and on a recent trip back to the UK jokingly asked a Chinese person at dinner if they wanted chopsticks – the joke sank like a lead balloon!

      This is where microagressions outside of the West are complicated – should a Westerner, with all the baggage of Western superiority and imperialism, imply that the non-Westerner needs help or cannot adapt, they strike a nerve and are frequently called up on it; imagine a white guy asking a West African nurse in a British hospital when she is going home to Africa, and then imagine the rightfully hurt looks and grievance – it is obviously offensive.

      However, when a J asks a NJ “Can you use chopsticks” the implication is either that as a Westerner you already inhabit the mainstream and have no need to adapt while at the same time attacking Western hegemony and implying that you cannot adapt to use chopsticks, learn Japanese, write kanji or whatever.

    8. beneaththewheel Says:

      I am looking forward to the development of the application of the concept of microaggressions in foreigners lives in Japan, but I still find it not a perfect fit as it is. I keep on contrasting “No, where are you really from?” (definite microaggression) and “nihongo jouzu!” and they still seem to be very different creatures. The former is not a conversation starter, and the latter to me is saying “let’s talk about language ability” through the use of small talk. I hope my hunch that you will be developing this topic into an academic paper or essay is correct.

      Either way, congratulations on the super popular article. It’s been discussed all over the place from Mutantfrog to Kotaku.

      As a side note to some commenters: your use of “apologists” is a little frightening. You’re basically saying “if you disagree with me, you’re an apologist” as if it’s not a debate we’re having here, but the eternal fight between those who see the light, and those who are blind. It also leads to dissenting views not being shared, and therefore the debate becomes a bunch of people just saying “good show”.

    9. matty-b Says:

      i worked in an international setting in north america, and there were a lot of japanese who came in as some of the employee’s were japanese. i found myself asking them the same questions, “where are you from? why are you here? etc…” but i quickly acknowledged that they didn’t like being asked these questions as it was obvious they had to run through the same barrage on a frequent basis. so it’s not necessarily a japanese thing, it’s a reaction, and as a native it may feel natural to grill the perceived newbie. however, i will say that when i acknowledged the negative reactions to my questions i made a point of not doing that anymore. i’m not sure if everyone from that city at the time also did so.
      in addition the micro-agressions in japan are often rote which could be said that it’s a kind of template and once the template has been decided in japan — it’s been decided. there’s probably a form with a stamp on it somewhere that someone will consult and say, “it can’t be helped. it’s the system.”

    10. Baudrillard Says:

      The stock questions or micro aggressions are post modern symbols or signposts that describe a Japan that no longer exists; a Japan where foreigners were rare and could never settle.
      The people who ask such questions are either older, or who “think old” i.e. are using that outdated mental map of what Japanese society is. Ishihara and the dictatorship of the geriatrics springs to mind. “Good” Japanese repect elders, thus some younger people may buy into this myth, especially the disadvantaged, as a prop. Or as a family. Or a club to join.

      I forget the writer who coined the phrase at the time of the Yugoslav wars, but “submerging oneself in nationalism” gave one an identity and strength in a group, which makes sense. That is what is going on here. And the stereotype and the reality of many interactions in modern Japan is of how important membership of a group is. How decisions at Sony must be unanimous, so as the one dissenter is not made to feel “left out” (speaking from bitter experience here).

      They kept the map because its comforting and familiar, and makes them think Japan is an independent country with a unique culture. And a safety country (though I have not heard anyone trot out that myth since 3/11.

      The map is becoming completely outdated, what with a lot of so called “foreigners” trying to settle here, speaking perfect Japanese and passing for Japanese in some cases (which really threatens all the myths-arguably hence the avoidance of Chinese/Korean nurses), use chopsticks, etc.

    11. Blackrat Says:

      Once again, an article that gives a name to the frustration many of us feel on a daily basis. Along with several others, I had never heard of “microaggression” but it makes perfect sense. I always regarded the “Nihongo joozu” “Wow, you can use chopsticks!” type of comment as patronizing and little more, but to view them in this way makes sense. I wonder how much of this is genuine aggression, sometimes I seriously think it is just the poor social skills that too many Japanese have. They are fine when slotted into their own little hierarchial orders but all at sea when thrown into unfamiliar interactions with foreigners. I read a story once about a group of Japanese who were all advanced English speakers on a training course. They had been using English exclusively in the lessons, but when they met up socially for the first time in a bar, there was an awkward silence while they began to sort out who was where in the social order, even how to speak to each other was based on the whole “sempai/kohai” concept that while using English had largely been avoided.

      Beneaththewheel mentioned the pitfalls of labelling anyone who doesn’t automatically agree as an apologist for the Japanese. There is a danger that we might take this too far, I can see that. I successfully confronted my neighbours a couple of years ago over their obnoxious music alarm that woke me daily before dawn. Previous attempts at polite requests had fallen on deaf ears, I was only able to get them to stop this audial torture when I confronted them with threats uttered throgh gritted teeth of “consulting my lawyer” (a bluff that they seemed more than a little worried about). Were they ignoring my protests about their disgusting noise because I was a non-Japaense? I somehow doubt that, but they seemed to respond only after I resorted to behaving ‘in character’ as an aggressive foreigner asserting his rights and not with my earlier politely worded requests.

      Still on the subject of neighbours, perhaps word of that incident got around, but I have never had more than nods and grunted greetings from most of the other residents of my apartment building. They all keep to themselves pretty much, they are polite, but very distant. This is how I have found most Japanese socially for a long time now. Like many foreigners here, I have never had male Japanese friends much.

      The article touched on foreigners who become reclusive or only hang out with other NJ friends. Both of these reactions apply to me I would say. I am leaving Japan later this summer. I spent a total of 25 years here, but never once felt it was a welcoming place except for the first couple of years when the novelty and newness masked the fact that, when it comes down to it, many Japanese people simply don’t want to be bothered with foreigners except as entertainment, either on TV or, until recently, as a member of an English conversation class.

    12. Becky Says:

      This Reddit thread was made to order (and at least one Japan reference!):

    13. Jeff Says:

      Very interesting article.

      Two women who run an art gallery near my office have seen me walk past day on day, for a long long time.
      The other day, I took the flyer and went in. The conversation was fascinating.

      On the way in with the first woman:
      Standard customer-shopkeep Japanese exchanges leads to the standard ‘your japanese is skillful’…

      Inside second person approaches, speaking English exclusively:
      ->’Where are you from?’
      ‘no, I mean where do you live’
      ‘please look at these postcards, you can give them to your friends when you get home!’…

      … time passes trying to look at the paintings while they shove trinkets at me …

      First women again In English now:
      ->’So, you’re tourist, what do you like to see?’
      ‘Not a tourist?’
      ‘You speak only english, right?’
      <-'Why, of course! I speak no Japanese at all!' (Oops! Penny drops for her)

      Just a scripted set of questions, either formally or culturally dictated. Amusing, having just finished reading the JT article before it happened.

    14. Mark Hunter Says:

      I think apologist is an entirely appropriate label for those who deny the grinding down effect of microaggression. Apologists in Japan tend to feel that microaggressive behavior is just the way things are done here – without recognizing that micraggression is a world-wide behavior (They also tend to think that we who feel that microaggression is a real thing are lonely, Japan haters, which is hilarious – at least judging by the parody, hate site). Many foreigners in Japan just live with the microaggression because it does not outweigh the many wonderful things in their lives that Japan provides. I was in this latter camp. I knew something was not quite right about many of the encounters I was having. Like others, I often managed to turn the conversation to more interesting and fun things, but it did grind me down to have to continually repeat the ‘chopstick’ – type conversation to get through to more worthwhile conversation topics and interaction.

      I wonder if microaggresion is a bit like other forms of discrimination in that it will take decades of education and awareness to change what is now acceptable behavior into something that is considered inappropriate. In Canada, for example, I would say that we are just at the beginning stage of seeing microaggression for what it is, and trying to educate people not to use it. People are now starting to realize that it is not appropriate to ask someone where they are really from.

    15. Smaug Says:

      Very good article, but perhaps even a bit understated. Most of us who have lived in Japan for any length of time have experienced far worse.

      Years ago when I started working full-time in the education system as manager of an international course at a junior/senior high school, it was constant- whenever I raised objections to being singled out for thanks every time I did my job participating in a project or judging a speech contest; or being referred to as an ALT; or being warned about drink driving because a foreigner somewhere else in Japan had been arrested the week before; or that being ‘warm and friendly’ at all costs to meet the expectations of students was not my role as an educator, etc, etc, etc, all I ever got were blank stares and the occasional ‘That’s the Japanese way’ mumbo jumbo.

    16. giantpanda Says:

      I think the point is not that its not appropriate to ask someone where they are from. It’s a perfectly legitimate question in the proper context. Being spoken to in English is also not offensive of itself. But being “othered” means you are seen as a “foreigner” first and foremost, before you are seen as a person. The handful of genuine Japanese friends that I have, are those that see me first as just another person. They know where I am from – it’s not that this never crept into our conversation – but that is incidental to our interactions. If someone wants to point out all the ways that you are different and constantly focuses on this in the conversation, it’s a big red light that they see the “other” before they see the person. I can remember being horribly upset after Japanese colleagues made a barrage of these kind of comments upon meeting a colleague’s Eurasian newborn baby “oh- he doesn’t look Japanese at all does he! Look at his big gaijin eyes!” etc. etc. It’s like all they could do was point out all the ways that this child was different to Japanese babies. (Despite the fact that he was Japanese by birth and citizenship).

      I think that people can be educated about this, but it takes a great deal of personal insight, and it also helps to have personal experience of what it feels like to be “othered”. Try suggesting to well-meaning Japanese people that they should not ask people where they are from or compliment them on their Japanese and you will most probably get horrified looks and incomprehension. If I had not experienced it myself for a good 10 years, I wonder if I would understand it either.

    17. Anonymous Says:

      No, beneaththewheel (who, BTW, is a frequent contributor at that site filled with apologists):

      Get this point straight: when you make excuses for racial discrimination you’re an apologist.

      When you write, ‘There’s a reason for racial discrimination: misbehaving foreigners’ you’re an apologist.
      When you write, ‘Such racial discrimination is simply a part of Japanese culture’ you’re an apologist.
      When you write, ‘The racial discriminator isn’t aware of their racial discrimination’ you’re an apologist.

      When you make excuses for racial discrimination you are an apologist: stop defending racial discrimination.

      Do most Japanese do or say “X” to most Japanese? If the answer is no, then they shouldn’t do it to anyone. Period.

      What do most Japanese do and say to most Japanese? These are the actions and words they should use with all people.

      Current Japanese behavioral trends have positive and negative aspects: racial discrimination does exist here.

      The biggest strawman-argument in defense of racial discrimination in Japan: “Not ALL Japanese do it ALL the time.”

      People here on Debito’s forum do not say “ALL Japanese people commit racial discrimination ALL of the time.”

      Some here say “SOME Japanese people commit racial discrimination SOME of the time, so: it’s a problem.”

      Some here say “MOST Japanese people commit racial discrimination MOST of the time, so: it’s a problem.”

      Japanese people who commit racial discrimination exist: currently such actions are not penalized in Japan.

      Question to all the excuse-makers-for-racial-discrimination-in-Japan who don’t like the label apologist:


      If you think that racial discrimination should remain without penalty enforcement in Japan, please say so.

      Why should racial discrimination remain without penalty enforcement in Japan? Because you think it is rare?

      No matter how much you deny the existence of racial discrimination in Japan: all decent societies penalize it.


    18. Paul Says:

      I found myself laughing at the part where the article mentions that our Japanese skills get really good in the area particular to answering those types of questions! So true, and easy to relate to.

      However, I really wonder about the microagressions label. The reason is, I find I have the same conversations over and over with non-Japanese here too. “Where are you from?” “How long have you been in Japan?” “What sort of work are you doing?” “How’s your Japanese?”

      Or are we all just being micro-agressive with everyone we ever meet?

    19. Robert Says:

      Debito, once again, good for you! I have been a fan of your writings and activism for quite some time. Again you have effectively articulated an issue that we, as non-Japanese, must face virtually everyday. And as you pointed out in your article, I don’t know which is worse, trying to express my frustration over this form of treatment to a Japanese who is behaving ‘microaggressively’, or addressing the issue with those non-Japanese who defend this behavior with the stomach churning phrase…’Oh, but this is Japan!!’

      The fact that I have been in this country for 10 years, speak the language fluently, have a Japanese family… doesn’t matter! EVEN TO THOSE WHO KNOW ME I often get asked those idiotic questions about whether or not I can use Japanese utensils, stomach mochi or read…KATAKANA!! As always thank you for addressing an issue which really does need to be addressed. Your consistent bravery and willingness to voice the challenges non-Japanese face in this country everyday is greatly appreciated.

    20. bill Says:

      Went to the dentist. The hygienist asked me, in well-practiced English, “Where are you from?” “From the U.S.A.,” I replied. Our conversation continued with a mix of English and Japanese. She told me that she’d recently returned to Japan from New York, where she’d spent the last 13 years with her husband; he’d been transferred there by his company in Japan. Finally I said, in Japanese, “I’m sure your bilingual ability is a comfort to English-speaking patients who can’t communicate well in Japanese.” To which she replied, also in Japanese, “Oh, we don’t get very many gaijin in here.” Not “people who can’t speak Japanese well”–which would have directly addressed my comment–but the epithet “gaijin.” So presumably in her mind the gears were clicking out something like: lack of Japanese ability equals “not us” equals “gaijin.” Her knee-jerk remark smacked less of bigotry than obtuseness. The irony, of course, was that there was blond-haired, blue-eyed, large-nosed evidence to undermine her patterned thinking right in front of her face, if only she’d been able to notice it. But old habits die hard. Anyway, I call microaggression, and a textbook case at that.

    21. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Jiong #7
      Thanks. I do think that for a lot of NJ who have just arrived, maybe speak no Japanese, have yet to discover the nauseous repetition of the ‘can you eat chopsticks’, ‘where are you from’ questions. In the beginning I am sure it seems like genuine interest rather than just another set-in-stone formulaic routine of behavior, and I am sure than many mistake it for genuine personal interest (as per ‘charisma man’). The ‘Japanese love me!’ mindset keeps them pumped.
      As for the chopsticks question and sarcasm, I once told a colleague that he was pretty useless with a knife and fork once, and he tried to get me fired.

      @ BeneathTheWheel #8
      I’m afraid that I disagree with your comment about apologists. I think that Mark Hunter #13 is more correct in his assessment. I don’t believe that identifying attitudes as ‘apologist’ is frightening. Why do you? The apologists are working against other NJ in the struggle to develop a society in which NJ are given a fair chance. The ‘apologists’ are quite happy to sell you and every other NJ out to make sure that their little bubble is preserved. No mercy for apologists. It is a fight between those who have seen Japan for what it is, and those who have bought into the tatamae. I don’t think that this site is a ‘bunch of people saying good job’, surely you are getting your sites confused?

      @ Matty-B #9
      I agree. I think that the ‘standard set’ of questions type of micro-aggression can be found most places in the world. What is different about many Western countries with long-term immigration policies is that most people learn pretty quickly that these types of questions are tiresome and offensive, and they stop asking them. Japan is not unique, but the fact that people of all ages still ask these questions is a strong example of one of the effects of J-institutionalized racism that means that even in a ‘first-world country’ foreigners are still such an oddity that ‘harmless curiosity’ is plausibly deniable. Seriously, go into a conbini in LA, and try asking the Korean-American behind the counter where he is from and if he can use a knife and fork, and then after he tells you where to get off, say ‘but hey, I’m just curious about foreigners’. Unimaginable, right? The fact that foreigners are a relative rarity in Japan is because japan is so hostile to the idea of NJ living here permanently.

      @ Baudrillard #10

      You are right about the safety myth quietly gathering dust for the last year. As for younger generations buying into the ‘good Japanese’ codes of behavior, you are bang on. Just like all the university students who are ‘so interested in internationalization’ right up to the point where they join a company, and try ever so hard to be more Japanese than an NJ apologist (lol).

      @ Blackrat #11

      You make many good points. I really like your last one about J interactions with foreigners. I think the ‘can’t be bothered’ thing may be a tatamae that covers a honne. I suspect the honne of the situation is that meaningful interaction with foreigners demonstrates that the J-narrative about foreigners is not true, and that, in turn, infers doubts about the myths of ‘Japaneseness’. Shaking the myths of ‘Japaneseness’ is simply too frightening, so it is easier to say that ‘I just can’t be bothered’, and preserve all the comforting social and cultural illusions. This is reassuring, and may be one reason why the apologist NJ don’t mind the micro-aggressions; when they ‘play their designated role’, the japanese feel reassured and give some (back-handed) praise.

      @ Mark Hunter #13
      I would like to think that the Japanese will move on from this state, but given all the time they have had so far to do so, I don’t see much hope. NJ numbers are dropping year-on-year, so there will just be more excuses for ‘simple curiosity’. Maybe the last NJ will be put in a zoo? After all, the Ainu were displayed in a cage at the Great Exhibition by the Japanese delegation to London at Earls Court.

    22. Jim Di Griz Says:

      I am glad that Debito picked up on this;
      ‘you begin to dread interacting’.
      So true. Even the most simple of interactions (taxi, restaurant, hotel) has to include this little ritual of ‘where are you from?’, ‘how do you like Japan?’, ‘can you eat Japanese food?’, ‘what do you think of Japanese women?’. Sometimes I just want to look them straight in the eye and say ‘What the hell is it to you?’.

      Sometimes I lie just to break the monotony (perhaps I could suggest that readers try this strategy as both a coping mechanism and a pin-prick protest);
      ‘I’m from Tuvalu’
      ‘Japan’s a lot better than Zimbabwe, but not as good as Bali’
      ‘Only if I use my fingers’
      ‘Depends on the woman’.
      The ultimate ‘peace and quiet bringer’ is to respond to ‘How do you like Japan?’ with an honest answer; ‘Well, the economy is screwed, outdated social structures and practices, down-trodden women and minorities, all the constant ‘othering’ is a really irritation…’

      I would actually be prepared to pay a surcharge, or give a tip, if they didn’t do it most of the time though.

    23. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Mark Hunter #13

      Re; your comment about growing awareness in Canada.
      I think that part of the continued survival of this type of micro-aggression might lay in the way Japanese have to taught to view themselves.
      I am thinking of the recently re-read War Without Mercy; Dower.
      Dower demonstrates how western (Allied and German) wartime propaganda focused exclusively on demonizing the enemy (the ‘other’), whereas J-propaganda, rather than denigrating the Allies directly, does the opposite and ‘elevates’ and extolls the virtues of ‘Japaneseness’, and in such a way only indirectly implies that since the Japanese are special and pure, that the Allies are not. The focus is on the self, not the ‘other’. We can see this mentality repeated in the present with the J-news media. The constant preoccupation with the self to the point of self-adsorption would make continued and shallow curiosity a natural by-product.

    24. V. Says:

      Interesting topic to learn about. I agree with some of the commenters it’s in part a generational reaction and also, which hasn’t been mentioned, the result of it being an Eastern, cultivated culture. You probably see less of this among the youth of Japan due to the broadening openness of communication among the people of the world through internet, etc, but it still probably depends on how tied a youth is to traditional cultural values of Japan (for instance, in an American context, if someone leans more towards a liberal philosophy versus a more conservative, religious based one).

      I’m half-Persian, and this same sort of thing happens among Persians (another Eastern culture) in relation to others. It’s a sort of self-preservation mechanism and a kind of litmus test, which reinforces cultural norms. It’s good to have a name to put to it now. I don’t think it’s a good attitude to have, but I think that’s the reasoning, conscious and sub-conscious.

      *criticism is the sincerest form of flattery*

    25. Hoofin Says:

      When I was in Japan, the company had a voluntary multiculturalism and diversity seminar, which I signed up for. We discussed microaggressions as a new social theory in those days, even though not exactly in your context here. It was very informative.

    26. Scipio Says:

      (Debito, can you erase my first post above, I pressed the wrong button before I had finished the post?)

      This idea has kind of put the fox among the chickens on a mumber of sites and it has really hit nerve with the usual Japanese apologists.
      Yes microaggression is a constant in Japanese and here is a bit of news for those who belittle it or deny its existence: IT GOES ON IN A LOT OF COUNTRIES, not just Japan.

      To give my 2 pence worth. As a 50 year British ex-pat, I grow up in a Britain that was coming to terms with a large influx of Afro-Carib and South Asian migrants. When I think back to that time now, I know that microaggression, among other more explicit ills, were part of the course for the migrants.
      I grew up in an area of London with a large migrant population and questions of can they eat and where are they from? were all part of the daily converse. Along with the conversation were certain assumptions that the Afro-Caribs, would eventually retire to sunnier shores they called home and the South Asians would go to live in some grand mansion they were saving for and building in some picturesque Himalayan valley.
      The concept of temporary was ingrained within me by the novelty of migrants and the old idea that being British involved having a certain ethnic make-up. I am also sure that many of the migrants thought their stay in the UK was temporary and although I never meant any offence with my assumptions, I know that sometimes they did cause offence. I remember a friend’s father from Spain telling me rather bitterly that the English will never accept you as one of them.
      Fast forward 30 years and apart from the extreme right and feeble minded (both the same in my eyes), very few British nationals would be asking such silly questions of their next door neighbour or fellow worker because his ethnicity is less than strawberry white. As a result, I assume, micro-aggression in Britain has taken a big dive and is now the exclusive retort of the previously mentioned groups.

      The real question here is whether microaggression will follow a likewise path in Japan with the passage of time or will it take the French path ,where the concept of ‘Real French Citizens With Roots’ should be distinguished from the ‘New French Citizens’ is in the public discourse?

      My own opinion is rather pessimistic not only because I feel that both the Japanese micro and macro aggression is more prevalent in areas which have the most contact with NJ, such as Wakkanai, Otaru and Kushiro, to name a few in your part of Japan, but also the ideas of ethno concepts and justifications are not just generational in Japan, but deeply ingrained.
      Only last week I was having a discussion with a Japanese in his 20’s, nice guy with a doctorate, who told me that Nanking never happened because his prof at Nagoya uni told him so. When I pointed out that 99.9% of the evidence would show contrary, he asked, ‘Do you think they know more than him, he’s Japanese?’

    27. Sapporo Pat Says:

      I too am grateful for finally having a name for a set of phenomena I’ve encountered for years here.

      To keep this short, I’ll jump straight to this passage: “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.'”

      Absolutely. Two key concepts here are “keeping NJ in place” and “the dominant position.” In 20 years here, I’m been amazed at the degree to which Japanese (almost always men) will be so aggressive so as to be dominant over me. (Okay, I work at a university that practically keeps me in a broom closet so as to avoid any interaction with me.) Rarely is there anything material at stake, so I can only assume it is cultural/psychological.

      For instance, I just turned fifty, but over the last ten years I can’t count the number of times older Japanese men would YELL at me for any number of things. Meanwhile, I’ve never observed such men even talking to Japanese doing similar things (for instance, riding a bicycle in the woods).

      Another thing, too. I stopped watching all TV a few years ago, so no doubt I’m missing out on some of the events taking place here in Hokkaido. So I’m wondering why so many older men seem much more “microaggressive” than before? The mutterings under the breath, the spitting as I pass, etc. I just don’t recall this in previous years.

      Also, there seems to be a kind of siege mentality recently. I have no idea if Hokkaido’s economy is really in freefall, but as if on cue most people acted as though a real crisis was on hand. Has something really happened?

      So there are two things I’m wary of: One, the locals taking out their anxiety on powerless foreigners, and two (though off the subject) a vicious attack on nature.

      I live in the former Olympic Village of Makomanai here in Sapporo and beginning Dec. 22, 2010 there has been a relentless attack on all trees in the area. Whether the jurisdiction is national, Hokkaido, Sapporo, ward or private, everyone has massacred the trees here. I’m talking healthy trees, too. Gone.

      I’m thinking of Robert Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre” in which he tries to explain the sudden murder of cats in Paris in the late 1730s. When these weird things suddenly happen, there must be underlying causes. Quite likely a stretch, but I wonder if what I perceive as growing microaggression against NJ isn’t related to the slaughter of trees here. (Alex Kerr’s “Dogs and Demons” is my bible on this subject, but I can never get him to answer my e-mails!)

      I’ll close by saying I don’t think we NJ have one ounce of control over these things. Society is largely irrational (and not just Japan), so these things will continue to have lives of their own. If things turn worse, however, I wonder if I’ll have the sense to get out early enough.

    28. Tim Says:

      This article expresses what I have felt many times and other foreign residents here in Japan feel quite often. I enjoyed reading it. As someone who has been living in Japan for almost ten years, the constant comments and questions such as “Can you eat raw fish?” and “Wow! You are really good at using chopsticks!” do get tiresome. I have learned to just accept it. It is very difficult to change a cultural mindset. Getting indignant isn’t going to change anything. I get “ignorant” questions whenever I go back to America as well; comments like “Aren’t Japanese houses made of paper?” and “Are there trees in Japan”? These questions are rare but they point to the fact that many people simply don’t know about other cultures. I usually answer the chopsticks question/comment here in Japan with: “Well, Chinese food (or Japanese food or Korean food) is very popular in America and chopsicks are used, so many Americans learn how to use chopsticks” or something similar. Anyway, this was a very interesting article!

    29. bob Says:

      Debito – Nice piece. For your next article, I’d implore you to explore the apologists themselves ( or if you’ll pardon the crude expression; House Negro). The foreigners here who are so desperate to please their masters, that they become irritated at fellow foreigners who criticize Japan in any way, shape or form.

    30. beneaththewheel Says:

      @Anonymous: Let’s talk about excuse making. If we’re trying to use the label microaggression, and label it to other things, would this not mean we’d take an experience in Japan and then check to see if it is a microaggression or not? Your line of reasoning to me suggests that if anyone takes a phenomena and says it’s not microaggression, they are making an excuse? This would create a mentality where no body wants to admit something is NOT, leading to a polarizing view. I think everyone agrees there is discrimination in Japan (by Japanese and foreigners). The debate isn’t people who believe EVERYTHING is discrimination and people who believe NOTHING is discrimination. It comes down to a case by case situation, where all people need to let their voice be heard as to why or not why something is discrimination, and how one can cope with the situation regardless (just because something is not discrimination doesn’t mean it’s pleasant).

      If one’s not allowed to think of anything as explainable by other means than racism, then it leads to all phenomena being due to racism, and a downward spiral into extremism. I think how the use “apologist” is used around here is making an atmosphere for people with dissenting opinions to go elsewhere, when (I think) the entire point of the comment section is for us to flesh out and talk about ideas Debito presents. This is why I used the word frightening.

      Let’s take “your Japanese is great”, and “you can use chopsticks well”. I think the former has a weak argument for microaggression and the latter has a stronger argument for it. The former is as simple as praising others in order to start a conversation on languages to me (and done between Japanese people, and others in their own country), and the latter is from an ignorant preconception that Westerns cannot use chopsticks. The former is actually difficult to hone and master, and the latter is as insulting as complimenting a Japanese person on how to use a fork. Now the “excuses” can come to say that the Japanese person saying it doesn’t know it’s offensive to compliment chopstick usage, but as Debito shows in his article, intent isn’t important. So to me this would make “your Japanese is great” not a microagression” and “you can use chopsticks well” a microaggression.

      To me, the question remains the same: how to we cope in these situations? Just because the former isn’t a microagression doesn’t mean it can’t be perceived as annoying. I think the former is coped with by a quick “iya, mada mada desu” and then forwarding the conversation in any way you see fit. The rote conversation is as short as “how are you?” “I’m fine”, and then taking that conversation from there. With the chopsticks, I feel the best way to cope is to explain that most Westerners can actually use chopsticks, or explain how popular Chinese and Japanese food is, and even if the conversation leads to it, how foreigners find the statement annoying (this is where I have compared it to complimenting a Japanese person on their fork skills). I believe things wear people down more than they feel they cannot confront the person who is doing it, and reach a sort of understanding. I find most people are responsive to a casual conversation about it. I have also dealt with drunk older people, and then it does wear me down, and I bite my tongue. However, my grandpa asked my wife’s parents if they’re resentful about Fermosa being taken away from them, and that helps me cope. :)

      Would my disagreeing that “your Japanese is great” make me an apologist for finding an excuse to the situation? I don’t think so, and I get the impression that you (Anonymous) do believe so. That is my point of contention with what you are saying. You may disagree with me, and if you explain to me why, I may agree with you afterwards.

      As for my posting on the “stalker site”. It’s true that do, and I’ve mentioned it here before. I would say in the last few months ago, you (Anonymous) have posted there much more than I have. How about we judge each other on what we said, as opposed to where we said it?

      @JdG and Mark Hunter, I hope I answered you questions in my response to Anonymous, if I didn’t, please comment .

    31. Mark Hunter Says:

      I don’t want to go off topic, but it seems there is some interest in the prior comments about apologists. In my opinion, being an apologist is about having a knee-jerk reaction to negative experiences in a different culture. Rather than make the effort to analyze what is happening to them, the apologist will immediately try to sweep it under the rug by downplaying its significance or by explaining it away in cultural terms. This reaction does not seem to be limited to newbies fresh off the boat, of whom one might expect a downplaying or sweeping under the rug response because of the ‘charisma man / woman effect’. It is quite common among some longtermers as well. It is the lack of insight into human behavior that this latter group shows (and some of them work in universities – and I know this does not mean anything, but it should)that surprises me. I think for this latter group, being an apologist is a survival mechanism. They simply can’t believe that the myths they’ve bought into might not be true. It is too hard comtemplate. Being an apologist is much, much easier.

    32. Jiong Says:

      @Scipio#25 While you make an excellent point concerning the nose dive in a lot of microagressions against minorities in the UK (I am British, too), but I would say that they are still more common than you seem to imply.

      The point with MAs is that they are often subconscious and the result of social training, rather than a deliberate attempt to offend. As you rightly say, most people in Britain see minorities as a permanent part of Britain and so the ‘when are you going home?’ question, if asked now, would rightly come across as extremely racist – thus only consciously being asked (or implied) by right-wing scum.

      Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop many of the smaller forms, many of which have been mentioned above, happening in Britain to minorities.

      A Chinese friend of mine visited London for the first time last month and despite excellent English, she experienced several occasions of people talking slow in the ‘I am talking to a foreigner’ voice and people answering her question by replying to her white friend sitting next to her.

      Sadly, when a lot of British (Western) people see a visible minority or hear an accent they subconsciously dumb things down or avoid potential communication difficulties. Equally sadly, these are the same things that happen to us in Asia.

      The point is that in Britain we generally tend not to notice, and as members of the majority why would we, unless we’re aware of it?!

    33. Sapporo Pat Says:

      While out mountain biking, I thought of another aspect of microaggression: How people drive.

      I’ve never driven in Japan, and back in the 80s, I cycled on the roads all the time. I was full of p*ss and vingegar then and could pretty much keep up with traffic in town. The problem was, I had endless confrontations with aggressive drivers, which, alas, I believe is normal for many countries.

      I still only cycle now, mostly on sidewalks and in parks, but I have a young son. At least 2-3 times while pushing him in a stroller or holding his hand while crossing a street, male drivers have swerved at us, missing us by literally inches. I realize that the rule in Japan is “no hit, no foul,” but I have NEVER seen a male driver come close to another male pedestrian, let alone one with a child in tow.

      I have, however, seen male drivers almost chasing Japanese women across the street.

      I wonder if this is what the thinking is for many such males: “All things being equal, all people outside cars are weak and therefore fair game. But adult Japanese males have status (kaisha, clout with the police, etc.) so better to avoid them.

      My experience would suggest that gaijin are fair game. Can’t argue with the logic either. I mean, what are we going to do? Say a guy almost hit us? I guarantee any cop would simply grunt or give us the thousand-yard stare.

      Of course we know better than to try to “punish” any such driver because the system would come down on us like a ton of bricks (or a 15-ton dump truck).

      I think you can tell a lot about a society by the way people drive.

    34. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Sapporo Pat #26

      Thank you for mentioning ‘The Great Cat Massacre’, I have just ordered Darnton’s book, and look forward to reading it. I think that things in Kansai have gone down-hill over the last 3-4 years, and remember mailing Debito a couple of years ago to see if he had any other anecdotal evidence that Japan was becoming less polite to NJ on a casual basis.
      Maybe you have hit on something. Many Japanese hold misconceptions that NJ are over-paid and under-taxed, and generally enjoy the good life in Japan. In hard economic times, maybe (like the resentment of the Paris printers) we are seeing a kind of misguided backlash?
      (end of digression)

    35. Fred Says:

      @mark hunter
      exactly right, something I have often thought about. Denying and apologizing for such blatant and obvious behavior has always puzzeled me. I dont know if its the actual behavior or the apologist apologizing for it who irk me more. Perhaps they are aware of this, and do it just to jerk your chain. I feel that Microagression can long term take its toil on your health. Its a strain, a struggle to get through the day with it. The upside is when you find others who bond with you because of this shared pain. There arent many of us left it seems, but those of use who know this hell can bond easily, unless your an apologist, in that case I want nothing to do with you.

    36. Mark Hunter Says:

      Beneaththewheel. I applaud your reasoned and even-toned responses. That said, I completely disagree with your analysis of “Your Japanese is great,” comment. “Your Japanese is great” means, “For a foreigner, your Japanese is very good.” This is classic microaggression and is not a compliment at all. In fact, it is not much different from “Where are you really from?” in one of my earlier posts.

    37. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ BeneathTheWheel #29

      You have a point of view. I don’t share it. I think ‘frightening’ is a little over-dramatic. ‘Dissenting opinions go elsewhere’? Dissenting against what? Other peoples point of view? That’s called a disagreement, surely. You are entitled to disagree with the micro-aggression and apologist thesis, with no ill will from me.

      Bob #28 has a good point. There are some NJ who have spent so long ‘going along to get along’, or have reached the point of no return that Eric C described, and are unable to return to birth country (or do a ‘flyjin’) and having bought so deeply into the status quo, they now have a vested interest in protecting it against any positive change. With all their misinformation about posters being embittered, isolated, mono-lingual eikaiwa teachers over 40, they are concealing their real agenda, and participating in the tatamae of ‘dreamy Japan’.

    38. Anonymous Says:

      beneaththewheel, here is what you have written for your apologist friends, in chronological order:

      “I wonder if Debito fully realizes what he is saying. He’s coming across as openly admitting that it’s not about the Fukushima nuclear crisis, it’s about finding an excuse to attack Japan. It really just disappoints me. is not a site I want to associate with. Debito seems to be going into strange territory, and I’m jumping ship from the Debito boat.”
      May 22, 2011

      “Love the way this site [The Debito Bashing Site] is going! I learned a lot from the comments here. Don’t have much to contribute though yet. Just wanted to express my appreciation.”
      June 4, 2011

      “Debito’s most recent article further lessens Debito’s credibility. However, it’s already low enough for Donald Keene to have nothing to lose sleep over.”
      June 15, 2011

      “I wonder if when I came to Japan 5 years ago I was similar to “Debitard” stereotype (using the term only on myself, not people at”
      June 19, 2011

      “That’s the problem with some people over at This is the first time they’ve ever experienced any racism (while in their home countries minorities have experienced it, potentially of the violent kind), and they’re so shocked it’s happening to them because racism doesn’t happen to people like them. Honestly, if you’re fighting against racism in Japan, it shouldn’t be for rich whitey, it should be for the Asian poor immigrants who get looked down upon and more. That seems a little more important than not getting to go to a bar (which is very very rare anyways).”
      July 14, 2011

      “Halfs find the word half offensive? I don’t know whether being called a ハーフ in Japanese is offensive to Halfs. Also, I think the ‘if I find it offensive you have to respect me’ thing can become a slippery slope.”
      July 15, 2011

      “Wow, that is a particularly horrible post by Debito. If I have time, I’ll post a long reply on his website.”
      August 26, 2011

      “I decided to not reply to Debito anyways.”
      August 27, 2011

      “While Japan needs someone like Debito, Debito himself is sometimes skewing reality which (arguably) unfortunately can do more harm than good .”
      September 16, 2011

      “I put Debito’s words under more scrutiny because of his activist title, relative popularity and sometimes downright dangerous comments (e.g. don’t marry Japanese).”
      September 23, 2011

      “ is not a place for discussion among people.”
      October 11, 2011

      “I wish Debito wrote this article in a way that doesn’t give off the impression that Japan deserved being bombed by nukes twice. In no way do I want to endorse or associate with this article.”
      November 2, 2011

      “The majority of Debito’s arguments on human rights appear to have an underlying motivation of ‘this is how it is in America’ which has a complete disregard for ‘old’ countries and their marriage of liberal ideology and long traditions (e.g. Germany).”
      November 5, 2011

      “Of all the Japanese people, I have to change what I say the most to Mr Arudou at”
      November 7, 2011

      “I hoped my comments over at Debito’s site sparked more controversy over there.”
      December 18, 2011

      “Holy shit, what is Debito thinking? This is really cultish.”
      December 22, 2011

      “Are you going to write something about Debito’s latest ‘piece’ Ken?”
      December 24, 2011

      “Thanks for posting it Ken. Debito’s doing a bad job of saying what he wants to say, and what he wants to say doesn’t really have much merit.”
      December 25, 2011

      “One of Debito’s faults is his idea of nationality/citizenship etc. It’s very American/New World-ish. I remember one Japanese scholar wrote a proposed degrees of Japanese nationality (as seen by the general public) with legal/race/culture being the variables. Debito would probably put legal as the only variable and consider anything else racist/prejudice, while probably any person from an ‘old country’ would disagree.”
      December 29, 2011

      “I believe a lot of Anglo-Saxons in Japan are subconsciously racist/disrespectful in ways they wouldn’t be if they moved to Spain or Germany.”
      February 22, 2012

      “In my humble opinion the only reason that Debito is doing any of this is to get a response from Donald Keene in an attempt to either start a dialogue or make sure Keene is aware of what Debito does. I think it’s a horrible way to do that, and I think he’s making himself look bad by third parties. Debito is constantly bordering on slander (to put it lightly) in order to get noticed.”
      April 4, 2012

    39. beneaththewheel Says:

      Mark Hunter: Your logic is fair enough. It makes sense how people can interpret it that way. I think I don’t interpret it that way because I say “your English is great” to Japanese people all the time, and never the ones that are actually fluent, but the ones who are studying. Perhaps my assumption is a person doing what I’m doing can’t be using a microaggression? Perhaps I’m being microaggressive myself to Japanese people? Honestly, at least for the time being, I can’t see myself stopping saying it. However, I will be more sensitive and check people’s responses to when I do say it.

      Jim di Griz: Thinking about it after a good night’s sleep, I agree that “frightening” was too strong of word. I dislike it when people of opposing views are held to the strictest means, while others are not. It’s not an opinion I hold only for this site. I’m sure Anonymous could’ve dug up a quote of me saying it elsewhere. I think I got my point across, and I’m happy with your response.

      Anonymous: I’m not sure if I should feel flattered or creeped out! It was enjoyable reading all the opinions I’ve had, and save a word choice or two, I do stand behind all of them (I wish I didn’t say “halfs” and “cultish” (like “frightening” in this post) was most likely too strong). Of course this isn’t the place to debate them, but if you think I’m being unfair in any of them, please let me know. (I don’t think disagreeing with Debito and agreeing with Ken on an issue is being unfair.) The “Debito is not a place for discussion” comment for example, I’m pretty sure that comment also mentioned how this site is more about Debito posting something, and people giving their impressions. With comments needing to be approved (and Debito being a busy guy), it slows down discussion, and makes the site better for people to write essays and short comments back and forth. Interesting feeling you trying to hold me accountable for things I said in the last year, very Kafka-esque! :)

      I won’t derail the thread any more, and I’m enjoying reading other people’s thoughts!

      — Oh no you don’t, Beneath. Don’t try to squirm out of this with an “aw, shucks” attitude.

      Let’s get a load of this: You say you don’t know whether to be “flattered or creeped out”? I bet it’s the latter. You don’t seem to like having your every word scrutinized (and I bet it’s not your every word, either; nor is it your location, lifestyle, private and professional life, etc.). Well, what a shame. Welcome to the world of the shoe on the other foot.

      Despite disavowing the stalker site last May, you’ve turned out to be not only an active participant (I never look at it so I didn’t know), but also, based upon what’s been cited of your record there, but also a clear encourager of the obsessive cybertrash who stalk not only me, but also contributors to this blog. And they’re quite creeped out by it too. It’s not a matter of unfairness, as you’re trying to portray this issue (as you wriggle and struggle under the glare of the magnifying glass), but rather one of hypocrisy. Bye, Beneath.

    40. Colin Says:

      Good article. Easy to relate to. The drawing at the top of the article is also fantastic.

    41. Brooks Says:

      One thing not mentioned is if it is one of your in-laws who does that, and your Japanese spouse thinks you are overreacting.
      When I was at my in-laws in Shikoku and my brother-in-law (a doctor) mentioned that I was good at using chopsticks, I thought that I must be from outer space.
      I find it odd that complimenting the foreigner on his use of chopsticks is just making conversation, but my wife thought so.

    42. Steven Says:

      There is a well know micro-aggression many people experience.

      “So, do you have a girlfriend?”

      While the vast majority who say it are not homophobic and would happily follow up with a “Oh I see, so do you have a boyfriend?” the initial comment is ignorant of the position of gay men (or women; exchange girl for boy if needed but I don’t want this to end up like that scene from The Holy Grail) who are still wary about coming out based on a non-inclusive question. The inclusive and open question would of course be “Do you have a partner” or “Are you currently dating?” or some other gender neutral opener. Now, there is nothing wrong with asking about a girlfriend in most cases. 95%+ of the time that would be an appropriate question to a male. However, for the 5% left it means there is no opening to be honest for fear of the few % of people who would not like to be confronted with someone who is gay.

      In the same way we have the standard questions in Japan to foreign looking people that imply a short-term stay, little Japanese ability, bad chopstick skills etc. The majority of times this is a fine set of questions. Many if not most foreigners in Japan are short-term, have low level Japanese and if they are tourists or have just arrived, perhaps they can’t use chopsticks (my parents can’t). However, by pigeon-holing we cause problems to the minority, who then feel excluded.

      Of course, I would have to say that certain questions are simply a way to make conversation. I find questions about cultural differences tedious to an extreme but small talk is a necessary evil and assuming you get over that hurdle and the conversation can move onto something more, then fine. Everyone needs an opener. We can’t all talk about global economic issues or the latest breakthroughs in particle physics right off the bat. Micro-aggressions are questions are statements that assume something about someone unfairly. “How long have to been here?” – boring but fair (unless you look foreign but with a native accent and therefore were probably born here, then very very unfair). “How much longer will you stay?” – implying all foreigners leave, not fair.

      The question is what can be done? Do people ask “Can you use chopsticks?” because of ignorance about the usage of chopsticks outside of Asia. I was with some Japanese colleagues in an area of Tokyo with few foreigners. Dressed in a suit and talking in Japanese, I still got asked if chopsticks were OK. Is this ignorance of customs outside Asia or the assumption of an inherent inability to use chopsticks by the white man? Either way, more exposure of long term residents of Japan on TV or in other media and education of individuals who use micro-aggressions is probably the way to go.

      A short digression but a similar theme I think. Another micro-aggression? “Would you like a tea or coffee?”. To me, this is. But I can live with it. The question is how to be decide what is micro-aggressive and what isn’t.

      — Point of order: “Many if not most foreigners in Japan are short-term, have low level Japanese and if they are tourists or have just arrived,” is incorrect. So be careful about the assumptions you predicate your pigeon-holing upon.

    43. Bernd Bausch Says:

      That I handle chopsticks well is certainly a “compliment” I hear occasionally, and I classify it amongst the more stupid remarks one could make. I do however fight my urge to reply “you too!”, thinking that it’s just a thoughtless way to start a conversation. Being complimented on my Japanese language skills after saying complex sentences like “sou desu ne!” is in the same category.

      It might be annoying, but aggressive? I am more annoyed by, say, people smoking in the street next to me. Shall I see that as an aggression? Yes, whoever “micro-aggresses” me in the ways Mr Arudou describes in his article does indeed show me that I am different. And that’s true; I am not Japanese and don’t feel Japanese. So why should I feel aggressed? If so, I should also feel aggressed by Mr. Arudou calling me “NJ”.

      How many people in Japan look European or African and consider Japan their home, or have become Japanese, or have grown up here? I don’t know the number but think it is very low. This is sufficient explanation why Japanese ask me if and when I plan to return to my home country; no need to get depressed over such questions.

      This may be different for my children, who are 100% Japanese but don’t look it. So far I see no indication that they experience micro- or macro-aggression, and I am confident that Japanese society will gradually learn that Japanese don’t always look Japanese.

      One last comment. Any act or utterance with a minimum of personal reference can be considered a “micro-aggression”. When other European-looking people pass me in the street, they sometimes smile to me although we have never met. I always feel awkward about it – but am I aggressed? When I offer my train seat to somebody looking elderly or sick, they might be offended – even if the are in fact elderly or sick. If people look lost in the center of Tokyo, which language should I use to help them without “aggressing” them? Or should I leave them alone? I would tire very quickly if I had to check each of my social interactions for micro-aggressivity.

      — “How many people in Japan look European or African and consider Japan their home, or have become Japanese, or have grown up here? I don’t know the number but think it is very low.” So what if it is? Is it merely a matter of degree? Regarding that: There have been at least 300,000 people who have become naturalized citizens since the 1960s; we have between 1000 and 1700 people per year who are neither Chinese or Koreans naturalizing. We have thousands of Japanese children of international marriages being born per year. If numbers are really all that low (which I daresay they aren’t, but they’re nowhere near a “tipping point”), I don’t think your confidence that “Japanese society will gradually learn that Japanese don’t always look Japanese” is grounded in much evidence. I also think you’re being a bit careless about how your children will be treated in future: You even say, “I am not Japanese and don’t feel Japanese.” That’s alright for you. Might not be alright for them, however, as they grow and reach greater social sentience. I think you need to tire yourself a bit more thinking about it, because clearly you haven’t bothered.

    44. Bernd Bausch Says:

      As I said: “So far I see no indication that they experience micro- or macro-aggression”. And believe me, I am watching this.

    45. Becky Says:

      @Bernd: yeah, I didn’t tell my parents either when I was being bullied at school. Are you actually with your kids 24/7?

    46. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Bernd Bausch #44

      You say;
      ‘my children, who are 100% Japanese but don’t look it’

      Take it from me (and I am Japanese in my heart), whatever the law says, whatever passport your children have, they are condemned to being ‘ha-fu’ (half). That means half Japanese, not 100% Japanese. Of course, if you could convince J-society to stop the use of the term ‘ha-fu’, I could buy into your optimism.
      Japan has had 148 years to ‘gradually learn’. Not making much progress, are they?

    47. A Man In Japan Says:

      I get the same as the rest as everybody gets.
      “You’re quite good at using chopsticks”.
      The next time I get a comment like that, I will point out how well they can use a knife and fork.
      I always get the the frigging “natto” question.
      I got asked that once, by one of my driving instructors at Koyama driving school and I said “…..yes of course I can….Can YOU eat hamburgers?”
      Then she said in the most surprised tone of voice “Yes, of course I can eat hambagaas”.

      I said to one of the other students who were studying there about what she asked me, and she said that she gets asked the same thing almost every time she eats out with Japanese people.
      I don’t really see this as “microagression” because I have noticed that Japanese people can’t hold the very thing they use to eat food with very well at all, and are surprised when they see someone else doing it properly.
      It is annoying, but the thing that is most annoying is the “natto” question.
      This question just goes to illustrate how far Japanese nationalism has blinded them to think that only THEY can eat natto.

    48. Pearse Says:

      Great article! I am glad there is a term to describe what I had always felt but could never adequately explain. One case on its own might seem like a petty complaint but the total of these micro aggressions really ground me down.

    49. Bernd Bausch Says:


      This is really off-topic, because the article is specifically about NJ, but of course I can’t resist: Yes I am convinced that I can see if my children receive bad treatment. Yes I also think that they will be considered “haafu”, but that’s what they call themselves and other “haafus”, so I don’t think it’s a big deal.
      And yes, should they be asked questions about their looks, their “home country”, their chopstick agility and Nihongo jouzu, they might very well feel aggressed, micro or macro, just like Professor Sue. My hope is that it won’t happen much, and my fear is that it would be the same in any other country. It’s not only Japan but the world that has to learn.

      In any case, as a NJ, I am not bothered by such remarks.

      — One of these days you’ll have to learn some reading comprehension. Nobody, least of all the article that started off this blog entry, said that Microaggressions only happen in Japan.

    50. Anonymous Says:

      To the person who thinks their ハーフ child won’t be treated differently:
      Here is the kind of conversation your ハーフ will have to eventually hear.

      MAJORITY = Person in Japan with DNA Markers of the MAJORITY Group.
      minority = Person in Japan with DNA Markers of a minority Group.

      MAJORITY: So, where are you from?
      minority: Tōkyō.

      MAJORITY: No, I mean your birth country, your home country.
      minority: I was born here in Japan, Japan is my home country.

      MAJORITY: But you look different, where are your parents from?
      minority: My Mom was born here, my Dad immigrated here from America.

      MAJORITY: Thought so. So, when is your Dad going to return to America?
      minority: As I said, my Dad immigrated here, Japan is his permanent home.

      MAJORITY: Well he’s just a guest here really, eventually he’ll want to go home.
      minority: My Dad became a Japanese citizen 30 years ago, before you were even born.

      MAJORITY: Whatever, he’s just a person who naturalized, he’s not really Japanese, sorry.
      minority: What if he WAS born here, a 100% white person born in Japan, would he be Japanese?

      MAJORITY: Nope, sorry to tell you, a 100% white person born in Japan would still be a gaijin.
      minority: What if my Dad had born here in Japan to white-parents who held Japanese citizenship?

      MAJORITY: Nope, sorry to say, even in that case, your Dad would be treated as a gaijin in Japan.
      minority: So the birthplace and nationality don’t matter, only DNA. So, am I gaijin or Japanese?

      MAJORITY: Well obviously you’re a “half” = half-gaijin: you’re 50% tainted with non-Japanese DNA.
      minority: Wow. My Japanese wife and I have created a child together, what will you call our son?

      MAJORITY: Of course your son is a “quarter” = quarter-gaijin: 25% tainted with non-Japanese DNA.
      minority: You’re openly admitting your racist thoughts, you must be drunk, I’ll just let you continue.

      MAJORITY: So, can your 100%-gaijin Dad, and 50%-gaijin you, and your 25%-gaijin son: use chopsticks?
      MAJORITY: So, can your 100%-gaijin Dad, and 50%-gaijin you, and your 25%-gaijin son: eat Japanese food?
      MAJORITY: So, can your 100%-gaijin Dad, and 50%-gaijin you, and your 25%-gaijin son: read Japanese kanji?
      MAJORITY: So, does your 100%-gaijin Dad, and 50%-gaijin you, and your 25%-gaijin son: like Japanese girls?
      MAJORITY: So, does your 100%-gaijin Dad, and 50%-gaijin you, and your 25%-gaijin son: visit your real home much?
      MAJORITY: So, did your 100%-gaijin Dad, and 50%-gaijin you, and your 25%-gaijin son: run away home after 3/11?
      MAJORITY: So, can your 100%-gaijin Dad, and 50%-gaijin you, and your 25%-gaijin son: separate garbage properly?
      MAJORITY: So, does your 100%-gaijin Dad, and 50%-gaijin you, and your 25%-gaijin son: throw noisy parties much?
      MAJORITY: So, does your 100%-gaijin Dad, and 50%-gaijin you, and your 25%-gaijin son: commit lots of crime much?
      MAJORITY: So, is your 100%-gaijin Dad, and 50%-gaijin you, and your 25%-gaijin son: possibly, all three of you, overstayers?
      MAJORITY: So, can your 100%-gaijin Dad, and 50%-gaijin you, and your 25%-gaijin son: please, since it is my duty as a Japanese person to be on the lookout for overstayers, show me your gaijin cards?
      MAJORITY: So, will your 100%-gaijin Dad, and 50%-gaijin you, and your 25%-gaijin son: please produce proof of your suspiciously unbelievable claim that you ‘aren’t gaijin and thus don’t have gaijin cards’?
      MAJORITY: So, will your 100%-gaijin Dad, and 50%-gaijin you, and your 25%-gaijin son: please, since you three appear to be not Japanese, call your wives or mothers and have them immediately bring your Japanese passports here to show me, to prove that you are not overstayers?

      [PS, when discrimination-against-ethnic-minorities goes as far as demanding I.D., know your rights:]

      minority: Actually, Mr. Hotel Manager, hotels can NOT legally demand proof of visa/citizenship upon threat of room-refusal, regardless of visual DNA markers. Anyone who has an address in Japan has the legal right to check-in WITHOUT having to show any proof of visa/citizenship, according to the Law of Japan And Hotels are NOT allowed to refuse an available room to anyone (as long as the person doesn’t have a contagious disease, and as long as the person doesn’t clearly and presently endanger public morals), according to the Law of Japan

      minority: And actually, Mr. Police Officer, police officers can NOT legally demand proof of visa/citizenship upon threat of arrest, regardless of visual DNA markers, anyone in Japan has the legal right to go about their daily activities WITHOUT having to show any proof of visa/citizenship.
      You can only demand proof of visa/citizenship when “in the performance of Police Duties 職務執行”.
      Japan’s Police Duties are clearly defined and limited by “Police Duties Law, article 2, 職務執行 法 第二条”.
      The law states Police Officer is ONLY able to stop a person for questioning in THREE specific cases:
      #1 If the Police Officer makes a reasonable judgment that a crime is being committed.
      #2 If the Police Officer has enough reason to suspect that a person will commit a crime.
      #3 If the person has acknowledged that he knows about a crime that will be committed.
      And according to the Police Law Number 162, this law applies to all individuals in Japan, REGARDLESS of nationality.
      Keisatsu hō dai 162 gō ni yorimasu to, wagakuni no “kojin” ni ate hamarimasu, kokuseki wa kankei arimasen.
      Mr. Police Officer, unless you are ready to state for the record that my RACIAL APPEARANCE gives a reasonable judgment of some CRIME being committed, then the fact that you stopped me for questioning in the first place was against the Police Duties Law, Article 2. Actually, ALL of your daily “random stops of walking people, without reasonable judgment of any crime”, to both “people who look gaijin” and “people who look Japanese”, are all specifically against Police Duties Law, Article 2. So, unless you want to be the person named responsible for bringing this surprising Japanese law to be known to everyone in Japan via a well-publicized Supreme Court ruling with your name and your police number and your police station appearing as the losing defendants, it is in your best interests to obey the Police Duties Law, Article 2, and thus allow me to continue walking. Thank you. Gokurō-sama deshita.

    51. Microaggression! | smikejapan Says:

      […] There’s an excellent article and debate at right now […]

    52. Paul Says:

      Personally, I feel we have a right not to be discriminated against by government officialdom and businesses. Racial discrimination laws should be made, and profiling discouraged. These are things we as non-Japanese and naturalized Japanese should fight for. Actively. I applaud Debito for the courage he has had to stand up for the rights of non-Japanese when it comes to being gaijin carded, for calling out racially motivated government actions (like court cases and the like) and for calling to task discriminatory businesses. Bravo.

      I also feel he has brought an interesting topic to bear here, and he wrote a very nice article about it.

      My general stance about something like micro-aggressions though is that it is NOT our right to not be offended or annoyed. Yes, these conversations are annoying and sometimes offensive. But if one truly lets this sort of thing bother oneself, it will be tremendously hard to get through life. If there is such a thing as micro-aggression, can there not ALSO be such a thing as “micro-sensitivity”?

      Slightly off topic, I feel I have to address this part of Anonymous’ post #50:

      “MAJORITY: Thought so. So, when is your Dad going to return to America?”
      “MAJORITY: Well he’s just a guest here really, eventually he’ll want to go home.”

      I have NEVER had anyone in my over 7 years here assume I was going to return to America, or ask me when I was going “home”. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but I’m not enough of a shut-in to believe that this can be as terribly common as to assume my future son or daughter will “eventually hear” it. This strikes me as a little extreme and alarmist.

    53. Anonymous Says:

      Google “gaijin” + “when are you going home” to see how common the question is.“gaijin”+”when+are+you+going+home”
      About 14,800 results, most of these are people who heard what you never heard.

    54. Rose Says:

      I can’t agree. I mean, I admit there indeed exists such a thing as microagression, and it does bother many (if not all) people who’ve lived here for long, but I can’t agree to the idea that it is possible OR needed to do something about it. (Yes, the article is great, I’m actually writing a comment!) I mean, I am NOT Japanese. I, myself, do not want to be recognized as Japanese. I will never be Japanese, moreover, I will never accept the way they live, what they feel or do every day. I will never accept their old feudal customs that their society for some reason considers a sign of culture (if you know how to lick your bosses ass using polite language forms, how to bow expressing over-submission etc you’re considered a good Japanese), their incredible prejudices (like, you can’t have a tattoo or, if you’re a woman, you absolutely MUST wear a bra that’s made of such a thick piece of cloth you’re wondering where to put your western (existent) breasts or you can’t actually wear a tank top because it’s inappropriate! no one says it yet it’s really hard to find any Japanese woman wearing it – you HAVE TO hide your arms! etc), or their sick way of thinking (like, it’s ok for them to write on a pack of yogurt – “nihonjin no hara ni saiteki”, “best suited for Japanese stomach” in big letters etc), I can think of thousands of things, almost every aspect of everyday Japanese life is – yes – very foreign to me and will never, ever become a part of my life, and I do think their customs are, objectively, from the point of view of humanistic progress, outdated. I do not accept them, I do not want interactions – I don’t want to be a part of their sick games. Protesting against McDonalds’ Mr. James is a good thing but when you think about it – what do you want them to do? You want them to accept you as Japanese, so that for the rest of your life you would have to conform? There IS no such thing as “different Japanese”, it’s not America. You can’t be different. Or you want the whole damn society to change its way, to reconsider things they not only been doing for centuries but the things they really, truly consider as THEMSELVES, their true nature as a people? It’s not even asking titanic to turn around in a second, it’s just asking them to give up being Japanese…

      — No it’s not. It’s asking people to stop pigeonholing you.

    55. James Pollard Says:

      Great Article Debito

      I remember you from ‘Readers in Council’ about 10 years ago. Your articles got me through the tough times so thanks for that. The concept of Micro-aggression takes me back to around 2000 when I left Japan having reached the point of conversational redundancy, answering questions about chopsticks, natto and my country of birth as if in a catatonic state. It took me a while to get my positivity back and it happened when I noticed the same thing happening here in Australia. Although the term micro-aggression is new to me, I got sick of the Australian version of this when my Japanese wife, two kids and myself were subject to similar conversational redundancy and subtle subordination – only here in Oz. The thing is that this really ‘ticked me off’ but my kids just went with it with a level of understanding that made me realise that not only had they become bi-cultural but they were living in that third place that all the ESL people keep on banging on about. They didn’t get ‘ticked off’ the way I did. My wife just kind of stayed Japanese like she was just living with a lot of foreigners albeit in a different country. So I guess there are a few ways to look at this and I didn’t feel so frustrated with the world when I realised that there were alternate perceptions to a similar state of cultural affairs – it tempered my anger and frustration. The interesting thing is that I am teaching ESL in Oz and am now considering how much of my behaviour towards my students is interpreted as micro-aggression. This kind of puts me in the position of the Japanese as they relate to your article. This is food for thought and I thank you for your article as it is forcing me to consider the position of new arrivals to Oz and how I might make things a less of an ordeal for them.

    56. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @Paul #52

      ‘I have NEVER had anyone in my over 7 years here assume I was going to return to America, or ask me when I was going “home”. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but I’m not enough of a shut-in to believe that this can be as terribly common as to assume my future son or daughter will “eventually hear” it. This strikes me as a little extreme and alarmist.’

      Happens to me. Anyone else?

    57. JS Says:

      Chopsticks can sometimes be used for even more sinister intentions than suggested by many of the posters here. What follows is a classic example of the microaggressions which Debito writes about. 

      A few years ago, I used to work in Tokyo as a General Manager at a subsidiary of one of the largest Japanese financial services companies. My company specialized in selling a particular service (which originated in the U.S.) to foreign multinational corporations in Japan, and counted most of the biggest foreign multinationals with operations in Japan among its customers. As such, our target customers were the foreign and Japanese decision makers working  in executive positions at these companies. A couple of times a year, we would hold sales seminars for these individuals at the Keidanren Kaikan in Tokyo. Since attendees at these seminars were a mix of Japanese (80%) and foreigners (20%) we usually had one foreign presentor make an English presentation, and three Japanese presentors who made Japanese presentations. Translated printouts of the presentations and simultaneous interpretation in J/E were provided. Afterwards, attendees were asked to fill-out anket surveys evaluating the presentations by all presentors.

      A new Japanese manager, who I will call X, joined the company shortly before I was scheduled to make a presentation at one of these seminars. Having been in the same industry, he had known the top Japanese management at my company for a long time, so he felt that he held some clout inspite of being new. He right away started complaining that I should not make an English presentation at the seminar, since 80% of the attendees will be Japanese and we should not subject them to the torture of having to sit through a thirty minute presentation in English (never mind that they all worked for Western multinational companies, and many of them had to use English in various degrees in their everyday jobs). To X, it was tantamount to sacrilege that a seminar held by a Japanese company, at the Keidanren Kaikan in Tokyo, where 80% of the attendees were Japanese, should include a presentation in English by a NJ. 

      In any event, the seminar went ahead as scheduled and I made my English presentation. As everyone left, we collected the anket surveys left behind by the attendees. I saw X grabbing them and scouring them for any negative comments about the English presentation. As it turned out, my English presentation was one of the highest ranked of all the presentations in the seminar, and every comment written about it in the anket surveys was extremely positive. My other colleagues gathered around me and complemented me on a job well done, while X stood in a corner moping. This is not the outcome he had hoped for.

      We all decided to go to a restaurant to celebrate a successful seminar over dinner and drinks. As about a dozen of us settled in, X decided to sit at the farthest end of the long table from me. After a few drinks, I was starting to feel releived and pretty good about the seminar. As the food started arriving, X  could not hold it in any longer and abruptly stood up, as everyone looked on. He then started yelling at the waiter in a loud voice, making sure that everybody could hear him.  He shouted at the waiter to bring over a fork and knife, while pointing at me and saying that the gaijin at the table does not know how to use chopsticks. What makes it even more interesting is that not long before this, several of us had gone out to an izakaya where X complimented me at how well I could use the chopsticks!

      — Thanks very much for this story, but you need to finish it. What was the reaction of the people around you to this degree of Microaggression (albeit not so Micro)? Did people dismiss it as a joke, make a comment or two in your defense, or let it pass without comment?

      In other words, how invisible was this very public aggression? Did they seem aware about what this guy was actually trying to do to you?

    58. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @Pearse #48

      ‘One case on its own might seem like a petty complaint but the total of these micro aggressions really ground me down.’

      I think that this is really the crux of the matter. The apologists always look at one single instance in isolation, and say something like ‘It’s a harmless question! They are just curious! I wouldn’t be offended by THAT question.’
      However, what this apologetic approach does is to completely remove that single instance of micro-aggression from the wider context.
      When many NJ are being made to feel ‘othered’ time and time again, over such a protracted length of time, over such a wide geographical area, with no link between the individual aggressors and the individual victims except for shared ethnicity of the aggressors, then surely this is a problem that needs to be discussed.
      Even if the individual aggressors are acting with no conscious malicious intent, when the victims are saying ‘please, stop, I find this uncomfortable’, what does it tell us about the aggressors that they try do deny the victims right to feel victimized.
      It’s like a mugger punching you in the face, and then telling you you have to like it.
      Surely, if the ‘we Japanese’ crowd value ‘wa’ so much, and ‘we japanese’ value group harmony, why is it that they don’t give a damn about the harmony of the NJ members of this society? Even if (as an NJ) I am excluded from the ‘wa’ and the ‘group harmony’ because I am a ‘permanent guest’ isn’t it rather rude of ‘the polite Japanese’ to ignore NJ protestation that we do not enjoy being micro-aggression victims?

      — That’s an excellent point. Thanks for articulating it.

    59. Paul Says:

      Sorry, I did not mean for the second part of my post to be the focus of what I had to say. I freely concede the point that this question does happen to people (I never said it didn’t). My issue with that post by Anonymous is that his examples go beyond the topic at hand (microaggression) and are instead more openly racist. This is why I felt it was a rather alarmist post.

      I’m more interested to hear what people who seem to be worried about micro-aggressions feel we need to do about them. Micro-aggressions exist, sure, but I’m not sure why I should be overly concerned about them, outside of having an awareness of what they actually represent in Japanese society.

    60. JS Says:

      Thanks, Debito, for your comments to my earlier posting (number 57).

      In my earlier post, I did not go into how the incident I described was not an isolated case, but was part of a series of microaggressions by X. 

      Some of the posters here have described their coping mechanisms against microaggressions they face in Japan. Others have talked about how microaggressions exist in every country and culture. 

      Let me say this to the first group. Yes, you can ignore microaggressions when the perpetrator is a stranger or a casual acquaintence that you don’t have to deal with over an extended period of time. However, it is much harder to do this when the perpetrator is a colleague at work who you have to sit next to and work with every day. In these circumstances, the microaggressions will take a toll on you.

      In regards to the second group, yes Japan does not have a monopoly on microaggressions. However, it is quite unique in the developed world in terms of the breadth and depth of how microaggressions are used to “other” and alienate outsiders, especially NJ. I speak from experience, since I am a naturalized American citizen who has lived and worked in five different countries. I was born in a developing country and immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager. I received an MBA from one of America’s top universities, developed a successful career in the U.S., and became fully integrated into American society. Any microaggressions I may have faced in the U.S. as a visible minority were so rare, as to be almost non-existent in the broader scheme of things. In contrast to the U.S., this is a systematic and structural problem in Japan.

      Back to my earlier post. The problem with the type of microaggression I have described is that it is often carefully choreographed as a series of actions against the outsider to “other” him. It is a process which tries to grind down the outsider, where the aggressor tries a variety of tactics over an extended period of time to achieve certain objectives. In the case of X, his microaggressions consisted of pulling a series of different levers and pushing all the hot buttons. He hoped that atleast one of these would hit a raw nerve forcing me to over react in an unguarded moment, which would then allow him to brand me as the unreasonable gaijin at the company. It is the same as throwing a lot of s**t atbthe wall, in the hope that some of it will stick.

      The chopsticks stunt X pulled at the restaurant was one of a series of such stunts. While he was trying to “other” me, he was also desentizing the others in my department to this type of microaggression and setting an example that this type of behavior was acceptable. I should point out that at over 50, he was the oldest member of the group. Everyone else in the group was younger than him, so after a momentary silence and stunned looks around the table, they all pretended nothing had happened.

      I have always been told that I have a very calm and even-keeled personality. The fact that I ignored X’s microaggressions, made him even more agitated. Since I did not react to X’s microaggressions, he became more and more desperate as things were not following what was in his playbook. His microaggression turned to real aggression, to the point where he physically assaulted me during a staff meeting in our office. I sustained injuries, for which I had to get treatment from a doctor at the company’s own on-site medical clinic. I have since left the company and have filed a lawsuit against it in a Tokyo court.

      So my point is that microaggressions can and do evolve into real aggression and violence. As such, they can me much more than a mere annoyance.

      — Wow, what an incredible story. To me it’s testament about why Microaggressions should not be ignored, just like discrimination should not be ignored: Not only does it become normalized, it escalates. Thanks for sharing.

    61. Baudrillard Says:

      Jim asked “Surely, if the ‘we Japanese’ crowd value ‘wa’ so much, and ‘we japanese’ value group harmony, why is it that they don’t give a damn about the harmony of the NJ members of this society? Even if (as an NJ) I am excluded from the ‘wa’ and the ‘group harmony’ because I am a ‘permanent guest’ isn’t it rather rude of ‘the polite Japanese’ to ignore NJ protestation that we do not enjoy being micro-aggression victims?”

      But of course.

      In the post modern joke that Japan has become, the signs and symbols (“Wa” “group harmony”) do not describe the reality. They are still using the Meiji era map.

      So it doesnt make sense. Still, it is sometimes fun to have a sly dig by using these symbols back at those who brandish them, to confront them with confusion.

      E.g. “Nuclear power threatens the “wa” of Japanese” says the NJ. (^-^). Or,as the NJ employer said to the NJ, “Thats not the Japanese way”. Oh, the irony.

    62. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Paul #59

      ‘I’m more interested to hear what people who seem to be worried about micro-aggressions feel we need to do about them. Micro-aggressions exist, sure, but I’m not sure why I should be overly concerned about them, outside of having an awareness of what they actually represent in Japanese society.’

      I understand what you are saying.
      I think that micro-aggressors need to be confronted.
      Since I would not advocate violence on this issue, the logical response would be to politely explain that the line of questioning is patronizing. Maybe even explaining that it is a common phenomena in Japan called ‘micro-aggression’, and is used to ‘other’ NJ, and on that basis it is a form of oppression. However, I suspect that any attempt to rationally explain why you don’t like the questions will be met (as Debito says in JBC) with the response that you are ‘too sensitive’ and therefore that ‘gaijin are difficult’.
      This is the main reason why I often resort to sarcasm (see my earlier post #22).

      I think that the real significance of identifying micro-aggression as a real rather than imagined instance of discriminatory behavior is not that micro-aggression can be over come, but rather that micro-aggression (and japanese defense of) is an indicator of a much bigger problem and discriminatory system in Japan. It shows the extent to which discrimination against NJ is so natural as to be sub-conscious.

    63. Anonymous Says:

      I was letting Bernd Bausch know that his “haafu gaijin” children are going to hear the same questions that us “full gaijin” hear. And that his “quarter gaijin” grandchildren are going to hear the same questions as well.

      From “can you use chopsticks”
      to “when are you going home”
      to “even though you have Japanese citizenship, even though you grew up in Japan, you’re still not a real Japanese”
      (Google “Christel Takigawa” + “gaijin”)
      Here are the average Japanese thoughts on
      calling a “haafu” Japanese citizen a “gaijin”:

      And yes, Bernd Bausch’s “haafu gaijin” children, and even his “quarter gaijin” grandchildren, will experience the shock of being demanded to “show us proof of visa/citizenship, because you appear to be gaijin”, just like my “haafu gaijin” children will, and even my “quarter gaijin” will.

    64. pondscum Says:


      I read all the comments on that site. did you?

      Most of those people think that calling someone gaijin is not right, and especially to someone who has Japanese citizenship and speaks Japanese.

      Most of those comments are in support of Crystal.

      Maybe that’s what you meant, but your post made it sound like you thought the opposite.

      Actually, by reading those comments, I feel a little better.

    65. Curious Says:

      How about this for a response to such questions:

      A: Where are you from?
      B: Do think that I should be from somewhere else?
      A: Uh, you aren’t from here, are you?
      B: Are you basing that on my appearance?
      A: Uh, (nervous laugh.)
      B: I’m just curious why we all can’t be considered to be of the same race. The human race. (then carry this forward to conversations about profiling and we all have mothers, etc.

      Or —

      A: How long are you planning to stay in Japan? [I get this question a lot, BTW]
      B: Oh, do you think that it’s natural that I should want to leave some day?
      A: Uh, most of you foreigners leave, blah blah blah.
      B: Why would you think I want to leave? Is there some reason for me to feel unwelcome here?

      This is how I approach this microaggression. I bring it around to confront their line of reasoning by asking questions. I don’t think the average oyaji is going to comprehend a direct confrontation or a definition of microaggression.

    66. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Curious #66

      I honestly believe that they won’t be able to comprehend any answer that strays from their perceived ‘road map’ of how the conversation will go. Any ‘non-standard answers’ will simply mark you as a ‘strange gaijin’.
      We can’t fight micro-aggression on it’s own demerits, since for the Japanese our victims logic is not recognized. Micro-aggression is a symptom of the much bigger problem of discrimination as an institution in Japan. We have to overcome that in order to rectify the thinking that leads to micro-aggression in Japan (i would propose). This is why is so important. It is (as far as I know) the only place where what would otherwise be dismissed as disparate ‘gripes’ and ‘moans’ come together to enable a view of the wider picture of systemic discrimination against NJ in Japan.

    67. Anonymous Says:

      Nope Pondscum, my Japanese wife sat down and read all the comments, and out of those 104 comments, only 10 agreed that calling a “haafu” a “gaijin” is wrong.

      Comment 007, 008, 020, 023, 046, 056, 059, 097, 099, 104. You might possibly argue for 5 more, but that’s still under 15%!

      Over 85% of people on that board (which is a standard mainstream board, not an extremist “2ch” board at all) gave a wide range of excuses as to why calling a “haafu” a “gaijin” is OK.

    68. Flyjin Says:

      I had a male friend called Shimizu (yes, I did have a male Japanese friend!), who was only a 1/4 NJ, but he looked a bit different. Just slightly Caucasian-looking (a bit like Ken Hirai, the singer who trades on his alleged “gaijin mittai” looks though he is not inconvenienced by it), though with dark hair and eyes.
      We would go to have lunch and EVERY TIME he had to explain to the waitress etc that he was in fact Japanese, he spoke perfect Japanese, so she/he didnt need to address me in English.

      I felt so bad for him, having to explain himself like that. Incidentally, he had a very gloomy disposition. I can’t think why….

    69. Baudrillard Says:

      I was once served whale meat in a restaurant by my ex students after the last lesson of an Engrish course. I politely declined to munch on an intelligent species, and one female berated in Japanese to the other student (they did not know I could understand Japanese) to “stop harrassing” me.

      This was in Inakamono-Machi, (Ebina, kanagawa)so I just put it down to country bumkinism at the time.

      One kind of stereotyping can be answered with another:
      Him “Gaijin san, eat this whale!haha”
      Me: “No thanks. Its too intelligent for me. Is this a local country practice? I do not really understand the traditions of “Inaka”.

      Formality in Japan is loaded with subtle contempt. Learn to play their own game.

    70. tom Says:

      hi like the article on micro aggresions. after living there 5 years couldn’t put up with that sort of thing anymore on an everyday basis so just had to move and leave. putting up with it any longer was just mendokusai! good luck to those who stay and can be bothered to fight the fight and try to fit in even though they clearly never want us to fit in anyway.

    71. Mark Hunter Says:

      Curious….how do people react to your approach? Does it hinder fostering friendships?

    72. Jiong Says:

      If anything “haafu” or 1/4 people are MORE likely to be interrogated as to their Japaneseness (or lack of it), this is because for a white or black NJ, in the eyes of a J he/she is clearly a gaijin, no need to ask, just assume away.

      Whereas as Flyjin pointed out above, using the example of his friend, for the simple reason of looking slightly ‘different’, those born in Japan or with Japanese DNA are more likely to be constantly confronted in a direct manner to abate the curiosity of the J interrogator.

      The usual ‘getting to know you’ questions are natural, but just require one to be aware of the listener’s sensitivities. The ‘where are you from’ question is one of the biggest mine fields of them all and I make a point of only asking someone if they’ve already asked me…

      When I meet an Asian looking person with flawless US accented English, for example, I tend to err on the side of caution and go with ‘so, what part of the States are you from?’ If they are US Chinese/US Japanese they will recount how they are from XXville USA blah, blah State. However, if they are Chinese or Japanese and have learned perfect English they will take your assumption as a compliment and enjoy impressing you with how they are not American but mastered English.

      Now imagine the assumption the other way around…and imagine how the conversation might end up going quite differently…

      I’m sure SOME J people can be this sensitive, and lets hope for the sake of all fluent Japanese speakers of NJ appearance that the formula for approaching this thorny topic will start to become the norm. We might be talking decades for attitudes to change, but one can always hope.

    73. Fight Back Says:

      Actually, I had a similar experience when I started working in Japan.

      My company sent me to the Osaka branch office as part of bringing the Japanese side of the company toward a more international standard, however it was fairly clear right from the start that they were not so keen on the idea.

      I was told when I arrived that, although the company had a cafeteria, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to eat there as only chopsticks were available. When I mentioned that I was fine with using chopsticks, they continued, saying that only Japanese food was served and it wouldn’t suit me.

      I was told that it would be better for everyone if I went out for lunch each day but was advised not to go to the restaurant on the ground floor of the office building as they didn’t have an English menu and they didn’t want anyone from the company to be seen as being “troublesome” in the building.

      I think they thought I would go to McDonalds every day or something!

      In the end I brought my own lunch to work and sat outside the building to eat every lunchtime, a pattern that remained unchanged for many years.

    74. Paul Says:

      I was thinking about my own question (what can/should be done) and I was thinking that for people who are some sort of teacher in Japan (English or otherwise) it wouldn’t be too radical to let students know what sorts of questions they should probably avoid asking foreigners.

      If this were addressed in the classroom as a matter of pragmatism or “how to best preserve the wa with foreigners” it wouldn’t need to be a confrontational topic for the students and the word “micro-aggression” need never come up.

      Student’s could be told to avoid questions like “Will you go back to your country” because it sounds ungracious, like you’re trying to be sure the foreigner is going to leave Japan. Instead, they can be taught that a question like, “Do you plan to live in Japan for a long time?” is more polite.

      It’s not like teaching language manners is a radical thing, and if enough students are reached some of these sorts of assinine questions could be weeded out.

    75. Bob Says:

      In the end I brought my own lunch to work and sat outside the building to eat every lunchtime, a pattern that remained unchanged for many years.

      How ironic that your moniker is “Fight Back”

    76. H Says:

      Great article! It really helped me understand better exactly why these constant questions irk so much.

      My coping strategy is usually to ignore my annoyance and dutifully reply and in the case of strangers to try and escape from the conversation as soon as possible. I think in many ways though, I kind of enjoy standing out and being different. It makes me feel a bit like a “rebel” sometimes when I act in a non-Japanese way. I occasionally do “play” a little and answer the “where are you from?” question with my current town of residence in Japan.

      Now that I have children though (Japanese husband) I am worried about how they will be treated. I hate the term “ha-fu” and they`ve been called “gaijin” on numerous occasions which really makes me feel upset for them. (Right now they`re too young to care.) If they say anything in Japanese it gets choruses of delight, which just reinforces how they are seen as “others” in the country they were born and will grow up in. I`m not entirely convinced my husbands really understands my point of view on this kind of thing either. I think he sees the intention behind what is being said as being much more important than the content.

      I like to think that my simple presence here as a fluent speaker of Japanese is helping in small way to change how people think about non-Japanese (and those perceived as being non-Japanese). I`ve got to know several other mothers in my local area with children of similar ages to mine and have been having interesting discussions on the subjects of parenting and education that really just reinforce the similarities more than the differences: we love our kids and want the best for them.

    77. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Bob #75
      I respect Fight Backs attitude. He didn’t lose his mind, or self-respect by groveling and playing the ‘crazy gaijin’ (as so often expected- ‘oh, look! It’s the office gaijin clown!’), he kept his dignity, all alone, with no support. Hats off to the man/woman.

      @ Paul #74
      I understand the approach you suggest, but I really think that an English teacher would get the sack for making ‘helpful suggestions’ about the way Japanese interact with NJ. I reckon that it would almost certainly be perceived as a criticism, and therefore an attack on Japanese national character. That would make you some kind of racist in their eyes.

    78. Curious Says:

      Mark Hunter: The reaction I’ve been getting is mixed, but I don’t give out pat answers. Recently, a girl in her early 20’s was receptive to my round-about points. I believe I gave her a good plate of food for thought.

      Some other old guys (who were drinking) were not so receptive and found my questions annoying. Jim is right about their inability to comprehend the greater message implied in their robotic questioning. But even my wife doesn’t see through it, so what can else can I do but keep trying.

      I think Japan is one of those groups that will be among the last in the world to bend to modern, multi-cultural awareness — intercultural respect. The idea of change is bound up in the word, “HENKA.”

      The “HEN” 変 character seems to have a bad history wrapped in politics and warring states. I think most locals hear the word HENKA and feel uneasy. They don’t want to change, because they fear the unknown. They are taught to fear from childhood.

      So, let’s do what the religions do — convert them one at a time.

    79. Paul Says:

      @Jim #77

      I disagree. If it was taught along with other questions that are considered rude in the West like “How much money do you make”, “how much did your watch cost” and asking a woman “how old are you”, it shouldn’t be perceived as a criticism. Cultural manners as they pertain to language is a fine subject for a classroom. I’m not saying teachers should confront adult students who already ask stupid questions, I’m suggesting getting the kids early when they’re still at a lower level of ability.

    80. Flyjin Says:

      @ Paul and Jim, several English textbooks DO already include chapters on good and bad questions in English, taboo conversation starters such as “How old are you?” What is your blood type?” so a creative teacher does add to these and will not get complaints.

      There are also occasional cross cultural courses being sold by providers.

      Unfortunately, I say “occasionally”. “Rarely” might be a better word; only key personnel at major corporations get this kind of training, even language training.

      The vast majority of Japanese do not get this, so only if they are curious about NJs will they attpemt to learn anything, and will inevitably put their foot in it by insulting the NJs they think they are being “friendly” to with inappropriate questions.

      So it all rests on how thick skinned, how stressed out, how tired, or how ground down the NJ is when approached and asked the same old cliches.

    81. Fight Back Says:

      I would also like to point out a form of micro aggression by omission.

      In my office I was routinely ignored or excluded from group activities. No-one directly attacked me but it still had the effect of othering me.

      A clear example of this was when I was routinely excluded from the yearly ‘bonenkai’ parties.

      When confronted I was told that they were something I wouldn’t enjoy and were really for the Japanese staff only. When I said I wished to go, I was told that people wanted to enjoy themselves at the party and it would be unfair for them to be forced to speak English to me or to have to take care of my needs.

      At this stage I already spoke Japanese more fluently than most of the staff!

    82. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Paul #79

      I really do understand your point, and I am not trying to be antagonistic.
      However, “How much money do you make” is a question that Japanese consider rude to ask other Japanese. That is a standard they have set for themselves. As for “how old are you”, Japanese people often have asked me. I know that it is considered rude for Japanese to ask other Japanese that question, but clearly ‘all bets are off’ when dealing with NJ. We are not part of the ‘in-group’ of Japanese, so their polite manners don’t need to be used with us ‘uncouth gaijin’, maybe?
      By all means, try teaching your students that it is considered impolite to ask ‘can you use chopsticks’. What will you say to them next class, when the apologist exchange student who doesn’t know better has told them that ‘That’s fine, I don’t have a problem with that, sure, I can use chopsticks just great! Your English teacher sounds kinda sensitive’?

    83. Flyjin Says:

      @ Jim, it is proven that a lot of Japanese “feel free” in English, or at least “freer” than in the hierarchical rules of Japanese language. Of course, what many have not yet realized is that there is a whole new set of subtle rules that go beyond having clear markers of rank and respect like “watashi” “Boku” “ore” etc.

      Young people tend to go overboard, a young guy friend of my friend greeted me first time with “how the f##k are you?” and I really had to tell him that was not acceptable in even “cool” circles.

      Then there was the woman who lived near the naval base in Yokosuka who was very polite in Japanese, but in English swore like a trooper (or sailor?) and was a lot more direct.She got drunk and swore at me, I switched to Japanese and she became trapped in ~masu forms.

      Many students who are attracted to English are because they perceive it as more direct and think that “anything goes”, especially with NJs of any age or profession.

    84. Paul Says:


      Well put. I even saw a formal presentation (by a Japanese professor no less) that discussed research showing how people (not just Japanese, but the focus was on Japanese) tend to swear and speak impolitely or more freely when using a foreign language. Yet, the truth is they do not actually have a true sensitivity to the words they use, so they can also sound really out of place or impolite. She was pretty spot on I felt.

      I have a Japanese co-worker who I know has made other NJ co-workers uncomfortable with some of her expressions in the workplace.


      Good point on the exchange student (or other teacher) potentially undermining the effort. I don’t know how likely that would be, but it certainly is possible. Perhaps it needs to be made clear that there is no hard and fast rule about who is offended by what (very true), so it is better to err on the side of politeness.

      — Consider this: I’ve noticed that when I speak Japanese I can say things I would be rather hesitant to say in English. For example, if I have (theoretically speaking, of course), say, a skin condition from an onsen, I can describe in very clear language at the drug store counter exactly what’s wrong in Japanese — but if I were to do it in English I find myself rather shy and mincing of words (I remember the first time I tried to buy condoms in my US hometown during my teen years — boy that was a weird day). It’s a matter of necessity of clear communication training in the former; not necessarily in the latter (where things have been conditioned a bit by tender-age and adolescent feelings towards certain expressions and conditions).

      Also consider this: When I was out with my Japanese drinking buddies a couple of years ago, we talked about how we can speak the language of love (or of “I want your sex”) a lot more easily in a non-native language. Again, I believe, due to the same phenomenon of conditioning vs. training above. To prove his case, our local jokester (who has been married to a NJ before) broke into very fluent and straight-faced English, “I love you, I love you with all of my heart and always and forever” schmaltz to one of the ladies in our group with no effort, and challenged me to say the same words in English. I couldn’t without cracking up. Then I did “ai shiteiru. makoto ni ai shiteiru. doko de mo, itsu demo, shinu made ai shiteiru yo” with the same lack of effort and the straight face, and challenged him to say the same thing to the ladies (who were by now equal parts confused, bemused, and not a little turned on), and HE couldn’t. It was a fascinating experiment. (And for the record, nobody, at least not I, got lucky that night.)

      So in sum, yes, I agree that there is a factor about being a non-native speaker that is partly liberating, at least from the shackles of socially-conditioned shyness.

    85. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Flyjin #83

      I agree. It’s related to perceptions of ‘the eye’ that was discussed here recently on another thread.

    86. giantpanda Says:

      @Fight Back, I have been there as well. My first employer in Japan, I was the only foreigner employed there who spoke fluent Japanese. Naively, I thought this would set me apart. In fact, all it did was ensure I knew all the crap that was going on that the others were blissfully unaware of. I vividly remember an incident where a J co-worker, celebrating a small victory, waltzed into my room and invited my office-mate to come celebrate in her room, went around the floor collecting others, came back to my room to invite even my secretary in front of my face, and said not a word to me, the sole person on the floor who was left out of this little celebration. (This was the same person who was sugary sweet to me when she wanted help with some English document.) That was the day my rose-tinted glasses were permanently cracked, and I found another employer where my talents were much better appreciated and I was actually a real member of the team. I will never, ever work for a Japanese company again. I have found time and again that these kind of attitudes trickle down right from the top. The grunts simply mimic what they see their managers do. This is not “mirco-agression” but flat out Naka-hazure.

    87. matty-b Says:

      Before coming to Japan and realizing how a majority can microagress against a visible minority, I wonder in which ways have the people being microagressed now may have microagressed against others in their home countries.

      I’ve been recalling on more than a few occasions when upon first meeting visible minorities that I went through the same stock of questions. Especially concerning two Iranian girls where within 2 minutes of meeting them I was pummeling them with questions about the use of animals in their cultural history. . . all this was done in a park on a lazy sunny day. Kinda horrible behavior on my part, when all these girls were trying to do was relax in the sun on their day off.
      I’m ashamed of my behavior now even though at the time I was proud of making an attempt of accepting these people by just grilling them about cultural differences.
      Now the shoe is on the other foot, and I know how frustrating it can be.
      With a lot of the venting at the Japanese method of microagressions it’s important to realize how our own families would place similar facets on our Japanese friends/partners/etc back home.
      Of course the way in which our families and our past-selves may have microaggressed does not outweigh the NJ daily frustration of cultural distancing inanities.
      But it is important to reflect. Take a good hard look in the mirror of the way in which you microaggressed and analyze that behavior and compare past self-behavior with the receieved-behaviour from locals.

      — Yep. Which is why it’s annoying when people misconstrue my article and say, “It’s not only Japan.” It’s not. Nobody said it was. It’s everywhere. Be aware of how it’s done to you, and let “Do Unto Others” inform your questioning of people in future.

    88. Eric C Says:

      I’m going to take a different tack here. During the time I lived in Japan, I encountered all the forms of behavior described above as “microaggression,” except for, thankfully, the physical violence described by JS (which is clearly not “microaggression” but full on assault). Like the rest of the posters here, I found the absurd comments annoying and, more than that, just plain boring. After a while, I dreaded taking cabs because I knew – usually to the exact word – how the conversation would play out. It was so scripted – flattery of my Japanese – my standard denial thereof (but in good enough Japanese to get them wondering) – and so on. Similar situations played out in sentos, in onsen, on buses, in banks and wherever I encountered Japanese people.

      However, despite the fact that I found these conversations incredibly annoying and tiresome, I did not feel it to be a form of aggression. I am not a lawyer, nor am I a criminal psychologist, but I think one has to consider the issue of intent here. I don’t think most of the Japanese who beleaguer foreigners with comments like “Nihongo o-jozu desu ne” or “Ohashi jozu desu ne” are being aggressive. Rather, I think they are merely being incredibly gauche and simple. They are behaving like uncultured rubes, with little or no worldly experience. But, I honestly believe most of them mean well and that’s really all they can think of to say in these situations. And, to be fair, once you get past these pleasantries, if your Japanese is good enough, you can usually get into some pretty decent conversations. I mean, about half the time I got into a cab, I wound up having great conversations about politics with the drivers. Sure, there were some morons who would never be willing to go beyond the standard lines about my Japanese or asking me what I thought about Japanese women, but you find idiots in every country.

      I should point out, however, that I often felt that some Japanese would compliment my Japanese as a way of avoiding real communication. After all, talking about the means of communication is somewhat different from actually communicating. Also, I have to say that about 50% of the time the Japanese complimented my Nihongo, when they uttered the flattery, they mimed the act of speaking by putting their hand to their mouth and moving it forward (which actually is a better imitation of vomiting than it is of speaking – but anyway). I found this to be the ultimate “left-handed compliment.” I mean, if my Japanese is so damn good, why do you think you have to use sign language to tell me so?

      But anyway…I digress.

      Here’s the point: I don’t think that most Japanese mean ill or are acting agressive (micro or otherwise) when they utter banal praise of one’s Nihongo or one’s chopstick skill etc. And, I don’t think that the individual Japanese who utter these mindless compliments should be taken to task. However, the fact that so many Japanese are ignorant of widespread usage of chopsticks in the West, or are so awkward around foreigners that they have to resort to hackneyed and usually insincere flattery is something to look at. Indeed, it’s an indictment of the entire educational system and the closed nature of the country. I mean, it’s the year 2012. Foreigners have been visiting and living in Japan for well over a hundred years now. And Japanese have been free to travel for the same length of time. How is it that a modern first-world and wealthy economy can remain so cloistered and poorly educated about the world they live in?

      Also worth looking at is the psychology that underlies these gauche comments, and again, I think this is more important than the comments themselves. These comments reveal the strong tendency of many Japanese to focus on the differences rather than the similarities between Japanese and other races. One of the first judgements a person (or any other mammal) makes when meeting another individual is this: are we from the same group or different groups? In multicultural societies, people are more likely to focus on the common points with other people, regardless of nationality or race. Sure, racism and “othering” takes place even in multicultural societies, but people in these countries are not obsessed with their own supposed uniqueness or the glaring difference between themselves and others (again, supposed).

      Listen to the media in Japan. Note how many times you hear a sentence that starts with the words “Ware ware Nihonjin ha…” Or go to a bookstore and look at the section on Nihonjinron. Or just listen to the talk you hear on the streets or in playgrounds. You will observe that the myth of Japanese uniqueness and the tendency to focus on the otherness and difference between Japanese and other races permeates the whole society and is inculcated in children from the earliest ages.

      The end result? This childish and awkward gaucheness around foreigners. Because this is the way they’ve been raised and these are the things they’ve had hammered into their heads from their infancy, you can’t really blame the individuals. But, you can certainly hope that the more enlightened members of the society would realize that it is not doing them any good to continue to believe they are a race apart. This erroneous thinking lies underneath so many problems: their trouble with English, their inability to accept foreign nationals, their difficult in absorbing new ideas, and their continuing reputation as a nation of strange, inscrutable oddballs – the odd men out at the human table.

    89. Fight Back Says:

      I think micro aggression can be deliberately used to ‘other’ people as a means to protecting the ‘in group’

      For example, I found that in Osaka, whenever I interacted with shop clerks they would pretend not to understand me even though I was speaking flawless Japanese.

      Asking me to repeat myself or looking at me in quizzical confusion was their underhanded way of excluding me from the norms of society, and it happened in a wide range of places too, bars, restaurants, department stores, almost everywhere.

      That’s micro aggression on a society-wide scale.

    90. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Fight Back #89

      I do agree that many Japanese ‘pretend’ that they can’t understand even flawless sentences of a simple nature when spoken by NJ. I used to believe what my J-friends told me; ‘They are just a little shocked because your Japanese is so good’, or ‘Maybe they are from the inaka and have never met a gaijin who can speak Japanese before, so they were nervous’, or ‘maybe they were just really nervous because they think that they will have to speak English with you’.

      After over 150 years of Japan as an international country? I don’t buy that (unless maybe it really is some kid in the inaka). How’s this theory; This is all about embarrassing the NJ, I think. A clear case of projection. What’s the most embarrassing thing that can happen to a Japanese abroad? They speak English (after all those years of English classes at school), and still can’t make themselves understood. What they don’t understand is that we are far less insecure about ourselves, and rather than being embarrassed, are just irritated.

    91. Curious Says:

      Eric C – “Because this is the way they’ve been raised and these are the things they’ve had hammered into their heads from their infancy, you can’t really blame the individuals.”

      Your entire post was extremely thoughtful and well written, but I must take minor issue with this sentence. The collective front is the shell that needs to be cracked with this problem. This concept of “the system makes me do it” is no longer acceptable. Each individual is the system, and I personally have decided to end absolving individuals based on this excuse.

      If personal responsibility is lacking in the person making mindless comments, then that person is a child or a very irresponsible adult who needs a wake-up call. If all NJ’s take them to task on this, I do believe it will snowball into a positive trend.

    92. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Curious #91

      ‘that person is a child or a very irresponsible adult who needs a wake-up call.’

      I appreciate the sentiment, but maybe you are being way too rational?
      Try taking individual Japanese to task, and see how quickly they throw it all back in your face as a an attack on every aspect of their ‘civilization’. I bet you get the ‘if you don’t like Japan, why don’t you go home?’

    93. flyjin Says:

      @ Jim, 2 things about this embarrassment, “Face” and “Insularity”. Maybe they are tied up together. In different part of Asia it manifests itself differently.

      Like a Thai minibus driver who drives you just one stop, then overcharges you, and then would rather accept nothing than less the outrageous amount he asked for to avoid losing face or admitting he is wrong. Or in China, even “westernized” parts, where they are never, ever wrong (but you, the foreigner, can be wrong because you “dont know the area”).

      Only in Japan is it ironically more like, “Sorry but I do not like/completely do not do business with/would prefer not to talk to/am not interested in/help/register the existence of gaijin”, from gay clubs to bars to corporations to concierges to hostesses to taxi drivers to colleagues to doctors to dentists to real estate agents.
      As if this is a kind of “democratic” choice, and if you make a fuss, you will be told “Well, they do not HAVE to deal with you, it is THEIR choice!”

      No one has ever said this to me in Thailand, or China. They will still deal with you, whatever they think privately. Only in Korea have I also come across blatant, in your face, exclusion. So much for the polite, indirect Japanese cliche!

      “Sorry, gaijin san, but that person does not deal with foreigners”. Or ” Why are you talking to me? I am Japanese, you do not know me. I do not feel I need to know you!”
      Every little transaction eventually puts this little fear in the back of your mind of “gaijin wa daijobu desu ka? Do you accept foreigners?” “Oh you DO! How kind of you…domo arigatou gozaimasu, bow deeply. Sorry for the inconvenience of being NJ- and coincidentally often being overcharged for it).
      (All real quotes I have been on the receiving end of).

      Only in Japan (and maybe Korea) would they rather NOT take your money and have an “easier” time. Or take your money and then complain!! (Like the recent complaint against Chinese toursits here “not knowing how to spend money in Japan”, or the bitterness in Korea in the 90s when the Won nosedived and everyone went on shopping trips to take advantage of the low prices!). I imagine a scene in various companies and retail outlets;the boss says “Well, Team Japan, there is nothing for it. Our economy is so bad we are going to have to start accepting foreign customers!”

      Natch, I am exaggerating a little, but only a little.

      As I have mentioned above, “Face” leads to some seemingly (from a western perspective) illogical behavior. Take the Thai driver- surely some money is better than none, we thought? In China, the older man who wants to tell you obviously wrong stuff like “That station is closed” when you know it isn’t, or the Shanghai taxi driver who insists there is no subway station near here as she drives past one, and you have to play kohai to his/her sempai and humor him/her even if you know he is wrong, (or have a bitter, pointless confrontation). We have all experienced this kind of denial/never wrong mindset in any Confucian society where a bunch of bitter ojisans and obasans expect the respect they feel they deserve, and they are damned they are going to be corrected by you, young lady, as you are not even from here!

      But in Japan it is so extreme, its almost like just by being an NJ you are disturbing the “wa” and that immediately makes some “socially challenged” individuals uncomfortable and therefore “lose face”, embarrassed about whether to talk to you, and how to talk to you because you, the NJ, do not really fit into their imagined world of smooth interactions that are so predictable and often unspoken.

      You, the NJ, are a potential loose cannon and you sometimes do not “follow the script”. It may be an extreme kind of “cultural difference” but that does not mean we have to like or accept your role as overcharged, disenfranchised, excluded “other”.

      Especially in Japan, the Asian country in the “western club’ the G7.

    94. debito Says:

      Debito here. Reader MMT sent me offline, FYI:

      Some more links for you. Doing a Google search of “マイクロアグレッション” gets some interesting hits.

      A blog written by a Japanese living in the US with comments on mirco-aggression.

      A Tokyo U. abstract mentioning a paper on the subject (藤岡勲 (2009). 海外文献抄録 日常生活における人種的マイクロアグレッション――臨床実践への示唆―― 精神療法): |

      And a course at Sophia U. :

    95. Fight Back Says:

      @Jim Di Griz

      It’s important to note that your Japanese ‘friends’ attempted to cover up and obfuscate the real reason that you were purposefully ignored in those situations.

      One would think that a real friend would have told you the truth about these micro aggressive interactions rather than apologize for it by putting up a smokescreen of excuses.

    96. Jiong Says:


      “Sorry, gaijin san, but that person does not deal with foreigners”

      ”Why are you talking to me? I am Japanese, you do not know me. I do not feel I need to know you!”

      Wtf?! Please excuse my ignorance, as I live in China, but did a Japanese person actually say that to you?! Really, ‘Gaijin san’ is that considered an ok form of address?

      — I will vouch for “Gaijin-san” as a pat term of address. I’ve heard it umpteen times.

    97. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Fight Back #95

      So true! As result (and this links back to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Gaijin), I now have only 2 male Japanese friends after living here for 11 years. One moved was born and spent his childhood in Europe, and then moved to Kansai from Tokyo, and the other spent 2 years working in Texas.

      @ Flyjin #93

      I agree with your post. I think a major factor is national arrogance and insularity. Most Japanese have a vastly over-inflated view of Japan in the world (due to incredibly poor and jingoistic journalism, that rarely looks beyond it’s nose except for the Major League), and don’t seem to understand that the Japanese economy cannot survive without overseas sales (for example). There are not enough Toyota customers in Japan to keep Toyota afloat. Which leads me to another interesting conundrum….

      Why do you think it is that foreign cars (for example), like ‘Benz’ are a status symbol in Japan, yet NJ are derided and looked down upon? Why are the artifacts of our NJ cultures valued, yet we are completely devalued?

      — German cars (like French food) are looked at with a great deal of respect. Part of it I suspect is a remnant affection for a former wartime ally, part of it is the stereotype of the Germans being as concerned with precision and detail (not to mention technology and gadgetry) as the Japanese, part of it is simple cachet (again, like French handbags), and part of it is the fact that German cars are not people and they go in the direction they’re steered. :)

    98. Jiong Says:

      Wow, I am stunned! I now wholeheartedly back Flyjin’s point that MAs can be much more blunt in Japan, than say, China. Only the rudest people here would ignore you simply for being visibly foreign, and only then normal only a minority of taxi drivers who feel like it’s not worth the hassle.

      Are you not tempted to reply to the 外人-san comment with an “Ok, 日本人-san”?

      — I have. Many times. But the irony is usually lost.

    99. flyjin Says:

      @Jiong, it is telling you live in China and seemingly do not encounter such blantant exclusionism. Of course, I am sure it does happen in China, just not in the same manner. An apology justifying exclusionism is common in Japan and eventually you finally just expect it- i.e. there are certain places that are not ‘foreigner friendly” even if you speak Japanese, though sometimes that gets you in the door as a token, pet or novelty. You may still be left in the “genkan”(hallway) to quote a cultural study.

      As for the popularity of foreign products, products are not people. I will turn this on its head and quote a complaint letter from a Japanese to a British magazine in 1998:

      “Why does your magazine praise Japanese products but insult the Japanese people (by calling them “japs” alongside “Yanks”, Brits” etc)

      The answer is self evident. Liking foreign products is not the same as liking foreign people. A recent UN charge levied at Japan was “Are you saying you just want to trade with the outside world but have no social interaction with it?” (link was thru this site). A charge which was denied of course, but obviously this is exactly what more than a few people here in fact want.

    100. Brooks Says:

      Indeed. Japan wants economic globalization but not cultural globalization.

      The more I think about this, there are times we encounter microaggressions but didn’t realize it.
      Part of the problem is how people in authority are allowed to bully and are allowed to get away with it. Or other times, bullies are not told to stop. I forget the Japanese but the phrase is to ‘kill with silence’.

      — I think you’re referring to 黙殺。I don’t think it’s quite the right word here.

    101. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Debito and Flyjin #99

      I think there’s a JBC in this idea that the product has value, but the person does not, when it comes to foreign brands.

    102. Jiong Says:

      One microagro in China that is similar to Japan is being constantly referred to as 老外 (laowai), the Chinese version of 外人. As in the above thread, you won’t get people addressing you directly as Mr. Laowai, or whatever, but you do get people asking you inane questions that begin with “So, do you laowai all…?” Or, you get people talking about you in the third person as a laowai right in front of you, because why should you be offended, after all, you are a laowai! The person has never considered the shoe on the other foot, of course, if a Chinese person in the US had to hear someone shout: “Hey, Larry, there’s a China-man here to see ya!” I’m not saying that doesn’t actually happen, but I bet some considerable offense is taken.

      Ah, good old empathy, it normally takes a high IQ and an open mind (well read and or well traveled). Hence many of us only having good local friends who fit one of those categories (see JDG’s thread #97 above).

      老外 is as annoying and undermining as 外人. It is especially powerful for three main reasons: 1. The word for ‘old’ 老 is used in China to denote either affection (Old Uncle Wang) but when used on a stranger implies that you’re talking down to the person and don’t take them totally seriously. 2. Notice the lack of the character 人? Yep, even the Japanese keep you in the human category, but in China you are in direct contrast to “us 中国人 and you 老外”. 3. The tonal aspect of Chinese means that the falling tone of 外 ‘wai’ just makes the sound easier to spit out viciously.

      Then again, all of this pales into insignificance when one considers that you guys get called 外人 and then physically blocked in communication or entry into places.

    103. Flyjin Says:

      @ Jim and Brooks, not sure its even “globalisation” more economic benefits withuot having to concede anything at all, including freedom to their consumers.
      So Japan is (once again) not all that different from the authoritarian rulers of Mainland China; they want Perestroika/economic benefits without the Glasnost.
      Openness? Freedom of information? Why, that might “give the people the mistaken belief that they govern Japan” (to laughingly quote one J Politician’s telling gaffe).

    104. john k Says:

      Whenever I am faced with the question, (without any enquiry), so where in America are you from, i retort, so you’re Chinese are you?

      I get the usual puzzled looks and they ask again…where in America are you from….so i repeat also.

      Then,…finally, I get the…why are you asking me (J) where in China do I come from, “I” am Japanese.

      I simply say, well you have black hair, your eyes are almond shaped and you speak a strange language…surely you’re Chinese…at which they often get either 1) indignant or 2) the penny drops.

      If 2)…so, they ask me again, are you American..which I reply…no, I am British! 😉

    105. chris Says:

      You have probably done more tangible things and drawn the ire of more Japanophiles than anyone because of your ability to point out flaws that many seem to want to ignore.


      Loco already did this post 20 times. I did it …you’ve kinda done it. It’s ignorance and racism with some passive aggression mixed in.

      “Alas, my actions to stem or deter this just make me look alarmist,”

      No…no they are not. There are a lot of us who have been seeing the same thing as you and you’r not rubbing a lot of folks the wrong way, your doing the opposite, you’re shining a light. Your not gonna stem or deter anything though. Your mostly talking to the community that is here for 2 -8 years and then gone so they don’t really give a shit and often make things worse.

      I found this via Mutant Fro* on a lark cuz it was on a blog I likes blogroll.

      He made a post about your post and then instructed everyone not to utter your name in the comment section. THAT’S the kinda mindless fuc*s your never gonna get through to and the Japanese are too busy fucking up everything for this problem to ever be fixed before we are both long gone. Like child porn most Japanese don’t even see a problem. I believe the 1st step towards recovery is acceptance of the problem and they are not anywhere near that…the 1st step I mean.

      You are the man though. Always had mad respect if for no other reason than your the devil to some and that says more about them than it ever will about you.

      Keep pushin…keep fighting.

    106. giantpanda Says:

      @Jiong, as a caucasian married to a Chinese I have experienced some pretty foul racism in China. Including being called a whore, while walking down the street with my husband. My children will never be considered Chinese, despite their names and ancestry. My in-laws feel it’s perfectly fine to talk about “lao wai” and “riben guizi” in front of my face. China has a 4,000 year old tradition of cultural imperialism, and I think it’s only a matter of time before the old ideas of ethnic superiority raise their heads again (it’s no mistake that China is named the “middle kingdom” – the centre of the world). Yet you are right, the Chinese will never ignore you for being foreign, their micro-agressions are much more on the side of paying you far too much attention!

      — Let’s get back on track with a conversation about Japan (or if comparing, including Japan), please.

    107. Mark Hunter Says:

      I would just like to reiterate that this is one of the best columns to hit Japan’s English press in many years. Why? It speaks to the heart of so much that frustrates NJ in their lives here. It takes a special kind of perception to get to the true crux of people’s feelings, but this article has done so. I can only only hope that this article and it’s ensuing discussion becomes as well known as former pieces like ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword’ did. A stretch? I think not. Thanks again to Debito for putting it all out there and for moderating the discussion.

    108. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Chris #105

      Sound comment, agree with the sentiment. Long time admirer of your blog, because you are keeping it real.

    109. Pearse Says:

      Once, when I worked at a juku (cram school), one of my students called me over to his desk with “Gaijin-san”. I nicely told him never to call me that again.

      — Attaboy.

    110. Eric C Says:

      The thing about the behavior here that’s being discussed (call it “micro-aggression” or “othering” or whatever) is that it reveals something fundamental about the thinking of the vast majority of Japanese: namely, the only true Japanese are full-blooded Yamato Japanese. That is, being Japanese is a matter of blood, not law. To use the legal term, Japanese nationality is jus sanguinis (the right of blood). If you are haafu or non-Japanese, it doesn’t matter how good your Japanese is, how much you strive to fit in, or even if you’ve got permanent residency or citizenship, at the end of the day, 95% or more of all Japanese will never consider you Japanese.

      This is so deep in their thinking that you cannot expect it to change in the next 100 or even 200 years. In fact, as long as there are Japanese, this will not change.

      To anyone who’s ever lived in Japan for any length of time and really taken a good look around, this is blindingly obvious. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine the Japanese ever moving from this position. In order to do so, they’d have to change so much that they would be unrecognizable to us as Japanese. They’d be like third-generation Asian Americans of uncertain ancestry. They wouldn’t be Japanese. That much is for sure.

      Japan is not a multicultural country and never will be.

      That’s why, in an earlier post, I asked Debito why he keeps trying. Because, essentially, he’s asking a leopard to change its spots.

      If you really want to find out what Japanese really think of you, you have to put them in a situation where they are forced to drop their tatemae and formality. You have to make them show their tails, as the Japanese say. It’s not nice for anyone involved, but getting into a serious confrontation is usually how this happens. I did not seek out trouble when I was in Japan, but I did have a few serious arguments with Japanese men. In almost every case, as soon as things got heated, I was told: “Kuni ni kaere” or “Nihon wo dette ikke” (both of which mean “go home”). It was as if this thought was always on the tip of their tongues and as soon as things got slightly tense, it just popped out of their mouths. They had no control over it. It was what they wanted to say and all they could say.

      That’s why I’d counsel all long-term NJ to think carefully about their situations. Do you really want to live someplace where the people will never really consider you one of them? Do you really want to live in a place where you are bound to be the first person to be scapegoated when things go wrong (and taking a look down the road, this seems a certainty).

      This is not a rhetorical question: this is a question of personal safety. If you think I’m being alarmist, you might want to look at how they treated the Koreans after the Great Kanto Earthquake. They massacred them. That was less than 100 years ago. And the present mayor of that city, who just got re-elected by a wide margin, still mouths the same hate speech. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

    111. Rob H Says:

      I certainly won’t be jumping onto the ‘microaggression’ bandwagon that appears to be set in motion by Debito and I have to say I feel almost depressed by the lack of balance in so many of the comments on this thread.

      The article is a thoughtful and an interesting contribution to understanding this phenomenon, though it’s sadly still a huge oversimplifcation of a vastly complex subject that could be subject of a series of PhD theses before it is adequately covered. The social meaning of ‘you speak good Japanese/you use chopsticks well’ is multi-layered, dependent on the context of how it is said, who is speaking, who is listening, and will have a range of overlapping meanings. Debito draws our attention to one aspect of the words’ potential social meaning, which I agree will underlie the words when they are spoken on some or even many occasions, but to infer that the concept of ‘microaggressive’ gives a full sense of what should be understood by ‘nihongo ga jouzu desu’ is astonishingly narrow-minded.

      The phrase is, first and foremost, smalltalk, which occurs everywhere and between all people and a means of filling a potentially uncomfortable silence. People will often choose what they perceive to be a safe subject with which make conversation, a complement therefore, so while it understandibly can cause annoyance, it is still (at the very least partially) an attempt to connect, and to avoid conflict.

      It amazes me that no-one seems to have challenged Debito on this thread about is, but in the Japanese context particularly, to complement someone on their skill in Japanese is often a polite invitation to tell them more about yourself. Yes it may reinforce the context that you are non-Japanese, and therefore subtly to reassert the inequality in the power relationship between you, but it is also said on the majority of occasions because that person genuinely is interested in who you are, and is an attempt to build a bridge to you.

      The term ‘microaggressive’ is therefore really unhelpful because it implies the phrase is wholly negative, like foreigners in Japan should have their fists clenched and ready to strike back when they are so verbally assaulted. In fact, somewhat ironically it seems to me, if you take Debito’s view to its logical conclusion and you reject such approaches as a malign ‘microassault’ on you, then you may well lose an opportunity to get to know that person, and an opportunity to educate them that in fact, there are sizeable number of non-Japanese born who live here on a permanent basis, and contribute to Japan being a richer and better place for them to live. In short, focusing on the ‘microaggressive’ side to a complex social phenomena may well exacerbate the cultural misunderstandings and ignorances that give rise to the inequality and prejudice that Debito rightly seeks to challenge.

      It strikes me that much of the ill-feeling toward Japanese people from Westerners who live here is much about a misjudged expectation of Japanese people to adhere to aspects of Western values – such as the efficacy of assimilation of foreigners in modern nation states, a value which has only recently become well-established in Europe and the US (and is also challenged by large sections of their populations). Discrimination on the grounds of race or culture should be challenged in Japan, but it is not a reason to despair that a huge number of Japanese people retain values which pertain to their relatively recent history, a history of isolationism valuing the strength of a homogenous society. If assimilation was my goal, i’d have chosen to move to Australia….

      Discrimination will continue in Japan for a long time yet, much as it will in the Texas or Manchester, but surely if we can get past the minor irritation of ‘your Japanese is good’, we’ve got a chance of making a substantial dent in the edifice? And that means having a rounded picture of human beings from all backgrounds. There’s some quite nasty, negative generalisations written above in regard to ‘the Japanese’ whatever that means, it seems to me there’s little chance of substantial progress if we as foreigners in Japan choose to keep to stubbornly keep our own negative stereotypes and one-dimensional views. We should be open to learning, however long we’ve been here, I learn everyday, that’s why I love Japan!

      — Ho hum, here we go again: Somebody gets hung up on one sentence, and suddenly we’re being all culturally imperialistic (e.g., “a misjudged expectation of Japanese people to adhere to aspects of Western values”) just because we generally don’t want to be constantly pigeonholed into a subordinate status in Japanese society. Only this time it’s not a mere matter of being “oversensitive”, which is the commoner charge — this time, we’re even morally wrong and culturally insensitive for potentially standing up for ourselves in such an apparently insular, homogeneous society with such a short history of dealing with the outside world. Clearly you don’t know much about Japan’s history of using a Pan-Asian “heterogeneous society” approach during its Imperial days (try some Oguma Eiji, 2000: the whole myth of “homogeneity” is in fact a postwar trope in Japan). But I guess this ignorant mindset works for you and your world view. It’s just a pity you further assume that one size of coping strategy fits all. Thanks for further pigeonholing us.

      As for this bit, Microaggressions as “a vastly complex subject that could be subject of a series of PhD theses before it is adequately covered”. Do some research. “Microaggressions” as a term has been around for more than four decades, and has been the subject of much scholarship. I daresay it is being adequately covered and can be called a social phenomenon in all societies. Read up. Or don’t. Ignorance may be bliss and losing this myopic and intransigent a world view might be too painful for you.

    112. JS Says:

      @ Rob H # 111

      First, I think it’s important to remember that the “using chopsticks/speaking Japanese well” thing is a symptom of a bigger problem. It needs to be looked at for what it is; a window into how the Japanese culture views NJ and advertently or inadvertently “others” NJ at a very basic level through the use of microaggression.

      It may be instructive to look at this another way. I am a naturalized American citizen who moved to the U.S. from a non-Western, developing country as a teenager. My grandparents never used a fork or a knife and ate with their hands, even though, I have always used silverware to eat. When I moved to the U.S., no one, yes, not one single person, ever complimented me on how well I could use a knife and a fork. And, I’m sure glad about that, since I probably would have s**t in my pants if anyone had said that to me. People were generally very friendly and curious about me, and used various ways to make small talk or start a conversation with me. Thankfully, “you use the fork really well” was not one of them. The same goes for my English speaking ability. (only reason I’m using the U.S. as an example is because I have first hand experience of what it is like there for visible minorities and immigrants. I also think there is no other country in the world which does a better job of allowing these two groups to assimilate, if they chose to do so).

      My experience in America was like a lot of other immigrants there. We were rarely “othered” in a way that NJ are regulary “othered” in Japan. The only reason the “using chopsticks/speaking Japanese well” thing is getting a lot of attention here is because it seems to be one of the most widely used and visible microaggressions which many NJ face in Japan.

      Second, I don’t think this is a “vastly complex subject”, as Rob H seems to think. I think this is actually something very basic, which the Japanese who pride themselves on their strong sense of nuance and KY, and quite capable of comprehending. Even in some of the least developed countries in the world which have extremely high illiteracy rates where I have lived, the locals somehow intuitively know not to say these types of things upon meeting someone who is visibly from another place. Dude, this is not rocket science.

      Third, I don’t believe this is a case of spoilt Westerners whining about the way they get treated in Japan. It is true that the most vocal ones may be Westerners, but I assure you that non-Western NJ also feel the effects of these microaggressions, and probably more so. It’s just that more often than not, they may not vocalize their concerns, due to cultural and economic reasons, etc. (now, here’s a vastly complex subject, if someone wants to research it further).

      Lastly, using Texas and Manchester as examples shows a fundamental lack of understanding of microaggresive behavior. Those who have been to either of these two places will know that you are more likely to encounter a more visible form of aggression there than you are to face microaggression. That is the whole point of this discussion, that it is sometimes easier to deal with in-your-face aggression than it is to deal with microaggression.

    113. Mark Hunter Says:

      Rob…that post essentially comes across as an apology for borish behavior. If someone says my chopstick use is good, what they are really saying is that, for a foreigner, my chopstick use is good. That is ‘othering’, not a form of smalltalk, and therefore microaggression. Ditto, your Japanese is good. The intent of the speaker is of no consequence – it is the perception by the recipient of the comminication that is key. Also, in your post you imply that focussing on microagression distracts from larger issues of equality. That implication certainly does not represent this blog – which covers a wide range of issues affecting NJ in Japan.

    114. Rob H Says:

      Debito, have you been on the cooking wine? is this vitriol really necessary?

      I made no allusion to cultural imperialism, nor cultural insensitivity, it was a point about expectation. And the mind truly boggles, I actually lauded you for challenging discrimination, yet somehow you infer I questioned your morals? Seriously, did you actually read what I wrote?

      I simply sought to suggest that microagressions are only part of a wider complex picture and not the full story. And maybe, JUST MAYBE, every once in a while someone who comments that your Japanese is very good is potentially someone who might be looking to get to know you – you know, in like a positive, friendly, lets share and learn about each other and make the world a better place kind of way. I guess that’s just my ‘ignorant mindset’ and my ‘myopic and intransigent world view’… Well as you say, it works for me. Sorry for sharing.

      — You didn’t “simply seek to suggest” only that at all. Did YOU read what you wrote? Obviously you don’t understand what happens under “Microaggressions” since you clearly, as evidenced both by your original post and this defense, have no self-awareness of what you are saying to people. I stand by my criticisms.

    115. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Debito #111

      Rob H is a classic case of ‘I don’t mind, so you shouldn’t either’, right up to the point where someone is rude to him or his J-wife, or his ‘haafu’ kids get bullied at school, or his next door neighbor says that they don’t think NJ should be allowed to own a house in Japan (I could go on).
      He is insisting on seeing micro-aggression out of context, and then starts the apologist ‘you with your western ideas’ rant. They’re not ‘western’ ideas, it’s called respecting others human rights.

    116. Fight Back Says:

      I’m glad that one of the apologists turned up to show us just what it is that we are really fighting against. If every NJ stood up to these microaggressions and presented a united front, we could start to make some headway against this very deliberate ‘othering’ by Japanese society.

      Unfortunately, someone like Rob H will usually be there, all cringing smiles and making excuses for the inexcusable. “oh, they just want to be our friends, let’s overlook their boorish behavior!”

      Well sorry Rob H but that doesn’t work for me. Too many bitter experiences, too much time spent down in the trenches struggling against these aggressions each and every day.

      You can’t take those struggles away from me with just a few platitudes. That why this website exists, to give a common voice to all of us that we may fight back against the forces who wish to make us an underclass of citizens here in Japan.

    117. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @Rob H

      Sure, let’s ignore the things we don’t like, and focus on the things we do, right? (after all, that’s a very Japanese idea; let’s ignore bad government, yakuza, and fukushima).
      But just remember ‘Gaijin Hanzai Ura’ mook. What would have happened if all NJ had ‘chosen’ to ignore that? Where would we be now? ‘Gaijin Hanzai Ura 2? 3?’ Maybe a whole TV show…?
      Thanks to the efforts of a VERY small number of people (like Debito) ALL NJ escaped degradation in that instance. Those who don’t even have the honesty to give gratitude for things like that are like spoilt children. What would have happened if Debito and all the other NJ who have criticisms of Japan had gone home years ago? You and all the other apologists would be filed, identified, tagged, curfewed, and god only knows what else by now.

      @ Eric C, Debito, Rob H

      I understand why Eric C feels the way he does. I agree with a lot of what he writes. I understand why he feels that the struggle for better conditions is doomed. However, I would say this to the defeatists and the ‘why don’t you go home’ crowd; Debito’s goals may be idealistic and over-optimistic, but without efforts such as Debito has made, this place would be a living hell for NJ. Maybe ‘holding the line’ is the best we can hope for for the time being. Maybe real change will only happen after all the myths of Japan, that Japanese people (and some NJ) believe (such as ‘Japan is a safe country’, ‘Everyone in Japan is middle-class’, ‘Japanese people don’t commit crime- Japanese are very honest!’), have been powerfully shown to be untrue, will there be real change.
      Until then, I’m backing Debito, because ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph, is for good men do nothing’. It’s not so much about the perfect victory of ideas for me (although that would be nice), as much as it is about stopping discrimination from getting incrementally much worse.

    118. Douglas Says:

      I feel this post is going to get me into a lot trouble. I’ve been in Tohoku for over 20 years. Yes, the first several years were filled with chopsticks, when are you going home, and compliments on my very sub-par Japanese. Once people around me realised I was staying, maybe for the long time, I never heard THOSE questions any more. OK … there was one guy that asked me EVERY morning during winter if it snowed in the UK and every morning I gave him the same answer (depends – in the North yes, in the South, like Japan – snow in Tokyo produces loads of accidents and general panic). Occasionally some shops will talk to my Japanese wife and not to me, but after moving into their eye line and “forcing” eye contact things proceed. When I was working full time I got bonuses and retirement pay. I learnt the language and I fitted in – BUT that doesn’t mean I GAVE in. Tohoku houses mostly Jiminto (Jibunto) feeling people. That’s not going to change – but the young people thankfully hate politics in this country and don’t watch the Nippon Nippon television – give them the chance to open their minds and they take it (until they have to look for a job). Don’t be over sensitive, keep a sense of perspective and stop blanketing a whole country as racist. Japan has a culture, good or bad. It’s been around a lot longer than that of the US … Many Japanese have a ‘sen nyu kan” as to what a foreigner is, but a lot of other Japanese don’t. Blame the media enlighten the person.

      — Okaaaay… so this means you speak up when people “Microaggress” you into a societal pigeonhole or stereotype, right? That’s also a form of “enlightening the person”. And who’s “blanketing the whole country as racist” here?

    119. Joe Says:

      This has been a very interesting debate with all sorts of interesting opinions. I’d like to add my own.
      “Othering” and “microaggression” are absolutely different, although a lot of people on this site seem to regard them as one and the same.
      When a museum offers a braille guide to a blind person, the museum is “othering” that person. When that same museum offers me an English guide to the exhibits, rather than a Japanese one, I’m being equally “othered”. But both cases are acts of kindness, not “aggression”.
      When I’m offered a fork instead of chopsticks at a convenience store, I’m being “othered”, but, again, it’s an action grounded in consideration for me as a customer, rather than unpleasantness.(When I first arrived, twenty-three years ago, I couldn’t use chopsticks to save my life and was glad of the offer of a fork).
      “Aggression” is something else and I’ve experienced it. Sat on a train reading a Japanese book and being asked by the woman opposite “Can you read Japanese?” (Duh, I guess so, seeing as I’m sat here reading a Japanese book), or being told that my kids are “…too pretty to be real Japanese”.

      Anyway, I guess my point is that we should save our energy for fighting the vile, racist bastards out there and try to ignore the petty stuff, resulting from people’s determination to be “kind”.

      Please, let’s distinguish between innocent “othering” and nasty “micro aggression”.

      — I think Microaggressions also deals with these apparent acts of “kindness” (or as better rendered in Japanese than even in English, “arigata meiwaku”). Did you read the Dr. Sue article referred to?

    120. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Douglas #118

      ‘Once people around me realised I was staying, maybe for the long time, I never heard THOSE questions any more’
      Fair enough. But what about those of us that don’t live in the innaka, where all the locals can actually remember our face after a number of years? What about those of us who live in a big city, with a larger NJ population, who maybe go to a wide variety of places where the J-baito staff have a high turn-over?

      @ Joe #119

      ‘Anyway, I guess my point is that we should save our energy for fighting the vile, racist bastards out there and try to ignore the petty stuff, resulting from people’s determination to be “kind”.’

      The number of Facebook likes that the JT micro-aggression article has would suggest that this shouldn’t be disregarded as petty, but should be addressed as an effect of the ‘vile, racist bastards’ that you speak of, don’t you think?

      ‘Please, let’s distinguish between innocent “othering” and nasty “micro aggression”.’
      I’m a little confused by this statement. Are you saying that constant ‘othering’ is not nasty? A number of readers are disagreeing.

    121. Baudrillard Says:

      Doug “Japan has a culture, good or bad. It’s been around a lot longer than that of the US”

      Afraid not- Japan has post 1945 pseudo culture,opartly given to them by the USA, partly face saving reinvention but uses the outdated signs and symbols of a “unique” “ancient” culture to disguise the fact. This why we see injusticies, inconsistencies, and illogicalities. Why people just say “because it is a rule you must do this” (because it IS just a rule, it makes no sense).

      I say pseudo American because once again, it just adopts the signs and symbols of e.g. democracy without implementing it properly.Watch them sign the Hague Convention then not implement it. Japan’s whole history is about taking foreign stuff then twisting it and calling it “Japanese”, from tempura to Kanji.

      So what is Japan? I do not know. A post modern mess I supppose. That is arguably why there are so many books about what it means to be Japanese- they do not know themselves anymore, and it is comforting to fall back on all the Nhonjiron myths and illusions of a recently created and rebranded Japan. E.g. Jim’s post about the Samurai, or Salaryman as Samurai-what a joke! One thing Hollywwood got right in the postmodern movie “The Last Samurai” was to convey how the Maeiji/Imperialistic reinvention of Japan was about the destruction of the samurai and what came before with mass purging and therebranding of Japan as a “modern, western nation”.

      Al that remains that is ancient is a few quaint hobbies and sports (though these are probably twisted updates too). Can anyone else think of something that is genuinely ancient in modern Japan? I was sorely disappointed from day one in how pseudo western my Japanese hosts were. OK, so he wore a yukata.. while he watched grossly commercial Americanized TV. And one room with tatami. Thats about it. Beautiful illusions, and yet he did not know what wabi, sabi or any of those “Japanese” concepts meant.

      — Back on track, please.

    122. Fight Back Says:

      Looks like the apologists are up to their old tricks again!

      Don’t believe a word of it. Being given an English guide or English menu is a very deliberate way of ‘othering’ NJ. The subtle messages involved are very powerful. We all need to stand up for ourselves and demand the Japanese menu, like everyone else gets.

      Sometimes I believe the apologists fool themselves into believing they have been ‘accepted’ into Japanese society. They no longer choose to notice the sneers, the eye, the just out of earshot comments.

      Stop fooling yourselves, microaggressions are just the tip of the iceberg!

    123. Joe Says:

      @Jim (120)

      I’m trying to suggest that there’s a big difference between “othering” which emerges out of someone going out of their way to be helpful and “micro-aggression”, which emerges out of malice and a desire to put the recipient in his/her place.
      At the university where I teach, for instance, all English teachers are given two copies of all official documents and notices: one in Japanese and one in English. This is clearly “othering” such teachers, as the Japanese staff receive only the Japanese version, but it’s not done out of any desire to make us look stupid. Someone’s taking time and effort to help and there’s absolutely no aggression involved.
      If I offer my seat on a train to an elderly person, then I’m “othering” them as too frail to manage to stand as well as I can. But I’m not doing it out of spite.
      I’d ask everyone to consider this: If you saw a bewildered-looking, foreign-looking tourist-looking type gazing helplessly at a map of the railway line in your town in Japan, in what language would you address them to offer help? If you’d use English, then you’re “othering” them. He or she could have been born and bred here and just be a bit myopic. If you’d use Japanese, you’d probably get a funny look and feel a bit funny, too.
      So while deliberate, malicious micro-aggression needs to be addressed as a problem in society here, I really think than an unintended slight, borne out of a willingness to help should be seen for what it is: unintended and in no way aggressive.

      — Joe, did you even read Dr. Sue’s article on Microaggressions (or my interpretation of it, for that matter)? They do not necessarily “emerge out of malice and a desire to put the recipient in his/her place”. There can be a lack of malice at all, as a lot of it is unconscious behavior. That’s why Microaggressions are so invisible, and so powerful, and often impossible to fight against. If you can’t even be bothered to get the concept right, there’s not much we can discuss here. Do your homework and come back later.

    124. JS Says:

      The negative consequences of microaggressions are particularly strong within hierarchical structures. Japanese society is about as hierarchical and status-conscious as any I’ve seen in other Asian countries which have long feudal histories.

      I think some NJ from the more egalitarian cultures, may not fully apprecite the power of microaggression in such hierarchical/feudal societies. In these societies, it is generally the higher-status person who compliments the lower-status person (the reverse of this is very rare). The psychology behind this is the same as an adult complimenting a child, a manager at work complimenting his subordinate, or a master complimenting an apprentice.

      These types of complements may be sincere, but they also inherently establish a hierarchy and pecking order. In Japan, where almost all interactions and relationships are hierarchical, compliments from a Japanese person to a “perpetually newbei” NJ about things which are uniquely Japanese, are often a manifestation and cementing of this pecking order. Remember, we are not talking about a Japanese person complimenting a NJ on completin the Tokyo Marathon here. Instead, we are talking about using chopsticks and speaking basic Japanese — things that adults in Japan may compliment kids on.

      So before we NJ let these compliments go to our head, let’s not forget what skills/accomplishments are being complimented here. The use of these types of compliments to establish a hierarchy/pecking order/rules of the game cannot be overemphasized. They can have strong negative implications by lowering the status and expectations of the person on the receiving end of such compliments (note that I’m not referring to all compliments here, just the inappropriate ones).

    125. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Joe #123

      Yeah, what Debito said. Read the article. I don’t think you understood what micro-aggressions are.
      And what’s all this about ‘othering’ ‘which emerges out of someone going out of their way to be helpful’? Surely you are confused? Don’t you mean;
      ‘“othering” which emerges out of malice and a desire to put the recipient in his/her place.’?

      I personally don’t find ‘othering’ (such as walking into a friends wedding party this Sunday to hear 2 Japanese guests immediately gasp ‘gaijin da!’) to be ‘helpful’. Do you?

    126. Loverilakkuma Says:

      I just found one respondent who was bitching on the article you’ve recently wrote in JT.

      It’s so hilarious to see how shallow –and clueless– people are, as usual. This girl in the YouTube doesn’t even know that she is insulting Japanese people with her words.

      Here’s the link:

    127. Maxabillion Slartibartfast Says:

      The poll in the sidebar doesn’t have an option for responding to micro-aggressions with a joke. When a Japanese person tells me I am good with chopsticks, I thank them and launch into a story about how my parents sent me away to train with a chopstick master since I was a young child, developing my skills over years of rigorous practice. I try to see how long and elaborate I can make the story before they figure out it’s a joke.

    128. giantpanda Says:

      @JS Extremely perceptive comments.

      Some may disagree with me but I also find the “yobi-sute” phenomenem to be subtly degrading – whereby Japanese get called last name + san or “sensei”, but foreigners are referred to by first name only or maybe first name + san. Unfortunately, this kind of usage is perpetuated by the media, so people think it is entirely acceptable and foreigners “want” to be called by their first names in all situations. I’ve known long-termer NJ to be extremely sensitive about this and insist on the proper form of address from those J-subordinates who work beneath them. Unfortunately, if you have been letting people get away with it for years, thinking that this is some kind of short-cut to being friendly, it is a most difficult habit to change.

    129. JS Says:

      @ Loverilakkuma 126

      Thank you, thank you, for posting the YouTube link. I have often wondered who these “Debito haters” our there are. Now, after watching the video, I know who these naive and ditzy people are, who are always critisizing and dissing Debito.

      The girl in the video is obviously so smart with so much experience, wisdom and such a broad world view…..NOT. All I could do while watching the rambling rant on the video was to laugh and think to myself that it’s nice to finally be able to put a face to all the “Debito haters” out there. It made me think of the old saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. Ah, ignorance is indeed bliss, after all.

      I have lived and worked in Toronto, and still hang on to my old OHIP card and Ontario drivers license. It is a beautiful multicultural city and one of the reasons Canada is so great. Thankfully, I never ran into anyone as ignorant as the girl in the video during my entire time in Toronto.

      If these are the kinds of long term visitors or immigrants Japan attracts, then the country is in dire straits. Japan deserves better than this.

      — It’s fortunate that someone like her was willing to link her face with her comments. Most of the pseudonymous Haters don’t.

    130. Eric C Says:

      @JDG #117

      Thanks for acknowledging some of my comments. Obviously, we agree about a lot of things. The one thing that puzzles me is why you choose to stay in Japan when you yourself admit that it has so many deep problems. What keeps you there? Work? Family? I can see how both could keep you there.

      Please don’t be too quick to lump me with the sort of Japanese people who say, “If you don’t like Japan, then go home.” That’s not my feeling at all. Depending upon where you are from, Japan might be a lot better than where you come from. If you’re American, you might find that Japan is a far more humane and reasonable place (I mean, it’s got socialized medicine and it doesn’t spend about half of your tax dollars on “defense”). If you’re from certain depressed parts of the UK, you might also find Japan preferable. But, I’m not necessarily saying “go home.” Perhaps you could find another country that is more friendly to immigrants and that has a brighter future than Japan does (Australia, anyone?).

      I’ll never fall into the “like it or lick it” camp. I do not believe that one should refrain from criticizing the place they live, even if they are immigrants. I don’t believe people should “go along to get along.” However, I do believe that foreign residents of Japan should take a cold hard look at the country, the people, its laws (or lack thereof) and its history with racial matters and decide if they really want to remain there. I didn’t make a snap judgement. I took a long time to arrive at my position. I can certainly understand that there are some people whose situations will not allow them to move to another country. To those people, the work of Debito may be a lifesaver. For those who have options (and perhaps we have more options than we immediately perceive), I’d say, go visit another country and stay for a while. Bring your Japanese wife and children if you have them. And see how it feels. If it feels better than Japan, then start to dig deeper. Talk to an immigration lawyer. Talk to other immigrants. Find out how Japanese like living there (for your wife). And, consider moving. After all, getting back to the topic of this thread, do you really want to put up with little acts of aggression and othering for the rest of your life? Life is short. Why not live someplace that makes you and your family happy?

    131. Marius Says:

      When Microaggressions and Japans everlasting/neverchanging preconceptions turns annoying:

      (on the phone, speaking Japanese)

      Me: I would like to change and review some details to my order (in Japanese)
      Her: Ok, did you make it recently? (in Japanese)
      Me: Yes, I placed it about 3 days ago (in Japanese)
      Her: Ok. Can I have your order number? (in Japanese)
      Me: [says number] (in Japanese)
      Her: Ok. And what is your name? (in Japanese)
      Me: [saying my name] (in Japanese)
      Her: …ayaa donto speek Englishu (“English”)
      Me: But, you know, we were talking in Japanese… (in Japanese)
      Her: Sorry I donto andastando….sorryyyy… *click* (“English”)

    132. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @ Eric C #130

      Thank you. I do agree with many of your comments and respect to the utmost the fact that you have been prepared to risk the attention of the apologists by being open and frank on this site.
      I think you’ll understand if I don’t want to give away too much personal information, and also I have no desire to derail the thread.
      However, I will say this;
      I have a family, I have work. Both are good. My wife has lived in my home country, and we are ready to take off when the balance tips (and Japan is so teetering on the edge). I personally believe that deteriorating social cohesion due to economic and demographic factors will be a far more important factor in choosing to stay or go than issues around discrimination. The J-gov shows neither the will nor the ability to fix those problems, even 20 years on. When the cash stops (and it will, look at the national debt, and all the ‘hidden losses’), I’ll be one of those ‘flyjin’. I worked, they paid me, I don’t owe them anything.

    133. Jim Di Griz Says:

      @Loverilakkuma #126

      Thanks for posting the link. I couldn’t sit through more than about 5 mins of it. She doesn’t have a clue. She has fallen for all the Japan cliches hook, line, and sinker, and is a ‘self-appointed gate-keeper’ of Japan, othering Debito as a ‘gaijin with Japanese citizenship’ (wait! doesn’t that mean ‘a Japanese citizen’?). I really laughed at that! Who the hell is she to decide what a ‘real’ Japanese person is (despite the legal definition!).

      @Debito sama

      You should certainly consider a JBC on the NJ that play into the racist’s hands by helping to reinforce the stereotypes of Japanese and NJ, whilst also reinforcing their own status as ‘others’, and why they do it, what’s in it for them? I think that there is scope for making it clear that it is even more offensive to be othered by NJ newbies and apologists on behalf of Japanese!!! The bloody arse-holes aren’t helping!

    134. Andrew in Saitama Says:

      Just to add to #128, let’s not forget the constant subtitling of NJ’s speech in katakana (or even worse, romaji) on TV, no matter how accentless it may be.
      Not to mention that often when an NJ speaks in TV commercials and there is an over-dub, the dub is done in a silly voice or fake accent.

      Sure, feel free to make comments about noses directly to their owners, in a fake accent while addressing them by first name only with no honorific… it’s only racist if the shoe is on the other foot

    135. Fight Back Says:

      Andrew, that’s a great example of microaggression by deliberate policy decision. No one can argue that the TV company it’s trying to innocently ‘help’ those NJ. It’s a clear cut case of othering that has been put in place as company policy and an effective tool to disseminate that attitude to the masses who so eagerly buy into these myths of their own making.

      Using NJ as comedy foils on TV is so standard that it is never called into question, making it feel like Japanese TV is for Japanese only.

    136. giantpanda Says:

      I can see a great research paper here on “Katakana as a tool of microagression”, after all, it is almost solely used to mark words, and people, that are foreign, isn’t it? Wonder what would happen if I started writing my name in hiragana, which suits me better after all, with its flowing curves and elegant rounded script. Why must we be condemned to the sharp corners and rigid lines of Katakana?

      — Let me cook your noodle further. Has every NJ resident of Japan reading this gotten a provisional copy of their Juuminhyou yet? Leaving aside for now this very positive development, have you noticed that on it, despite everything else written in normal combinations of Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji, the furigana (normally rendered in Hiragana for native speaker children/low-level adults) is all in Katakana? Now, why is that?

      I’ve been wanting to write about this, but I don’t have a copy of the provisional Juuminhyou that doesn’t invade someone’s privacy. Somebody want to redact one for discussion here? Please send to Thanks.

    137. rpl Says:

      After seeing the successful debate produced by your article, in Japan and also in Taiwan (very productive debate there), I tried to introduced the subject of Microaggression to Hong Kong (I moved there 1 month ago).

      link here:

    138. JS Says:

      @ Giantpanda # 136

      You make an excellent point about the use of Katakana for “othering” NJ in Japan. 

      What bothers me most about the use of Katakana for foreign names (including my own), is that Katakana is the equivalent of “No Man’s Land”. It’s neither here, nor there. I would rather that foreigners’ name either be written in hiragana, or even Romaji (I’ll take this over katakana anytime). At least, that way a person feels that they belong in one camp or the other.

      By exclusively using Katakana for foreigners’ names in Japan, the Japanese society is essentially stripping them of their original name (since, it just sounds bastardized), without letting them blend into Japanese society through the use of hiragana.

      This is indicative of a larger problem I have noticed in the way the Japanese deal with NJ in their midst. It seems they want NJ to renounce big parts of their cultural heritage when they are in Japan, while at the same time making it clear to them that there will never be a path for them to assimilate into Japanese society. 

      This comes down to power politics at a personal level. By losing part of their own identity, without being accepted into Japanese society, the NJ are left in a weakened and vulnerable position of feeling that they are in a “no man’s land” situation (this goes back to my earlier post about hierarchy in Japanese interactions). The contrast of this with, for example, the “melting pot” of America, or the “mosaic” of Canada is quite stark. In this sense, the use of Katakana may be the mother of all microaggressions. 

      — Keep in mind, however, that Pre-War script (you can still see it in older law texts) was Kanji and Katakana. So it wasn’t always just to “other” or “foreignize”, and it wasn’t “neither here nor there”. Just FYI.

    139. Anonymous Says:

      Well, I’ve received a provisional copy of my “fake Juuminhyou for gaijin”, yes.

      Let’s remember that this isn’t an actual Juuminhyou, this “fake Juuminhyou for gaijin” is simply deceiving naive gaijin into feeling like they are being treated the same as Japanese, while in fact the true result is insuring that immigration now has the ability to make every gaijin in Japan pay about 100万 (about $10,000) before receiving their next visa.

      For those who don’t remember, a year or two ago the immigration bureaucrats working in the ministry of justice threatened to make a seirei requiring all gaijin to show proof of either A.) being enrolled in shakai hoken (the lucky 5% of gaijin who are in that category) or B.) being enrolled in kokumin kenko hoken. And the threat was that those who weren’t enrolled in either wouldn’t get their visa renewed next time. This threat successfully caused many gaijin to enroll in kokumin kenko hoken. Then mysteriously, the bureaucrats decided NOT to issue that seirei, remember, here’s why:

      With this “fake Juuminhyou for gaijin”, the bureaucrats have finally gotten what they wanted, the ability for immigration to use non-enrollment in kokumin kenko hoken as a visa denying tool, and not only that, this “fake Juuminhyou for gaijin” also gives immigration the ability to use non-enrollment in kokumin nenkin as a visa denying tool as well.

      If you are currently unenrolled, you better start saving up 100万 (about $10,000) worth of unpaid kokumin kenko hoken and kokumin nenkin payments, so that when your next visa renewal date comes, and immigration tells you “either enroll now or you get no new visa”, you will have enough money to actually go down to city hall and enroll at that stage.

      Anyway, about the question of katakana furigana, actually, my provisional copy has absolutely no furigana at all.

      My name is written in Roman Letters, and my nickname is written in Kanji. The only Katakana on this page is ironically on my Japanese wife’s family name, since she foolishly took my name and was thus herself marked forever with Katakana.

      And oh yes, I do see one more spot of Katakana, at the end of 在留カード.

      — Hm. My friend, in Shibuya-ku, has Katakana furigana. Interesting.

    140. Joe Says:


      Read and re-read the article and your comments. My posts above were confused and I’ll rectify that with a new one soon but I’d like to address Fight Back for a second:

      “Don’t believe a word of it. Being given an English guide or English menu is a very deliberate way of ‘othering’ NJ. The subtle messages involved are very powerful. We all need to stand up for ourselves and demand the Japanese menu, like everyone else gets.”

      @Fight Back
      Last time I was on holiday in Thailand I went into a restaurant in Bangkok. As soon as I sat down, the waitress scurried to the counter, grabbed an English menu, and handed it to me with a little bow. I took it and said thank you. What would you have had me do? Become enraged at the fact that I was being “othered” and demand a Thai menu, “like everybody else”? And then sit there like a fool, pointing at items I couldn’t read? Are you seriously suggesting she was sending me powerful “subtle messages”? No, she was trying to help me. None of the examples of micro-aggression in Dr Sue’s article involve people actively trying to help.

      So what’s the difference between that particular Thai waitress and a Japanese waitress who behaves in exactly the same way? The only difference I can see is that I can read a Japanese menu, but not a Thai one. But how on earth are they supposed to know that?

      — No. They give you the same menu they give everyone else. If it’s Thailand, they give you a Thai menu. If Japan, a menu in Japanese. If you can’t read Thai, THEN say (in your case), “Sorry, but do you have an English menu?” Obviously, since you say you read Japanese, that won’t be necessary for you in Japan.

      Now let’s put the shoe on the other foot: Imagine if, for example, in, say, a Western country, you were told to give every Asian who walked into your restaurant a menu in Chinese? Just because they “look Asian”. How would that sit? Not well. Think about it. Why wouldn’t it? Because “Asians” of many stripes and colors exist (Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, American, British, Canadian…), and other societies are aware of this fact because those Asians of many stripes say clearly to others that they exist. And I’m sure they would get annoyed after awhile at being “Microaggressed” into “Chinese” all the time. I know because I’ve heard them grumble about it.

      Why are you buying into the assumption yourself that every person who “looks foreign” (however defined; for the sake of argument here please let me assume you’re White) must be able to read English?

      This is why “Microaggressions” are so powerful. They’re so invisible even an intelligent bloke like you can’t see them no matter how much evidence and argument is put before you.

    141. Eric C Says:

      @JDG #132

      Thanks for the reply Jim. I can easily understand your situation and your desire to remain anonymous. I also agree that there are problems in Japan that make “othering” and “micro-aggression” look very minor. For starters, I’d list the wide dispersal of radiation and the lack of meaningful food inspections (not to mention food being mis-labeled to hide its true source), the grim economic prospects of the country and, as you note, the decaying social fabric of Japan. The last time I was there, I noticed a lot more public drinking. I also couldn’t help but notice the shockingly high levels of cigarette smoking (in comparison to most countries), the porn right in your face at convenience stores and elsewhere, and the complete failure of any Japanese to offer seats to the elderly and pregnant on trains and buses. I’d say you’re right if you expect the social fabric to fray even more severely in the near future. The fact is, Japan will not and cannot save itself from its grim self-imposed fate. If you want to see what lies in store for Japan, get out of the big cities and go to “Ura Nippon.” Go to some rural and poor prefecture and take a good hard look around. It won’t be pretty. You’ll see decaying and largely abandoned towns where the only activity is happening at the convenience store and the pachinko parlor (and maybe one “snack” with a few Filipina hostesses). They’ll be hideous decaying concrete buildings. And everyone will be really old and NOT happy to see your foreign face. That’s where Japan is going. By choice or failure to make choices.

      @ all comments on katakana above:

      Katakana has done more damage to Japan than the worst earthquake or nuclear disaster. First, it ensures that when Japanese “learn” English they are not actually learning English. They are learning an odd language with compelling similarities to English: Katakanago. This odd language totally gets in the way of anyone trying to learn actual English. Why do you think they place last in the world on the speaking section of the TOEFL IBT test? I mean, when we learn a foreign language, the first thing we learn is how to properly pronounce the sounds of that language. If necessary, we learn the symbols of that language and we don’t try to force its sounds into our English letters. That is, we understand that things are pronounced differently in that language. By squeezing English or any other foreign language into katakana (with the limited number of phonemes) results in a totally different language to English: Katakanago.

      Plus, insisting on putting katakana furigana over every utterance by even the most fluent foreign speakers of Japanese is just plain rude. It would be like insisting on putting a little beanie above each utterance by a Frenchman to indicate that “this was said by a Frenchman.” F*cking rude is all it is. And childish.

      Plus, there’s another aspect to katakana that needs exploring. When your name is entered into a koseki, it will only be entered in katakana. So, there’s absolutely no way this can be tied to who you actually are without cross-referencing that to various other documents (an unreliable procedure that is made more unreliable by the fact that Japanese ministries don’t really share information that well). I’m all for governments NOT being able to track you and collect data on you and maintain a centralized database. That power and that information will always be misused. However, you would think that, from the government’s perspective, it would be in their interest to enter your name in the koseki in romaji, so they will actually know who you are! Otherwise, they essentially create a new person when they enter you into a koseki. This is, in a sense, perfectly Japanese. For, Japan seeks to exist as a world apart. A cultural Galapagos. So, by stripping you of your true identity when they force you onto their dreaded koseki books, they are are making you like them: a person who no longer has an relationship with the greater world. Welcome to Japan!

    142. rpl Says:

      Debito said : “No. They give you the same menu they give everyone else. If it’s Thailand, they give you a Thai menu. If Japan, a menu in Japanese. If you can’t read Thai, THEN say (in your case), “Sorry, but do you have an English menu?”

      this is so logical that I cant understand why anybody would resist this logic.
      I did try to explain this view in the past, but I found people were not responsive.
      At least in Japan the menu in Japanese and in English will have the same price (not so sure in China or Thailand etc)

    143. Jiong Says:

      A note on katakana and race: I was taking some beginner Japanese lessons here in China and the teacher was a Chinese woman who had lived in Japan for years. When it came to learning to read and write katakana she pointed out that as ‘we only have to learn to read this alphabet, not write it, as our names (Chinese people’s) are also written using 漢字.’ She had forgotten I was in the class and that were I to write my name in Japan it would have to be with this alphabet…

    144. Mei Nona Says:

      “the furigana (normally rendered in Hiragana for native speaker children/low-level adults) is all in Katakana?”

      Err, no. The furigana block on many official and non-official forms in Japan is designed to be filled in with katakana. Here’s one:

      Here’s another:

      And another:

      Do a google image search for 書き込み用紙 – there’s a ton of them online.

      If the block for furigana has printed 「フリガナ」 it is supposed to be filled in with Katakana. If it has 「ふるがな」 it is supposed to be filled in with hiragana. I won’t say most forms, public and private, use 「フリガナ」but in my experience an awful lot do. Likely because katakana is easier to read (less squiggly).

      — Perhaps. I’ve heard another ward office did issue their kari-juuminhyou with the furigana in Hiragana. In any case, thanks for the correction regarding style. Most modern furigana I’ve ever seen has been on documents for non-native consumption, in those phone-book-thick manga (which aims for a readership including primary schoolers), and in our Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants. And that’s in Hiragana.

    145. Andrew in Saitama Says:

      I am reminded of a TV program several years back that suggested it was best to sign one’s credit card in hiragana to prevent a stolen card from being used. The logic? “Foreigners can’t write hiragana”.

      Maybe statements like that move into the “deciaggression” scale…

      FWIW, my kari-juminhyo has NO furigana.

    146. Mei Nona Says:

      @Andrew in Saitama – relax, Andrew, folks aren’t talking about you when they talk about signing their credit cards in hiragana to prevent a foreign thief from using it, or say “foreigners can’t write hiragana”.

      Almost 4 million Japanese go to China every year. Another 3 million to Korea. 1 million to Taiwan and Hong Kong (each). What do all of these countries have in common? They use Chinese characters to a greater or lesser extent. Therefore any Japanese signature in Kanji is going to be readable and fairly readily copiable to a thief if a card is lost in those countries. Hiragana would not be, unless said thief studied Japanese.

      Although on the flip side I know a lot of Japanese who think using Hiragana is a bad idea, as Kanji has more strokes, is “personalized” more (in the way we speak of our signature being more “personalized” than printing our name in block letters), and will match up with their passport if they are asked to present that when making a purchase. Plus, very few Japanese regularly write their own name in Hiragana and remembering to do so can trip them up.

    147. JS Says:

      Just read the comments in the “Have Your Say” section on The Japan Times’ Website.

      It’s very interesting that most of the positive comments are by people who agree with the content and arguments Debito made in his original article, because they too had had on-the-ground first-hand experience of encountering such microaggressions in Japan.

      On the other hand, most of the negative comments are either personal attacks on Debito, or justifications for microaggressions because they also happen everywhere else in the world too (or, did in a bygone era).

      What does this tell y’all?

    148. Andrew in Saitama Says:

      @ Mei Nona

      I was offended by the program because it was not directed only at travellers – the implication is that if you’re Japanese and your credit card is stolen, it is likely to be the work of an NJ, or the card will end up in the hands of an NJ.
      Again, let’s visit “the Dark Side”: I tell my fellow countryfolk to sign their credit cards in copperplate because “Asians can’t write copperplate”. Would you be offended? You’d have every right to be.

      I don’t care that they weren’t talking about me when talking about NJ card theives or NJ not being able to write hiragana. Much like a student in my Eikaiwa days whose opening statement about home security was “There are lots of Chinese and Koreans in Japan now, so…” (I’m sure you can guess the rest) He wasn’t talking about me. Doesn’t make it any less wrong.

    149. sendaiben Says:

      Hi Debito

      My provisional jyuuminhyou doesn’t seen to have any furigana on it, and certainly not katakana (issued by Sendai city). Actually, they did a great job, providing the same information in normal Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean.

      Well done Sendai City ^-^

    150. Jim Di Griz Says:

      I got one last thing that I want to ‘throw out there’ to you all about micro-aggressions. It might not fit the definition of micro-aggressions, but I think that it is definately micro-aggressive. Please let me know what you think.

      I have noticed that when I walk down the street, (usually) J-men (of a certain age, but sometimes younger, and sometimes women too) will often spit/sniff/cough/suck teeth/tutt when they walk past me. For years I thought that they were just grumpy gits who did it to everyone, but one day sitting outside a coffee shop watching people walk past, I noticed that I never saw it happen between 2 Japanese. I then paid more attention and never noticed that it happened if I was with my kids, or my J-wife. I mentioned this behavior to her, and she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.
      A couple of months ago I was walking down the street with an Aussie friend, and an Oyaji walked past and did the ‘tutt’. Before I could say to my friend that I notice that happens to me a lot, he piped up and said exactly what I was thinking!
      So, what I want to know is, has anyone had similar experiences? Is this a kind of low level aggression?

      — Be careful going this far. My first year in Japan I wondered the same thing, but realized it would take me down the Rabbit Hole to mental illness, and decided there wasn’t enough evidence to support this conclusion.

    151. 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.

    152. 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.

    153. 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”.

    154. 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.

    155. 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.”

    156. Jiong Says:

      @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.

    157. Curious Says:

      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.

    158. JS Says:

      @ 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.

    159. Charuzu Says:

      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?

    160. Flyjin Says:

      @ 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.

    161. 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.

    162. 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?

    163. TJJ Says:

      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.

    164. Jiong Says:

      @ 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.

    165. 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.

    166. Flyjin Says:

      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.

    167. 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.

    168. snowman Says:

      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.

    169. Scipio Says:

      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 …..

    170. JS Says:

      @ 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).

    171. TJJ Says:

      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.

    172. 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!

    173. 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.

    174. snowman Says:

      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.

    175. 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”.

    176. 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.

    177. 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.

    178. Jiong Says:

      @ 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.

    179. Flyjin Says:

      @ 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.

    180. Equality Says:

      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.

    181. On notions of justice the masking of racial tensions | MicroCapitalist TodayMicroCapitalist Today Says:

      […] of everyday subtle but effective racism that plagues the lives of many. I leave that to the work of Debito and […]

    182. 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!

    183. George T. Sipos Says:

      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…

    184. Jim Di Griz Says:

      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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