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


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UPDATED MAY 12, 2012

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

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

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

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


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

Annoying, yes, but real communication can come later.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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  • 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……

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

  • 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.

  • @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.

  • 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”.

  • 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.


  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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*

  • 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.

  • (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?’

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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 .

  • 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.

  • @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?!

  • 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.

  • 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)

  • @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.

  • 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.

  • 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 Debito.org posters being embittered, isolated, mono-lingual eikaiwa teachers over 40, they are concealing their real agenda, and participating in the tatamae of ‘dreamy Japan’.

  • 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. Debito.org 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 Debito.org).”
    June 19, 2011

    “That’s the problem with some people over at Debito.org. 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

    “Debito.org 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 Debito.org.”
    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

  • 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.

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 http://www.debito.org/newhotelpassportlaw.jpg 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 http://law.e-gov.go.jp/htmldata/S23/S23HO138.html

    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.

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