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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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 Debito.org 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.

  • 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.

  • 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….

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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”

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • @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.

  • @ 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.

  • 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!

  • 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’?

  • @ 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.

  • @Flyjin

    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.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Flyjin #83

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?’

  • @ 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.

  • 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):
    http://dcs.adm.u-tokyo.ac.jp/publication/scc-if.html |

    And a course at Sophia U. :

  • 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.

  • @Flyjin:

    “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.

  • 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. 🙂

  • 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.

  • @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.

  • 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.


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