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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  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Debito and Flyjin #99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

    Keep pushin…keep fighting.

  • giantpanda says:

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

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

  • Mark Hunter says:

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

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Chris #105

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

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

    — Attaboy.

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

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

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

    Japan is not a multicultural country and never will be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • @ Rob H # 111

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Mark Hunter says:

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

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

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

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

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

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Debito #111

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

  • Fight Back says:

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

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

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

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

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @Rob H

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

    @ Eric C, Debito, Rob H

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Douglas #118

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

    @ Joe #119

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

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

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

  • Baudrillard says:

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

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

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

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

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

    — Back on track, please.

  • Fight Back says:

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

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

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

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

  • @Jim (120)

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Joe #123

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

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

  • Loverilakkuma says:

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

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

    Here’s the link:


  • Maxabillion Slartibartfast says:

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

  • giantpanda says:

    @JS Extremely perceptive comments.

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

  • @ Loverilakkuma 126

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

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

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

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

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

  • @JDG #117

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

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

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

  • When Microaggressions and Japans everlasting/neverchanging preconceptions turns annoying:

    (on the phone, speaking Japanese)

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

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Eric C #130

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

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @Loverilakkuma #126

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

    @Debito sama

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

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

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

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

  • Fight Back says:

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

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

  • giantpanda says:

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

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

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

  • @ Giantpanda # 136

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Anonymous says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • @Debito

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • @JDG #132

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

    @ all comments on katakana above:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Here’s another:

    And another:

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

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

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

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

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

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

    FWIW, my kari-juminhyo has NO furigana.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What does this tell y’all?

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    @ Mei Nona

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

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

  • Hi Debito

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

    Well done Sendai City ^-^

  • Jim Di Griz says:

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

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

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


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