My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column June 5, 2012: Guestists, Haters, the Vested: Apologists take many forms


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Hi Blog. This month saw another side-by-side Community Page with my argument made and a rebuttal, this time from a person I respect mightily: Colin P.A. Jones. It’s worth a read, as always. His point in crux and excerpt:

“Here we come to the reason why I felt compelled to write a response to Debito: Microaggression is disturbingly familiar to what I perceive to be the Japanese government’s strategy (a term that credits it with more thought than is actually involved) of “protecting” human rights by trivializing them. With definitions of harassment, abuse and even violence that are so broad that they can be applied to just about any type of behavior that makes someone unhappy, everyone can be a victim, but everyone is a potential human rights violator too.

“Perhaps the government devoting significant resources to identifying causes of unhappiness is a good thing. At the same time, however, if you have ever worked for a Japanese institution and witnessed the vast number of hours of otherwise productive people’s time that can be diverted to addressing a single person’s baseless claims of persecution, you can’t help but wonder if the life energy of everyone involved wouldn’t be better spent on other endeavors…”

Rest at

Meanwhile, my column this month made the Top Ten Most Read again, thanks, and also because an “Editor’s Pick” (also thanks!) Have a read. Arudou Debito


The Japan Times, Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Guestists, Haters, the Vested: Apologists take many forms
By ARUDOU Debito
Zeit Gist Column 59/Just Be Cause Column 52 for the Japan Times Community Page
To be published June 5, 2012
DIRECTOR’S CUT: Restoring a paragraph deleted from the print article (in parentheses)

Last month’s column on “microaggressions” was my most debated yet. Thanks for reading and commenting.

So this month, let’s explore how the microaggression dynamic works in all societies, and why some people live in denial of it. Brace yourself for a bit of theory …

All societies, when defining themselves, decide who is “us” and who is “them.” So do countries. In the name of sovereignty, nation-states must decide who is a member (i.e., a citizen) and who is not (i.e., a foreigner). (If they didn’t, there’d be no point to citizenship.)

Nation-states also perpetuate themselves by creating a feeling of community for their citizens — national narratives, invented traditions and official shared histories. So the concept of “Who is ‘us’?” gets created, reinforced and generationally encoded through the media, public policy, primary education, etc.

What about encoding “Who is ‘them’?” It is by nature a process of differentiation. Foreigners by definition have different legal, civil and political rights in any society. (They usually cannot vote, for example.)

But differentiation is also codified in everyday interaction. To determine their community’s borders and clarify their identity within it, people tend to contrast themselves with outsiders. This is a process of socially “othering” people.

Eventually the presumptions of “Others” as “different” become normalized into mundane assumptions, such as stereotypes.

Herein come the microaggressions. They keep life simple by enforcing (consciously and unconsciously) the stereotyping. For example, “This person looks Asian; he can use chopsticks.” “This person looks Caucasian; she needs an English menu.” They are not necessarily grounded in hatred — only in presumed difference.

This means that even well-intentioned people, trying to be kind when offering those chopsticks and menus, tend to view the person standing before them not as a unique individual, but as a collection of socially encoded characteristics assigned to that individual’s presumed group. Then they react accordingly.

That’s why microaggressions are so invisible, powerful and difficult to fight. For why would anyone resist someone trying to be kind? But people do — even in Japan, where they grumble about arigata meiwaku (nuisance niceness).

In Japan, however, microaggressions towards non-Japanese (NJ) are especially difficult to counteract for three reasons.

One is that Japan’s encodings are extremely standardized. Japanese basic education and social science (JBC, Sept. 7, 2010) are grounded both in stereotypes and in a cult of Japan’s difference (“uniqueness,” in fact). They inculcate convictions that, say, all non-Asian foreigners cannot use chopsticks or can understand English. Doubt that? Walk by a schoolyard and count the inevitable “harou!”s.

A second reason is that Japan’s encoding for what makes “us” and “them” is so strong that it is insuperable, precluding possible exceptions. Take, for example, the case of a person who naturalizes and becomes a Japanese citizen. Surely such people prove that it’s possible to jump the wall from The Other to become part of The Self?

Legally, yes. But not always socially. As “Japanese Only” signs and rules make plainer, “real” Japanese have to look Japanese. We are far from a “tipping point” where multitudes of multiethnic Japanese demonstrate that language ability and manual dexterity are unrelated to phenotype.

But the third, more insufferable reason is a lack of cohesiveness, especially within Japan’s English-speaking NJ community (JBC, June 7, 2011).

Instead of asserting themselves as unique individuals, many NJ buy into the stereotypes behind microaggressions and enforce them on each other.

Let’s call the accepters, defenders and enforcers of the status quo “Apologists” for short. Why do they do it?

For some, it’s a matter of “guestism,” as in, “Japan is for the Japanese, so I can’t tell them what to do.” However, Guestists also assume anyone who appears to be foreign are also “guests” and should likewise shut up.

To justify their mindset, Guestists not only invoke grandiloquent theories like “cultural imperialism” (i.e., foisting “our” Occidental values on “their” insular, inscrutable Oriental society), but also cook up delusions such as that one person’s protests “spoil” Japan for everyone.

Unfortunately, they too validate the “guilt by association” meme underpinning racialized stereotypes. Not only do they endorse NJ being treated differently as human beings, they also demand NJ disenfranchise themselves.

For other Apologists, it’s a matter of vested interests. They’ve lived here long enough to reach mental equilibrium in their fishbowl. Life’s too short — why cloud their day by going against the flow?

After all, many of the Vested have Japanese spouses, kids in school, a mortgage, and a job they can’t just leave. Their Japanese families rarely empathize with any resistance anyway. So their attitude becomes, “Leave me alone. What can I as one person do to change, oh, a bent bureaucracy, an irradiated food chain, and everyone poking my stomach and saying how fat I’ve gotten? Shikata ga nai.” And they acquiesce.

Still other Apologists are either blind or relativistic towards microaggressions because their mind is closed. They’ll criticize even recognition of the concept of microaggression as “oversensitivity,” “paranoia,” “political correctness,” or “seeing racism everywhere!” One sniped, “Somebody said ‘nice weather’ to me! Microaggressor!”

Well, try opening your mind: Let’s go back to that “English menu for Caucasians” example. A commenter excused this as an act of kindness, for how could a waitress possibly tell what language he could read? Was he to pore through an unintelligible menu just to prove a point?

No. The waitress should assume that any customer gets the same menu, unless advised by the individual customer of a different preference. Deciding his preference for him is arigata meiwaku.

Switch shoes: Let’s say a waitress in a Western country is told to give anyone who “looks Asian” a menu in Chinese.

How would that sit? Not well. Because people know that there are many kinds of “Asians” (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, American, Canadian, etc.). Assuming that any “Asian” is a Chinese is just wrong.

Paragraph deleted by editor:  (And how do we know it is wrong? Because overseas “Asians” grumble aloud about being “microaggressed” like that, over time raising public awareness of the problem.)

So what should have happened? The commenter takes the standard menu from the waitress and, if unable to use it, asks if one exists in a language he can read (in his case, English). Simple.

But that’s the power of microaggressions: so invisible that the aforementioned commenter endorsed the stereotype that all “visibly foreign” people in Asia read English. That’s plain wrong.

Finally, there are the “Hater Apologists” who mysteriously launch into ad hominem attacks fueled by visceral animosity. I think I’ve finally figured them out.

Have you ever noticed that, if they are not the “Team Japan” Japanese defending the nation (even its wartime atrocities) under any circumstances, the Haters are generally white people?

Think about it. Since colonialism and the Enlightenment, whites have been the dominant racial group in the world order. Because whites have historically had “no color” (remember, everyone else is “colored”), they are often oblivious to the processes of racialization.

Brace yourselves for a little more theory: Current postcolonialist/postmodernist analysis of racialization generally holds that people are systematically differentiated, othered, then subordinated. This is how nation-states unified their peoples under national narratives of “Self” and “Other.”

For centuries now, the whites (who created the modern nation-state paradigm replicated around the world) advantageously ranked everyone else below them by race (see “social Darwinism”). Whites have never been a subordinated racial minority on a national scale in any “First World” country.

Except, of course, in Japan. So whites seek to elevate their social standing here by using whiteness to their advantage — as “sensei.” And they use pandering techniques so normalized they are practically invisible.

For example: 1) offering the “honorary white” status that Japan covets in the world order by teaching them English (witness how “real English speakers” are sold in Japanese media as white); 2) feeling lucky or smug that they aren’t lower on Japan’s ethnic pecking order (they aren’t blacks, Koreans, South Americans, etc.); 3) playing Uncle Tom to offset themselves as “good gaijin” (they aren’t low-wage migrant workers, “illegals,” criminals or “flyjin”) and claim extra privileges; or 4) shouting down anyone who threatens to upend the sensei status quo (even though whites, after slotting everyone else in a racial hierarchy for centuries, should not be allowed to claim they are now an exception to it).

Furthermore, consider what kind of whites are generally attracted to Japan: socially awkward, tech-savvy, nerdy dorks. (I know. I’m one too.) 

[Click on the photos for more information.]

With chips on their shoulder after childhoods of being bullied, the Dorks are at last extracting their revenge on the Lucky Beautiful People (e.g., prom queens, football captains, or anyone with a talent — like writing — they were not born with) by tearing them down.

But in Japanese society (itself culturally rife with dorky, techie, socially awkward people), Dorks are further empowered by the Internet (and Japan’s blind eye towards bullying) to attack people anonymously. And they can coast within a well-established narrative of “cultural relativism” to camouflage it.

Don’t like these stereotypes I’m creating? Alright, Apologists, fight them for a change. But you’d miss the bigger irony.

The Apologists, by reflexively denying the existence of microaggressions (substantiated in decades of social science as a fundamental means for policing social identity), are hurting themselves. They are reinforcing their status of The Other in Japan by supporting the stereotypes that subordinate them. And all for maybe a crust of white privilege.

The final thought I want to leave you with this month is, “Why we fight.” Who is all this protest for?

Not for us, actually. For our children in Japan.

Many Apologists point out, “We chose to come to Japan. If you don’t like it, leave!”

Well, how will that sit with your Japanese children, who didn’t choose, and who might want the choice later of what society to live in as adults — and maybe even have some control over their identity within it?

Are you going to let Japanese society “microaggress” them into The Other, “gaijin” category, just because they look more like you than your Japanese spouse?

What kind of future are you helping create for them? One of tolerance?, Or one of constant differentiation, othering and probable subordination?

So think seriously before you disparage the activists trying to make Japan a better place for everyone regardless of how they look.

This is not arigata meiwaku. This is advocating The Other become part of The Self.

1695 WORDS

113 comments on “My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column June 5, 2012: Guestists, Haters, the Vested: Apologists take many forms

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  • @Anonymous

    I am (or rather was) one of “those geneticists” of whom you speak. Don’t waste my time with wikipedia (hah!) articles that you don’t even seem to have read, or understood, yourself.

    I stand by what I said and I am unquestionably correct.

    Anyway, this is derailing an otherwise thoughtful topic by dragging it into a debate on race.

    This website (hats off to Debito!)is often concerned with the issue of race as a social construct and race as it effects groups and individuals, but is rarely concerned with the how POPULATIONS can (or, really, can’t) be identified based on dna. That’s usually the realm of scientific research websites, where maybe you’ll feel more at home.

    Sometimes we talk about how INDIVIDUALS can (or really can’t) be identified by race by various dna techniques (such as was proposed by the Japanese police force several years ago, again, reported by Debito). Feel free to weigh in with your wikipedia cites on those topics.

    — That’s sarcasm, Anonymous. Don’t. As TJJ says, this is a digression from the main blog entry and it has run its course.

  • To weigh in:

    Guestists: Ignorance is bliss, learn more Japanese language and less pseudo-Anthropology.

    Apologists: Learn more Japanese language, history, sociology from Japanese scholars that are worldly, not windbag supporters of Nihonjinron; learning about your own country wouldn’t hurt either.

    Vesters: Apply same aforementioned advice, with the added caution of at least being in control of your own life: hopefully your spouse or partner doesn’t control your finances: regardless of where you are on the world, the truth is that you folks should really read this site more often BECAUSE you have a LOT MORE to lose than the other types.

    In 19 years in Japan, I have seen (and most likely have been) all of these types at one point, but what is scary is how these people become the most vitriolic Japan-bashers once things have been revealed as to their place in the “pecking order” of Japanes society….turns out they don’t matter at all! Lol

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ JJ #102

    ‘what is scary is how these people become the most vitriolic Japan-bashers once things have been revealed as to their place in the “pecking order” of Japanes society….turns out they don’t matter at all! ‘

    I was thinking the exact same thing. The apologists call us ‘haters’, but I am not a hater. There are many things about Japan I love. I am not blind to the bad things either, and I comment about those things here, because this is a forum for doing so. This is not some kind of Japan ‘love-in’ forum. If there was such a site, I would go there and talk about the good things, but I would still be an avid fan of this site. The apologists don’t seem to understand that being critical of Japan is not the same as hating Japan (this is, ‘Stockholm syndrome’, a very similar response to that of Japanese when faced with minor criticism).
    It has been my experience that apologists are the ones who become the most vehement haters the first time they are subjected to abuse by a Japanese person who doesn’t know or care how many years they have lived here, if they can speak Japanese, or if they pretend to enjoy the ‘wa’. The first time an apologist has their ‘love’ of (an imagined) Japan thrown back in their face, they are the first to rant ‘Japs this’ and ‘Japs that’. That’s where the haters come from, not from

  • @ James Di Griz san:

    Yup. Everything you said is so true: preserving a “wa” that no one in Japan understands anyway. Sad that those people become racist jerks once things haven’t worked out…..

  • @Jim De Griz #103

    This is the shocking thing. Most people who are interested in fairness issues in Japan have many wonderful Japanese friends. It is the recidivist element, the Japanese who are playing some not-so-nice games, that are the people whom most of this effort goes on about. If the people who really control Japan would just hand off power to the progressives, a lot of these issues would go away. Alas, people with power rarely “just hand off” anything.

  • I think it’s very sad to see some people now not only simplifying the matter into an opposition between those who have seen the light on the one hand and ‘the’ apologists on the other, but actually calling for an end to healthy debate by characterising this nonexistent homogeneous group of irrational apologists as pathological. Not to say the debate was necessarily healthy in the first place, but this sure doesn’t help.

    Debito is right when he says that analysing the motives of those that seem to oppose your goals is not ad hominem in itself. Nor is it to point out how unreasonable their arguments and actions can be in specific instances. It seems some here are risking moving far beyond that, however, using sweeping generalisations to conveniently classify anyone with an opposing viewpoint as having this syndrome or that disorder. To be fair, Charuzu included a little ‘exception clause’ in his post, but when further down in the thread I see the term ‘dissenting opinions’ being used… I don’t think that’s a fruitful way to further any discussion.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Rudy #106

    I agree, it is very sad. It’s sad that apologists aren’t content to give their own children subordinate status for an inheritance, they want to force me to give it to my children too. It is a shame that NJ are divided, but I have to be pragmatic. There is plenty of room for sentiment, none for sentimentality.

  • To Jim #103

    You know, your post could just as easily been written as;

    I was thinking the exact same thing. The haters call us ‘apologists’, but I am not an apologist. There are many things about Japan I love. I am not blind to the bad things either, and I comment about those things here, because this is a forum for doing so. This is not some kind of Japan ‘love-in’ forum. If there was such a site, I would go there and talk about the good things, but I would still be an avid fan of this site. The haterss don’t seem to understand that being positive about Japan is not the same as wearing rose coloured glasses about Japan.

    and so on.

    and still here we are, 2 weeks and 100 posts later, and very little in the way of constructive advice. Doug and I say that the way to deal with micro aggression is to be human and forgiving. Chances are people can’t help the way they have been raised, and may just reconsider their actions when given the opportunity. I find that often happens when I teach. My students have some frankly shocking preconceived notions about ‘the world’. I can either rail at them about their ignorance (and thus probably confirm many of their stereotypes), or try and take the opportunity to get them to think a little.

    I see no evidence for the oft cited “thin edge of the wedge” theory at all. One day a question about chopstick use, the next day an assertion that only Japan has 4 seasons, followed shortly thereafter by riding a black van with a bunch of other gap-toothed xenophobes? Sorry, can’t see it.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @Ds #108

    It’s pretty childish to over-simplify the issue by simply attempting to switch ‘apologist’ and ‘hater’. You should know (at least from having read the ‘100 posts later’) that the issues are more complicated than that.

    ‘people can’t help the way they have been raised’?!?

    ‘One day a question about chopstick use, the next day an assertion that only Japan has 4 seasons, followed shortly thereafter by riding a black van with a bunch of other gap-toothed xenophobes? Sorry, can’t see it.’ ?!?

    Yes. I agree with you. You genuinely don’t seem able to see it, and that’s why you are apologizing for them. You got nothing to offer me.

  • Jim Di Griz says:


    The ‘Have your say’ letters on this in the JT are mostly hilarious! Whilst 2 or 3 seem to understand the concepts of micro-agression, and apologism, all of the others either;
    1: Deny micro-agression is real (one even says ‘nobody ASKED you to come here’; I think the next line is ‘If you don’t like it’….well, you know what comes next).
    2. Apologize for micro-agression by asking why you are ‘so negative’, and ‘why can’t you stop criticizing people’.

    In short, the Have Your Say letters prove all the points about apologism that you were making in the article. Very good!

    — I could barely get through them. Most completely miss the point or make points I never said. I think the JT should be more judicious about what gets printed.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @Debito #110

    I agree that it was pretty turgid reading, but since those letters prove your JBC points perfectly, maybe you should reference them as examples of ‘deniers’, ‘guestists’, etc?

  • Fight Back says:

    I’ve said before that more complaints need to laid with the Japan Times. It’s regrettable that they allow such mindless knee-jerk apologism into a paper that could well be doing more to back up what they print with regards to Debito’s column. I hope they are not just courting controversy!

    With Debito having laid out his points in a logical and competent fashion, what on earth drives these people to keep disagreeing with him? They must have an ulterior motive.

  • Fight Back says:

    On a lighter note, the letter from Edward Tupou on how to throw it right back in the face of the micro-aggressor was hilarious!

    I’m definitely gonna try out some of those techniques next time some irritating questions get asked when I’m simply trying to enjoy my beer in peace.


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