SNA Visible Minorities Column 11: Advice to Activists in Japan in general (in the wake of the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Japan Movement), June 22, 2020.


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Visible Minorities: Advice to Activists in Japan
Shingetsu News Agency, Visible Minorities Column 11, June 22, 2020
By Debito Arudou, Ph.D.

SNA (Tokyo) — Sparked by the George Floyd murder by police in America last month, street protests against official violence towards minorities and disenfranchised peoples have sprung up worldwide.

Japan has been no exception. Within recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, a wider range of people are finally decrying, for example, the Japanese police’s racial profiling and violence towards visible minorities.

I’ve talked about these and other issues for years, devoting significant space both on and in my book Embedded Racism: Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination. That said, it should be noted that my position in Japan as a white male with naturalized Japanese citizenship has provided me significant privilege; in all humility I am not in the best position to offer advice to people who have the right (nay, obligation) to create their own identities, narratives, and agendas as they see best.

Nevertheless, this column would like to point out some of the pitfalls that activists may face in Japanese society, based upon my experience fighting against racial discrimination here for nearly thirty years. Please read them in the helpful spirit they are intended:

1) Remember that, in Japan, activists are seen as extremists

Japan has a long history of activism and protest. However, the historical narrative generally portrays activists (katsudouka) as radical, destructive elements (kagekiha), most famously the Japanese Red Army; the Revolutionary Communist League, National Committee (Chukakuha); the Japan Revolutionary Communist League, Revolutionary Marxist Faction (Kakumaruha); or even just labor unions like the Japan Teachers’ Union (Nikkyoso). If you’re out there protesting, you’re automatically seen by many Japanese as angry, unapproachable, and unable to be reasoned with.

Furthermore, public demonstrations are treated with undue alarm. They’re not, for example, normalized as a phase college kids go through and grow out of. In fact, youth might become unemployable if they carry on beyond college. That’s why high-profile student group Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) disbanded as soon as their leaders approached the job market.

Additionally, the government has a long history of suppressing voices from the left more than the racket from rightwing conservatives and reactionaries, as seen in their regular rounds of unfettered sound trucks. It’s not an even playing field for human-rights advocates. That’s why there arguably isn’t a successful example of leftist protests ever decisively changing the course of government in Japan. (Contrast that with, say, the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s, so romanticized in Western media, which even undermined presidents overseas.)

The result is that the average person in Japan, especially your employer, will need to be convinced that what you’re doing is at all necessary, not to mention has a snowball’s chance of succeeding. Be prepared to do that.

2) Keep the debate focused on how discrimination affects everyone in Japan

One problem with protests for equal rights for “foreigners” is an assumption that the problem must be exogenous. It runs deeper than the sentiments of a) “foreigners are only ‘guests’ here, so they shouldn’t be rude to their ‘hosts’ by protesting,” or b) “if only you weren’t here disrupting our homogeneous society, your problem would just go away.” It’s again a problem with narrative.

Discrimination, particularly “racial discrimination” (jinshu sabetsu), is generally taught in Japanese schools as something other countries do towards people with different skin color, notably US Segregation and South African Apartheid. Thanks to the daily mantras about our alleged monocultural, monoethnic “island society” closed off from the world for a zillion years, Japan generally doesn’t see how “race” could be a factor here. The logic is that homogeneous Japan has no races, therefore no “race relations” problems like other countries. The Japanese government has made precisely this argument to the United Nations.

That’s one reason why Japanese media reflexively deflects the issue into terms like “foreigner discrimination” (gaikokujin sabetsu), “ethnic discrimination” (minzoku sabetsu), or merely “cultural differences” (ibunka no chigai). All of these concepts miss the point that racial discrimination is in fact a longstanding domestic issue.

So refocus the issue back on the process of racialization. Reiterate at every opportunity that this is “racial discrimination,” and stress how, thanks to generations of naturalization and international marriage, there are plenty of Japanese citizens with diverse roots. Thus discrimination against “foreigners” also affects hundreds of thousands of Japanese people.

After all, Japanese society gloms onto “racial discrimination” against Japanese citizens abroad with a surprising amount of passion. So point out that it’s happening here too. And you’ll have to do it again and again, because you will have to convince a surprising number of people who refuse to believe that racism even exists in Japan.

3) Be wary of being fetishized

Remember that a certain degree of social resonance you may be feeling in your crowd is likely not the feeling of acceptance you might want; it is not equal footing with Japanese citizens. People often join in since protesting is “cool” because “foreigners are cool” or “pitiable” (kawaisou).

There is plenty of scholarly research (read Marvin D. Sterling’s Babylon East, for example) on how Japanese adopt “foreign cultures” only on a topical level, meaning without much interest in the actual mindset or experience of being a visible minority in Japan.

Collaborate with whoever shows up, of course. Just don’t get your hopes up too far. Some people who seem like supporters might only be fair-weather groupies. So don’t rely on them too much when it comes time for them to commit their names or faces in public.

4) Be ready for the long haul

Success, of course, requires not only widespread support in Japan, but also assistance from fellow Japanese human-rights activists. They are very practiced and determined, having done this sort of thing for decades. But remember: Activist groups in Japan are very cliquey. Often the barriers for entry and being accepted as “one of us” are pretty high.

Even though, at first, being seen as “pitiable” works in your favor, remember that the default attitude towards people seen as “foreigners” is “someone here only for the short-term.”

What I mean is “foreigners” are often treated like exotic birds, as something to study because you alighted on their balcony and have interesting plumage to look at. So they give you their attention for as long as you’re around. But once it seems you’ve flitted off, you’re quickly forgotten as merely a phase or a pastime. Then things reset back to the ingrained narratives of Japan as homogeneous and foreigners as temporary.

The only way you can defy that is by showing how deeply you’ve committed yourself to this issue for as long as possible, as people in those activist groups have. They’ve made this rallying cause a life mission, and they’ll expect you to as well. Otherwise, you’re just a fickle foreign hobbyist and doors slam.

Moreover, be careful of the “get in line” attitude that one (rightly) receives from other minorities in Japan (such as the Zainichi Koreans). They have been here much longer, fought much harder, and sacrificed more simply to exist in Japan. Avoid the one-upmanships over “who’s the bigger victim here?”

Instead, focus on what you all have in common: perpetual disenfranchisement, and how you have to work together to overcome that to make Japan a better place for everyone. Remember that power surrenders nothing without a fight, so dissolving into disagreeing leftist factions is precisely what the powerful want. The status quo wins by default that way.

5) Control your own narrative

Finally, don’t rely on people who aren’t in your position to understand or promote your narrative. Do it yourselves. Organize your own press conferences. Make sure that everything you release to the public and media is also in Japanese, and have some prominent public spokespeople who are minorities. It’s your voice. Don’t let even the best-intentioned interpreters and interlocutors inadvertently dilute it.

For example, last month, the people of diverse roots who spoke out fluently against the Shibuya police roughing up a Kurdish person were excellent examples of how to do it right. They were very effective in getting the message out both to print and broadcast media. More of that, please.

There you go: five pitfalls I might suggest you avoid. I hope you find them useful, even if I have a very limited understanding of what you’re going through. In any case, it’s your time and your social movement. I wish you success, and thanks for reading.  ENDS

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15 comments on “SNA Visible Minorities Column 11: Advice to Activists in Japan in general (in the wake of the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Japan Movement), June 22, 2020.

  • “That said, it should be noted that my position in Japan as a white male with naturalized Japanese citizenship has provided me significant privilege; in all humility I am not in the best position to offer advice to people who have the right (nay, obligation) to create their own identities, narratives, and agendas as they see best.”

    So now our race defines the issues we can speak to and those that we can’t (or at least not as well as someone of another race)?

    Also note the subtle suggestion that whites in Japan do not have as much of a right (or obligation) to create their own identities, narratives, and agendas as they see fit as people of other races.

    A lot of parallels here to the racialized thinking many Japanese employ.

    — Yes. But the audience requires caveats these days.

  • Another great column, I agree with everything. Especially the part about Japanese society treating protesting as a phase people grow out of. I had the chance to talk to a few Japanese students who supported anti racist movements a few times and when asked why they don‘t actively join these protests almost all of them said that they fear being unemployable in the future if they join those movements. This is another indicator which shows that Japan isn‘t a truely democratic country. Other first world countries view protesting as a foundation of democracy, especially when it comes to protesting against racism and xenophobia. On the other hand, racist right wing protest are mostly being condemned, by both mainstream politicians and media. Not in Japan though, in Japan protesting against racism is seen as being mendokusai, but going around in sound vans while screaming „Let‘s kill all Koreans“ is perfectly fine and completely normalized. And these peoole are of course employable, while people fighting against racism aren‘t. Japan basically has it backwards from the rest of the developed world.

  • realitycheck says:

    Come on, you’re reading too much into what Dr Debito said. There is no political correctness or racialized thinking going on here.
    As a white man I’ve encountered some troubling instances of discrimination and discriminatory attitudes in Japan and generally, even now, white people have it better in Japan than somebody from a developing country who is non-white. That’s just one example.
    African Americans, Afro Brits etc from western countries, and Africans are highly visible and in the case of Africans, they are seen as people from third world countries.
    African Americans, Afro Brits and other people of African descent from western countries do get some of the benefits of the Japanese image of somebody from a western country – educated, doing a job that is not seen as ‘Three D’, etc.
    However, as in their home countries they still are subjected to different kinds of stereotyping, discriminatory behaviour and yes, racism generally atlhough it is not overt here most of the time as in being threatened physically.
    I have no doubt that it is possible given the uyoku presence which is ignored by the society here at large, and just watch as all foreigners start to live here more, stay here more and visibly increase in Japanese society.

    • Jim Di Griz says:

      ‘just watch as all foreigners start to live here more, stay here more and visibly increase in Japanese society.’

      What makes you think that is going to happen? Permanent residents can’t even get back in. Nobody who really knows about Japan would come, and the majority of those who don’t won’t stay.

      • To be fair Jim, an increase in immigrants is already happening.

        My major concern is that the “English for ‘foreigners'” racist drivel is going to increase. The ever-increasing drive for English education along with the many immigrants who refuse to learn or use Japanese seems to me to threaten the existence of those of us who demand equal treatment.

        I got in an argument with the manager of a Mosburger yesterday because his clerk tried responding to my Japanese with English, and even though the manager admitted he had judged me as a “person from overseas” based on my appearance and stated he “had no interest in” what “racial discrimination” means, he stood firm in his ideology that it would be rude NOT to speak English at “people from overseas” because “many of them can’t understand Japanese.”

        He was a POS for other reasons too, but I felt kind of scared because as I listened to him yack, I knew many fellow immigrants would not support my stance and would instead laud his racist attitude. I know many immigrants who have lived here twice as long or longer than I and yet still can’t read or write, can barely coherently converse, and welcome the “English treatment.”

        I’m all for letting people live their own lives, but if we’re going to demand equality we have to make it clear that we are not like those people, and they don’t represent our interests.

        There is no “separate but equal.” “English for ‘foreigners'” is racism.

        • Jim Di Griz says:

          There is an increase in immigrants (well, at least until Covid) but the majority are expected to leave after their visa term expires, and Japan’s not-an-immigration-policy immigration policy limits how long people can stay, so whilst total NJ numbers may increase over time, at the same time the majority will be temporary and transient and they will know it from the start, leaving them virtually no incentive to learn the language nor invest in the country. And in turn, they will be treated as ‘guests’ with no stake.
          It’s not a recipe for improvement in race relations.

  • It is a modern reality that people in retail need to be flexible to the needs of their customers. No Biggie. Just point to the pictures on the menu.

    But please stop racial profiling. Don’t judge the way we should be treated by our outward appearance. Truth be told, you Japanese don’t even know who is Japanese or not, (I know this because my wife who was born in Japan and looks Japanese is really Korean but nobody knows) so stop judging us on our looks and judge us by our behavior.

    If we want to conduct the transaction in Japanese let us do it. You don’t know if we understand English or not.

  • Debito here. NYT echoes some of what I say in my column:

    In Japan, the Message of Anti-Racism Protests Fails to Hit Home
    A view that institutional racism is a faraway problem is keeping the country from more fully confronting entrenched discrimination.
    By Motoko Rich and Hikari Hida
    The New York Times, July 1, 2020, Updated July 2, 2020

    TOKYO — As protests were spreading around the globe in response to George Floyd’s killing by the police, Sierra Todd, an African-American undergraduate in Japan, organized a march last month in Tokyo to show solidarity with American demonstrators.

    She said she hoped it would prompt Japanese marchers to think about racism in their own country, too. “Of course, we want to talk about American issues, and Black Lives Matter is an American thing,” said Ms. Todd, 19, who is studying at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo. “But we also do live in Japan.”

    A backlash quickly followed. Critics on social media accused participants of disregarding the risks of spreading the coronavirus. An interview with Ms. Todd posted on YouTube elicited comments that “This is an American issue” and “Please do this in your own country.”

    With images of America’s racial strife rolling across television screens, some in Japan have insisted that institutional racism is a faraway problem. That, activists and scholars say, is keeping the public from more fully seizing the moment to reckon with entrenched discrimination against marginalized groups in Japan.

    A vocal faction of Japanese conservatives endorses racist notions of blood-based purity. And the largely homogeneous population has often resisted acknowledging difference or engaging in the kind of introspection about racism and inequality that is playing out in the United States.

    “In essence, Japanese people don’t have a lot of experience of seeing other races,” said Yasumasa Fujinaga, a professor of American studies at Japan Women’s University. “So they don’t think racism exists.”

    But Japan has a longstanding history of discrimination against minorities, including the descendants of Koreans brought to Japan as forced labor before and during World War II; Indigenous groups like the Ainu of the northernmost island, Hokkaido; those whose lineage traces back to a feudal class of outcasts known as buraku; and mixed-race individuals.

    The mistreatment of mixed-race people through their school years and beyond has drawn particular attention as a growing number of biracial celebrities have spoken out.

    In an emotional testimonial posted on Twitter last month, Louis Okoye, a half-Japanese, half-Nigerian professional baseball player, described how he had often been bullied as a child in Japan because of the color of his skin.

    “I would look out from the balcony of our home and think, if I jumped off and was born again, maybe I can come back as a normal Japanese person,” he wrote in the post, which has been retweeted 52,000 times. Most of the comments were overwhelmingly supportive.

    Still, the conversation is shifting only gradually in Japan, and the resistance can be stiff. When Bako Nguasong and V. Athena Lisane, English teachers in Fukuoka — the largest city on the southern island of Kyushu — organized a march there last month, one poster wrote on Twitter that “I won’t feel any mercy if these people are told to get deported by the local Japanese.”

    Ms. Nguasong, 36, left behind a home and a career in Washington and moved to Japan two years ago because she was weary of fearing for her safety as a Black woman in America. “I knew it wasn’t going to be diverse, but I also knew I wasn’t going to be afraid for my life,” said Ms. Nguasong, who previously worked as a mental health coordinator for former inmates.

    She did find physical security in Japan, where crime rates are low and police killings are rare. But she could not escape racism, even if in Japan it takes a less violent form.

    Ms. Nguasong said that she had noticed looks and whispers from local Japanese people, and that passengers had avoided sitting next to her on trains. Two older women, she said, once groped her breasts in an elevator in apparent surprise over her figure.

    “It’s not the same insidious nature,” Ms. Nguasong said. “But racism still exists in Japan.”

    A glaring reminder of that came last month when NHK, the public broadcaster, aired a segment about the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States.A clip showed African-Americans as overly muscled, music-playing, looting caricatures, and presented the protests as the product of frustration with economic disparity and the coronavirus, without mentioning police brutality. After pushback on Twitter, NHK apologized and took the clip down.

    The country’s insularity has generated not just overt and unconscious bias against people abroad, but also a distrust of foreigners who come to Japan.

    As the country slowly opens its doors to outside workers to help confront a demographic crisis, improving its treatment of foreigners may be crucial to Japan’s future. But according to a 2017 Ministry of Justice survey, 30 percent of foreigners in Japan said they had been the target of discrimination, with many citing issues getting jobs or housing.

    A candidate in the Tokyo governor’s race, Makoto Sakurai, is running on a platform that includes the slogan “abolish welfare for foreigners.”

    At the same time, though, some Japanese show a fascination with foreigners, including Black pop culture. That has led to accusations of cultural appropriation, and left some African-Americans chagrined that more people in Japan don’t reflect on their own racism.

    “Japanese people who like Black culture like everything that is stereotypically Black, like gold teeth,” said Farah Albritton, 28, an English teacher in Fukuoka who is from Brooklyn. “Or they will change their hair to be Afro-textured or put in cornrows.”

    Ms. Albritton has experienced incidences of racism in Japan, such as when a man in the street shouted “you’re so gross,” or when a casting agent for a modeling job asked her to demonstrate a “Black handshake” at an audition.

    She said she was offended that Japanese acquaintances who emulate Black pop stars have shown little or no public support for Black Lives Matter. “You are taking part in our culture, and we have accepted you into our culture,” Ms. Albritton said. “And you can’t even post about our friends who are dying — the people who are inspiring you.”

    Compared to Black Lives Matter marches in France or Britain, which have drawn tens of thousands of people, the rallies in Japan have been modest in size. The largest, in Tokyo, drew about 3,500 people, with many participants having some foreign roots.

    Some scholars worry that the Japanese public only sees racism abroad without reflecting on it closer to home.

    “If they are just saying, ‘Oh, gee, Blacks in America are facing horrible things and we have to help them,’ that is almost like charity,” said Haeng-ja Chung, a professor of anthropology at Okayama University and an ethnic Korean born in Japan. “Before we accuse other societies, we have to stop and think: ‘How about us?’”

    The tennis champion Naomi Osaka, the daughter of a Haitian-American father and a Japanese mother whose superstar status has inspired a reassessment of traditional Japanese identity, has called out those on social media who claim there is no racism in Japan.

    In one Twitter post, she reminded followers of an incident when Japanese comedians said she needed “bleach” because she was “too sunburned.”

    Hiromi Okamura, 57, who attended the Black Lives Matter march in Tokyo last month, said it had helped her think about how “unconscious actions are what often leads to prejudice.”

    “I think that there is potentially some deep-seated racism” in Japan, said Ms. Okamura. “What’s important is to understand that, and carefully communicate it.”

    Some Japanese are working to draw more attention to prejudice against foreigners. After video emerged on social media showing Tokyo police officers roughing up a Turkish immigrant, Ramazan Celik, during a traffic stop, Kento Suzuki, who volunteers at a detention center where asylum seekers and other foreigners are held, organized two protests.

    “I have been thinking that Japan is a racist society from a very long time ago,” said Mr. Suzuki, 28. “There are a lot of people becoming more involved in the movement to help immigrants in Japan.”

    Still, Mr. Suzuki worries about cases in which asylum seekers and immigrants have said that they were abused or neglected while in detention.

    “I feel hope and also dread,” he said. “It’s a constant battle between these two emotions.” ENDS

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Black Lives Matter march in Tokyo met with counter demonstration. Aim of march now to highlight Japanese appropriation of black culture as merely ‘fashion’.
    Counter demonstrators (ignoring the fact that many BLM marchers are Japanese) demand marchers ‘get out of Japan!’ because ‘this is Japan’.

    Just a few bad apples?
    It’s one thing to make the claim that US social justice issues have no place in Japan, it’s quite another to demand that those criticizing Japan in any manner, however small, have no right to do so, whether they be visitors, residents, tax-payers, or naturalized citizens.
    Never mind the automatic assumption that those who ‘appear Japanese’ are in fact actual foreigners with a ‘home country’ to ‘go back to’.
    Naomi Osaka thinks that racism in Japan is just a few bad apples, when in fact it’s part of an institutionalized system of control that disenfranchises citizens who even express a contrary opinion.

    • Andrew in Saitama says:


      I saw something on social media (a TED Talk maybe?) that stated very clearly that racism is not a case of a few bad apples but rather, as you point out, a system.

    • „It’s one thing to make the claim that US social justice issues have no place in Japan“ and even that argument falls apart quickly because Black Lives Matter isn‘t just an American issue. Racism against black people is happening everywhere and Japan is no exception as all of us here know. But the right wingers will deny this of course and the only counter „argument“ they‘ll come up with is „If you don‘t like it go home“. I‘m pretty sure all of us have experienced this hundreds of times. It‘s nothing new. As you correctly pointed out this behavior is part of an institutionalized system. We‘ve witnessed the same kind of behavior in previous leftist protest, like defending the human rights of zainichi or detainees. The rightwingers would always scream „Get out of Japan“ and „Go home gaijin“ to Japanese protesters. Because in their minds these protestors can‘t be Japanese, they must be Koreans that want to destroy Japan from the inside. It‘s exactly like you said „ a part of an institutionalized system of control that disenfranchises citizens who even express a contrary opinion.“

      If you don‘t share the same opinion as the majority of Japanese, you‘re automatically not Japanese in the eyes of these people. As soon as I heard about the BLM protests I knew that these bigoted right wingers would show up. I‘m glad that the protesters were able to ignore them and just peacefully carried on with their march. Ignoring these people is honestly the best thing you can do. The only thing they want is to create trouble.

      • Jim Di Griz says:

        Hi Niklas,
        It would be nice to ignore them if they then went away (for good), but they don’t.
        I fear that silence of opposition by Japanese is in fact tacit endorsement and validation.
        I would prefer to see such hate speech penalized, and legislation and education to change the social climate.
        However, we will not see this since it is a part of the narrative of national identity that serves the vested interests.
        Any devastating economic collapse due to a Japan’s demographic time bomb and ‘burning platform’ economic policies that could throw out the vested interests and their narrative is likely to have far worse and more immediate consequences for all in Japan, especially NJ.
        Prepare your own escape, no one will tell you when it is time.

        • No, I agree that such hate speech should be penalized. Japan definitely needs hate speech laws like the rest of the civilized world. What I meant to say is that ignoring them is the best thing you can currently do as a foreign protester. Their only goal is to provoke you to the extend where things get physical and then it will be the foreigner who gets arrested and deported, not them. It’s just not worth it to engage them, I wish things were different but that’s the reality.

          “Prepare your own escape, no one will tell you when it is time.”

          Yeah, I already moved out of Japan in 2018, I just like to still keep up with all the human rights issues occurring there. And is basically the only website on the whole internet where you can criticize Japan without having to deal with Japan apologists and other trolls, so last year I decided to comment more often here, even though I don’t have much to contribute since I only lived two years in Japan.

          Anyway, thank you for the comment, I definitely agree with everything you said. Hopefully things will be able to change someday, but it definitely looks like there’s a long road ahead.

  • realitycheck says:

    Yes Ms Osaka is like Rui Hachimura – sliding away from any real comments on systemic racism in Japan as well as the horrible experiences of visibly dark skinned bi-racial children everywhere in Japan.

    Naomi Osaka has lost most of her credibility as far as I am concerned. Hachimura not as much because he is only a Japanese citizen, never had a US passport. His back-pedalling on the racism faced by his family -Japanese mother and African father – can be called cowardly but his status as a Japanese kicked in and he clearly doesn`t have the moral courage to truthfully discuss racism in Japan.

    On the other hand Naomi Osaka has a foot in both camps – don`t believe she is no longer a US citizen. She would have kept her US passport and done the `Don`t ask, don`t tell` re keeping that passport with the Japanese authorities. She is the biggest name in tennis at the moment and the Japanese authorities aren`t going to demand she tells them everything about her status as a US citizen.

    She could be ready to speak about Japan the way she does about the US but in of course a different context. However, the media applauding her for supposedly taking on racism in Japan didn`t really look too hard at her comments apart from references to her image being bleached by Japanese sponsors.

    Naomi let them right off the hook after – what could have been the beginning of a powerful and credible stance on racism in Japan turned into a slippery evasiveness. Clearly her status in Japan and sponsorship money here are more important than racism here.

    Yet she is very consistent in attacking racism in the US. Maybe because the corporate sponsors these days often support social causes and in fact BLM is supported by many corporations in the US. It doesn:t take much courage to make a stand when it has become a popular cause and your sponsors won`t make a peep about it.

    Rui is similar there as a basketballer in the US, easy to take a stand when many of all ethnicities are in society and your team is actively doing it.

    Naomi and Rui need to lose that `We are Japanese and keeping harmony is more important than truth telling` when it comes to the realities of racism in Japan.


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