My latest SNA VM column 52: “Positive Steps for Non-Japanese in Japan” (Jan 23, 2024), a report of a month spent in Tokyo and all the progress towards tolerance observed.


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Hi Blog. While I’m aware that the bigger news is the recent Miss Japan Carolina Shiino debate once again bringing to light Japan’s ethnostatist narratives, I’ll get to that in February’s SNA column. Meanwhile, here’s January’s column. Enjoy. Debito Arudou, Ph.D.


By Debito Arudou. Shingetsu News Agency Visible Minorities column 52, January 23, 2024

Last month SNA (and this column) went on vacation for Christmas and New Years. During the hiatus, I spent a month in Tokyo meandering around visiting sights and people, developing my inner flaneur as well as conducting relaxed random research. Tokyo, a walking city riddled with world-class transportation and public facilities, is an ideal place for that.

I spent almost every afternoon or evening talking with long-term Japan residents from many walks of life. This included six academic researchers, two foreign correspondents, a media celebrity, a long-term resident vlogger, an employee of NHK, two secondary school teachers, a naturalized regional politician, a rural ryokan operator, a high-tech product salesman, a retired airbnb operator, a foreign exchange graduate student, and a labor union leader. All are specialists in their fields in terms of training and experience, most are Lifers in Japan, and all offered insightful analysis of current conditions in Japan. My research will probably inform future columns this year.

This month’s column will offer my impressions about how much Japan has changed regarding the issues that have always been on my radar screen — society’s openness to Newcomers. On that score, I have some positive developments to report:


One of my biggest qualms about Japan has been its two-tiered official registration system that openly excluded foreigners as residents. One is the Family Registry (koseki), which is required for all Japanese citizens, and continues to overlook foreigners as spouses of Japanese and parents of children. But the other, the Residency Certificate (juminhyo), has been revised in a good way.

To illustrate, consider what happened to a foreign friend. She was able to move to Japan on a researcher visa, go to the local ward office and place herself on a juminhyo, then have her Japanese husband come over later and place himself on her juminhyo. Even better, when asked who the Head of Household (setai nushi) was, the foreign wife stepped forward as the main breadwinner and claimed the spot.

This is significant. I can remember when bureaucrats refused tp accept women as household heads since they assumed the man must be the main income earner, adding sexism to the racism. None of this was possible before 2012, so finally Non-Japanese residents are getting equal official recognition as family members and breadwinners.


Despite being listed as “Residents” in official tallies, Japan’s official population tallies still do not include foreigners — listed as “the population of Japanese” (nihonjin no jinko) rather than “the population of Japan” (nihon no jinko). And of course, the Koseki System has to be reformed to list foreigners under the “spouse” column properly. Hardly likely anytime soon, but one can dream.


Japan has done it again — turned on a dime and accepted a new reality. Despite years of sweaty handwringing about how “Yokoso Japan” and Cool Japan” would ever deal with foreigners and all their pesky foreign languages (as seen in the dozens of hotels nationwide at the time that said they would refuse service to any foreigner), Japan has now risen to the challenge of catering to the influx of foreign folks and money (which in 2023 approached record levels again).

Multilingual signs, instructions, and apps are all over, as are multilingual staff in shops. Major foreign credit cards can now buy JR train tickets easily. One friend even noted that his neighboring hotel didn’t have his website in Japanese anymore, since he preferred Non-Japanese customers for their flexibility regarding his more spartan accommodations!

It’s been rewarding for Japan after three “lost decades” of economic doldrums. Between 1 and 2 percent of Japan’s annual GDP is now reliant on non-domestic tourism, and multilingual speakers face abundant opportunities in service sectors all over Japan. After brazen “Japanese Only” signs for decades, Japan simply can’t afford to treat foreign customers like shit anymore.


Japan (including those whiny foreign residents who think more foreigners somehow spoil their “pure Japan” experience) have to bellyache less about how things are getting too touristy — for tourism is what you wanted. Also, Japan’s government has to tame its impulses to blame foreigners for any ills, as was blatantly seen in the reflexive blanket ban on all foreigners (including Permanent Residents) during the Covid Pandemic. And of course, there’s nothing to stop any bigot from putting up a “Japanese Only” sign, as they still remain legal. Pass that anti-discrimination law, already!


Perhaps it’s because my quarter-century in Japan was living in the sticks, but I’ve noticed just how comfortable I feel in Tokyo. In my month there engaging in some pretty intense negotiations, almost never did I get “Nihongo ga jozu”-ed, nor did anyone “weird out” as if speaking Japanese to me was like dealing with a talking dog. A near-majority of convenience stores had Non-Japanese staff, doing stuff any Japanese could do, and their speaking Japanese (even to me) was no big deal.

Tolerance for diversity and difference was quite palpable this trip. I rarely felt like I had to rehearse my dialog before negotiating — even talking extemporaneously resulted in working through any problem to a solution via trial and error. Even all the accented Japanese wasn’t an issue, unlike the bad old days where people would simply dismiss anything slightly abnormal with a blank stare. It just didn’t happen, at least in Tokyo.


This “can do” attitude needs to spread nationwide. A few quick trips outside Tokyo later showed me how old ways, including stares, “jozu-ing,” and “weirding out” at accents, are still a thing. Again, one can dream.

In sum, a trip back to Tokyo was delightful. In previous trips, I usually get triggered by something sooner or later and wind up reflexively “doing a Debito,” i.e., getting pushy and scoldy to get some respect from the intolerant and intransigent. This time around, however, even after more than a month, nothing really got under my skin.

Maybe I’ve mellowed. But I think Japan has changed quite a bit for the better too. I’ll offer some more thoughts and case studies in future columns this year.


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24 comments on “My latest SNA VM column 52: “Positive Steps for Non-Japanese in Japan” (Jan 23, 2024), a report of a month spent in Tokyo and all the progress towards tolerance observed.

  • >Major foreign credit cards can now buy JR train tickets easily.
    Sorry, when was the last time you tried this before? I believe this was already the case around 2010 (if we’re talking about those long distance train tickets, purchased at the green counter -not just local lines in the sticks – e.g. Nima station in Shimane was still cash only in Jan 2024)

    — Thanks for the correction. We got ours at the JR vending machine around a reasonably rural area. I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions depending on how far off the beaten track you go.

  • Hmmm.
    I don’t know. I hope that Japan is becoming more tolerant. However, my experience is that J-Inc is learning that there are NJ tourist $$$ up for grabs, so it has learned to offer English language support, smile, yes (gasp!) take NJ tourist money too (thank you gaijin san), but all of the prejudices are still there when it comes to NJ as anything other than visiting cash dispensers, and outside of the centers of the biggest conurbations, there’s the ‘real Japan’ where (so I am bizarrely informed) you can enjoy ‘real Japan’ because there are no (foreign) tourists (Japanese never see themselves as tourists inside Japan in exactly the same way they never see themselves as ‘gaijin’ when they go abroad- it’s entitlement and privilege at work).
    It’s just my experience, your mileage may vary.

  • “I rarely felt like I had to rehearse my dialog before negotiating” A rarely discussed phenomenon. In the “Japan that Can (and loves to) Say No” of say, 1990 onwards, I recall having a notebook of prepared comebacks in both English and Japanese, such was the wave of negativity to absolutely any idea or innovation or suggestion at all.
    It was ironic as I had originally been attracted to Japan by the seemingly cheerful, easy going even, and positive attitudes of Japanese I had met.

    Japanese I had met overseas (key word).

    Come to think of it, they used to warn me about living and working in Japan (“Japanese people will not accept that, this etc”) but I was not put off, of course.

    So if that has been replaced with a more “Can do” attitude, then that is progress indeed. My only caveat is perhaps this is just for tourists- much like how Akihabara used to be “the only place where tourists can bargain to get a discount in Japan” while business practices and decision making remain in the same paralysis, any comments?

    — Again, I’m offering my experience, and I don’t believe I’m being Pollyannish about this. But I got out and about a lot this trip, and things that would usually happen sooner or later that would bother me simply didn’t happen. Perhaps I got lucky. Or perhaps the need to cater to the NJ tourist currency inflow is having an impact.

    • Jon Heese says:

      Or, Debito, things really have changed. I’ve maintained that Japan is progressing as fast as every other developed country, just 20 years behind (specifically Canada). Hokkaido’s district court just found that it’s unconstitutional to forbid same sex marriage. First same sex marriage in Canada? 2005. Just sayin…

  • Yeah I agree with JDG. The line between Japan and Nazi Germany actually becomes thinner year by year.

    Just because some Japanese put on a fake smile for tourists, doesn’t mean that Japan is opening up. And let’s not forget that a lot of Kyoto residents for example, don’t want anything to do with foreign tourists.

    Sorry, but I don’t care about Japan anymore, especially since everything that has happened since covid (ie. blaming all infections on foreigners). This spring I’m going to Cyprus. It’s closer, cheaper and I’m actually welcome.

  • I would suggest that this is just a shift in the scale and scope of Japan’s Tatemae window-dressing efforts.
    I think that J-Inc and Japanese society was all geared up for an ‘omotenashi’ 2020 Olympics, and this is just an expression of all that effort not going to waste.
    It’s analogous to the ‘Overton window’ moving to the right.
    Also, let’s not underestimate the spectacular degree of gaslighting going on by the J-Gov here to keep the population in line;
    The spectacularly weak ¥ is destroying the average person’s standard of living and quality of life, but that’s OK, because Japan is just so famous and popular in the world now and so many foreigners want to come here to enjoy our unique and superior country/culture/society/language! (I have been told this).

    • JDG, because Japan is just so famous and popular in the world now and so many foreigners want to come here

      OK so tourism may be up but how on earth do they sell the first part of that statement? Got any links or examples?

      Surely Japan was famous and popular in the 80s but what’s happening to make it “famous” now? I just do not see it.

      • High tourism numbers are a function of the weak ¥.
        The weak ¥ is good for the J-Gov as it inflates the ¥ value of repatriated earnings (of which the J-Gov’s slice by taxation is also inflated).
        This is the J-Gov’s only plan (so it seems) to do anything about meeting it’s servicing cost payments on the interest on the Japanese national debt (they seem to have given up on targeting raising venue as a result of real growth in the economy back in 2012).
        This means less spending power and higher costs for the Japanese public = lower standards of living.
        Yet again, J-Inc and J-Gov are complicit in seeking their own financial goals over the interests of the J-population (someone remind me of the founding principles of fascism again?).
        The J-population need to be modified to prevent them realizing that inept governance and rapacious corporations are exploiting them.
        Hence, the narrative is NOT ‘foreigners are flocking to Japan because Japan is a bargain cheap destination’ (just like all those developing world Asian destinations that Japan likes to think it is culturally superior too), but rather the narrative is divorced from the weak ¥ and presented as ‘foreigners are recognizing in record numbers that Japan is *special*’.

      • There’s a big difference between Bubble-era ‘Japan as #1’ *fame* and Abe’s ‘taking Japan back’ dream-made-reality of Japan as low cost tourist destination, that carries with it the implicit recognition that Japan is ‘cheap’ ‘low-cost’.
        And of course, Japanese whining about tourists is already international news…(again);

    • JDG, really like your analysis.

      Indeed the 24% plunge the yen has taken is all but destroying the middle class. Which was Japan’s biggest achievement, if you ask me. In 15 years this will not be pretty.

      • Thank you!
        And I absolutely agree with you. Amongst ‘We Japanese are all one race/religion/language’ myths/narratives it was probably the ‘we Japanese are all middle class’ myth that held the most post-war power as a tool of social control; (perceived) personal economic prosperity without a doubt blunted the Japanese’ taste for political involvement and abdication of political/social responsibility to the LDP. Now that the LDP is asset stripping them of their perceived wealth, and you never hear the ‘we Japanese are all middle class’ line anymore, Kishida’s approval rating is tanking. And it’s not all his fault, nor will the next guy be able to stop it. Social unease now, will there be social unrest? Be wary; they already think there are too many NJ here.

  • I am very interested in reading your thoughts on Carolina Shiino. Of course I am quite happy for her, although I had a quibble with one part of the article I read, but I’ll save that thought for your SNA article.

    — No, please spill the quibble.

    • OK, then! First, everything I thought was BEFORE the current scandal started (not saying anything there, that’s a whole different can of worms and I don’t have enough information to have an informed opinion).
      In one of the articles talking about Carolina Shiino one of the Japanese people interviewed in it said “She is more Japanese than we are.” I’ve gotten told this a few times, but I came to Japan as an adult, had to learn and assimilate and I know I still got much to learn (and to be fair I mostly hear it from oyajis who only think my dajare are funny because they’re drunk). Carolina Shiino’s been here since she was a child, learned the language growing up, grew up with Japanese people around her. After a lifetime being around Japanese, why wouldn’t she be Japanese? This just feels like something that shouldn’t need to be commented on. Maybe I’m overthinking things a bit?

      • No, you are not overthinking at all. It is exactly as weird as you say it is. “She is more Japanese than we are” is indeed a phrase, however well-intentioned, that simply serves the mindset that non-East Asian looking people can never be *exactly the same as the rest of the Japanese population, so similar that no comment is required*.

        Comments like this are still a form of othering, even if ostensibly othering in a positive direction.

        I have been told this in much the same circumstances as you, and, like you, I learned as an adult, so I have a slight accent. I am not “more Japanese”. The implication is that you are “trying hard”. It still focuses on the fact that you aren’t originally from here. As such, the comment emerges from the excessive, continual, and obsessive focus on nationality.

        You would not really tell a well assimilated French/German guy they were “more British than the British”, you would just barely notice and let them get on with it. I guess one or two people might say it, but not with the frequency you hear in Japan.

        And if they were born in Britain, then, it is a completely non-issue. As you accurately conclude “This just feels like something that shouldn’t need to be commented on”.

        So I think you can stand on this observation! Cheers

  • THIS is where intolerance of NJ and the weak ¥ smash into each other.
    Japanese town to ‘block off’ the view of Mt. Fuji behind a convenience store because there are too many NJ tourists coming to get a photo of the ‘very Japanese’ juxtaposition and some of these NJ are ‘behaving badly’.
    What will the result be? Well, the convenience store will probably close because small town populations are crashing. The local bus/train/taxi services are all going to lose the paying custom of NJ tourists. Plus, the story generates massive badwill towards Japan; you have to enjoy Japan the way *they* WANT YOU TO ENJOY Japan, not the way you want to with all your $ to ¥.
    Japan doesn’t understand it has to choose: you can have NJ money and actually see the NJ spending it in your community OR your dwindling population will see reduction in salaries, jobs, standards of living. You can’t have both.
    I’m exactly the same way that many Japanese think that if Japan had won the war Japan would be socially the same it is today but somehow ‘better’ (instead of an oppressive fascist regime that genocidally murdered its present day export markets), many Japanese seem to think that if they can reject NJ tourist ¥ and not have to worry about economic and social decline. Huge NJ tourist numbers are a RESULT of Japan’s economic decline, NOT the cause. Offending NJ tourists will not reverse Japan’s economic decline and associated social impacts.


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