MX on “Gaijin” harassment in Tokyo elementary school


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Hi Blog.  Pursuant to yesterday’s Asahi article mentioning kids bullying a child with international roots, here’s a letter from a father who felt the diversity-stripping effects of the word “gaijin” firsthand, when his Japanese daughter first entered a Tokyo grade school.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo


From:   MX

Subject: my 6-year-old (Japanese) daughter called “gaijin”

Date: October 24, 2008

Hello Debito,

You probably don’t remember, but I wrote you several years ago to ask about the complicated issue of children’s names in the case of “international couples” here in Japan, and you kindly answered that query. 

Well, it is about 6 years later and my daughter XXXXXX is getting ready to enter elementary school next April. We happen to live right between two schools in Tokyo, and my wife took XXXXXX to visit both of them yesterday. XXXXXX is quite excited to be an ichi nen sei next year and was looking forward to the visit, but it turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. 

In one of the classes they were visiting, a boy pointed at XXXXXX and shouted 外人だ!外人がいる! The teacher went on “teaching” as if nothing was happening, while the shouts grew louder and soon the entire class was pointing and staring at poor XXXXXX, who was in complete shock. Ultimately, my wife had no choice but to leave the classroom and try to console XXXXXX.

I can’t say this came as a complete surprise, as XXXXXX does indeed look quite “European,” but it was depressing that the teacher saw no reason to intervene in some way to make the experience less mortifying for my daughter. If this had occurred on the street it would have been  bad enough, but it is even more disheartening that it happened at a school, a place that should be at the forefront of efforts to curb stupid racial discrimination. 

Anyway, the reason that I am bothering you with this sad little tale is that I was wondering if you happened to know anything about the Ministry of Education’s “policy” towards racial discrimination and what (if anything) the schools are doing to explain the simple fact that Japanese people now come in all shapes, sizes and faces. I suspect there is no effort being made whatsoever to counter the ignorance of students and teachers, but I thought if anyone was up to date on this subject it would be you.

So far, my wife and I have sent a letter to the Principal of the school and depending on the response (if any!) we receive I may pursue the matter further, whether writing to The Japan Times or to the Ministry of Education itself. Do you have any other suggestions on how to raise a bit of a stink about this (assuming, of course, you think that the incident is as stinky as it seemed to me and my wife).

I’m sorry to take up so much of your time with this, but any advice you might have would be much appreciated. 

Best regards, MX



2008/10/25 Arudou Debito <> replied:

Hello Michael.  Thanks for sharing this.  May I post this up on my blog?  I’ll anonymize it if you like.  It’s an important tale.  If you’d like to add anything more, please do.  Meanwhile, consider what I did in this situation here.

Do take it up with your school.  Schedule an appointment and meet with the people in charge with the school face to face.  Get in writing what the school intends to do about this.  The teacher was completely irresponsible.  Debito


Hi again,
Thanks for writing back. Please feel free to post it on your blog, but I would prefer the anonymizing (?). It’s been a couple days and no news back from the principal yet. I suspect they are having some endless (and probably fruitless) meeting about this, or it has been brushed off completely. Anyway, I will follow up on it.
It seems to tie in to the debate over the g-word in the Japan Times. I must admit to being somewhat on the fence about the word when it comes to myself, as it is at least factual accurate, but there isn’t much justification when it is directed against a “fellow citizen.” I thought the incident showed, though, that the word is less important the ugly sentiment that is often behind it, that is basically: We’re over here, and you (strange people) are over there. In fact, the kid in that class could have just pointed and said nothing and the effect would have been similar. I suppose my point is that the problem is not so much this or that word, but racial discrimation itself (not to mention the nonsensical concept of “race” itself). In that sense, the word g-word and the n-word do have more than a little in common, although to argue which is worse is sort of like saying that one atrocity is not as bad as this one.
I’ll stop rambling, though, and just thank you again for taking the time to write me. Take care, MX

17 comments on “MX on “Gaijin” harassment in Tokyo elementary school

  • Wow, that is just wrong. That poor girl. I bet she doesn’t want to go to school now. Makes you look at the whole “gai-jin” debate in a whole new light.

  • Another John says:

    Indeed, take it up with the school and don’t stop until you’re satisfied with their response.

    My daughter, when she went to elementary school on her first day as an ichi-nen sei, got the same “gaijin” razz from a couple of J-trash boys (the girls were much better behaved; seems that little boys here are particularly self-destructive), but the teacher put the kabosh on that talk immediately and told the class that any outbursts of any type would not be tolerated, period.

    In addition, we took the teacher aside later, and met with the principal and laid out our concerns. We did so in a “we’re very worried about the insensitivities of other children who have not had exposure to non-Japanese kids,” angle; we didn’t try to head-butt them. In this case, the “honey over vinegar” approach worked best.

    – j

  • Giant Panda says:

    This is something that I have been so worried about since having a kid in Japan. However for the most part I have been pleasantly surprised just about everywhere I go with Baby Panda. When I took him for his vaccinations I saw at least 2 other “double” kids in the room (who we immediately befriended), and when I enrolled him in hoikuen I was surprised to see at least 30% of the kids have one or both parents non-Japanese. Everytime we go to the park we are running into double kids, French kids, Indian kids… the sheer diversity of this place compared to as recently as 10 years ago is astounding.

    So, I have hope for the future. Sheer numbers of gorgeous little products of international marriages have got to force a change somehow.

  • If I can’t come up with the money for expensive international school, we will be leaving this country, come what may. My child (half-Japanese, half-European descent) will not be setting foot in a Japanese school as long as I draw breath.

  • Adrian Havill says:

    Having been in Japan since 1993 and heard the horror stories of discrimination against biracial children back from those days, I was initially apprehensive about placing my Caucasian/Japanese daughter in public elementary school.

    I live in Setagaya Ward in Tokyo, and my wife and I interviewed the teachers of the local schools to make sure they had experience dealing with multi-racial and multi-cultural children. To my surprise, all the schools said “oh yeah, sure, there’s at least one or two kids in every first grade these days.”

    Sure enough, there were three other biracial kids in my daughter’s first grade (not in the same classroom though). My daughter was the only one that was White/Japanese. The other kids were Black/Japanese. Which amused me in one respect, because my daughter’s elementary school, by headcount, was more racially diverse than my elementary school that I attended in 1976 in the rich (read: white) suburbs of Washington, D.C. in Virginia.

    Has my daughter had problems with kids teasing her? Yes. And its a problem, though not a major one (we solved the problem by having the teacher squash the source). But the interesting thing is that my daughter is a 帰国子女 (kikokushijo; returnee), and when kids tease her, the slurs aren’t “gaijin”/racial — it’s more of the “you talk funny” teasing. The other Black/Japanese kids are not made fun of because they were born in Japan. Close your eyes, and you can’t tell the difference between them and the others as their Japanese pronunciation and grammar is indistinguishable from all the other kids.

    I’m not saying that MX’s problems aren’t real and I feel for him/her. Just presenting an alternate experience.

  • I have two “double” children in a private Japanese school. We chose a Japanese private school because 1. couldn’t afford one of the expat schools and 2. fear of bullying in a public school.
    So far the experience has been well worth it. The teachers are great, always available, and most importantly – care a great deal about each and every student. No outbreaks/teasing is tolerated on any level, “gaijin”-like or otherwise.
    Of course, no one can stop what happens on the playground when the teacher isn’t looking. In the rare case that one of my boys does come home and mentions getting the “gaijin” teasing we stress all the good things that come with being “double” (two passports, frequent travel, etc, etc).

  • Why didn’t the mother take this up immediatly with the teacher?

    I’m going to guess that she is probably Japanese. And I can’t imagine most Japanese people raising a fuss in the middle of a classroom, regardless of the situation. I don’t mean that in a malicious way, it just seems to be the way things work in Japan when it comes to “uncomfortable” situations.

  • Saitama-rama says:

    Kids do stupid things in school. They make of people because they are different or do something ‘strange,’ no matter what country it is. The real blame here is on the teacher for not disciplining the kid to shut up which, honestly, is far too common from the looks and sounds of things here. In any case, in my town, I’ve seen a few bi-racial/NJ students who seem to get along just fine and are accepted as part of the community.

  • I agree with Kingofpunk. We should use the word “double” and not “half”.

    I also agree with KK. The mother was probably Japanese and could not interfere with the teacher on the spot. Too bad. That would have been great if she had stoped the class and turned it into a human rights/basic manner class. She should have attacked the teacher immediately and all the kids wopuld have had a good lesson for the day.

    Here is my question:

    My company will soon invite two Mexican families with children in the age of 5,6, and 9. The issue is not mixed race, but if they would be bullied and if ,especially the 9 year old, they would be able to cope with the sudden stress of a Japanese language environment.
    It is in Fuji and there is no international school.

    Thank you.

  • I also agree with Kingofpunk.

    My only concern is that in Japanese, the verb “daburu” often carries negative connotations. So I don’t know if Japanese speakers would adopt the new expression “daburu”.

  • My daughter’s a second grader now and we’ve never had a problem, either at public shogakko or hoikuen. I know a lot of parents of biracial kids here, and my experience is that while the odd little incident (Ha-fu da! etc.) does occur, serious problems are by far the exception rather than the rule.

    Don’t let one or two stories put you off raising your kids here. I’m very satisfied, and I know that she might experience a bit of name calling wherever in the world she goes to school.

  • All valid points and the teachers ignorance is dumbfounding.

    I have gone for local school as 1) can’t afford International (even if actually wanted it) and 2) don’t think International is the answer for local/half/double kids and 3) I think my kids deserve to be confident in BOTH cultures and that means being fully capable of socializing with the worst of the locals in either country we live in. We aim to school them abroad through High School (as well as extended family vacations with the cousins back home).

    BTW – I have a friend who doesn’t let his kids watch J-TV or play with J-toys. Everything is in English. The poor kid can not make any friends in the playground or classroom and is always on his own. I think to an extent we have to let the kids build their own confidence and strategies to make friends but it starts with parents allowing the kid to participate in the local culture enough to join in. I reckon that child is being set up for a hard future as he is already confused.


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