Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Arudou Debito and "Closed" Racism

I've pretty much backed off my coverage of Debito over the past year. This is not just due to the fact that I've left Japan, but also because I started to disagree with his tactics. True, I think he makes a valid case for the rights of foreigners in many cases:

- Children born to international couples, i.e. what are their rights, will they experience discrimination as a Japanese born in Japan just because they don't "look Japanese"?
- Not sitting still in many English schools because you're fresh off the boat and uncertain how to react when your rights are stripped away or you feel more like a pet than an employee. This isn't limited to Japan; many English schools across Asia, South America, and Africa draw you in with empty promises of fair wages, benefits, and decent housing. There are some cases where employers will "request" to hold on to your passport while you're working for them: they have no right to do this, of course.

I don't really have any strong objections to the new gaijin cards with IC chips when it comes to first-time visa holders and short-term residents. But, as is often the case, the rules apply to everyone, from permanent residents with families to American douchebags fresh out of college looking to get laid and drink too much while blowing off work at eikaiwa.

I believe Debito fulfills a need in Japanese society, by "injecting a different view into the debate." He brings awareness to issues that many Japanese have been complacent about and many foreign residents are ignorant about. But I honestly think he's becoming too much of an extremist (I hate putting labels on things like FoxNews, but I need something).

The key to understanding Debito's line of reasoning (and yes, he has good reasons for thinking the way he does) is understanding racism in Japan. Strictly speaking, Japan is not a racist society. I say again, Japan is not a racist society. The reason for this is we need a new definition to define the type of discrimination which occurs far too often in Japan. Japanese people don't treat foreigners differently because they have strong objections to white or black skin; they treat them differently because they are not Japanese. They don't fit into society's rules and therefore, must be treated like they don't belong. Ironically, this is more of an attempt to make foreigners conform; it doesn't work, because we can't (very similar to the mentality behind ijime, bullying).

So let's talk about this. Many people around the world, Japan included, are completely openly racist: yelling at those with different skin tones, screaming slurs with offensive language, causing physical harm in the worst situations. Dave Chappelle explains it far better than I ever could (rated R by KPIJ):

More often than not, what we see in Japan is "closed" racism, occurring almost behind closed doors and making foreigners second guess what actually happened. When you feel like you're the victim of racial discrimination in Japan, Japanese don't outright say things like "I'm doing this because you're a foreigner." More often that not, we'd get a calm, rational explanation:

"From now on, we're going to take your fingerprints every time you cross our borders."

"May I ask why?"

"No, you may not. But if you must, it is because we fear terrorists may attempt to attack our beautiful Japanese cities."

"I see. Have any foreign terrorists ever attacked Japan?"


"Even if they did, wouldn't they be likely to not have their fingerprints on file?"

"Well... you see..."

"Isn't it true the only terrorist attacks in Japan have been committed by Japanese?"

"I don't believe so."

"So if you discover this to be true, you will be fingerprinting everyone, including Japanese?"

"Of course not. They are Japanese."

Or, in the work environment...
(approximation from Fear and Trembling, Amélie Nothomb)

"You served the tea as if you spoke perfect Japanese!"

"But, Saito-san, I do speak it reasonably well."

"Well, from now on, you no longer speak Japanese."


"You must forget Japanese!"

That's a rather extreme example, but still, it does describe the essence of "closed" racism; Amélie didn't have a problem at her company because she was foreign, or a woman (well, that may be debatable). She had a problem because, despite her best efforts, she was incapable of acting, thinking, and looking like a Japanese. Some people who read blogs on Japan hear stories about Japanese on trains moving to avoid sitting next to foreigners; overhearing Japanese coworkers at English schools speaking about foreign teachers in Japanese to their faces in the belief they won't be understood; being turned away at hot springs because it would make other people "feel uncomfortable" in the bath; policemen demanding to see gaijin cards after foreign residents innocently approach the box asking for directions; and the like. Rarely do we hear accounts of foreigners being beaten or verbally assaulted as African-Americans might in the American south (oh yes, plenty of open racism down there).

In this sense, closed racism is practically institutionalized in Japan by trying to make foreigners conform to the group (an impossible task when we can't "look Japanese"), but it is by no means a certainty. Nor is Japan limited to closed racism. The media does its part by focusing a great deal of attention on crimes committed by foreigners in Japan; the police by issuing media instructing the public that foreigners are the #1 cause of their problems (terrorism, crime, SARS, swine flu...); schools by not providing enough information and adopting more of an attitude like "foreigners are different from us and I find that funny, don't you?"

Maybe I'm wrong. Thoughts?

Thanks to Japan Probe for the video.


Ruben RJ said...

You're completely right.
Honestly, this is the most intelligent and accurate article on 'discrimination' in Japan I've read so far.
Great blog man

LB said...

One thought - terrorism in Japan has not only been committed by Japanese. Japanese did not kidnap people from Japanese soil and shuffle them off to North Korea - the North Koreans did. The 1985 attempted bombing of an Air India flight out of Narita (the bomb went off prematurely, killing two Japanese ground handlers) was not commited by Japanese - it was committed by Sikhs.

That said, the argument that somehow fingerprinting will prevent terrorism is bogus - but not because "the only terrorists in Japan are Japanese". That argument is simply not true, and does not deserve to be spread further.

Turner said...

I don't know about that - I have opinions on the subject, but didn't exactly back them up too well. Still, I want to open the blogging floor to comments.

Anonymous said...

Always a tough subject.
I mean if we're labeling that as "closed" racism, then America is taking it to the extreme opposite by not even labeling the descendents of slaves as "former-slave Africans" but just "African-American" as a generalized term, confusing everything.
A white, Wasp-y friend of mine from England who went to Los Angeles came across a sports newscaster on TV whose name is Jim Hill - well, in England, there happens to also be a Jimmy Hill who is also a sportscaster but who is a pure white Englishman - and my friend said, incredulously, how can a Black man be named the same as a white man, if it wasn't by marriage? Of course, my friend had not quite been educated and didn't realize that the freed slaves adopted the last names of their former owners and used it as their own name, and thus the modern result.
Would you call that "closed" racism just because in America things are generalized and not labeled properly for what they are or who they are?

Turner said...

Actually, I'd just call that ignorance.

Anonymous said...

Racism is racism and trying to bend that term to justify behavior by some people that is not acceptable is delusional.

You also knock Debito but then fail to back up your opinion with facts. Easy mode of thought is to attack the person instead of their arguements.

Turner said...

I said as much.

What do you mean by that? I don't attack anyone personally. If you've been following my blog, you might have noticed my commentary on Debito over the past few years.

Anonymous said...

You quite clearly in this blog post label Debito as an extremest and say that Japan is not a racist society since you are in essance redefining that term. Stick with the dictionary term and IMHO Japan does fall into the racist category. People here are treated differently according to their race. Wether it is in your face or behind your back makes no difference.

Turner said...

I don't really consider that an attack, but whatever you say.

You're doing the same thing you're accusing me of; why stick to the dictionary definition of racism? The point of this isn't to encourage or excuse that sort of behavior, but to understand the reasoning behind it.

Anonymous said...

Let me put it to you this way.

By changing the definition while discussing the topic you make it easier for people to hide their actions behind the new meaning. You in essence dumb the conversation down and muddle it.

Turner said...

Sorry, but I happen to believe the opposite is true. So many people are torn out of debates on racism by stating their opinions, only to have the opposition walk out on them in a rage that can come from personal experience.

Giving what I believe to be the best definition of "racism" in Japan provides more of a window into the minds of many Japanese the opposition would more easily dismiss offhand than try to understand (they have good reason, of course).

You seem rather opinionated on this, though - what happened to you in Japan?

LB said...

Hope I didn't come across as "brusque" before - overall I think you've got a good article here, at least in terms of trying to explain the basic problem (issues with conformity) and how that is not, really, "racism". Foreigners of Japanese ancestry who have come to live in Japan have often had a harder time of it then non-ethnically Japanese foreigners. They look Japanese, but sure don't act Japanese, and that causes a disconnect that some Japanese find hard to reconcile. In fairness, though, that issue is far less prevalent today than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Japan may not get all "warm and fuzzy" over foreigners, but I have seen things improve greatly over the past 15 years here.

Naturally, there is still work to be done, which is one reason why I think it is important to have one's facts straight. Nothing shoots a hole in an argument faster than starting from an incorrect assumption or set of data.

It is true what you say about the initial reaction to "suspect the foreigner" when something like SARS or swine flu pops up. On the other hand, I would like to point out that all the "foreigner panic" about swine flu evaporated when the minor outbreak actually hit - and none of those infected were foreigners.

I disagree that Debito "brings awareness to issues that many Japanese have been complacent about and many foreign residents are ignorant about." At least in the sense that he is bringing awareness to Japanese, or non-English speaking foreign residents. The vast majority of people in either of those groups don't know who he is - that is one of his failings. He writes almost exclusively in English, makes only slight attempts at outreach to Japanese and almost none to Koreans, Chinese, Brazilians or any other group. Sure, he may write about the Brazilians, but his sources all seem to be the Japanese press, he's just translating into English what he reads, not actually talking to Brazilians.

So he makes certain members of the English-speaking community aware of issues, but then again, he often gets things spectacularly wrong (like with the ballet school, or the knife shop in Akihabara, or with his piece on foreigners murdered by Japanese, and now with the RFID paranoia), so he really is not helping much there either.

We can agree he is getting more extremist (like you, not a fan of the word, but how else to describe it?), and that is not helping. Any attempt to better the lot of foreigners in Japan is going to require Japanese involvement, and it is hard to win folks over when you are accusing them of condoning or allowing the murder of foreigners by their fellow Japanese, or offering up paranoid visions from 1984.

Anonymous said...

FYI: Via Debito web site

Relevant to this blog post:

"NPR’s Geoff Nunberg on semantics and their control over public debate"


Anonymous said...

at least, it will never happen in Japan.


TokyoTopGuide said...

I love Japan, I adore the Japanese culture and Tokyo is my second home, but I can relate to feelings of dual attitude towards foreigners in Japan.
The admiration the Japanese have for all things western comes hand in hand with a a very closed society. You will never feel part of the Japanese people, which is not the case if you immigrate to Australia/NZ/USA/Canada/Israel.
I know many people who live in Japan for years and share the same feelings.

Josh said...

Maybe we should be using the term 'xenophobic' in the sense that the Japanese often exhibit an irrational fear of foreigners and unfortunately allow this to affect their laws. Racism isn't always about skin colour or nose shape et cetera, but as Korean Japanese and foreign-born ethnic Japanese can also suffer discrimination in Japan it's clearly something different from what we in the 'west' call racism.

Anonymous said...

lots sayin Debito is a douchebag, and droppin other disses and hate towards the man. Debito is just unhinged a bit, a cowboy of sorts. Yeah, he doesnt always think things through, but neither do I. You need a Debito in japan to stir things up. The real douches are the apologist. What Debito should do is run for office. id like to see Japan change, he would be the dude for it.