Japanese Exceptionalism

Talking about exceptionalism seems to be all the rage recently, so let’s talk about it in a Japanese context.  Japanese people are just as much in love with themselves as everyone else, Japan just doesn’t flaunt it as indiscriminately or internationally as others do.  That’s one of the things the Japanese love about themselves–how “polite” their society is.  But the Japanese are self-interested, prejudicial and racist too, just not in the same ways we are.

Although it’s becoming less common, sometimes a Japanese person will stand up or move away when a foreigner sits down in a neighboring subway seat.  I’ve had police cars follow me while out for a jog–sometimes for miles–and more than once an officer has stopped me on the street and asked to see my papers for no apparent reason.  Racial discrimination is not illegal, so police blatantly engage in racial profiling, and non-Japanese face discrimination in both hotel lodgings and housing.

There is a good(?) reason for this: Japanese society functions exceedingly well because it is exceedingly homogenous.  98.5% percent of people in Japan are native-born citizens.  They all share the same social assumptions about correct behaviors and act accordingly.  The introduction of a foreigner (in Japanese: 外人 gaijin, literally outside person) throws a wrench in the workings of this well-oiled machine.  Gaijin may not know how to act properly in Japan…or they may know perfectly well, but choose to act differently.  Consequently, the Japanese are never quite sure what to expect of foreigners.  This “not knowing” creates nervousness concerning non-Japanese, which leads to stereotyping, then to prejudice and eventually becomes racism.

Racism affects foreigners differently based on their origin.  Those of African heritage–regardless of nationality–are the hardest hit.  “The Japanese,” wrote Karen De Witt in the New York Times, “do have stereotypical images of black Americans, gleaned from American television and press accounts. Some of them assume that blacks are either entertainment or sports figures or slow, lazy, strong and destructive.” Some housing contracts in Japan have clauses that state “no blacks and no animals.”

Natives of other Asian countries also face hostility, especially people from Korea and China.  However, this seems to be more of a general prejudice against “Koreans” or “the Chinese”, rather than active condemnation of any particular individual.  As former territories occupied during Japan’s empire-making stage, the successfulness of China and Korea in the modern era hits a soft spot in Japanese pride.

People with Caucasian features–again, regardless of nationality–experience what is sometimes called “positive racism”, however oxymoronic that phrase may be.  We are always and forever honored guests.  You receive the best of Japanese hospitality, but you are also an outsider, no matter how long you’ve lived in Japan, how well you speak the language or even if you gain Japanese citizenship.

As a foreigner, you unconsciously adopt some Japanese social customs.  Certain actions become engrained, either through repetition or osmosis.  I have spent so much time bowing, taking off my shoes before entering homes and actually waiting at crosswalks that now these behaviors are almost compulsions.  I can’t not do them.  Assimilation has caused me to feel uncomfortable when gaijin are present in unexpected places.  I avoid eye contact with other foreigners at all costs because it creates an awkward social situation.

Sometimes however, gaijin choose to disregard certain social norms.  During meals, I always wait to start eating until everyone at the table has been served, even though that could mean 10-15 minutes in a typical Japanese restaurant.  I also talk to strangers, which embarrasses my Japanese friends.  Once I was in a ramen shop with Yuko and Nik at around 4:00am, resting our aching dancing feet and trying to stay awake until first train. Seated at an adjacent table were two English-speakers. Something I overheard in their conversation piqued my interest, and our shared tired misery made these two random strangers seem more like compatriots. So I spoke up and joined their conversation. When the couple left a while later, Yuko immediately turned to me and asked, “Do you always do that?!”.

As a matter of fact, I do. For all our flaws, we Americans are known abroad for our openness and geniality.  I choose to uphold this tradition.


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