Japan and the issue of racial profiling

Originally published at: Japan and the issue of racial profiling | Boing Boing


There is a lot of racism in Japan, but most of it is directed toward Chinese people and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Korean people.

I am always shocked at the vitriol toward Chinese people in particular.

If you are white or black and don’t really understand the language, you will not even notice it because it is not directed at you, but it is ever-present in the society, and it can get rather ugly (though rarely violent).


I think it matters in that Japan has an aging and shrinking population and might profit from employing more foreigners.

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So his defense of accusations of racial profiling is that Japanese are colorblind but also it’s maybe merited because of the bad reputation of Africans in Japan? That sounds oddly familiar.


The government has a new program (kind of on hold now due to the pandemic) to bring hundreds of thousands of workers here under looser visa conditions for key industries facing worker shortages, such as construction and shipbuilding.

There really is a growing number of foreigners in the country now, but they don’t stand out as much because most of them are from other parts of Asia.

That said, the police tend to be a lot more suspicious of people from South Asia. I hear that they get asked for their documents more often.


In this video the person is attempting to deny an accusation of racism.

Their first point is “We’re not racist, we’re just xenophobic.” Yeah, that’s not helping your case.

Their second point is to promote the racial stereotype that people of African descent are criminals, and therefore the racism is justified. Ok, so now you’re xenophobic and racist. Congrats?

They also engage in plenty of “whataboutism” calling out other countries for also being racist.

There is plenty of racism and xenophobia in just about every country. Some less, some more. But the conditions in any one place do not excuse even the best place. If you agree racism is bad, then you must be actively anti-racist no matter where you are.

The state department’s travel warning seems justified. I think the solution isn’t to remove that warning, but for other countries to make the same warning about each other, especially the US, if they aren’t already doing so. Someone who is not white will absolutely face racial profiling in the US, and they absolutely need to be warned to avoid our police. The warning is perhaps more urgent because unlike Japanese police, ours have guns. At least if someone is racially profiled by Japanese law enforcement they won’t be dead as a result.


giphy (6)

A lot of this also hinges on a textbook definition of the term “racism” (or “race” as used here). The term is often misapplied and mainly because there simply isn’t a term for prejudice directed against specific groups unless they’ve experienced such horrifying levels of prejudice that the public consciousness is willing to define it separately (ie anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Transphobia). So we get into the weeds concerning whether the practice reaches the threshold of definitive racism instead of focusing on the functional reality of prejudice and dismissing them for not reaching that threshold.


One thing that I have noticed in my 16 years in Japan is that they tend to put much more weight on ethnicity or nationality than on race alone. It’s like they are saying, “We are not racist against X Race, we just don’t like people from Countries A, B or C…” as though that’s any better.

They (and by “they” I mean in systemic terms) treat people from Africa much differently than they treat African Americans but, of course, they cannot tell where somebody is from just by looking, which leads to a lot of awkward conversations that go like this:

“Where are you from?” “I’m from Country A.” “Oh…bye!”

Because Japan is so racially homogeneous, I think that the distinction between “race” and “ethnicity” becomes even more blurred than in the West, and I think that is where weird statements like “I’m not racist, I’m just xenophobic” come from. For instance, in Japan, there are no Asians; there are Koreans and Chinese and Vietnamese, but the idea that they are all the same race is…well…just not something that comes up.


It can’t be explained that Japan is doing what the USA has been doing, it’s mind boggling.


Not African descent, Japan must have extremely few black people born in the country. This is not the same as the situation in USA where black people have lived for generations, longer than most white people, and still get treated as different.

He specifically talks about Nigerians. I don’t know if he is right, but it’s quite possible that in Nigeria Japan has gotten a reputation as a good country for scammers and that almost only scammers go there. This will give inevitably give Nigerians a bad reputation. Stereotyping is bad, but it’s not racism, more than it’s racism when Swedes has a bad reputation in some places in Europe because Swedes go there for partying and cheap booze.

And for good reason as there is no such thing as human races.


That’s curious. I never knew about this aspect of their racist attitudes (vis a vis racism towards Chinese). I mean, they are pretty goddamned racist towards Koreans and burakamin. Eg, background checks (employment, housing, marriage) to make sure someone isn’t burakamin. But you are saying they are even moreso towards Chinese? Do you mean Chinese nationals or Japanese of Chinese heritage?

Not-So-Relevant Racism Fun Fact: In Korea, the Unification Church (the Moonies) requires all adherents to tithe 10% of their earnings back to the church. Except if you are Japanese. In that case, the religion penalizes you by requiring a 30% tithe(!)


There was actually something recent that might have played into that. A really famous Nigerian (who actually is now a Japanese citizen) talent who was a constant presence on TV, Bobby Ologun, was arrested for spousal abuse (assault and battery) around the start of the pandemic or maybe just before.

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I don’t know… Japan’s history with race is just as fraught and problematic, given it’s imperial history.

This book gave a great overview on how Japan was positioning itself in the global discussion on race in the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa eras.

They very much wished to claim moral authority on issues of race, while at the same time positioning themselves at the top of a racial hierarchy of Asian peoples. They full accepted the racial divisions being developed by Western Europe and the US at the time. In modern Japan, they still hold pretty strong prejudices against their neighbors, especially Koreans.

As far as anti-Blackness, I don’t think that’s as much of an issue, although the point about all Black visitors to Japan being seen as like the Nigerean scammers seems problematic to me. And I’ve heard of similar issues facing Black visitors to Japan as in other places (gawking, touching hair, etc).

People might be aware of this (in part due to the recent anime), but the first known foreign samurai was an African man, known in Japan as Yasuke:

Not a ton is known about him, but what is known is that he arrived as a servant to a Jesuit priest, caused a riot when they arrived in the capitol, because Yasuke was so tall and so dark skinned (which reminded people of a particular dark Buddha figure), that he ended up in Nobununga’s household as a warrior (so most likely had been a soldier, possibly enslaved?), and then was responsible for delivering his head to his son (Nobununga’s head) before sort of disappearing from the historical record.


There really aren’t that many Japanese of Chinese heritage because Japan had, up until very recently, made it extremely difficult for Chinese people to gain Japanese citizenship. (In Japan, being born and raised in Japan by parents who were also born and raised in Japan does not get you citizenship unless one of those parents was a Japanese citizen.) There is now a path to citizenship, but it is still quite a hassle (as I can personally attest).

That said, they are mostly talking about people from Mainland China (not Taiwan; they actually like Taiwan) and a lot of it has to do with geopolitical tensions between China and Japan, though they also see Chinese people as rude and boorish in general. This part is mostly due to major cultural differences in terms of what is considered proper manners. A lot of things that are considered perfectly acceptable in China (such as speaking loudly in public) are seen as uncouth in Japan.

Incidentally, the feelings are mostly mutual between Japan and China and Japan and Korea, though I think that Koreans hate Japanese way more than Japanese hate Koreans (every time I have been to South Korea, I have seen some kind of anti-Japanese political demonstration ETA: and I have been to Korea at least 10 times).


The attitude about “we’re not racist, we’re just xenophobic” is common, and the obvious oxymoron is laughable if it weren’t so painful. The subsequent catalog of all the ‘other factors’ that may contribute to someone’s poor attitude toward foreigners like “height, language skills, mannerisms” is (again) some naive attempt at deflection. C’mon Toshi, that’s exactly what racism is.

for me, the more infuriating part here is the overall attempt to explain it away, instead of confronting the issue. I hear 1000 explanations and reasons and all sorts of deflections about how Asians aren’t racist, but I never really hear anyone take a pause, and then say “yeah, it’s kind of a problem. I think we should do something about it.”

That avoidance of admitting there’s a problem is the biggest frustration for me. FWIW, I’ve seen this in Japan, Korea, and China. I’ve lived/worked in all 3.


Well, there was that pretty fucking brutal occupation of their country for a while there (just at the edge of lived memory, in fact) and the use of Korean women as sex slaves that Japan still keeps trying to downplay, so… :woman_shrugging: It’s not some weird thing that is irrational on the part of Koreans, there are very real reasons why those feelings exist and the protests are probably not just random hatred for Japanese people, but tied into that brutal history.


There can be no argument that Japan, as a homogenous country, doesn’t have the same level of racial sensitivity found in America. Still, it would be wrong to attribute the insensitivity to racism as opposed to a lack of exposure.

Uh - would it though? There are plenty or rural Americans with racists attitudes who have little to no direct exposure with other races. Lack of exposure doesn’t make their attitudes any less racists.

I am not going to say Japan’s racism looks or is the same as America’s. But it definitely has huge issues with racism/xenophobia and nationalism. Where American’s tend to lump in all Asians as “Asian”, the Japanese have an almost caste like attitudes for the various Asian nationalities/ethnicities, having a mental ranking system on how much better they are over various other peoples.

They have slowly started to allow some immigration because their populations numbers are severely out of whack with a large aging population, and not enough young people to act as workers (tax payers) and caregivers. I mean, there are people alive in Japan who witnessed/committed attrocities done the Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos during WWII, as they were seen as less than human. Those attitudes are going to take a long time to shift, and lack of exposure doesn’t help. More evidence - the treatment of the indigenous people of Japan, the Ainu.

And finally, anecdotally, I know a black American with tattoos who visited Japan twice and has had a very mixed bag of reactions. Lack of exposure as an excuse didn’t really soften the blows. :confused:


The issue of race in the West is inseparable from our perspective as Americans

Would you say thinking America is the same as “the West” might also be a problem?


Yes, that issue and the tiny islands called Dokdo to the Koreans and Takeshima to the Japanese.

I think a lot of the hatred on the Korean side is the work of politicians and media outlets that are friendly to those politicians, who will bring the issue up to deflect from internal problems in Korea. The history is real and a lot of the anger is justified, but Japan has worked out three separate deals (the first one was supposed to be a final settlement of the issue) to resolve the sex slave dispute with the Korean Government, and the Koreans reneged on the most recent detail after an election brought in a more hardline government.

I don’t mean to put all of the blame on Korea (and, of course, Japan did the bad things to begin with), but the issue could be resolved if both countries wanted to do so, and Korea does not have much appetite for that.