Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Shigefumi Matsuzawa, Govenor of Kangawa during a speech campaigning for the Nov. 9 House of Representatives election
Foreigners are a bunch of sneaky thieves. As Ishihara has cracked down on them, they've all flowed into Kanagawa.
If anyone has any grand unified theories as to why Japanese politicians often say such dumbass things in public, I'd love to hear.
Because they can get away with it and the media doesn't call them on it.

Blog blog blog...


Ok I'll bite,

I recently posted a comment related to this on the Japan Coolness thread.

I am an American of mixed race (African American, Russian Jew, Native American). One of the givens I've assumed for quite some time was the deep racism of Japanese people.

1) Is the Japan/Cool thing indicative of Japanese people getting a clue about other inhabitants on this planet and appreciation on at least a basic level of other races (I mean beyond stylistic appropration) or does Japan/Coolness blithly ignore racism.

2) To what extent do the views of these politicians reflect the views of ordinary people?

I don't think Japan is alone in prevalent racism. Korea and China are just as bad. What seems different about Japan is that public figures are getting away with expressing their racist views in public. As to why, I think they do it because they can.

Douglass : without any real data, I have a sense that people who have tuned into the "cool thing" in Japan are probably more diversity appreciative. Many of the racists in Japan are from the establishment whereas much of the "cool stuff" is from the sub-culture.

I think that there is a great deal of racism/right wing-conservative views among the people, but not sure if it is any more than any other country. As Don points out, what amazes me the most is how much the public figures get away with. "Political Correctness" even with gender issues doesn't seem to be a very big issue for public figures. Although I think many will live to regret this and my blog. ;-p

Having said that, I know some "cool people" who are pretty diversity intolerant. What's scary is the number of otherwise intelligent people who are racist/nationalistic publicly.

Well, given that I have biases against and for pretty everything in life, I think of myself as a racist. Thankfully, I am too lazy to be a practicing racist. It's a lot of energy to hate, you know. ;-)


It's a lot of energy


It takes a lot of energy

It takes a lot of energy to write proper English. Urgh.

More and more I have been getting annoyed by the political situation in Japan.

Not that Japan is any worse than other countries by any means, but for the most part other countries with similar problems seem a little more serious about it. The overall attitude in Japan shows all the activity of Mt. Fuji; a bit of smoke every other year and one or two papers will cover it.

I joined the general world reaction of "shock and Awe" when Schwa-chan was elected governor of one of the largest economies in the world. Still when you compare him to good ol Gov. Ishihara, the choice seems almost reasonable. After all when was the last time Arnie advocated destabilizing the Canadian Govenrment or condemmed all hispanics as having "criminal DNA"?

The fact that wackos like these Japanese politicians exist is hardly a suprise, but the fact that "reasonable" Japanese citizens aren't concerned that these people are determining the future of the country keeps me up at night.

What bothers me even more is that I only see this trend getting worse. As the economic situation hits increasingly harder on the middle class here, politicains will be lookng harder for scapegoats. Yakuza and Chinese immigrants have taken the brunt of the hit so far, in spite of the fact that most of the evidence shows that the problems to the economy and society are coming from very different directions. (see Kasumigaseki for more details). The fact that this is hardly a top secret is pretty scary. As far as I can see there has been very little overt cencorship in the media. Aside from the press self-censoring itself, most of the truth IS avaiable in the public domain. But the public instead chooses to believe the truth thta sounds better and is more reassuring. Even is it spewed from the mouths of Racist, immoral, sexist, facist, ignorant, lying, politicians (with oral hygene problems).

Yokoso, Welcome to Japan, Immerse yourself in the safe arms of a proud, ancient culture.
Yeah, right

Everything every politician says is coloured by what will go down well with the electorate. One is reminded of the Irish foreign minister, who during the Palestinian crisis in the 70's argued in the UN that the 'Palestinians and Israelis should sit down and resolve their differences in a Christian manner'.

You shouldn't be surprised if politicians perpetuate the prejudices of their electorates.

This discussion should be framed in a historical setting where people remember that Japan, until as recently as the late 1800s, was a closed society where foreigners were regarded as "devils" and where people who traveled abroad and returned to Japan were excommunicated. Seen in this light, the political expressions of Japanese leaders can be understood, if not tolerated, to represent actual huge advances over past practices as far as tolerance and acceptance of foreigners is concerned. The way Japanese society operated up to the 1800s was extremely well suited for the preservation of Japanese cultural identity and national independence. This changed in the 1900s and will change even more in 2000, so the old ways are giving way for a much more tolerant view of the world at large.

The real question is what can be done to make further progress in Japan. I'm not sure that popular expressions such as this blog are the right thing -- what can be used for good can equally easily be misused. We'd be mistaken to believe that blogging and online expression can stay the domain of well meaning people exclusively for long.

i think american politicians got by spouting racist rhetoric up until the people they were talking about became a substantial part of the voting public. i would venture to guess that this is universal, and will continue in japan until the laws of citizenship change (for example, by allowing ethnic koreans to be full japanese citizens).

Let me play Devil's advocate for a moment.
How much of the bad reputation that foreigners have in Japan is earned, rather than cast upon them unfairly? Those of us who live in Japan as foreiners often have a hard time learning the customs, the laws, the rules of this tremendously complex society.
I think the attitudes about laws are a lot more black and white than where I came from: If the rule is in effect, most Japanese would say that you should obey it. Foreigners often see these kinds of rules as petty and unimportant. Because of this, they are often seen as troublesome and people don't want them in their building or even in their neighborhoods. (Pardon all my broad generalizations.)
When I first came to Japan, every morning on my walk to the subway, I crossed a very quiet street that had a traffic signal. If it was red, I usually just walked across if there were no cars coming, the way I would have in the US. One morning when I was doing this, an old man grabbed my sleeve and in very broken English, told me that the light was red and that meant that I should stop. Children could see, he explained and possibly follow my "lawless" example, where their risk of getting hit was much greater than my own.
Japan is a relatively orderly place and I think this starts at a very basic level - there are rules that are taught very early on and seen as being the foundation for society. It's this sense of order and responsibility that makes it possible for a city of 12,000,000 people to work as well as it does. Foreigners who choose to live here have a responsibility to learn and follow these rules, yet still, there is going to be some negative perception and prejudice given to us.
On a much higher level, take a look at the criminal industries in Japan - the prostitution, drug dealing, theft and organized crime and you will see a higher percentage of foreigners involved in those activities. If you go to Shibuya or Shinjuku on a Friday or Saturday, you'll see some African and Iranian drug dealers, Korean prostitutes or Israelis selling fake Rolex watches or Louis Vuitton handbags. Certainly one could argue that these activities take place under the noses of the police and with the complicity of the Japanese Yakuza, but still it is the foreign face that people associate with these crimes.
I agree that Matsuzawa's remark was a tactless generalization, but on a practical level, how far off the mark is it, really? Did his district get a wave of criminal foreigners who left Tokyo because of Ishihara's policies?
I'd rather have someone like Matsuzawa saying this kind of crap out loud than the alternative where people never say these things, but act on them just the same. At least this way, he can be held accountable for his words.
That said, a greater issue may be the traditional media's failure in all of this. If this is something that people care about and want to discuss, it may well happen in blogs, rather than in the 'press'. Blogs are making huge strides in holding public figures accountable for their words all around the world. Japan shouldn't be any different.

it is the broad generalizations that bother me about this particular politician. Not every foreigner is a gangster or criminal. It's the fact that he has a scapegoat is appaling. Statements like this are what led to the Holocaust. Hitler did start out by blaming Germany's troubles on the Jews and not on some of the pressing matters of the day.

My original interest when starting this thread was to take the temperature of the attitudes of ordinary people in Japan. All those young people tapping keitais in Shibuya, for example.

For context, I am currently based in Reykjavik, Iceland. About as white as it gets on this planet. I am constantly amazed at the degree to which African-American youth culture (essentially HipHop music and fashion) is embraced by the kids here and all across Europe. Look, I grew up in New York City where all this stuff got started. I am completely amazed at where it has gone.Once again African American culture rocks the planet. HipHop culture is the global default youth culture of the moment.

Now, is this playing out in Japan? Is it all about "flat" appropriation and forgettable imitation or have people taken things a bit deeper as the kids have pretty much everywhere else on the planet? What are the beats you hear for keitai ringtones?

Clearly, Matsuzawa's remarks are way out of line and I applaud Joi for bringing them here. It's a shame to see this going unchallenged in the mainstream media in Japan. I think one of the reasons for this is that there is just not the sensitivity to racism that there is here in the U.S. which could be dangerous.

I think Jim O'Connell had something to say that is important. Having lived as a foreigner in Japan, I certainly felt at times that I was an outsider, because foreigners in Japan are exactly that. It is very difficult to become completely integrated. Furthermore, in the last 5 years, every time I go to Japan, I hear more and more about foreigners commiting crimes in Japan. Most of these criminals come from poorer countries like China, Brazil, etc. The last time I was there, a Chinese man who had been in Japan to learn Japanese murdered a Japanese student (I believe - sorry, my memory is already failing me). Japan is still homogenous enough that they are extremely sensitive to stuff like this, so it is the responsibility of foreigners to behave like guests in someone's home, and not like petulant children who deserve special treatment. This is unfortunately the attitude of many Westerners that I see living there, and I must confess during my stay in college there, I took too lightly some of the social taboos that would be very bad if a Japanese person had committed, but I was forgiven, because I was a foreigner.

Now, I am much more careful when I am there, because overall, I have found Japan to be very hospitable and welcoming to foreigners. You just have to learn the rules and show respect where it is due.
It is necessary to challenge racism where it exists, but let's not set up yet another system of political correctness that just glosses over people's true feelings. Rather, with time, we should do what we can as foreigners to change the opinion of those who allow us into their country. After all, these accusations didn't come from nowhere.
By the way, what is Japan / Cool??

Japan still has a cast system. It doesn't allow 2nd and 3rd generation Japan born Koreans citizenship or the right to vote. Who is speaking up agaisnt this? College educated women have little hope of obtaining a job other then serving coffee. All resumes require photographs and age to be attached. Discrimination is ingrained in how Japanese society functions. If this changes within two generations, I will be suprised.

I don't know about Japan, but our leader here in the US has said plenty of equally stupid things. For example, "We spent a lot of time talking about Africa, as we should. Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease." (emphasis added)

Jim, there is some truth to what you wrote but aren't Japanese politicians setting a "lawless" example for Japanese citizens by publically voicing racist views and encouraging young Japanese to think it is all right to do the same?

No one is saying that foreigners in Japan do not commit crimes. In fact statistically speaking they are more that twice as likely to commit a crime than a native is. Still you have to put things in thier proper perspective. As foreigners comprise around 1% of the population of the country, the actually number of crimes committed by foreigners is tiny compared to the overal number.
Add to that the fact that the most common crime committed by foreigners is in fact immigration violations. A crime that no Japanese citizen could commit if they wanted to. The Chinese/Korean crime wave gripping Japan is in fact nothing but pandering to the extreme.

And yes, this does do real harm. I have a coworker in a foreign based financial company, who in spite being partially educated abroad, and a college degree holder who said he feared running into Chinese people on the streets, even after I showed him the Japanese government released statistics that back up my claims above.

I still maintain that people believe this garbage, not because it is resonable, but because it is more palatable than the truth. That Japan has a law enforcement problem that is only going to get worse as the economy continues to decline.

After all, it's not as though the concept of bullying a weak party to enhance the status and self image of the majority is unheard of here.

Firstly I have the impression that the Japanese in general have always punished nonconformity. (Isn't the proverb 'deru kugi utareru' - the nail that sticks out gets hammered in?) Even among Japanese kids being the one with the divorced parents is enough to get bullied. As much as everyone might acknowledge that it's irrational and stupid, it still goes on, and standing up to fight against it just means that you get attacked yourself as well.

Secondly I would say that it takes being discriminated against before you take discrimination seriously. A close second would be seeing it happen on a personal level and knowing how unjust and untrue it is. Most Japanese haven't had those experiences, and without that kind of experience it's a lot harder to get angry about it.

Thirdly, nobody votes anyway. I would guess that a mainstream view might be "Who cares about politics? Aren't the establishment just a bunch of crooks working together with more crooks in banking and construction to get eachother rich? " I think you can say for sure that politics doesn't sell newspapers - David Beckham does.

Kakyou, I have a small bone to pick on your comment that statistically, foreigners commit more crimes than Japanese. I believe many of the "popo" are still in bed with the Yakuza, and as such are quite possibly on the lookout for foreigners, then finding a crime to associate them with. When it comes to a native, the popo often turns a blind eye. I know it's only correlative and not causal, but with these rediculous public racist remarks by politicians, I wouldn't be surprised if some newly minted police academy graduate felt some patriotic duty to spot a foreigner first, rather than a crime, in that order. But that happens globally too, unfortunately.


I too have a lot of issues with those statistics, but I'm just quoting the governments own report.

Do I think those number reflect true occurances? Heck no! There have been a number of big scandals this year alone dealing with misfiled criminal reports and innacurate reporting by local precincts. But in spite of the already biased numbers, you are still 20 times more likely to be robbed by a local Japanese citizen than by a foreigner.

Coming kind of late in the discussion, so pardon me if I quote to give context:

Kakyou said:
Still you have to put things in thier proper perspective. As foreigners comprise around 1% of the population of the country, the actually number of crimes committed by foreigners is tiny compared to the overal number.

Thanks for pointing out a fact that so many people (Japanese and non-Japanese) miss, I think this is a really important. Victimless crimes get heaped in with theft and murder statistics and really skews the publics perception.

Kakyou also said:
Aside from the press self-censoring itself, most of the truth IS avaiable in the public domain. But the public instead chooses to believe the truth thta sounds better and is more reassuring.

Like the crime statistic example I would tend to take it for grant it that the news media has a huge impact on what the public thinks. My experience is limited to Tokyo, but Tokyoites at least are extremely media hungry (esp. newspapers). Even though raw statistical truth may be available if you comb the reports on MOFA's website, expecting the public at large to do their own research is obviously not realistic. That's why you need an unbiased news media to interpret all that stuff and make it accessible. Even though there's is little to no active government censorship, the informal-tie-network-status-quo-system (whatever you call it)that forces self-censorship by the media is just as profound. Even worse, because it is much harder to recognize and de-centralized (unlike government), it's like a p2p netowrk gone really baaad ;). In the abscene of an unbiased newsmedia, there's always this hope.

Ray Grieselhuber said:
Japan is still homogenous enough that they are extremely sensitive to stuff like this.

The notion that Japan is a homogenous society is widely believed in Japan and abroad, but wrong. According to John
Lie's book
there are at least 4-6 million non-ethnic Japanese living in a country of around 125 million people (this includes Ainu, Koreans, and Chinese as well as Okinawans and Burakumin [I realize the last two groups as seperate 'ethnic' groups may be controversial, but they both have distinct cultural histories as well as a history of being discriminated against]).

There was a really interesting article in the Nov/Dec of Foreign Affairs magazine called Japan's new nationalism. I am a neophyte when it comes to Japanese politics, but I guess in some circles Ishihara and other nationalists while maybe disliked for "sticking out" are viewed positively as catalysts of change. The article asserts that a new breed of not-so-radical nationalist professionalis are emerging that will help makes stands for economic changes. An interesting spin on nationalistic views, for sure. Still, like all "Japan must/will change" stories take with a pound of salt. Foreign media always puts their ethnocentric expectations on Japan it seems.

On a related note, the Japan Times is running an article about how Japan's national police are creating a forensic "foreignness index." Obviously racism in Japan is not limited to a few fringe politicians.

1) Ishihara said "minzoku-teki DNA", ie culture, not physical DNA.

2) Tokyo is an incredibly safe city (eg. if you leave your camera somewhere chances are/were it'd still be there when you get back. Given this, all foreigners of less perfect personal morals tend to skew the perception given their mere presence.

3) The "rules" comment hits home. My landlord lived in the same building, and trashdays were a bit tense for him initially until I proved I knew what the various separation rules where.

4) Ignorant Stereotypes -- generally everybody has a rosy image of their own kind and tends to denigrate others they don't know or understand.

Just a quick response to Ian - using the statistics that you reported, we are still talking about less than half of one percent of the population as non-ethnic Japanese. To me, that does not bolster the idea that Japan is not homogenous.
Furthermore, despite the presence of those groups, they are still expected to be integrated completely into Japanese society (even if Japanese society does not fully accept them) - meaning they all learn Hyoujungo Japanese in school (they may speak a dialect at home), they celebrate the same holidays, eat the same food, etc. Their culture _is_ Japanese culture. The fact that they are not high on the rungs of that culture does not mean they don't belong at all.

Ray, I think it depends on how you interpret the idea of homogenity. I guess I'm thinking in terms of attitudes of Japanese towards homogenity more then any kind of economic take (in which case yes, the numbers I listed might be too small to matter).

The Japanese version of homogenity would deny acknowledging any significant diversity. The "we" in "we Japanese" tends to ignore the ethnic groups I listed. Is it fair to ignore 4-6 million people? Is that an insiginificant number?

I do agree that many groups are semi-integrated like you said. But the interesting thing about the notion of homogenity in Japan is it tends to focus on black-and-white binary distinctions, either you are Japanese or are not, and this tends to be racialized. This puts a very strong ceiling to cultural integration of these groups. For instance second and third generation koreans living Japan, while it's gotten better, still have trouble getting as far as racially Japanese in the workplace.

A Japan that rejected the concept of (false) homogenity would be able to acecept that their country is made up of several distinct ethnic groups with different backgrounds, and accept ethnic minorities distinct cultural histories as part and parcel of who they are and not insist that they become 100% Japanese (as we know, many of the ethnic minorities came to Japan as a result of WWII, often against their will). So to insist they abandon their own culture and integreate fully (as some do) is unfair. In order to accept these backgrounds, an acknowledgement of ethnic minorities as "also, Japanese" would be required.

But the myth of homogenity makes such a change impossible by insisting on binary racialized ethnicity. Either you are "are" or "are not", you can't be "also."

Does that kinda make sense?

PS I hope I don't sound too anal about all this, I wrote the last post at like 4am and I just woke up and am writing this. So, sorry in advance ;P

I looked at the original Japanese version of the article, and it was clear enough to me that he was referring to highly-publicized incidents of Chinese gangs working their magic in that area. The English version of the article was very selective, almost to the point that I'd call it "translation out of context."
Since when are we trusting newspapers to provide news for us anyway?

The "NRIPS" system reported in the Japan Times is very disturbing (see Brians link). Has this been reported in the Japanese language press?

I see a couple of issues here:

It seems the Police and Gov. Ishihara are working overtime to deflect attention from the lack of results in crime detection. This dents their career prospects.

The general population may "want" to believe that the dramatic rise in crime is attributable to "Chinese Gangs" and not to "Japanese". I think this is influenced by Japanese culture to some degree. For westeners, we distiguish ourselves by how we compare individually to others. So if someone of the same nationality is a criminal it does not affect our judgement of ourselves. However I feel Japanese people are somewhat different with their culture in that they identify themselves as a group and by how they compare to other "groups" not so much other individuals. This would follow that criminal Japanese reflect badly on everyone Japanese and so dent their own self image. A dramatic rise in crime would only exaggerate this.

Looking from the outside we just see a natural rise in crime due to rising unemployment, rising personal debt and a slow erosion of solid cultural values in the younger generations. From the inside I believe they may see a slow erosion of their own self image as it is so closely tied to that of the "Japanese" as a whole. This in its self is not a bad trait.

It bothers me when I see defensive behavior like this because Japanese culture has great things to offer society in general. It bothers me because I would hate to see that stength squandered and misdirected on the likes of Ishihara and the nationalists. Its just taking the easy way out and not facing up to your responsibilities (fixing the root problems) and is very "un" Japanese.

I also feel that it is quite generational as my "Cool" Japanese friends are much the same as friends I have in other countries (while being very open and friendly and interested in foreigners). BTW Hip hop in Japan is huge but has nothing to do with anything deeper than fashion I dont think :)

Some of the posts have mentioned "social taboos" but I think that is missing the point somewhat. I dont think that those things are so important to most Japanese, maybe an annoyance if you live in their appartment, but not the same thing as crime. Most Japanese will rarely meet forigners in Japan to see these missteps and they are very tolerant of those anyway. We are not expected to behave like Japanese. What they do see is politicians on the TV making racist comments and being supported by the establishment. What does that say?

Statistically, it would appear that Japanese politicians are the most criminal element in Japan as hardly a week goes by without one or more of them being arrested for bribe taking, claiming salaries for non-existant aides etc.

This thievery generally goes unpunished, yet the same wizened, old swines still have the temerity to lecture law abiding youth and foreigners on their conduct and behaviour.

Jim O'Connell made a point about the "rules" being more strictly adhered to in Japan than elsewhere. In my experience, after working three years in a Japanese company, the "rules" are not applied consistently and are invoked only when it suits the managers. I've been told numerous times "Everyone must follow the rules" and then in the next sentence "Of course, there are exceptions".

If this kind of behaviour were repeated in an American company they would soon be buried under a mountain of lawsuits. Try and sue anyone in Japan and you'll likely be dead and buried long before the case is heard.

Can one ever become immune to feeling of being discrimated against? In a form of evolutionary tranformation, an individual could develop a limited vision that would suit his survival in a hostile environment. You have been in Japan too long when...

HaHa, these strings make me laugh. Why? people bikiring over other peoples culture and seeing if they will even dent years of tradition. I live in Australia, a few years ago there was a racist named paulene hanson who was similar to the japanese racist you were talking about. She hated asians blacks and immigrants and she wanted overall a white australia now she is buried in a pile of lawsuits and has spent 3 months in prison. The moral of the story when whites go to japan they can expect some superficial racism but isnt that in all countries? How can you nitpick on japan for having policies that would be felt in any different country? Stop nagging, its reality and the japanese dont care

Thank you Thank you I really loved your Blog.

I have lived in Japan for over 15 years, I'm black American, and everything you said is exactly correct.

I have been abused the whole time that I was there.
Example, the Japanese and women in particular tend to be very greedy and selfish, a kind of culturally ingrained Narcissism. I go to Harvard, and many women said they wanted me to teach them English and help them get into Harvard. Although, I speak fluent Japanese, they tried to speak broken English to me in public places, just to try to show off. One of them said that she loved me, but I realized that she was just manipulating me and using me.
Basically she tried to use her sexuallity to manipulate me.
When she applied to Harvard and didn't get accepted, she threw me away like I was trash. She turned her back during a conversation and that was the last time I saw her.
This has happended many times to many foreigners. So I recommend guys to be careful before you give one of these girls your heart. Many of them may idealize you if they feel they can use you, but when our usefulness expires, they will throw you away in a Narcissistic rage, all because they could not get what they wanted: Which according to many yound girls values are status, Harvard, Yale, Gucchi, money. Basically many of them will smile, luck cute, manipulate, and deceive to get what they want.

I live here in the USA and have a first hand knowledge of Japanese Racism against non-Japanese in this country.

Only God can help you if you are working for a Japanese controlled organization in this country.

Your Japanese boss and his Japanese colleagues will gang up against you, if you displease them in any way whatsoever.

I have had a horrible experience with Japanese people who are here in the USA. I can only imagine what it would be for a non-Japanese working inside Japan.

Kuldeep Razdan, Ph.D.
San Diego, CA 90210

Yes, there is no single doubt that Japan is a racist country. I have been there 2 years and have been stopped several times by the police to be asked for ID and also suffered from discrimination.

But then again I don't blame them because they are a homogeneous country. They are not used to living with multiple races. On the other hand, Malaysians (like myself) are living together with many races (Malay, Chinese, Indians, Other Minorities) and we learn from each other since childhood. We celebrate all festivals together, which include Eid, Chinese New Year, Deepavali (Indian Festival), Buddhist festivals and Christmas.

In conclusion, the environment counts. I believe Japan is and will always be racist.