Originally published in The Hindu on April 24, 2017

Keeping in mind the 2020 Olympics, Japan is beginning to address deep-rooted discrimination

In central Tokyo’s bustling neighbourhoods, it’s common to find signs outside establishments, from barber shops to taverns, stating: “Foreigners Welcome”. That these are necessary only highlights how there are places in Japan — guest houses, massage parlours, restaurants — where foreigners are unwelcome.

Justifications for barring entry to foreigners range from worries about communicating with non-Japanese speakers (although many foreigners do speak Japanese), to the notion that foreigners don’t know how to behave in Japanese settings (such as taking off their shoes and speaking softly). Some claim that the real aim of these restrictions is to keep large groups of loud-mouthed Chinese tourists from “spoiling” the atmosphere. Other foreigners are merely collateral damage.

Results of survey

A new survey carried out by Japan’s Justice Ministry reveals that nearly a third of foreign residents in Japan say they have experienced derogatory remarks because of their racial background, while about 40% have suffered housing discrimination. Of the 18,500 foreigners surveyed, 4,252 responded, the majority identified as Chinese and Korean. Over 40% had lived in Japan for more than a decade.

One in four job seekers said they were denied employment because of being foreign, and one in five believed they were paid less than their Japanese counterparts for similar work. Putting paid to the notion that such discrimination is related to language, 95% of foreigners whose job applications were rejected, and over 90% of those whose housing applications were denied, were able to speak Japanese “conversationally, professionally or fluently”.

Because racism is thought of as discrimination by white people against those of colour, non-white countries such as Japan have been loathe to admit that it is a problem that they too must grapple with. It is only recently with Tokyo gearing up to host the Olympic Games in 2020, and a related, governmental-push to increase tourism to 40 million visitors by then (up from 24 million last year), that fledgling steps are now being taken to acknowledge and redress racially-based discrimination.

In Japan, racism tends to take two forms. There is virulent hate speech by far right groups aimed at Korean and Chinese people, which draws on deep-rooted historical animus. There is also more casual racism towards other foreigners, which springs from unchallenged stereotypes. One of many examples of this latter strain: a train conductor in Osaka last year made a public announcement to Japanese passengers apologising for any “discomfort” due to the “number of foreign passengers on board”.

Linked to a uniqueness

At their core, both kinds of racism are rooted in a false narrative of Japanese uniqueness and racial purity. In 1889, the Meiji constitution established a state based on the notion that the Emperor was a direct descendant of the “original” Yamato clan, and that all Japanese were organically related to the emperor, giving birth to the idea of a single, homogeneous, racial identity. Today, many scholars believe that the Japanese are in fact a mixture of Korean-like “Yayoi” people who immigrated to the archipelago around 400 BC and an indigenous population who walked over land bridges that connected the Japanese islands to the continent during low sea levels of ice ages some 12,000 years ago.

The average Japanese, however, remains unaware of academic research into demographic origins. Even the Ainu — a people in northern Hokkaido who are markedly distinct from the majority of Japanese — were recognised as a minority group with a “distinct language, religion and culture” only in 2008.

Regional animosity

Racial discrimination against Koreans and Chinese in Japan has a long history. After the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, incensed by rumours that “Koreans are poisoning the wells” and “Koreans will attack us,” Japanese vigilantes murdered thousands of Koreans and hundreds of Chinese. Even today these ethnic groups are subject to similar “panic” rumours made more pernicious by social media. In 2014, for example, mudslides in the Hiroshima Prefecture led to false allegations of burglaries of evacuated homes by zainichi, as ethnic Koreans in Japan are called.

Moreover, the racism survey results were announced against a political backdrop where Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is facing censure over purported ties to a nationalist kindergarten accused of denigrating Chinese and Korean people.

Given its ageing population and shrinking demographics, Japan needs immigration despite popular notions that robots can address the need for foreign labour. That the government is finally taking cognisance is reflected in a series of recent moves taken by Japan to curb racism.

Last year the Justice Ministry carried out it’s first ever video analysis of anti-Korean demonstrations. The Ministry confirmed that 1,152 hate speech rallies were held from April 2012 to September 2015. Subsequently, a law was enacted to eradicate the kind of hate speech that is often used in these demonstrations.

Necessary moves, but not yet sufficient.

Pallavi Aiyar has reported from China, Europe and Indonesia. She is currently based in Tokyo