Racism in Japan is something that a lot of Japan-fanatics are very quick to turn a blind eye to or flat-out deny, but although Japanese people may not shout racial slurs at you in the streets or make you feel unsafe for being a certain skin tone or of a certain background, racism, or rather discrimination and prejudices, do exist in some forms. Depending on where you live or the kind of person you are, these can be glaringly obvious and frustrating, or the occasional experience that makes a funny anecdote.
Where I live in Kyoto, I couldn’t go out to the supermarket five minutes away without being gawked at by at least one random person. I had people go silent and stare at me, stop their bikes and stare at me, stare at me while whispering or even speaking at full volume about me, move to the opposite side of the street of me, take photos of me, literally chase me down to ask me about having a photo taken, stare at me with their mouths hanging open and more countless times, and while foreigners aren’t exactly super common in my area, they were hardly non-existent (I mean, I literally live just down the street from Kinkaku-ji, which is usually crawling with tourists).
Three years after moving to Kyoto, most of the aforementioned alienation in my neighbourhood has dwindled down and most people are used to me by now. There is still a decent amount of discrimination or alienation going on randomly, but by no means the amount I once received in my area. I am now able to speak with most of my neighbours, throughout the neighbourhood and not just my mansion, casually without being pushed away for being foreign. In other parts of the city, it still happens but at least I had earned a place in my day-to-day area.
This is not quite as big of a problem in a big city like Tokyo or Osaka, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist at all there, either. Although it depends entirely on the individual, it has the potential to make you feel alienated, uncomfortable and out-of-place in what is supposed to be your home, all because you are visibly not Japanese (if you are Korean or Chinese and living in Japan, the discrimination you face might be a little more striking).
I have met and spoken with many lovely Japanese strangers who paid no attention to my ethnicity or home country or who were only intrigued by it, certainly, but they simply don’t stick in my mind quite as much as the strangers who have made me feel like an animal in a zoo or like my privacy or right to simply exist has been violated.
Many of the times I went out to do day-to-day things, I longed to be back at home where I could go outdoors without feeling eyes shamelessly boring into the back of my skull, or even straight into my face, as was often also the case. It’s a feeling that’s usually difficult to understand if you’ve never really lived there in the long-term. When you’re only there for a week or two, sure, it’s easy to laugh off or even not notice, but when you’ve built a life for yourself there, you work there, you go to school there and so on and have done so for months or even years, being stared at every day or treated like you’re a tourist fresh off an aeroplane can sometimes be difficult to ignore. Even people who adore living in Japan and tend not to care about these kinds of things still often find that it gets to them every now and again.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of wonderfully kind, polite, helpful Japanese people who don’t care where you’re from (there are, and I’ve had plenty of good experiences and am sure that they outnumber the people who made me feel awful, too), but like I said, you’re more likely to remember the guy who pointed at you out from across the street and screamed ‘gaijin!’ more than the people who treated you like you’re just another person.
Plus, it makes me intensely uncomfortable to think how many random people there are in Japan walking around with photos of me that I did not consent to on their cameras and phones.
Originally posted on Sonder.io in 2013 and updated for Capture The World.