When you’re riding the train in Japan, take note of where everyone sits around you. If there is a spare seat next to you and a spare seat across the way, Japanese people will often take the latter. Is this racism? I would argue not—at least not a sinister form of racism.
There were 2.1 million foreigners living in Japan in 2010, 1.6 percent of its 127 million total population. In Japan, common attitudes towards foreigners (or what I’d call “soft racism”) are often born out of the ever-present focus on cultural difference rather than feelings of superiority (“hard racism”). The decision to avoid sitting next to a foreign person on the train most likely derives from a fear of the unknown, rather than a genuine aversion to foreign people.
The word for foreigner in Japan, gaijin, has become synonymous with an “us” and “them” mentality. In Japan, you’re often not an Australian, Briton or Indonesian. You’re simply a gaijin.
The linguistic classification of foreigners into a single group both inadvertently encourages ignorance of the array of different cultures worldwide, and prevents the realization of the many social and human similarities other cultures share with the Japanese. For example, I’ve often been asked such questions here as, “Do people overseas eat a lot of rice?” or, “Do people overseas drink coffee?”—as if everyone outside Japan is a united entity.
But there are advantages to this shared national psyche. It bonds the Japanese people closer together and forms a family-like union between 127 million people, or rather—124.9 million people.
This sense of family unity is reflected in universal social practices such as removing shoes before entering a house or school, the custom of public bathing in onsen as well as activities such as nabe parties or izakaya outings. Following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 3/11/2011, there were numerous foreign reports written in admiration of Japanese victims and refugees lining up courteously in ration queues and remaining considerate of others despite the horrific conditions.
Another example of this consideration lies in a story of a friend of mine who headed home after work one day carrying ¥100,000 rent in cash. As he reached for his wallet before arriving home his gut sank with the realization that it was gone. As happens in so many stories of this kind in Japan, the local police station called him to interrupt his distress. A stranger had found the wallet on the street and handed it in—along with its precious contents. Though many readers might have heard—or experienced—stories like this, it’s worth remembering that there are few countries in the world where this kind of thing happens. The family-like bond in Japanese society breeds this kind of common respect and thoughtfulness for their fellow community members—and even a foreigner, in this case. But this sense of unity comes at a price.
Many Japanese people struggle to relate to foreigners. Often when I order at a restaurant in Japan, for example, the waiter will turn to my Japanese friends and reply to them—even though I’ve just spoken in Japanese. This lack of familiarity and understanding of foreign cultures could be damaging to an aging Japan faced with increased immigration and intensifying globalization pressures.
Some of these social issues have been recognized by the Japanese business community who lobbied successfully for English to become a compulsory subject for fifth- and sixth-grade elementary school students from 2011—albeit only one lesson per week. Rakuten, Japan’s largest internet online retailer, announced that English will be the company’s official language by 2012, with all internal meetings held in English.
The Japanese government has also made some steps towards “internationalizing” the Japanese psyche over the past few decades. Way back in 1978, the government launched the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program in communities across Japan. In 2011 there were 4,330 participants from 39 countries acting as assistant language teachers (ALTs), sports education advisors (SEAs), and coordinators of international relations (CIRs). The program has been largely effective promoting cross-cultural interaction at grassroots level. However, there still remains a gap in the appreciation of the diversity of foreign cultures, and a communication gap.
Japan needs to expand on these programs and policies to strengthen cultural awareness and, in turn, improve Japanese international relations. This will expose more Japanese to foreign people—hopefully without adversely affecting their family-like social bond—and allow them to communicate, exchange ideas and most importantly, relate. And perhaps the next time I’m travelling on a train in Tokyo and there are two empty seats, a Japanese person will sit next to me, not because they chose to sit next to a foreigner, but because they didn’t see a difference.
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