This blog has been somewhat neglected of late, because most of my online writing has been connected to Mimusubi, and my essays about Shinto. That project has now been running for a year, and I’ve written nine essays. I’m currently working on the next one, which will be about Yasukuni Jinja. If that sounds like something you might be interested in, please check out my Patreon page.
A while back, when I wrote an article about racial categories in Japan, I got a response from Baye McNeil, the author of the Loco in Yokohama blog, and the two books that I will be reviewing in this blog post. That response led to me reading his books, which are primarily about his experiences as a teacher of English in Japan. This is a topic about which I also have quite a lot of direct knowledge. In fact, we have been in Japan for very similar lengths of time, and we live close to one another; Yokohama and Kawasaki are adjacent, in the west of the Tokyo sprawl.
I can definitely recommend both books to anyone with an interest in what it is like for someone from overseas to live in Japan long-term. They are engaging, memorable, and thought-provoking. However, I would caution against assuming that this is what it is like for all foreigners who live in Japan. Despite the similarities in our situations, we seem to live in different worlds. How to sum that up?
One of his students invited him to a brothel; one of mine invited me to see the Emperor officially open the Diet.
It has recently been reported that the Ministry of Justice is to survey 18,500 foreign residents to ask about their experiences of racism and discrimination. A lot of the reports are describing this as “unprecedented”, but while it is larger scale than the Kawasaki survey, and apparently focused on racism, the Kawasaki survey is a precedent. One benefit of the reports is that they have motivated me to get the discrimination section of the report on the interview survey translated into English, and publish it online. You should read this before the rest of the blog post, or the post will not make sense.
As for my translation and discussion of the results of the questionnaire survey, I have separated the translation of the report, which was approved by the city, from the rest of this blog post, which is about my reactions to it.
Today, I launched a Patreon for essays about Shinto. If people are interested enough to support it, my plan is to write essays that are “accurate and objective”, insofar as that is possible, and use the associated website (Mimusubi) to publish my personal opinions and individual approaches.
If you are interested in the topic, please take a look.
If you read online accounts of foreigners’ experiences in Japan, you are likely to come across the “Empty Seat Thing”. This happens on crowded trains or buses. The foreigner is sitting down, crowded in by all the people standing around him or her, but there, right next to the foreigner, is an empty seat. No-one wants to sit next to the foreigner. These reports are often accompanied by comments reporting similar experiences.
Now, my reaction to reading that was always “I don’t think that happens to me”, so I decided to gather some evidence. Human beings are very bad at noticing patterns over time; remarkable things tend to stick in the mind, and be granted much more prominence than they deserve. Your expectations, and what you want to believe, also strongly colour your impressions of what happens to you. Keeping notes is one way to reduce this tendency.
I started gathering the evidence at the end of April, so it’s been about three months. I have arranged my life so that I don’t have to commute into Tokyo that often (the rumours about crowded rush hour trains are all true), so I have ended up with information covering twelve days, which comes to around 24 occasions. There were three occasions on which there was an empty seat next to me, and people were standing. In all cases, this lasted for one stop. There were at least two occasions on which there were people standing and there was an empty seat, but it was not next to me (that’s a bit harder to keep track of, because there are people standing up and blocking your view). There were eight occasions in which the seat next to me was taken before empty seats elsewhere in the carriage. There were two occasions in which there were two empty seats on one side of me, and the seat next to me was taken before the one beyond; in other words, the majority Japanese appearance (MJA) person had the choice of two adjacent empty seats, one next to a foreigner and one not, and chose the one next to the foreigner. (Why “MJA” and not “Japanese”? Well, I’m Japanese, and I can’t tell the difference between MKA Koreans and MJA Japanese.)
My conclusion is that the Empty Seat Thing does not happen to me. I don’t think that I can conclude that MJA people prefer sitting next to me to sitting next to other MJA people, but there is certainly no sign of any general tendency to avoid doing so.
This is clearly different from the internet consensus. This could be explained in two main ways. The first is that I actually have different experiences from most foreigners in Japan. This is certainly possible. It is not because I look typically Japanese, because I certainly don’t. (Although I suppose that, by definition, I look Japanese.) I’m normally reading an English academic journal on the train as well, so I’m not signalling that I speak Japanese, and people don’t speak to me in any case. It’s not because I’m white, because white foreigners report this just as often as non-white. It may be because I’m normally wearing a suit and tie, because I’m typically on my way to teach, or to a committee meeting. It may also be because I make a conscious effort to minimise the space I occupy, leaving enough space for people to sit on either side. The seats on Japanese commuter trains are not exactly generous. However, without knowing more about the behaviour of the foreigners, I can’t say anything definite about those hypotheses.
Another possibility is that I don’t have significantly different experiences, but that foreigners have been primed by the stories of “the Empty Seat Thing” to notice, and remember, when people are standing and ignoring an empty seat next to them. I would be interested in the results of other foreign-appearing people taking notes every time they sit down on a train, for about the same number of trips. If there are actually different experiences, then that suggests that there are things you can do to encourage MJA people to sit next to you.
At this point, however, all that I can say is that the Empty Seat Thing does not happen to everyone. It doesn’t happen to me.
As of today, I am a Japanese citizen.
I am currently stateless.
But this is a good thing. Because Japan does not recognise multiple citizenships, you are required to renounce your existing citizenship as part of the process of becoming a Japanese citizen. If your current countries of citizenship will allow you to renounce those citizenships before you gain Japanese citizenship, you must do so; the Ministry of Justice will not finalise your naturalisation without the document proving that you have renounced your other citizenships. The UK does allow you to renounce your citizenship in anticipation of gaining citizenship of another country, and so I had to.
Today, I had a phone call from the Legal Affairs Bureau handling my application for Japanese citizenship. The Ministry of Justice wants me to renounce my UK citizenship, and will send the necessary documents. That means that my application for Japanese citizenship has been successful.
People who have followed my citizenship application process know that we ran into a snag with the paperwork. The Ministry of Justice required proof of citizenship in addition to a passport, but UK embassies recently stopped issuing the letters that they had previously supplied. That meant that I could not supply that particular document, and no-one at the Legal Affairs Bureau in Kawasaki knew what to do, because they were not qualified to change the Ministry’s policy. The decision at that point was to submit the rest of my application, and see what the Ministry of Justice decided.
Asking me to renounce my UK citizenship is the last step of the process. In order to renounce it, I need a document from the Japanese government confirming that they plan to give me Japanese citizenship just as soon as I renounce my UK citizenship. This is because almost all countries try to avoid making anyone stateless, at least for any longer than it takes for the paperwork to go through. Indeed, if, for some reason, the application does not go through within six months, I remain a British citizen, and the language suggests that, legally, I will be considered never to have renounced it.
This indicates that the Ministry of Justice has decided that they do not need any further proof of UK citizenship from me. (Obviously, it will be difficult to get such proof after renouncingâ€¦) From my perspective, that’s a nice decision, because it means that I do not need to spend time and money to get yet another piece of paper. I assume that it’s a generally applicable decision, as well, as I can’t see any reason why I would get special treatment. This is yet another sign of the essentially pragmatic character of the people in charge of citizenship applications here; if a foreign government does not issue a particular document, they do not insist on getting something like it.
Incidentally, it costs Â£223 to renounce UK citizenship. This is better than the US, which charges $2350, but still a bit pricey.
As the application part of my application is now over, I can say that my case worker did not do a home visit, and the contact people I listed have not mentioned being contacted. I did have an interview, at the Legal Affairs Bureau, and my wife was also interviewed, separately. In addition, my income for the most recent month at the time of application was substantially lower than my average income from the previous year (which was on the tax returns I had to submit), and that wasn’t a problem. (My income has gone back up again now; I got more students.)
There is one interesting question that now arises. Yesterday, I applied for my photo ID My Number card, the new standard Japanese government-issued ID (with cute cartoon bunny rabbit). Because it is new, they are issuing it to all 120 million residents at once, so they expect to actually issue the card in March. It is possible that my renunciation and naturalisation will go through before they actually get around to issuing it. Of course, if I become a Japanese citizen then, my name will change, so the card will have to be reissued before it is even issued. However, given what I’ve heard about the time take for renunciation (up to three months) and the final paperwork on citizenship (a few weeks), I rather doubt it. I’ll just have to apply for a reissue quite early on.
Recently, I read a couple of articles that made me think. One was an open letter to Japanese people from a black man, listing a lot of â€œmicroaggressionsâ€ that black people suffer here, and posted on another blog. Another was the article “The Cultural Theory of Race: Yet Another Look at Du Bois’s “The Conservation of Races””, by Chike Jeffers, in Ethics Vol 123 (pages 403-426, 2013). One of the things they made me think about was the question “are there any black people in Japan?”.
In a biological sense, there obviously are. In this sense, black people are people with very dark skin, of African ancestry. There aren’t very many; looking at the statistics from the Ministry of Justice, and making some estimates, it looks like there might be about 25,000, or about 0.02% of the population. That could get up as high as 0.05%, I think, but not much higher than that. (Foreigners as a whole are only 2% of the population, and the great majority are Asian.) By comparison, the Amish are about 0.07% of the US population, if Wikipedia’s statistics are accurate.
However, biologically, â€œraceâ€ has been known to have no solid grounding for decades. Indeed, serious doubts have been cast on the idea that “race” is a biological concept since Du Bois’s “The Conservation of Races”, which was published in 1897. In a fairly recent study of genetic diversity, it was discovered that sub-Saharan Africans have more genetic diversity than everyone else, and, if I recall correctly, that there was no sensible way to draw a line that included all sub-Saharan Africans, but did not include every living human being. This is not unexpected; human beings originated in sub-Saharan Africa, so people outside that region are descended from people who made it across the desert or the ocean, a fairly limited subset. While concepts of â€œraceâ€ do pick up on biological features â€” skin colour is a biological feature, after all â€” the issues of how those features are interpreted as â€œraceâ€ are socially constructed, and most people working on these issues accept that some form of social construction is important.
There is a second sense in which there obviously are black people in Japan. This is the cultural sense, in which “black” is a culture which, according to Jeffers, includes not only US blacks, but also black Africans, and black people from other countries. The author of the open letter would not agree with drawing the boundaries so broadly, I think, but if we restrict the culture to “US black culture”, then there are clearly members of that culture in Japan. Again, not many; a lot of the “biologically” black people I estimated above are from Africa, for example.
The last sense is the interesting one for my purposes. Jeffers describes this as the political construction of blackness, and accepts it as an important part of the definition and origin of blackness:
[R]acial divisions as we know them today are the ideological and institutional products of modern European expansion, with its expropriation of non-European lands and subjugation of non-European peoples. On this view, the origin of something called the black race is to be located in the enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans and the colonization of Africa.
It is, in my opinion, undeniable that race, in this sense, has a massive impact on the lives of black people in the USA, and also in the UK. However, are there any black people, in this sense, in Japan?
First, and most obviously, Japan does not have a history of enslaving sub-Saharan Africans or colonising Africa. Black people living in Japan are not living in a culture with that historical background. This does mean that there are things it may be acceptable for a Japanese person to say or do that would not be acceptable for a white person, because the Japanese person has not inherited those legacies. At the very least, it means that that history of the black people cannot be simply assumed to be part of the background in Japan; one would need to argue for it.
To put this most starkly, the Japanese have less historical responsibility for the enslavement of black people than black people do, because some black people were involved in the slave trade, and no Japanese were. The history of the USA is not the history of Japan, and Japan has an entirely different historical legacy to deal with. There is nothing in Japanese history that suggests that “black” would be politically constructed as a racial category here.
Second, there do not seem to be large differences between the black and white experiences in Japan. I wrote a year or so ago about the fact that white people in Japan do not have so-called â€œWhite Privilegeâ€. The results of the Kawasaki survey of foreign residents suggest that white people suffer significantly from racism, although the results do not directly apply to those categories. (There arenâ€™t enough black people in Kawasaki to pick them out; a quick estimate based on nationalities suggests that there are probably about 300 to 400 black people in Kawasaki in total, which means we would have needed to send every single one of them a survey, and get a better response rate than we actually did, to have enough for statistical analysis.)
Further, if we go back to the an open letter, I find it extremely easy to believe that this happens, because a lot of these, or their analogues, have happened to me or are notorious for happening to other white people. 1 & 2 happen to white people all the time, as do 6, and 8, and 11, and 12, and 16. There are, obviously, different stereotypes about white people, but â€œplease donâ€™t assume that all white people are Americanâ€, â€œplease donâ€™t assume that all white people speak Englishâ€, â€œdonâ€™t talk about Europe as if it is a country; it is a continentâ€. The number of people who, on learning that I am English and from Manchester, assume that I like tea and Manchester United is really astounding. (For the record, Iâ€™m not that interested in football in the first place, and when I was a child I eighth-heartedly supported City. And I strongly prefer green tea.) The black experience in Japan sounds very similar to the white one.
Obviously, I do not know what it is like to be black in Japan. I am white, and so only know, from personal experience, what it is like to be white here. On the other hand, black people in Japan do not know what it is like to be white in Japan, because they have not had that experience. For a long time, I thought that the experiences were very different, because that was what everyone said. However, the Kawasaki survey undermined some of those conventional certainties: Chinese and Koreans do not face more racism than westerners. The open letter from the black man undermines it further. The experience he describes sounds a lot like my experience.
This is very different from the USA or Europe. White people in the USA or Europe do have white privilege. I know; Iâ€™ve lived in both areas (admittedly only for a few weeks at a time in the US), and I know what itâ€™s like. White people in those countries do not face the sorts of comments and behaviour picked out in the open letter. When I hear black people describe their experiences of life in the USA or Europe, it sounds nothing like my experience of life there. However, as I said, that’s not the case for their experiences in Japan. This is another reason for doubting that “black” is a (politically constructed) racial category in Japan.
Finally, â€œblack personâ€ and â€œwhite personâ€ are not terms that get used much in Japan. That is, people do not actually use “black” as a racial category. They exist, certainly (â€œkokujinâ€ and â€œhakujinâ€, respectively), but they are most often used in the context of reporting American news. That is fair. Japanese people know that these are important categories in the USA, and so use them when reporting what is happening there. On the other hand, they do not use them in normal conversation. I recent days, I’ve had a couple of conversations where it would have been most obvious, to me, to talk about “white people”, in one case because the topic was what someone looked like, but the Japanese person never went for “hakujin” as a term. Instead, they used terms for “western European”, or “European”, or “American”, with obvious discomfort because they were clearly aware that not everyone in those areas is white.
That raises the question of the categories that the Japanese do use. The big one is â€œforeignerâ€ (â€œgaikokujinâ€, or â€œgaijinâ€ when people arenâ€™t being careful about being polite). That, obviously, includes black and white people, and also includes a lot of Asian people. Another one is â€œwesternerâ€ (â€œÅbeijinâ€, literally â€œEurope America Peopleâ€, but it tends to include Australians and New Zealanders as well). It is true that the default image of a westerner is a white person, but black westerners are still westerners. So, it could be argued that the reason black people and white people have very similar experiences in Japan on this dimension is that, in Japan, they are the same race. Just as Japanese people produce different stereotypes when they learn Iâ€™m British (You drink tea! You like beer! You are very polite!), they produce different stereotypes when faced with a black westerner, but they are still stereotypes of westerners. Black Africans probably do face different stereotypes, connected to the â€œAfrica is nothing but war and starving childrenâ€ stereotype, and may be a separate racial category, but there are so few of them (under 250 Africans in Kawasaki, or less than 0.02% of the population) that there might not actually be a category for them.
A connected point is that one of the important racial categories in Japan is â€œmixedâ€ (â€œhaafuâ€, from the Japanese pronunciation of â€œhalfâ€, as in â€œhalf-Japaneseâ€). This applies no matter what Japanese is mixed with; one of my daughterâ€™s friends is mixed Chinese-Japanese, so she looks no different from a typical Japanese person, but she is still a â€œhaafuâ€. It is quite possible for someone, the child of a Japanese person and a black person, to be haafu in Japan, and black in the USA. Of course, my daughter is also haafu in Japan, but she is not black in the USA. Although my daughter is the same race as that person here, she is not the same race in the USA. The categories are different.
Now, this is not conclusive. Itâ€™s based on rather more than just my own impressions, but it isnâ€™t based on any systematic research into how Japanese people tend to categorise others. I would be frankly astounded if it turned out that â€œforeignerâ€ was not an extremely important category, to the point that I would suspect serious flaws in the research. (That concept is everywhere as an organising category; itâ€™s the nearest equivalent to â€œperson of colorâ€ in the USA, but more important. It even gets used for naturalised citizens, who are, in a very important sense, not foreigners at all.) However, I would believe research showing that black people were not normally counted as westerners, although it would surprise me.
This is, in fact, something that it would be useful for Kawasaki to do, as knowing how the Japanese residents think about other residents, including foreigners, would be very helpful in designing policies to solve the problem of the discrimination perceived by foreign residents. As long as we donâ€™t know why the Japanese are doing it, it is hard to propose concrete policies to remove it. I might try to get this survey carried out as well, but the lead time on these things is about five years, so there arenâ€™t going to be any immediate results.
However, what I can say is that there are good reasons to doubt that the politically constructed racial categories of â€œblackâ€ and â€œwhiteâ€ apply to the Japanese context. It is quite possible that, when it comes to questions of racism and prejudice, there are no black people in Japan.
The US dominance of both the pen-and-paper RPG industry and the diversity debate is a real problem, one that, I think, is actively hindering attempts to address the problems created by a lack of diversity.
Letâ€™s take an example Iâ€™m intimately familiar with: Japan. (For people who donâ€™t know, Iâ€™ve lived here for 12 years, my wife is Japanese, and Iâ€™m in the process of naturalising.)
The important â€œracialâ€ minority groups are the Koreans, the Chinese, the Okinawans, the Filipinas, and the Burakumin. All of these groups are â€œEast Asianâ€. They disappear when â€œracial diversityâ€ is being considered for an RPG. â€œRacial diversityâ€ is used to mean â€œpeople from lots of different categories that are important in the USA, completely ignoring distinctions that are important elsewhereâ€. To expand, when was the last time you saw a game being careful to represent both Hutu and Tutsi accurately, or Serb and Croat, or Ukrainian and Russian? Or even Sunni and Shia? These are all groups that have had wars over the distinction in the recent past, or are fighting them right now, so large numbers of people thought the distinction was worth killing for. But all of those distinctions are invisible to â€œdiversityâ€.
On the other hand, in Japan, in Noh theatre and Kabuki theatre, the female parts are played by men, and both of these are revered national art forms, and UNESCO World Heritage traditions. In Takarazuka theatre, the male parts are played by women, and that has 100 years of history and a large contemporary following (overwhelmingly female). This is mainstream. Emoji were designed in Japan, with same-sex couple icons, to absolutely no outrage at all. The government approach to transgender children is to issue guidance to schools on how to deal with it appropriately, including allowing the child to wear the right uniform, and provide counselling and medical treatment as necessary. This is not an issue; I only know about it because NHK did a special on it a few months ago. Aya Ueto, who is a still a pretty big female star, played a transgender boy in her breakthrough role, and that was about 13 years ago. Manga depicting gay romances between young men and between male high school students is a large genre, overwhelmingly read by women. (It is, as far as I can see, much, much larger than the genre of lesbian romances between schoolgirls.) US assumptions about gender/sexuality diversity and context are just wrong in Japan.
The same, incidentally, is true of assumptions about racial relations, as I wrote here last month.
(Also, the Japanese language is gender neutral by default, and a fairly high proportion of names are gender ambiguous, but womenâ€™s rights are a considerable distance behind the west. Thus, I am not optimistic about the effect of â€œmore inclusive languageâ€.)
I am sure that there are similar differences between the USA and other countries with which I am less familiar.
So, if you are trying to increase the diversity of your authors, artists, and editors, your first rule should be â€œno more Americansâ€. That will help you break out of the assumption that the American way of dividing up the world is the only appropriate way, and help you introduce some real diversity into your game settings and characters.