The Empty Seat Revisited

When Baye McNeil writes about the empty seat phenomenon in Japan, the aversion that Japanese people have to sitting next to him on public transport, or, indeed, anywhere, he gets a lot of responses. Many of those responses are from people — white, black, male, female — who have the same experience. Many others, however, are from people — white, black, male, female — who do not have that experience. These people often speculate about why he might experience it, or think he does. In turn, he speculates about why the people who claim not to have that experience say that — maybe they are Fake Newsers, or just determined not to see anything that interferes with their image of Japan.
Continue reading

Japanese While White

I naturalised as a Japanese citizen almost two years ago, and so when I travel abroad, I travel on a Japanese passport.

This is interesting.

My first overseas trip was to the UK, where, for the first time, I had to join the queue for non-EU people. After a really, really long wait, I got to the desk.

“Oh wow, I didn’t know they gave these out,” says the immigration officer.
Continue reading

Reflections on Teaching English in Japan

I am David Chart, and I am an English teacher.

I have been teaching English in Japan since early 2004, so for about fourteen years now. Unlike many English teachers here, I have never taught English in an institutional setting. It has always been one-on-one, or possibly one-on-two, and I have always been freelance. Thus, this essay is about my reflections on the way I have done the job, and may not apply to other people who have done it. I also know that at least some of my current students will read this, and now you know that I know.

Let’s start by explaining why I opened the essay the way I did.
Continue reading

Mimusubi

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.

Loco in Japan

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.
Continue reading

Experiences of Racism in Japan

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.

Problems of Discrimination and Human Rights among Foreign Residents of Kawasaki

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.
Continue reading

Shinto Essay Patreon

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.

The Empty Seat Thing

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.

Stateless

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.
Continue reading