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.
Actually, the content of this post would be more accurately described as “reflections on the results of a survey of experiences of discrimination on grounds of foreign nationality in the municipality of Kawasaki”, but that isn’t snappy enough for a blog title, and quite a lot of what I say will be directly relevant to consideration of racism in Japan.
First, though, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, the survey of foreign residents that the city of Kawasaki conducted has completed its first phase, and the results have been published in Japanese. As promised, I have translated the analysis chapter looking at discrimination, which I wrote, into English, and I am making it available here. You should really read that before reading the rest of this post, because this post is based heavily on those results.
The translation is separated from the blog post in this way because the translated chapter was peer reviewed, in the sense that it was looked at by the Japanese academics on the survey committee, all of whom are specialists in this field, and the wording was approved by the city of Kawasaki, in Japanese. This blog post is neither; it is just my opinions. One simple example: the report translation does not use the word “racism” at all, because I was asked to avoid the Japanese equivalent. This blog post will use that word, because it is, for the most part, what we are talking about.
The first thing I want to emphasise is that, despite the limitations of the survey, these results are based on responses from around 900 foreign residents of Kawasaki. They are, therefore, better than anyone’s personal experience when it comes to the big picture. These data are flawed, but they are the best we have at the moment, as far as I know. The biggest unknown is how far these results generalise to the rest of Japan. Kawasaki has spent 20 years trying to make the city easier for foreigners to live in, and one would like to think that those efforts have had some results. On the other hand, as part of the Greater Tokyo area, Kawasaki has a lot more recent foreign immigrants than other areas of Japan. More data would be ideal, and I will be giving thought to ways to convince other areas to perform similar surveys.
The biggest and most surprising result of this survey is that Westerners face at least as much racism as anyone else in Japan. This is not the conventional wisdom, and not the result I was expecting to get. It’s not even that the results for Westerners are low, but not low enough for the difference to be statistically significant. On the contrary, in many cases the results for Westerners are high, and occasionally that difference is statistically significant. In particular, the results say that you are more likely to be stopped by the police for “walking while white” in Kawasaki than to be stopped for “walking while Filipino”. That question is also one of the more objective questions on the survey. On the other hand, it also shows that you are much less likely to be stopped for looking foreign in Kawasaki than in Europe, and rather suggests that the reason police harassment of foreigners in Japan is not treated as a major issue is that it is, in fact, not a major issue.
A less surprising, but still interesting, result is that the level of discrimination in Japan is roughly comparable to that in Europe. Japan is certainly not significantly more racist than Europe, and thus is probably significantly less racist than the USA. The fact that a number of white people who have lived in Japan have a different impression can be explained by the previous result: white people suffer at least as much racism as other minorities in Japan, and if you’re used to “none”, this doubtless feels like a lot. In this connection, it is worth mentioning that, in the section for comments on what you think is good about living in Kawasaki, quite a few people, of various ethnicities, mentioned the lack of any experience of racism. There were more comments about the need to get rid of discrimination, but it is possible to live in Japan as a member of an ethnic minority for years and experience no racism. That is my experience, as it happens, but it is now clear that such an experience is far from limited to white people. My impression is that ethnic minorities in the USA do not have that chance.
That brings us to an important analytical point. This survey makes it clear that, when considering racism, Japan is not the USA. “People of colour” is not a useful category for the Japanese situation, as it distinguishes one group that does suffer racism from a group that mixes up the majority who do not with other groups who do. “White privilege” really doesn’t exist here. Further, racism is not an omnipresent part of Japanese society. Far too many foreign residents have encountered it, but a large number have gone for years without noticing it at all. The analytical tools and ideas developed for the US are unhelpful at best and misleading at worst when applied to Japan. I’m not aware of any useful analytical tools for the Japanese situation, but the research is at a very early stage.
I probably won’t be contributing to it much, because I’m on one of the official committees that will advise the city of Kawasaki on how to respond to these results. Thus, I’m likely to be too busy trying to improve the situation to spend much time analysing it. From that perspective, the most important result is the prevalence of racism in housing. It’s one of the very few areas that really looks worse than Europe, and it’s a serious issue. It’s also something concrete that the city can plausibly do something about. I would like to see the city pass an ordinance making it illegal to refuse someone accommodation purely on the basis of their nationality, but that might be a bit difficult to get through. At the very least, however, I think Kawasaki needs to push their existing program to reduce such discrimination with rather more vigour.
The city is going to conduct interview surveys to follow up on the questionnaire, and supplement some of its weaknesses. Indeed, we had the meeting to finalise much of the design of that yesterday. The interviews will cover racism, if the interviewees bring it up as a significant topic, and I hope that it will tell us more about the nature of the racism that people face here. In the meantime, I hope that these results will inform the debate about racism in Japan, and inspire other people to gather more data, in other areas, to build up an accurate picture for the whole country.
Note added November 2016: The results of the interview survey have been published, and I have, once again, translated my section of the report for my blog.
The results of the questionnaire-based survey of foreign residents of Kawasaki were published yesterday. Most of the results are, of course, published in Japanese, but there is an English summary. (I had nothing to do with the English part of the English summary. I feel the need to make that clear.)
I’ve been working on this survey in one way or another since 2009, and I’m still not finished, because we are currently planning the interview survey that will follow up on the results of the questionnaire.
2009 was when I applied to become a member of the Foreign Residents’ Assembly (FRA). My general purpose was to contribute to the city and my community, but my specific goal was to get the city to carry out a survey like this. I thought, and still think, that having actual data on the situation of foreign residents would be very useful. Fortunately for me, the other representatives agreed, and provided a broader base of opinions on what should go into the survey. We formally requested that the city carry out such a survey in 2012.
The city moved quite quickly, agreeing to investigate the possibility of doing a survey, and setting aside budget for it for the 2013 fiscal year. At the beginning of that fiscal year, a team was established to work on it, mostly composed of Japanese social scientists. I was added to the committee as the token minority member. We spent a year working out the details of the survey, so that we could make a concrete budget proposal to the city.
The city agreed to supply the budget, so the survey was carried out in 2014. The survey was sent out, and the results tabulated, by a contractor, but we, on the team, did the data analysis and wrote the report. I only wrote a small part of the report: the section on experiences of discrimination. In the near future, I plan to translate that section into English and post it here, along with some more commentary. I’m also going to read the whole report, because I only read it bit by bit as it was being written, and I don’t think I’ve read the whole thing yet. I’ve certainly not read the final version of some parts. I expect that there will be other things that I want to say as a result of that.
One interesting fact, that is in the summary, is that half of the children of foreigners in Kawasaki have Japanese citizenship. (That is probably because the other parent is Japanese.) Before we did the survey, we (on the FRA, I think) had asked the city how many children with foreign roots there were, and they had no idea. They knew how many had foreign citizenship, but the children with foreign parents and Japanese citizenship were invisible. We now know that there are as many Japanese children with foreign roots as there are foreign children, which has implications for educational provision.
None of the survey results specify actions that the city should take. That’s not their purpose. They are supposed to inform decision making. I expect that the FRA will make use of the results, as will the Multicultural Coexistence Promotion Policy Assessment Committee (which I am on). That’s the next step.
The publication of the report marks the success of a long project for me, but the real work starts now.