39: Culture: Racism in Japan

japanese flag cluture

Hey guys!

One of the things I try really hard to do with this blog is keep the positive vibes flowing. I don’t really want to bring negative energy into the mix, because eww.

That being said, I feel I should warn you that today’s culture post is pretty heavy. It’s not negative really, but it’s something I feel you should all be aware of in the event that you travel to Japan or decide to live here. Unfortunately, when I first arrived I didn’t really have any idea that it would happen and I kinda wish I’d done a little more research.

This post is all about racism.


What do you mean?

I think this post will get pretty lengthy, so bare with me.

I grew up in the southern part of the US. What this means is that I’ve seen people be really ugly to one another simply because of the color of their skin. Japan doesn’t usually go that far, for the most part it’s more covert. Still, I’ve had people be flat out racist and rude to my face more than a few times.

The best way to explain all of this is to break it down into two parts, I think. We’ll take a look at some of the blatant ways people have expressed racism and then we’ll take a look at some of the subtleties.

Flat-out Racism

Sometimes knowing what the people around you are saying is a blessing, as well as a curse. I suppose if you had no clue what people were going on about, you could feign blissful ignorance, even if you did feel the conversation was about you. It doesn’t bother me when they talk about my ‘high nose’ or say things like ‘I’d love to be blonde, too’ (I’m not blonde, but I suppose compared to black hair it looks it). What does bother me is when people say things about ‘外人’ (gaijin, a rude way to say foreigner).

I suppose being called ‘外人’ doesn’t really bother some people. It does bother me. Quite a lot. The correct way to say the word is ‘外国人’ (gaikokujin) and the main difference is in that middle kanji. It means country. Leave it out of the word and you’re saying very bluntly that I do not belong here. I’m an outsider. I’m part of the ‘other’ that you can lump together in one group because they’re not ‘you.’

One time, I was in the supermarket buying vegetables and an old man pointed a shaky finger in my face and YELLED “外人!” Ok, supermarkets are generally noisy, but this was LOUD and literally everyone stopped to look. All I wanted to do was buy my eggplants in peace. I was mortified. He was angry, but I have no idea why.

Another time, I was jogging in my neighborhood when I hear (but don’t see) another old man yell, “外人帰れー!” (a really forceful way to say GO HOME FOREIGNER). I stopped and looked around, but I couldn’t see where he was and luckily there wasn’t anyone else around to hear him.

Still, the older generation thinking the way they do won’t change, so there’s really nothing to be done about that. What can be changed though, are the children. At least with my students, I try to explain to them why that word is ugly by getting one of them to write the kanji on the chalkboard and then asking what the difference is. They get it pretty quick, but say that ‘gaijin‘ is easier to say. My reply is that a lot of ugly words are easier to say, but it doesn’t make it ok to say them.

Other Examples

There is a nightclub in Nagoya that doesn’t allow foreigners inside. It’s for Japanese only. I asked one of the people that I drink with a lot what he thought about that and his response was, “Japanese people can’t relax around a lot of foreigners.” WHAT THE LITERAL HELL. I asked him what he thought I was and he said “you are you, that’s different.” I just left the bar. He didn’t understand why I was so upset. They usually don’t.

If you move to Japan and decide to live in your own apartment instead of company housing, you will find that it is a little difficult to find a place that will rent to foreigners. I wish I were kidding, but a lot of landlords have it in writing that they will only rent to Japanese people. Oh, but if you pay extra money to a guarantor company (sometimes over $300 US), they might let you rent. The catch is you have to pay that guarantor company every time you renew your contract.

Subtle Racism – Microaggressions

There is a wonderful article here that really hits home for a lot of non-Japanese living in Japan. I definitely suggest giving it a read.

I guess I’ve talked so much on racism up to this point, if I were being honest, I don’t really want to go much into microaggressions. I don’t want it to seem like I hate living here or that I don’t like Japan at all. Far from it!

That being said, let’s just look at a couple of things that non-Japanese regularly experience, then call it a day! 🙂

This is something that every non-Japanese commuter experiences pretty much every single day they use public transportation: the seat gap. What I mean by that is even on a super packed morning train, a person would rather stand than sit next to a foreigner. I’ve had people flat out GLARE at me while standing in front of me, even though there was a perfectly good seat next to me, but they didn’t want to sit in it. I seriously don’t understand the logic behind it, lol. More space for me!

Then there are tons of little questions or sayings that seem polite, but are actually quite rude. For example, “you can use chopsticks really well” to which I want to reply “you are a freaking fork master(!!1!1)” but still manage to keep my mouth shut. Ah, there’s also “your Japanese is so good” after only saying one word. This sounds like a compliment, but how can it be after only hearing the speaker utter a single word? Last is my favorite, “Japanese OK?” when asking me if I speak Japanese. I can’t even wrap my mind around how fast an American would twist that into a lawsuit if they were ever asked “English OK?” in the States. XD

Those last questions have an opposite too, though. It’s like some people’s minds kind of short-circuit when they see my face and all they can hear is FOREIGNER TALKING instead of Japanese. That’s pretty frustrating, honestly.

This video sums it up pretty comically:

Oh, and people stare. Like a lot. You cannot walk down the street without being stared at. Own it. XD


I love living here. I really do. I’ve made wonderful friends, have a great job and an awesome life in Nagoya. In no way to I want to sound like living here isn’t a dream come true, because it really is. ❤

The thing is, racism is everywhere. It’s in every corner of the globe. It’s ugly, it’s something to be embarrassed of and it’s something everyone denies; but it’s still present in every culture on this planet.

I was almost afraid to post this. Is it too ‘white privilege’-y? I don’t mean for it to be.

I just want us all to act like decent humans. We don’t have to all like each other, but we should all damn well respect each other. No matter what color, class or creed we are- we’re all humans. Let’s treat people how we would want to be treated, yea?

Trish sign blog



19 thoughts on “39: Culture: Racism in Japan

  1. Stephanie says:

    This is so true. A friend of mine, who lived in Japan for quite some time, has always talked about this issue, and expresses her frustration upon stuff that were exceptionally rude, though she lets most of the other stuff slide out of politeness, however, living in Japan and feeling ostracised because of her ‘whiteness’ she fell into depression and made the choice to move back not once, not twice, but thrice. There’s only so much racism one can take before they give up, and in this case, it was three times for her.

    I got stared at a lot when I was in Japan, though that was in more remote areas such as Shinimamiya in Osaka, and Nagoya. I think that if you were living closer to the cities in Tokyo or Osaka, then you encounter far less racism than in smaller areas.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Trish says:

      Oh wow, that really says how much your friend liked being in Japan if she was able to keep coming back like that. Is she in Japan now, or back home?
      Fortunately, I have made a ton of wonderful friends who are native Japanese, and they try their best to explain (I guess is the word) Japanese behavior when it applies to ‘foreigners.’ I don’t agree with most of it, neither do they really, but it helps to have a Japanese person’s opinion on the whole matter…if that makes sense.


  2. tokyo5 says:

    Sorry, I don’t agree. There’s no difference between 「外人」and 「外国人」. If I person doesn’t mean anything offensive, then there’s no need to get offended. And I’ve never had other commuters refuse to sit near me in 25 years here.
    Also, those places that don’t want foreigners without a Japanese friend is usually because of the language barrier.
    And landlords don’t like tenants from overseas because of all of cases of foreigners wearing shoes indoors, etc and leaving the country suddenly with last month’s rent unpaid.


    • Trish says:

      I suppose myself and a great many other people will just have to agree to disagree with you on that point, then. I find it greatly offensive, as do a lot of others.
      That’s really awesome that you’ve never experienced the seat gap issue. It happens a lot in Nagoya.
      I totally understand if there’s a language barrier, but that doesn’t make it any less discriminatory. It’s just bad customer service.
      Again, I get it. I just don’t agree with lumping all ‘foreigners’ into the same category.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting! It’s really interesting to hear about other people’s experiences. 🙂


      • tokyo5 says:

        I’m not intending to upset you…so I hope you’re not.

        But I think if people are too “politically correct” and offending when others genuinely don’t mean offense, that just makes others just hesitant to talk to or interact with them at all.

        Of course, there are racist people everywhere…but I’m sure most people in the world have no problems with people of other nationalities, races, etc.

        I especially can’t see why anyone would get offended if a Japanese person is surprised that they can use chopsticks or speak Japanese…or if they ask if “Japanese (is) OK”.
        Everyone has stereotypes (not always negative) of cultures that they don’t usually interact with. Before I came to Japan, I thought Japanese people wore a kimono everyday.


      • Trish says:

        I’m not upset at all, no worries! I just don’t think we’re going to agree on this topic, so there’s really no need to go round and round with it, yea? 🙂
        I don’t mean to be rude at all, but if you’re not offended, there’s no way I can explain to you how I am, I guess.
        I do tend to get my feathers ruffled pretty easily, so it is always refreshing to hear others opinions and viewpoints. Thank you for sharing! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Mchan says:

    oh yes the vacant seat next to you used to bother me A LOT !!! The only time I really experienced racism though was in Kyoto when buying sweets in front of Kyoto station when the shop attendant went over me in the queue to ask the person BEHIND ME what she wanted!!! So I asked in japanese if she didn’t see me because I was a foreigner and another shop assistant hurried to take my order. grrrrrr
    As I’m white in Europe I’ve never experienced racism in my own country, but you only have to surf the net to read negative comments about the French hidden behind jokes. I stopped reading things about Japan on the Lonely Planet forum for a while because of French bashing so …
    I guess we expect Japan to be so wonderful and as a foreigner very often you’d have some special treatment so it’s the other side of the coin. The attitude of some foreigners in Japan (the “I can do what I want”) create repercussions on all of us too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Trish says:

      You raise a very valid point about foreigners coming to Japan and thinking they are above the customs and culture just because they ARE foreign. The “I can do what I want” attitude has serious consequences for the rest of us, unfortunately and it absolutely doesn’t help with alleviating racial tensions/images of ‘foreigners.’
      Oh wow, I had no idea there was French bashing going on at all! I guess it goes to show you that there are prejudices no matter where you’re from in the world. That’s so dang sad.
      It really bothers me that people can’t just get to know a person for who they are instead of sort of lumping them together under ‘insert label here.’ Like, I’m me and you’re you, ya know? I don’t represent America. :/
      Also, shop person in Kyoto: RUDE!

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Anie Olson says:

    It’s been interesting for me to contrast the different kinds of racism while living in the countryside vs living in a big city. I got stared at a lot more when I lived in Kyushu but they’re more reserved. (Only drunk creepy old men were too friendly whenever I had to take the last train home). Except there was one one time a (Filipino) friend and I were chasedaway when we wanted to go to yakiniku restaurant….

    I don’t get as much staring here (or maybe I’m just used to it) but I definitely have noticed more of the obvious episodes, glaring (and muttering angrily) when the only open seat on the train was next to me, or getting up in a huff when I sat down next to them, angry old man in the supermarket muttering under his breath about foreigners when I was bagging my groceries next to him.

    I see a lot of hope with the children too. The overt racism I have experienced has all been with people 60+. The microaggressions are more out of ignorance or misinformation. It’s a very black and white thing. Japanese vs non-Japanese. Us vs Them mentality. I had to tell an ex-boyfriend to stop saying やっぱりアメリカ人 because I don’t represent all Americans and America definitely doesn’t represent 100% of me.

    外人 REALLY bothers me too. My students learn really quickly not to say it. Another thing I don’t let my students get away with is talking in katakana Japanese to me. One of my biggest annoyances is that almost every foreigner on Japanese TV/commercials has that atrocious katakana accent. So kids think its normal. I explain to them that it’s actually harder to understand and doesn’t help me to learn how to speak more naturally. I don’t speak weird English to you, so please don’t speak weird Japanese to me. XD (I could probably write an entire post about the portrayal of foreigners in the media and how it perpetuates stereotypes so I’ll just stop here haha)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Trish says:

      You said all of that much more eloquently than I did and YES PREACH!!!! This is exactly what I wanted to say, but couldn’t quite get out! It is very much a black and white thing. I read an interesting blog post (I wish I’d saved the link) on a Japanese blog site that was talking about how it was a little absurd that Japanese people ‘loved’ foreigners so much, but really only if they acted like how a ‘foreigner’ should act. Also, it said something along the lines of all foreigners being from 外国 which had me rolling, because YES.

      PLEASE PLEASE write a post about the caricature that is foreigner representation on Japanese TV! I would almost pay to read it, seriously.


  5. Celia says:

    Good read, Trish!
    I was lead to believe that gaijin is the less polite form of gaikokujin – but I’ve been told by Japanese friends that that’s not the case anymore, it’s merely a shortened form. It’s still ‘sounds’ offensive to me, though!
    I’m always horrified at the things my white foreign friends go through in Japan. But like your experiences, it’s usually with older Japanese folk. I think things will keep changing and with more people like us working in schools, the younger ones will realise we’re not scary aliens but people just like them 🙂 Positive vibes!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Trish says:

      Thanks, Celia! ❤
      Ah, I know some of my friends say the same thing. I guess I've always believed that it was not a good word to use, so it's difficult to not think it's bad? Idk. Like, you can't change the meaning of a word just like that, I guess is how I feel.
      Do you ever get anything weird? I guess people assume you're straight-up Japanese, right?
      Yay! That's the goal! One kid at a time, right? 🙂
      Positive vibes!!


  6. Raquel says:

    I can’t help but think that the fact that I had wanted to go to Japan for almost 12 years before I actually visited the country helped me lots. Some classmates went there with the idea that Japan was this perfect place and came back super disappointed. By last summer I was way past the infatuation/idealization phase, and I knew lots of what could happen, and I guess it can always affect you, but knowing what you can face always helps.
    I have to say, I never had the vacant seat thing happened to me. Turns out none of the girls in my class did either (some had been in Japan for over a year)? So maybe where we were (Osaka, I lived in Sakai Ward but went to classes in Namba) it was more of a male foreigner thing because all the men did complain about this xD What I had was this one dude asking for a photo (creepy much?), or this man at the train station who would refuse to answer my question in Japanese (I’d asked in Japanese) and kept answering in a very accented English I couldn’t understand. I got Very Pissed that day. That said, I had a very pleasant experience, not much staring and not many microaggresions that I noticed, not in Osaka. I was lucky to talk to a lot of people who would make conversation with me when they realized I spoke Japanese, too, and they were curious, but in a very nice way that never offended me. Like yeah, some made uncomfortable questions sometimes? But I always felt it came from ignorance and I couldn’t get angry at that.
    I do understand that a 2 months stay has nothing to do with actually living there, don’t worry. I really want to move there (at least a couple of years? I always think that’s The Way to learn a language) but I do brace myself. At the same time, I’m open to disappointment, I guess, so I have that going on for me. That and that my teacher has spent the last couple of years telling me Every Single Bad Stereotype Japanese people have about Spaniards so that I’m ready xD
    OKAY what is this Bible. I’m sorry xD! Anyways, I think posts like this are very important to anyone who’s never been there. People tend to idealize the place, and specially white people often come back disappointed. I always warn people that every country has its good and bad things, but why people refuse to think of things like this baffles me. So posts like this are SO necessary! And I’ll shut up now, I promise!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Trish says:

      I know the feeling, man. Maybe I was in the same situation as your classmates, because I totally had it in my head that Japan was a perfect sort of place. I guess it didn’t help that my image of Japan, the one in my head, was all from dramas and movies. (on that note, thank GOD the US isn’t like what we are portrayed as in movies, lol..well..at least all the time xD)
      I know Osaka is a lot more open-minded than Nagoya, so maybe that played a part in people being more accepting of foreigners. At least I always hear that Kansai in general is more open-minded.
      UGH I hate that accented-English thing, especially when you freaking are speaking in Japanese. Also, I can’t help but get offended at ignorance sometimes. I guess when I start to feel this way, I know it’s time to visit home, lol. Like, my ignorance-quota is filled so I need to recharge or something. (Keep in mind that in 6 years, I’ve only been home once so I guess it’s not all that bad XD)
      I cannot recommended living here enough though! Especially if you’re very serious about learning the language! Immersion all the way! *fist pump*
      Oh girl, I promise it feels like sometimes non-Japanese are all from 外国 (LOL), so stereotypes are across the board with every nationality ever.
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting! ❤ I really was afraid to post this, but I agree with you when you say that sometimes shedding a little light is a good idea.



      • Raquel says:

        I think that happened to me a little when I went to South Korea. I *rationally* knew it wouldn’t be like in the dramas, but it still disappointed a little. I still enjoyed it AND want to go back, but I definitely had that feeling of “oompf, okay” when I first got to Seoul.
        Yeah I feel like it definitely was! People always spoke to me about the Japanese in very different ways, and I had people come to me and make conversation very, very often, in a very warm manner. It always started asking where I was from, but sometimes we spoke for so long. There was this old lady who even told me I had just made her day brighter and thank you for having lunch with her and I wanted to SHED TEARS OF IDK. I traveled there alone so all these people I encountered really made a different and I have super fond memories of Osaka.
        Haha. Re: ignorance I always remind myself that Spanish know even less about the Japanese than they do about us. Plus that I’ve gotten a lot (A LOT) of ignorant remarks about us from Europeans or Americans, and I find that a lot worse because it’s like, DUDE, YOU’RE MY NEIGHBOR, CAN YOU NOT?! xD Though I definitely think that living there would make it a lot more irritating.
        I will! One day! …if I can sort out how the hell to get into the country with a freaking visa. Dammit, Japan, why make it so complicated!
        Thanks to youuuu! I really enjoy your blog ❤


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