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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

March 14, 2013

Racism in Japan: Where Medamasensei gets it wrong

The Tokyo subway. About 11 PM on a weekday. It's 1994. I'm heading home from a gathering, reading the Daily Yomiuri. A Japanese man, wearing an expression of disapproval makes eye contact. He has an air of over-confidence when approaching me, rather rare in Japan. He speaks in broken, yet reasonably competent, English but his lines seem too well-rehearsed.

"Your newspaper doesn't say the truth. White people killed off American native people, sent Japanese Americans to prison during war. It is genocide. American newspapers are run by white people. Hide facts about racist white acts. You are not told truths about racist white history. American media. American education. Same."

I didn't smell any alcohol and there was no real hint of physical aggression but nonetheless this intrusion was unwelcome. Nearby commuters were also shifting uncomfortably sensing the unpleasantness.

Thinking that discretion was the better part of valour, I made some dismissive comment about not being American and the newspaper being Japanese but it was clear he wasn't listening. He had his mind set. He had a bug up his ass, a chip on his shoulder, a bone to pick, and I was his target, his captive audience. He went on at some length berating 'my' media and education until, thankfully, my station came into view.

Pulling the rug from under one's rhetorical feet

I think most readers would equally find this rude and annoying. But why? Let me list thy ways:

1. He was factually incorrect about the alleged absence in North American media and education regarding past racist policies inflicted by people who look like me. Maybe more could be done but the notion that this is avoided or not known to the general populace is just wrong.

2. It's neither his role nor responsibility to inform me, as if I have no access to 'the truth' that he is now bestowing upon me, as a stranger on a train. As a result, from the outset I am suspect of his motivations-- he just wants to vent at a suitable target, which automatically makes any point he is trying to make less effective.

3. By using the Daily Yomiuri as his foil, and not knowing my nationality, nor the education I've received, he has pulled the rug from under his rhetorical feet. His attempts at criticism lacked credibility and applicability.

Medamasensei-- Personable and charismatic but...

Which brings me to 'Medamasensei' and a Youtube clip he posted a few months back entitled Racism in Japan. Apparently, he was harassed for uploading this clip by some Japanese nationalists (I have a side comment for such people at the end of this post although I somehow doubt that the average uyoku reads my blog) and since then Medamasensei has posted a response , also on Youtube.

Miki, his real name, seems like a well-intentioned, charismatic, and personable guy. I sense that he has a real concern for his students. He teaches English at a high school in Okinawa. He is, as is obvious in the clip, an American of Japanese ancestry and is reasonably competent in Japanese.. But despite his good intentions I think Miki has made some of the same mistakes that my 'subway interlocutor' did, which weakened the force of his message and gave his uyoku critics some unfortunate ground.

Let's start with the motive. Miki is an English teacher. And he's American. So why is he giving a lecture to Japanese students about alleged Japanese attitudes and behaviors in Japan? No doubt the students will start off with this schema. Does he have a bug up his ass, a chip on his shoulder, does he just have a bone to pick with us as a captive audience? One can't help but think that it's a set-up to vent or point fingers.

Imagine a Chinese language teacher from Beijing working in Canada suddenly 'teaching' a group of Canadian students, in English, about government or media censorship in Canada. Moreover, what if it was apparent that he assumed that Canadians were oblivious to the idea that government or media censorship existed in Canuckland and that it was his duty to inform them. The implications might make the audience a little defensive, doncha think? Not because they are in denial but because they smell a rat. Sounds a little like the guy on the train, right?

'Racial discrimination' but not about 'races'

Miki also used a number of unfortunate examples that weakened his point and cast doubt upon his argument. He was using the word 人種差別 (racial discrimination) but used examples of Okinawans vis-a-vis mainland Japanese, and even inter-island prejudices within Okinawa itself. But this is not racial. The same holds true for his discussion of the dowa/burakumin.

Even his argument about discrimination faced by Koreans in Japan is unlikely to be interpreted as 'racial'. People in the Korea, China, Japan triangle will generally acknowledge that some countrymen, or even themselves, may hold prejudices or general dislike towards the other countries (usually governments more than individuals) but such animosity is likely to be thought of not as 'racial' but as 'national'.

Then there is the dubious example of the baka-chon camera. I asked four Japanese about the alleged slur it contained. Two had never heard the word. Two others laughed at the word and described it as an outdated hick phrase used by old people who were none-too-smart about using cameras, hence the term. The idea that it meant that the camera was "so easy to use that even dumb Koreans could used it" seemed to them to be far-fetched in the extreme. If this is Miki's Exhibit A it does seem like he is grasping at straws. Given that in his response Miki shows a demonstration of Japanese nationalists in Shin-Okubo (Tokyo's most Korean neighborhood) a few months back marching while holding up placards saying, "Kill all Koreans" and "Koreans, go hang yourselves," Miki seems to have whiffed on the baka-chon front.

Is Japan in denial? Or is there a problem with the question?

This brings us to a key question. Why did only two of Miki's students raise their hands when he asked them if they thought there was racial discrimination in Japan? One answer is that high school students don't raise their hands for much. You could say, "If you are human, raise your hands," and perhaps get only a handful of responses. I can't help but wonder whether if Miki had asked the question negatively, "Who thinks there isn't any discrimination in Japan?" there would still be only two hands in the air.

Imagine again the Chinese teacher lecturing Canadians on government censorship and asking, "Is the media in Canada censored and controlled?". I imagine most of the students would argue, "No. Canada has a free press, freedom of expression, etc.". This now gives the Chinese teacher the opportunity to claim that Canadians don't know or are in denial while pointing out selected cases where media were asked to withhold information. Gotcha.

But let's assume that all Miki's students were alert and actively participating. And even though the examples he cited didn't conform to the notion of 'race', could it be that so many of his students, and by extension so many Japanese, are in denial about racial discrimination in Japan? Here's where it gets tricky.

I asked four Japanese people point blank: "Do you think there is racial discrimination in Japan?" Three times in English, once in Japanese (there is no real semantic difference). The four were:
a) The Japanese spouse of a foreign national and mother of a mixed-race child. Well-educated and traveled,
b) A Japanese doctor. Highly-educated, well-traveled, internationalist, very conversant on social and political affairs.
c) A mixed-race (Western-Japanese) high schooler.
d) An ethnically Korean Japanese.

Without exception, their initial responses were, "What exactly do you mean?". I played naive: "Just what I said".
a) Do you mean systematic, or widespread, like it's somehow representative of Japanese character?

b) Do you mean like apartheid in South Africa or pre-civil rights white-on-black in the U.S., where governments explicitly discriminated against their own citizens?

c) I don't get it. Everyone in Japan is Japanese. (I responded, "I mean, for example, someone like you- bi racial"). But I'm fully a Japanese citizen so I have the same rights and am subject to the same laws as any other Japanese.
(Later...) So what you mean by 'Is there racial discrmination in Japan?' actually means, 'Do any pure 100% Japanese discriminate against non-Japanese?' (Clever, that)

d) Occasionally, I hear of some people speaking ill of Koreans, but is that racial? We're all Asians. And does 'looking down on' or 'speaking ill of' or 'not liking' meet your definition of racial discrimination?

"I get more annoyed by foreigners in Japan assuming that I'm discriminated against"

Next came some clinchers...

a) If all you mean is, "Is there anybody at all in Japan who has prejudice towards people of other races or nations. Are there any cases or people anywhere in Japan?" then the answer is obviously yes*. But that's so obvious I didn't think that's what you meant. I thought you were speaking more generally, referring to some kind of established policy.
(*Her gestures and facial expression here had that "Are you kidding me?" look)

b) It goes without saying that some individuals hold prejudices, like anywhere else. But as policy? Like apartheid? No. (My response: "I mean by type or attitude, not by scale"). "Of course, it would be foolish to say that no one in Japan has these attitudes. I thought you meant something more institutional or fundamental."

c) Actually I get more annoyed by foreigners in Japan assuming that I'm discriminated against, often raising the issue, assuming they know what it's like to be me, telling me how I must feel. I prefer some Japanese guy speaking to me in broken English to that.
(Ouch! Food for thought)

d) There's a touch of negative attitude on occasion, if that's what you mean by discrimination. More in my parents' day though On the other hand, Koreans get associated with cool sometimes too due to pop culture, esthetics, and so on. But Japanese look down upon other Japanese for various reasons too and Koreans do the same thing with other Koreans.

You can probably see that one common denominator here is that the question was not initially assumed to mean, "Any cases of discrimination by any Japanese individual ever" because that just seemed too leading and obvious. The uptake of the term was more that of 'official policy' or some popular groundswell, a systemic, widespread characteristic of Japan(ese). The different nuances between prejudice, discrimination, and simple dislike came in for questioning too, as did Japanese as a nationality vs. ethnicity.

"We get that stuff a lot"

I also asked about education against discrimination in Japanese schools:

a) Of course. In moral education class throughout the system we were taught to respect and keep the dignity of others. We were taught to treat others equally. The Dowa situation, even though it's disappearing, was discussed. There was a lot about respecting other nationalities, cultures, differences.

c) Yeah we get that stuff a lot. That we have to understand and be kind to our fellow man, regardless of religion, race, hairstyle, and so on. It's been pretty standard stuff from kindergarten on.

So, just as North Americans receive a fair dose from public education and media reflection about some shameful parts of our racial or discriminatory history-- even though discrimination still exists-- so do the Japanese (and I see no shortage of this sentiment in both popular and serious Japanese media too).

We: Aware, with raised consciousness. You: Morally undeveloped

What some Japanese seem to object to is the insinuation and assumptions, like the guy on the train was making with me, that they haven't been informed of this, that they are morally unaware, even retarded, consciousness not yet raised to 'our' level. If we take that attitude then aren't we in fact the ones being prejudiced and/or discriminatory?

I think though there are some gaps in the understanding of racial discrimination in many places throughout the world. The model for racism seems to be, as the doctor hinted at, U.S. white-black or South African apartheid. I've traveled to countries with highly dubious records of racial minority treatment who've assumed that their local model, notbeing the same as pre-civil rights U.S. or South Africa's, somehow doesn't meet the litmus test for racial discrimination. That needs to be fixed.

I also find it ironic that despite Miki's inarguable statement in his follow-up video-- his point that racial discrimination is carried out only by 'some' people about 'some' others-- certain members of the online non-Japanese community have attributed the nationalists' harassment to "The Japanese" as a whole. Full face palm and desk headbang for that.

"It seemed kind of illogical to me"

Maybe that's what Miki was trying to do, to help his students avoid racial generalizations. But as the Japanese wife/mother, who watched Miki's Youtube clip, said:

"If he had asked, 'Do you think Japanese people sometimes hold prejudice or discriminate based upon gender, socio-economic status, university ranking, home region, nationality, race etc'. everybody would have said 'Yes'. I'm from a country prefecture so I sense it a little when I mention my university or hometown if I visit Kanto or Kansai. But he used the term 'racial discrimination' and then talked about all these other things. And yet his conclusion was as if he had now proven to them that there is in fact racial discrimination in Japan. It seemed kind of illogical to me."

Miki could have placed the issue about common prejudices into an English class and found out his student's perceptions that way, letting the student's use their own voices before making judgment. And this could have lead to some fruitful discussion in which Miki could have used his energy and enthusiasm to make some valid points regarding some problems faced by foreign residents in Japan. Unfortunately, when I saw Miki's video I was instead reminded a little of the guy on the train in Tokyo.

Of course, some readers might feel that it's unseemly to rake a guy, who simply tried to raise consciousness and address an important issue, over the coals but the point is that these laudable goals were not likely to be achieved-- not with Miki in the missionary position (cough, cough) with his assumptions. In fact the whole thing may have backfired-- meaning, many of the comments on Youtube and elsewhere critical of Miki were not from raving nationalists but from readers genuinely skeptical of Miki's MO and examples. Teachers have a lot to consider before they enter soapbox mode if they actually want to be effective or influential.

A note to the nationalists

And, as promised, a note to the nationalists (who are as likely to read this blog as I am of winning the Kentucky Derby, but what the hey) who tried to harass Miki for his videos: (although I should note here that, looking at the history of this blog, threats of calling up or informing workplaces when one finds a view disagreeable are not limited to the political right)

Although I am strongly anti-nationalist (in regards to any nation, as I consider nationalism to be irrational and artificial tribalism), I'll agree with you nationalists about one thing. Japan is a great country. I have chosen to make my life here because there is so much that is admirable about the people and the country. You are lucky to have been born here and I too feel an emotional connection to this country. But do you think you make Japanese people or Japanese culture look good when, in the name of your fine country, you become over-emotional or wish to censor those who you disagree with? Do you wish this to be seen and regarded by outsiders as "Japanese behavior"? Because, trust me, such responses can and do make your country- my adopted home- look worse than you claim Miki did. Don't do it. For your country.

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I know that I'm replying to my lonely self here but better as a comment than as an addendum to the article...

It seems that Arudou Debito commented on this article on his own blog . He says that my points are not worth taking seriously. That's fine. I'm not trying to write an academic thesis, obviously.

But he justifies this dismissal by stating that very few have studied the 'racialization process' at a high level. This is not fine. The narrative of racism is not the province of elbow-patched sociologists and their grad students. Understanding comes from victims of racism, not from someone like Debito, with an entire ONE academic paper in a minor online journal written on the topic, a paper that seems to be little more than a self-referential, glorified blog post.

Debito's 'critique' would ironically also disqualify Miki Dezaki's perspectives from serious consideration-- pretty much pulling the carpet from under his own feet.

Debito also claims that I say race is 'genetic'. I did not and do not. I didn't even offer a theory about what constitutes race or racism. Regardless, the notion that race and racism are socially and psychologically constructed is well-known and is not a profound intellectual insight limited to the enlightened few. Moreover, a consistent application of the 'socially constructed' view of racism would actually (and accurately, IMO) mark a site like Debito's as an anti-Japanese racist, hate site.

But all that's beside the point. The blunt, inescapable fact is that when Miki Dezaki asks his class, "Is there racial discrimination in Japan?" their understanding of what constitutes racism, whether or not it matches those of armchair sociologists, will indelibly colour their response. And I'm pretty sure that most people can see that point, although I don't really expect Debito to grasp anything that isn't black and white.

My problem here is American culture. Not Japanese culture. And not in the way a lot of people would think.

My husband and I are both of mixed ancestry. What this has caused for us was that long before we moved to Japan, we were both fed up with "political correctness".

Americans should stop LOOKING for racism. Racism IS a problem, but we're trying so hard to manufacture it it's annoying. In fact, real problems in the U.S. can be buried under this garbage. And equally importantly, we feel like we must be insulted when others do not do as we do. (Cultural elitism is a discussion for another day.)

My husband has been insulted to his face about his ancestry -- by Americans and not in the way you'd think. People have told him what he should be calling his own ancestors or what he should think about them. The most telling and annoying story was when someone was telling him how he couldn't say "American Indian"... to someone who's part American Indian and isn't insulted by that term in the least (nor is anyone in his family). He finds the term "Native American" stupid because if you're born in the Americas, you're a "native American". "Indian" isn't insulting, it just arose from a geographical goof.

Well, what I'm insulted by is the hunting for all the insults. If you feel you have to ask, "Should I be insulted?" the answer should be "No. Don't worry about it." Be nice.

Likewise, we shouldn't force our views and our culture on others. American culture isn't the end-all-be-all of cultures.

It's not the actions, it's the feeling. Japanese people make social faux pas, everyone does. I've made some doozies! But that doesn't mean they're racist, it means they don't know or realize they may be being insulting.

In fact, I'd argue that it's a major social faux pas on a lot of westerners' parts (especially Americans') that we are trying so hard to force our view of race and racism on others.

I guess in short, we shouldn't assume people are trying to be insulting or mean. We should just try to be nice. That's how you get past a lot of cultural differences.

Japanese often buy into stereotypes because _they have have almost no actual experience with a lot of groups_. Saying that Japanese are racist is therefore ironic, or as my husband put it, "the pot calling the kettle black".

(I was interrupted a lot while writing this. Pardon any typos... hopefully this was clearly written, hehe.)

Hi Kim. I think the model that is inspiring some of the racism claims is the type of 'racial framing' postulated by people like Prof. Joe Feagin at Texas A&M University, who see American institutions so thoroughly tainted with a sense of white privilege and inequality that virtually every aspect of white America has become imbued with the racist imprint. I can't speak for the U.S. but...

Some people want to apply this explanatory model to other countries, such as Japan, where another race represents the majority and thus is able to institutionalize racist policies.

Do I buy it all? No. I'm not big on Sociologists telling me what's really going on in all my cross-cultural interactions.

Mike I enjoyed yet another one of your articles, thank you!

For me, the book, "Hi! My name is Loco and I am a Racist!" is a classic on all of this. Baye McNeil outlines what he has experienced living as a black man in Japan. I think it deserves to be read by many Japanese, and non-Japanese alike.

I feel McNeil attempts to keep his sense of humour through all of it as well.

I`m a white guy from Canada too. Indeed, caucasians have it comparatively good here. Mike, I too like this country and think it is a good one.

However, in 23 years, I have experienced racism here and there, but nothing compared to what some Asians or people of African ancestry have to put up with at times.

I feel there is racism everywhere in the world, (to some extent) but it is a small proportion of the people who are very racist in general. But it is something we all need to work on and speak out about. If we happen to be preaching about it in Japan or Canada so be it. It needs to be mentioned.

And Mike many people read and discuss your articles. I sometimes feel, that you think you are not read. You are! Keep it up!

Hi Kevin.

Thanks for that. The site is barely breathing because the owner has moved on to other things and it is currently in a stage of transitional no-man's-land, so there is no publicity.

Anyway, my main hope with this blog is to have at least a few readers say, "Well, that is an interesting/new perspective on the issue," regardless of whether they agree with me or not. Thanks for your support.

Hi Mike,

While I'm tempted to add my FWIW tuppenceworth on the topic of racism, I'll just address your last comment.

As of this week I'm officially back on board as editor of ELT News, a post I last vacated at the end of 2005. I'm now living in Ireland but as the "plan" is to broaden the scope of the site beyond Japan to encompass ELT worldwide, location is no longer an issue.

One thing that hasn't changed is that the budget is limited so changes and additions will be small and gradual. And of course the key to its success is the continued support of quality contributors like yourself. So let's see to it that this admittedly "barely breathing" site will once again be an informative and vibrant place for teachers in Japan and beyond.

Hey Mike...Thanks for putting into words what I could only vaguely think out yet feel strongly about.

Thanks for this article Mike.

I was browsing the net about discrimination in Japan when I came across your article.

Can you please enlighten me if this action is discriminatory or not?

After three years of working in the same BOE, this year I was not renewed by BOE for being a non-native speaker. Last February, my company and the BOE renewed and signed a new contract with the addendum that they will only accept "native speakers" starting this April 2014. I was left with no job since they informed me only today.

I am Asian with post-graduate level of education in English Language Teaching and a 15-year of experience as ALT.

Hi Lynn.
If what you stated above is accurate then it is discrimination. No doubt. It is unethical and unprofessional as well. Was your original contract clearly stated as having only three years' value? If so, that could be a tiny mitigating factor although re-informing you just one day before it finishes almost certainly violates some labour protocol.

The "native-speaker" bit is quite clearly discriminatory. Dropping an experienced, qualified teacher due to race is as clear cut a case of discrimination as I can imagine. Did you get that in writing? It is also, pedagogically, ridiculous and shows a disregard for their students and educational standards. The notion that even unqualified 'native speakers' are superior role models is based on an outdated colonial mentality that is supported by virtually no one trained in linguistics.

If what you described is accurate and represents the full story I think you have more than strong grounds to take action.

Let me know what happens next... and best of luck!

Thank you very much Mike.

Yes, it is very accurate.

I had a three-year contract and it ended this month.

I was informed through a phone call from the manager of the company.

I'd been a subject of discrimination; name it and I experienced it; i.e. train, restaurant, mall, etc. but I understand where I stand. This new experience is the most painful to bear.

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