Japan Made Me A Racist

I'll tell you what my first thought is when I see other Westerners in Japan: "Where's my wallet?" Yeah, Japan made me a racist, but here's why it makes sense.

Disclaimer: Let me call out that I have not worked in a Japanese company, or had to interact with the government in any substantial way. So where I draw my opinions from is the interactions of everyday living. There are many parts of Japanese homogenous culture which are very painful for people, and these I acknowledge are being left out.

What do I mean by racist

When I say racist I mean judging a person by their race.

Racist – a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races.

In my case, it mostly takes the form of anticipating any future actions that an individual might take.

In a more systemic, and problematic way, it means things like restricted career opportunities, preferential treatment by the government, lacking sense of identity for foreign nationals, etc. To get an idea of what this means, this article on being a half Japanese is a good insight. "I have never experienced racism but rather the us versus them concept — not discrimination but differentiation".

Life in Japan

The thing to understand is that life in Japan is pretty good. While people endless debate over whether Japan's crime rates are really as low as they seem, the reality is that life in Japan is very safe:

  • Walking the street is safe – Pick-pocketing, street violence, and other random-attacker crimes are extremely low.
  • Your stuff is safe – burglary is virtually non-existent.
  • No weapons – firearms are illegal, and other weapons hard to get.
  • No drugs – and the problems that come with addiction are extremely low.
  • General social interactions – are formal, but extremely safe and respectful.

Where you might run into trouble is with Japan's mafia (Yakuza) but they are a tax-paying legally operated entity that mainly operate in corporate manipulation and gambling circles. So unless you're into some shady shit, you won't hear of them.

What makes Japan Japanese?

One thing: culture.

It is the social norms, behaviours, personal outlooks that make Japan what it is.

  • Many of the social norms here are things that promote "harmony".
  • This is not just in a peaceful sense, but in all ways about avoiding confrontation.
  • It's very much about keeping up your image, and not bringing shame to your name.
  • Japan is very much a shame-based culture.

How does that relate to crime?

Because of their obsession with image and harmony, enforced by a strong aversion to shame, it creates a highly effective society to live in.

  • The law itself does not enforce safety here.
  • It is the opposite to America which employs stronger and stronger police forces, which only creates stronger and stronger opposition.
  • What enforces the law here is culture.
  • This is important to grok.
  • What keeps Japan safe is culture.

While that may sound flimsy compared to guns and muscle, but culture is one of the strongest and most pervasive ways to influence behaviour.

How does that relate to racism?

When you really appreciate that it is the views, customs, and norms that keep you safe in Japan, the next logical conclusion is that people who don't share those views, beliefs, norms cannot be trusted to act in the same way.

While this is being racist, it's also painfully evident. The most "dangerous" neighbourhoods in Tokyo (where your shit might actually get stolen) are coincidentally the ones where large amounts of foreigners live.

The unique thing about Japanese racism is that it is fairly (not fully) equal in who it is against. Japanese racism is not about discriminating against any particular race, rather against all non-Japanese races.

In the world of Japanese racism there are two categories: Japanese and Outsiders, "us versus them".

So what?

Despite knowing that this means living in Japan would mean you are forever an outsider, I don't really blame them.

Japanese culture is what keeps society here running smoothly and safely. Since race is a loose correlate of cultural values, it makes people living here to be slightly racist.


Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on sebastiankade.com

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