Racism and the Role of the API JET

written by Akiyo Horiguchi (富山県)

Writer’s Note: I tried my best, but I struggled with some of the terminology. I attempted to be inclusive of all APIs rather than only those from my own country (U.S.A.), but where I decided I only have sufficient knowledge of Americans specifically, I made it clear as much as possible that I am speaking of the U.S. or of Americans. Also, this is from a Western API perspective. APIs from non-Western countries will feel that some of this does not apply to you.


Earlier this year, a YouTube video called “Racism in Japan” by ALT Miki Dezaki made its way around the community. When Japanese nationalists began issuing death threats, and the board of education felt pressured enough to ask Dezaki to pull down the video, my Facebook feed lit up with outrage and solidarity. That’s when I noticed that some of my API friends seemed to feel particularly strongly about these events. While that may be a coincidence, I began to wonder if APIs from Western countries are more inclined to be sensitive to issues of racism and discrimination in Japan.

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. The good news is, the kind of aggressive racism that the “Racism in Japan” video elicited is not the common type of racism in Japan. More often, it is the more deceptively “friendly” type of racism that is so widespread in Japan.

At first, we might feel annoyed and left out when our more foreign-looking peers are treated like celebrities in Japan. But many get tired of this constant attention, and the longer they live here, the more they do not appreciate persistently being treated as an outsider. While the API experience is different, we are actually in a unique position to understand. I often think, what if this happened to me back home, in the U.S.? I’ve felt the rage of having “Konnichiwa!!” yelled at me while out on a run back home, and then I think of all the random calls of “HELLO!” that my non-Asian friends get in Japan. I can easily imagine how I would feel if I were constantly complimented on my English every time I said “Thank you” in the U.S., when my non-Asian friends speak of the frustration of being complimented for simple Japanese phrases no matter how long they’ve studied Japanese. I think of how I would be in shock and disbelief if someone asked my white husband about me with “Where is she from?” in the U.S. But in Japan, I have been asked many times, “Where is he from?” as he stands right beside me.

Back in the U.S., it seems African Americans and Hispanic Americans experience overtly negative racism all the time, such as the perception of crime, or of lack of education. Meanwhile, Asian Americans are seen as the “model minority.” But we understand that “positive” racism is still racism. (I once felt rather uncomfortable at a job interview when the interviewer cheerfully said, “You Asians! You’re so hard-working!”) Likewise, I think non-Asian JETs start to feel a little uncomfortable with all of the “positive” attention. And we can sympathize, we really do. Of course, the situations aren’t exactly the same, but I think the basic principle at work is similar.

But there’s something else, too. Asians from Western countries often find we have to defend our right to call ourselves American, Canadian, Australian, or whatever we are. I have found this to be the case for APIs of a variety of backgrounds. Time and again, I experience myself as well as hear of other APIs questioned about where we were born, where our parents are from (or grandparents, or great-grandparents, as the case may be), where we’ve lived, what languages we speak, and whether we are haafu (“half” i.e. mixed race) because we told someone that we are American or Canadian or something else that we “don’t look like.” However, my European American JET friend is not generally asked these questions, though she is from an immigrant family and was not born in the U.S.

While those of us who are of East Asian descent may enjoy the ability to blend in the crowd, and in that sense we are part of the majority, we are not really part of the majority. We are more like other people from our respective countries, and it can be painful and frustrating to be put in a position of having to explain ourselves. While it might seem to other JETs that we can’t encounter racism because we’re the same “race” as the locals, we do, in fact, constantly receive very different treatment from other JETs because of the way we look. Isn’t that the definition of racism? Being treated differently or assumptions are made about you because of the way you look?

…we have to defend our right to call ourselves American, Canadian, Australian, or whatever we are.

You might be thinking that this is getting really depressing. Is Japan a racist country? Yes – but every country is! It is human nature to think of people in our own “group” as different from others, however we perceive that group to be. To quote the brilliant musical Avenue Q, “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”

We are here in Japan, as ALTs and CIRs, to promote cultural exchange and international understanding. I firmly believe that API JETs have a special role to play in combating racism in Japan. Consider:

1. As described above, Asian JETs are able to offer unique perspectives on race issues in Japan. We directly see how foreigners who stand out are treated differently than those who do not, but at the same time we can sympathize with our non-Asian JET friends.

2. Just by being in Japan and sharing about ourselves, we are sending the message that gaikokujin does not mean looking obviously different. If the occasion is right, we can even point out that the majority of foreigners in Japan are not people whose appearance stand out: Brazilians of Japanese descent, Chinese people, Koreans, etc.

3. We are walking examples of multiculturalism in our home countries. You might have begun to hear the word tabunka-kyosei (literally “multicultural harmonious living”). While the overall number of foreign nationals in Japan is declining, a growing percentage of people are here as permanent residents. While the idea of multiculturalism may be second nature to many of us, this is a relatively new concept for Japan. We have a lifetime of experience to share!

4. We are often (though not always) taken more seriously than non-Asian JETs, because many Japanese people will instinctively feel closer and more comfortable with us. You can use this to your advantage to open up dialogue!

To call someone a “racist” or a “bigot” has become a terrible slur itself, so much that talking about racism makes people feel uncomfortable or angry.

I have found Japanese people on the whole (it would be racist of me to say “everyone,” right?) to not be very defensive or cynical when new ideas are presented to them. While many people will not readily accept a new idea right away, or they may be confused, most will at least be willing to listen to you. If you are working with children, you will have even more opportunities for success!

“Racism” has become a bit of a taboo word. To call someone a “racist” or a “bigot” has become a terrible slur itself, so much that talking about racism makes people feel uncomfortable or angry. I try not to talk about “racists” or “bigots” because I don’t think that’s helpful to anybody. (Again, we’re “all a little bit racist.”) Those are combative and pluralizing terms that put labels on people. But I think we can and should talk about racism, with or without actually using the word “racism.”

As JETs, most of us are only in Japan temporarily, and we go back to our home countries after one to five years. But there are many foreign nationals who are here permanently, and many of them experience the not-so-friendly kind of racism. Meanwhile, the word kokusaika (internationalization) has been thrown around a lot as Japan tries to figure out how to have its citizens think more globally. We can each help in our small way.

Whether this is your first year or last year in Japan, make the most of it! ◆


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