Japanese Racism

Hidoshi has a lot to say about Japanese racism.  The thrust of his argument is that Japanese racism is misrepresented and oversimplified elsewhere, and also that a certain element of hypocrisy may exist in Western depictions of it.  Out of respect for the considerable thought and research he has put into the matter – and the fact that jokes in a racism post are a bad idea – I will break from the normal voice of levity employed in The Moritheil Review.

First, Hidoshi tackles WWII, an era where theories of Japanese superiority compelled military conquest.  He does this by likening it to the Crusades, as if to remind the Western reader that Europe is not without its history of bloodshed.

In a sense, it was almost as if the Papal Crusaders of the dark ages had been reborn on the Pacific island state.

Yes – though the underlying causes were different.  Japan saw itself at the vanguard of pan-Asian change, as opposed to the Crusades, which were largely a misbegotten attempt by the popes to unite society under the Catholic Church and quell feudal boredom in the wake of the Pax Dei. (The nobles, trained from birth for fighting, needed someone to fight.)  I don’t think the Crusaders had many illusions that what they were doing was for the betterment of those they called Saracens – they were killing them and kicking them out of the land. This distinction hardly makes a difference to those who died, of course, but politically it can be thought of as very different.

More importantly, consider where this application of similarity takes the argument.  It’s true that “we no longer do that” is a concept that the West has towards the excesses of war, and that framework cannot be applied with any coherence to Asia, which developed along its own lines.  However, pleading lack of development – asserting that Japan in 1940 is somehow equivalent to Europe in 1240 – is tantamount to saying that Asia has yet to develop the same moral awareness of war that the West has.  It is implying that Asia is behind the West.  This not only sounds like a horrifying evocation of Kipling, circa 1900, it isn’t even true.  Asia has a long tradition of lamenting the horrors of war, and I am sure Hidoshi did not mean to imply otherwise.

It isn’t that much of a stretch to say that poor trade diplomacy on the part of the Americans and British is as much to blame for Korean and Chinese suffering as Japanese nationalism itself.

Well, one can always argue back to earlier causes. I don’t really think that the specific atrocities of war derive directly from economic circumstances, however. Broadly, war was encouraged by this setup, but I cannot see any way to extend this so far that it – and not a Japanese army – caused mass rapes and the indiscriminate killing of civilians.

Of course Hidoshi is right to assert that the present impoverished state of many areas of Asia is partly due to a lot of interference by Western powers. However, if we are to discuss the public relations aspect of Japanese racism, as he has done, the fact of the matter is that economic loss is rarely as sensationalist as immediate human suffering, with tangible faces, photos, and mass graves.

Racism for the Japanese has been about fear, losing integrity, and resentment.

But so too has it been for the KKK in America – though to be fair, in America, losing jobs is probably a more immediate cause for hatred of minorities than losing dignity.  Consider the slaying of Vincent Chin – because it occurred in Detroit, an area harboring considerable resentment of Asian products, his murderers got off with relatively light punishment.

Your standard Japanese citizen is no more racist than you and I.

A related, but not identical, concern. Certainly, almost every Japanese person I have personally met has been peaceful, respectful, and dignified. Ultranationalists aside, modern Japan has very little to do with the mindset of the WWII-era Japanese military.  The problem is that the system still holds the vestiges of racism. Whether we look at the marginalization of Burakumin or the academic employment situation, it is clear that being non-Japanese is a significant disadvantage. Even those of non-Japanese descent who grew up in Japan are statistically less likely to have higher-level positions.

It is this lack of upward mobility – this economic trouble – that ultimately makes for a situation where race matters.  This economic proof makes others deeply suspicious.  Can we reconcile the two statements?  Sure.  The average Japanese may have no intent to be racist, but in perpetuating the present system, still wind up perpetuating a racist result. (This happens in America, where the legal system is skewed towards convictions of poor nonwhites.)

Racism is a construct of the mind.  A discussion of international perceptions of Japanese racism cannot avoid examining the context of those perceptions.

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Published in: on September 22, 2009 at 1:56 AM  Comments (10)  
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  1. Off the top of my head without reviewing the mentioned article, “racism” alone seems an inept term/concept for describing “xenophobia” in Japan. As Hidoshi (is that his name?) said, “racism” in Japan is more about a fear of dissolving national solidarity than actual OMG A NEGRO American typed racism.

    So you could argue that it’s just nationalism. The race part is completely incidental. Historically significant because of genetic isolation, but pretty irrelevant in terms of the individual-oriented psychology part, which is arguably the most important aspect of the intersection between nation and race.

    It’s impossible to tell without ethnographic data though. And I’m not Japanese.

    • It’s really about minority rights. Consider that the Burakumin are Japanese from the eta class, historically marginalized, and still discriminated against to some extent today. Is it racism? Not really; they are of Japanese descent and have been so for hundreds if not thousands of years.

      What I would say, if I were to have just done the article as a stand-alone piece, is that Japan isn’t culturally very concerned with protecting its minorities, compared to America.

      As for the rest – I’m not sure I can accept that distinction based on group identity in Japan isn’t broadly similar to racism in America. It still has a demoralizing and dehumanizing effect on its victims. It’s still based on perceived differences. It still inconveniences people arbitrarily. It just happens to originate primarily from tradition and bureaucracy rather than individual preference (which you lampooned as “WHOA A NEGRO.”)

      • I suppose this bears some similarity to India’s caste system. Feudal differentiation of different ethnic groups has not yet fully left Japanese society. This just goes to prove that economic and technological advancement does not necessarily mean advancement in societal thinking.

  2. What about ethnic Koreans in Japan? Or the Ainu?

  3. are the Mongols included? 😀

  4. I have heard that japanese people are racist to blacks..

  5. I ran across this while following up on a news report related to international parental kidnapping cases, in which a non-custodial parent (a Japanese national and almost always the mother) violates a court order to remove a child from their home and take them to Japan. Apparently, every time that this happens, the Japanese courts refuse to return the child to the non-Japanese parent. They have NEVER found that it would be in the best interest of the child to return to their “foreign” home.

    In reading the referenced article, I was offended by its basic premise – that racism is somehow acceptable if it stems from the nationalism of a largely homogeneous society (especially if there is a history of other nations having tried to imposed their culture in the past). Sorry, two wrongs (or even three or four… ) do not make a right. The last time that I heard this argument, it was from a Melosovich follower trying to justify Serbian war atrocities.

  6. >>Apparently, every time that this happens, the Japanese courts refuse to return the child to the non-Japanese parent. They have NEVER found that it would be in the best interest of the child to return to their “foreign” home.

    I think this is a more complex issue than you phrase it, it needs more context. How old was the child? From where did she come? What were the motivations of the mother? Is there a father? Where in Japan does the mother live? What is the local community like? What was the child’s community and family like in the other nation?

  7. “I think this is a more complex issue than you phrase it, it needs more context. ”

    You misunderstand. I completely agree that the totality of the “context” should be taken into account. However, the Japanese courts have NEVER returned ANY child to the United States. The following is from the US Department of State website:

    “In practical terms, however, in cases of international parental child abduction, foreign parents are greatly disadvantaged in Japanese courts, both in terms of obtaining the return of children to the United States, and in achieving any kind of enforceable visitation rights in Japan. The Department of State is not aware of any case in which a child taken from the United States by one parent has been ordered returned to the United States by Japanese courts, even when the left-behind parent has a United States custody decree.”

    In every U.S. jurisdiction, custody matters are decided in accordance with the “best interests of the child” standard. Japanese courts purport to follow the same standard, yet their decisions absolutely invariably result in an award of custody to the Japanese parent. I could not immediately find an authoritative reference, but I recall reading that the same result is reached when other non-Japanese nationalities are involved. Even if one considers disputes involving American and Japanese parents only, it is beyond reasoning to believe that the Japanese household is always, without exception, the better choice.

  8. […] Of course I disputed that, because I’d already gone on record in this very blog talking about Japanese racism. […]


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