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The Japanese View on George Floyd and Racial Riots in the USA

The Japanese View on George Floyd and Racial Riots in the USA

After living in Japan for two years and China for five, I determined that the handling of racial inequities in the USA is very different from Asia. In America, race is an open book. It is a topic that we approach head on. We touch on race in televised speeches and graduation commencements; we comment on race on our TV shows and stand-up comedy (hell, we even have TV shows classified by race), and we openly discuss race among friends and family. Unlike in Asia, race is not something we shove under the rug in the USA. It’s out there for all to see.

While I am not Japanese, from first glance it might seem that I don’t have the authority to write this post. However, through my profession I still work in a very close capacity with the Japanese community. Through my view as an American who understands Japanese values, I often find insight through interactions with colleagues. So with a grain of salt, I write my thoughts as a naive, third-party bystander.

The Japanese Take on the Riots

On a zoom call at work focused on Japan, we thought about how we can better promote diversity & inclusion (D&I) to Japanese businesses in the USA, considering the current backdrop. We had a few D&I professionals on the call, a handful of our leaders, and some Japanese colleagues. As we were discussing how to approach Japanese businesses with this topic, a senior level Japanese professional in his late 50s (let’s call him Ito-san), politely waited for an opening in the conversation and shared his thoughts.

“I would like to be honest with my feedback, and I hope in doing so I cause no offense to anyone as I know this is an extremely sensitive subject. I was born and raised in Japan, and only recently moved to the US two years ago. I still feel very much like a new person in this country. When I saw the news about George Floyd, and the long-term protests and riots that are ensuing as a result, I only have one word to describe my feelings.

Puzzled. I am puzzled. I am puzzled as to why an innocent black man was killed by the police. I am puzzled at the outpouring of backlash and protests it has produced. Most of all, I find myself puzzled that I was so blind and naive to the racial history of the United States. If I am puzzled, I can only assume other Japanese leaders in the US are just as lost as I am.

I believe it would be extremely helpful to educate Japanese leaders in the US on the racial history of the USA. I think if we truly want to promote D&I as a service, then that is the first step to create true understanding.”

Why Diversity & Inclusion is so Alien to Japan (and many parts of Asia)

Like Ito-san above, many of my friends in Japan and China feel puzzled with the riots. They ask me why the police would kill an innocent man on the street, like George Floyd. Although they understand why we are protesting, they don’t quite comprehend why the protests are growing larger, stronger, and longer.

Why is diversity & inclusion so alien to the Japanese? It’s easy. Japan (and many East Asian countries) are homogenous. Today, Japan is still the most homogenous country in the world, with only 1.75% of its population comprised of immigrants. To them, discussing racism is an alien concept because, as the homogenous majority in their country, they never really had to open up that can of worms. I can say with confidence that the majority of Japanese have never had an open discussion on race in their entire lives. I am sure that Japanese new to the United States are discussing and learning about racism for the first time ever.

And why are the racial inequities in the USA so puzzling to Japanese (and most East Asians)? Quite frankly, it’s because they don’t learn much about US history, and what they do learn focuses more on the founding fathers, the constitution, the civil war, and the world wars. It is sad to say, but similar to many of us in the United States, the Japanese know the civil war was fought about slavery–and that’s about it. Jim Crow laws, segregation, failed reconstruction, lynchings and other racial injustices that scatter the plot of US history are not part of the core curriculum in Japanese history class. With that in mind, it makes sense that the Japanese (and many in Asia) feel puzzled at the racial divide in America.

How does Japan handle racial issues?

Every country is racist to a degree, and that includes Japan. To speak in broad strokes, the Japanese in general are very racist against other Asians (especially those from China and Southeast Asia). I’m willing to wager that the majority of Chinese or Vietnamese living in Japan feel like second-class citizens. As I mentioned in my blog post about being half-Asian in Japan, the Japanese blatantly ignored the fact that I was Vietnamese even when I stated it openly. As a half-person who looks white, I know that I received many unintended benefits via my “white privilege,” even in Japan.

Unlike in the USA, however, racism in Japan is very subtle and swept under the rug. There is no open violence between the Japanese and Chinese that stems from racial differences. Japanese police are not killing immigrants on the street. Whether we can attribute it to culture or lack of arms, the Japanese tend not to express their racism with violence. Racism is beneath the surface and handed out in subtle micro-aggressions. The subject of race relations is never discussed. In Japan, there are no TV shows about the new Chinese immigrant family who just moved in down the street. There are no stand-up comedians from Laos talking about how weird Japanese people are. Race is not an open topic in Japan, for better or for worse.

The Grand Takeaway

I know that some of us may be offended by how the Japanese or other East Asians seem naive to the racial riots and protests going on in the USA. My ask is that, instead of find offensive, embrace the patience within yourself and help educate. Many Japanese (and other East Asians) in the US, similar to Ito-san and other Japanese leaders, are open to learning more about racial relations in the US from a historical perspective. Through patience and understanding, we can help them find understanding in the chaos.

8 thoughts on “The Japanese View on George Floyd and Racial Riots in the USA

  1. It reminds me a little of the white states, like Iowa and New Hampshire in the U.S. Until this century, they were always like, “well, we don’t have any racism here!”

    BECAUSE THERE WAS ONLY ONE RACE. *bangs head on desk*

  2. I like your blog a lot and this post is quite interesting as well, though I have one comment: “And why are the racial inequities in the USA so puzzling to Japanese (and most East Asians)? Quite frankly, it’s because they don’t learn much about US history, and what they do learn focuses more on the founding fathers, the constitution, the civil war, and the world wars.” – this is normal curriculum it virtually everywhere outside of the USA. Yes, the USA is big and mighty, but it’s not centre of the world and quite often it’s just an afterthought following local affairs. The same way you don’t learn about all intricacies of Japanese or French history, the same way rest of the world don’t learn about USA. And problems that happens in the USA are quiet often quite USA specific (“oh no, school shooting!” for example) so yes – we do sympathise, it’s terrible what’s happening there but we also do have own problems…

    1. You know what, you’re absolutely right. The US is NOT the center of the universe and I totally agree with you: Americans feel like the world revolves around them. It boggles me that many of my American friends (most who have hardly been abroad) think every country outside of the US is a poor backwater, despite us having states like Alabama and Mississippi where people live in third world conditions.

      I don’t think other countries should learn the specifics about US history, because honestly, there is no need for it. Here in the US we barely learn about other countries, so I don’t think other countries should learn the specifics about us (we touch the surface of Europe, but learn nothing about Asia Russia, South America or Africa).

      What I *do* think is that foreigners who live in the US, especially those who are puzzled by the race issue, should not be met with criticism in the US when they are completely lost. As you said, Americans think the world revolves around them, so it’s hard for them to even empathize with someone from another country who is completely foreign the race issues we face here.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. To be honest I don’t think we have many conversations about race in Spain either. When I was growing up, my hometown was very homogeneous. In both my primary/secondary school and high school, there was only one student that was not white-Spanish (a Chinese girl). In a town with a population of 90,000, the only immigrants from other races were a couple of Chinese families opening restaurants and a Korean family who owned a taekwondo gym. Now there is more diversity but still a very small percentage of the population (I guess because there are not many jobs in my hometown so why would anyone move there). Bigger cities have more diversity now but only lately they are raising their voices as to the racism in Spanish society and white Spaniards are like: What? We are not racist!

    The elephant in the room in Spain has always been gypsies (they are about 1.5% of Spanish population and have been there for centuries). If I had a Euro for every time I’ve heard “I’m not racist but gypsies are…” (fill in with anything from lazy to thiefs), I’d be rich.

    1. Wow, in a town with 90,000 people there was only a handful of foreigners huh!? That’s so crazy… My small town was similar, but we had about 10,000 people (so it was much smaller).

      Really interesting to hear about the changing dynamics in Spain… Do you think there is a lot of racism in places like Madrid?

      Oh man, I feel bad for the gypsies… they are so hated all over Europe. I guess they must be the most hated minority over there. When I got robbed in Barcelona even one of my friends said: “must be a gypsy” and I had to smack some sense into them, lol.

      1. I guess there is quite a lot of racism too, although violent incidents are rare as far as I know. I follow a Spanish-born, ethnic Chinese cartoonist on Instagram and she has shared before anecdotes like people telling her “Oh your Spanish is so good” (it’s her first language, I think she doesn’t even speak Mandarin or dialect) or “Your boobs are quite big for a Chinese”, or shop attendants following her around and offering expensive brands in malls (believing she is a rich tourist haha).

        1. Oh man, the boob comment is so bad! I imagine because there aren’t as many Chinese in Spain, it’s hard for locals to wrap their mind around a Spanish born Spaniard who is Chinese in ethnicity.. America has sooooo many Asian immigrants, I feel like this problem isn’t as bad (although in the rural areas, everyone just thinks of Asia = China). I’m sure all of us who have lived in a country where we are not the majority (like me in Japan) have experienced some form of subtle racism.

          I think racism exists everywhere, but my problem in the USA is the violence and brutality of it. Part of the problem is the easy access to firearms (which thus makes it ok for the police to have firearms), so it often creates trigger happy standoffs. Plus, the whole slavery aspect and the south never really admitting that what they did was wrong, but that’s a story for another day…

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