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.