Is Japan a racist nation? This is a very delicate question, but I wouldn’t be worth much as a Japan blogger if I didn’t tackle complex topics like this every once in a while. The short answer is that yes, as in other countries, Japan has its share of short-sighted citizens who act in an unkind way towards people from other countries or cultures for various reasons. This can take many forms, such as the tendency to think of “foreigners” only as friendly North Americans or Europeans and not “seeing” the Sri Lankan guys working hard assembling televisions at the Sanyo factory, or the jibing my half-American daughter once received in elementary school by a classmate who kept saying “sorry, I don’t understand English” when she was speaking to him in Japanese. That said, the foreign staff of J-List — who hail from the U.S., France, Canada and the Philippines — agree that they generally have easier lives as gaijin in Japan than foreigners do in their home countries in terms of legal protection, access to employment and health insurance, and so on. While I’ve personally encountered very little negativity during my time in Japan — a few odd bars in Roppongi who decline to let foreigners in because of specific bad experiences in the past, the rare drunk yakuza who can’t believe there’s a white guy sitting in the sauna with him — most of the discrimination I’ve encountered has been positive: people giving me presents or teaching jobs I didn’t deserve, or phone numbers written on a chopstick wrapper in an izakaya back in my single days. So while Japan is far from perfect, it is a happy country where foreigners can feel welcome.
The question of “what it is to be Japanese” came up recently when Ariana Miyamoto, a stunning half-Japanese, half-African American model born in Nagasaki, won the Miss Universe Japan beauty contest. It was reported that some Twitter users didn’t think she looked “Japanese” enough to represent their country in an international event — despite the regular use of Japan-naturalized Brazilians at sporting events like the World Cup — and this ignited an online debate. The issue is that Japan is one of the most homogenous countries in the world, with 98% of people believing themselves to be of pure Yamato Japanese stock. In truth, there’s plenty of Chinese, Korean, Ainu, Mongolian, Russian and other blood in the ancestry of many Japanese, but they’ve all sort of agreed not to “see” these differences for the sake of a happy and harmonious society. (In the past J-List had a Japanese toy buyer from Kyushu who was so dark-skinned as to appear Samoan, and I was always warned by the other staff to never make reference to this.) In contemporary Japanese society, there are certain groups that don’t fall under the tidy definition of “Japanese,” including Okinawans, who have always had a culture and language separate from the mainland; Ainu, the descendants of the aboriginal inhabitants of Japan, who appear to have died out due to their penchant for tattooing permanent mustaches on their womens’ lips; and zainichi (“residing in Japan”) Koreans and Chinese, who were born and raised in Japan but who maintain separate citizenship for cultural reasons. Then there are ハーフ haafu, or Japanese of mixed race, like my children as well as many famous models, actresses and singers, including Ms. Miyamoto herself. The funny thing is, haafu are nearly always held up in Japanese society as the “ideal” Japanese, combining the beauty and grace (and linguistic abilities) of the West with down-to-Earth Japanese sensibilities. Licca-chan, Japan’s version of Barbie, is a mirror of this:her father is a French musician from Paris and her mother is a Japanese fashion designer in Tokyo.
We’re getting close to two of our favorite summer conventions: Anime Expo and the San Diego Comic-Con. We’ll be attending both events, though since they’re back-to-back this year instead of separated by two weeks as is the norm, we’re likely going to be dead on our feet, but we’ll be having fun. Find us at booth 1319 at Anime Expo (we’ll have our big sign hanging from the ceiling in case you get lost), and in the 4900 aisle at SDCC. We’ll also have an awesome panel at Anime Expo too, on Thursday at 10 pm in room LP4, so make sure you’re there to hear about our new announcements!