“Japanese people are extremely friendly, polite, and considerate” is a common description of Japanese people by foreigners. And it is true, but only to an extent.
One of the first things foreigners will discover when visiting Japan is that Japanese are extremely polite. If you compliment a Japanese person, he/she will likely contradict you automatically and say, “No, that’s not true. I’m not that good”. They might even apologize for you complimenting them! If you give someone a birthday present they will apologize again and thank you with “waza waza, sumimasen” (‘for going through all that trouble, I apologize’). Because it cost you trouble to buy that present.
There is also a more subtle politeness in body language. When speaking to strangers, Japanese take care to give their full attention. They face you and leave their mobile devices. They bob their heads when you thank them, which is more like a “please do not thank me, I did nothing” than an acknowledgement, and also doubles as a thank you in return.
But live in Japan for a bit more than a month and you will slowly be faced with the underbelly of Japanese passive racism and xenophobia. As a Japanese/German, from birth I was marked as an outsider. Being fluent in Japanese doesn’t matter, as long as you don’t look Japanese. Even Japanese friends who have only spent a year abroad in High School describe the subtle barrier they face and the title they are invariably given: that of the ‘gaijin related’. During my commute to school and back on the busy train, if the only seat open was the one beside mine, it usually stayed empty.
It is unusual to find a Japanese person willing to be so rude as to use xenophobic language, but it is the subtlety in manner – the apprehension when faced with a ‘gaijin’, the furtive glances to the side when I notice someone staring, the stubborn way a man will sometimes pretend not to understand my ‘accented’ Japanese – that shows that Japanese are not all that keen to understand or get to know foreigners. They are comfortable and happy within their environment and show no interest in learning of other cultures.
(It’s not only the West that have Japanese stereotypes, Japanese people have pretty weird stereotypes of Westerners, especially Americans, too)
On the other hand, looking foreign can be a huge advantage. Recently, more and more “ha-fu” (half Japanese, half foreign) celebrities have been popping up. Looking exotic yet fully Japanese culturally and linguistically, these idols have taken the Japanese entertainment industry by storm. However, I would like to take a more cynical view and point out that this fascination with the exotic is quite akin to children’s fascination at the zoo when they see a hyena or a lion. It’s ‘different’ and ‘cool’, but you don’t want a lion or a hyena in your society living as one of you.
In all honesty, I am hesitant to use the word racism to describe Japanese people, because the English word does not perfectly convey what I am trying to say. The Japanese are naturally polite, considerate, introverted, and do not easily express extreme opinions or racism. The everyday citizen would never go as far as to insult you or treat you with hostility. Therefore, it is impossible to easily title them as ‘racists’. Yet at the same time, xenophobia does exist on a very deep, very intrinsic level in Japanese society.
Read the next installation to my “Proving Japanese Stereotypes Wrong” Lexiophiles compilation on Tuesday the 5th of November.