‘It Might’ve Gotten Worse’: How Racial Injustice Hasn’t Changed in Japan

“The first ticket I see that’d put me somewhere else—I’d go to Sweden for all I care. I’m out. I’ve lived here long enough,” says Omotegawa.
May 25, 2021, 4:22am
How Racial Injustice Hasn’t Changed in Japan
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On May 25th a reckoning with systemic racism was reignited. It's still here — and so are we.

Alonzo Omotegawa is a 25-year-old mixed Japanese and Black man living in Tokyo, Japan. He was raised in Japan for most of his life, though he has spent vacations with family in the United States. Growing up mixed in a predominantly monoracial country, Omotegawa has been treated like a foreigner, no matter how fluent he speaks Japanese. After George Floyd’s murder and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests, Omotegawa is cautiously optimistic about change in the West. But from what he has seen and lived through, he believes Japan is far from achieving any semblance of racial equality.

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VICE World News: What was the single biggest change you've seen in Japan’s BLM movement over the past year?

Alonzo Omotegawa: In Japan, honestly, to be frank, nothing. As a matter of fact, it might’ve gotten worse. Like just recently, the post that was made official by the IOC, that athletes can’t wear anything that reads “BLM.” I don’t know what kind of message they want to send.

I still get stopped. My friends still get harassed. I don’t see massive change coming, personally, in this country. I don’t know if that’s because they don’t see a need to change, or whether they’re just lazy and they don’t want to deal with it. Japan is a very closed country. It can be very xenophobic. It’s not really welcoming and wanting to get to know other races. But this isn’t just toward a certain race. I think it’s just every other race besides Japanese.

How might’ve racial inequality “gotten worse” in Japan over the past year?

I feel like whenever Japanese people see a bunch of Black groups now, or even the police, they become more cautious, in a way. Not hostile, but they do feel some kind of pressure. Like we might do something. 

And this is in response to George Floyd’s murder and ensuing Black Lives Matter protests? 

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Ever since that BLM protest, one, I haven’t seen any positive changes. Two, I see it raised more cautiousness over groups of Black people. This sounds kind of harsh, but I think Japan has to experience its own kind of racial injustice, which I thought this Asian hate would help with. I thought they’d say, “Okay, I get it now, what you guys are experiencing.” But I haven’t seen any Asian hate protests in Japan. So it tells me that they’re not interested.

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Japan saw some Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd's murder, but Omotegawa feels the momentum for racial justice has slowed down. Photo: Courtesy of Alonzo Omotegawa

Has anything changed for you personally since George Floyd was killed? 

At this point, I think, “Yeah damn, we’re still doing this kind of shit in 2021. How the fuck am I alive, or how did I even make it back when I stayed there [the U.S.] for 6 months and I got stopped and pulled over by the cops in ATL?”

Ever since the Tamir Rice case happened in 2014, I just couldn't believe this stuff could still happen to this day, like with the George Floyd case.The fact that it’s taken this long over a murder that was clearly injustice… Bless George Floyd and his family, they finally got the justice they needed, but that’s not change. That’s just one case on a mountain of problems that’s still behind this. And the fact that Asian hate even happened right after this whole situation tells me history is going to repeat itself. 

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What is the moment you remember most vividly from the past year and why? 

During the BLM protest, I do remember there was an anti-foreign protest happening at the same time. As we’re literally saying “Black lives matter” with positive energy, there was a fair amount of people, saying “get the fuck out of our country.” It told me the state of this country right now. They came up to the busiest part of Tokyo just to do it, and nobody stopped them or said anything back.

What do you think Japan isn’t talking enough about right now?

Race in general. They never even mention race at all. The only time they mention it is when it starts to be a problem for them. When they look bad. Like the Nike commercial. Or Rui Hachimura  [a Japanese professional basketball player for the NBA] experiencing racism. 

When the news listed these things that were happening to him, it sounded like an outside view, not like it was local news. It’s treated very much like a “tanin goto,” elsewhere’s problem. 

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Rui Hachimura, a Japanese professional basketball player for the NBA, revealed he gets racist messages nearly every day. Patrick Smith / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

Is there anything you’re optimistic about in this coming year? 

In the West, honestly we still have to see, but the George Floyd case alone, that a cop was arrested for a crime that he actually committed—that leaves me optimistic to a certain degree. I still have a lot of worries and anxiety, but a step is a step nonetheless. It’s not a step backward.

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Here in Japan, I was going to be optimistic with the Olympics happening, but now, with the Tokyo Olympics committee cancelling Black Lives Matter posts… They even said no kneeling, so that means they’re aware of what Colin Kaepernick did at that American football game. He was the only one who did that. They specifically said no kneeling.

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Omotegawa hopes to one day move out of Japan, given the country’s dullness toward racism and its declining economy. Photo: Courtesy of Alonzo Omotegawa

What kind of message does that send to Black people living in Japan? 

It says they’re pacifist and really they don't care... I don’t want to encourage my foreign friends from the States to come here, expecting a certain amount of welcoming… I live here and I’m trying to get out. The first ticket I see that’d put me somewhere else—I’d go to Sweden for all I care. I’m out. I’ve lived here long enough.”

It’s not just the social injustice and dullness toward racism. It’s the economy and everything for me. If I nit-pick everything it’d take hours. I’m bored of living here all my life. My mind is too foreign to live here at this point. I’m incentivizing myself to socialize more and more with foreigners in Tokyo.

What kind of Japan would you return to?

I would come back to Japan if Japanese people stop wearing dreads and I actually see everybody walking around in different racially-positive message shirts and brands. And no more gaijin (foreigner) jokes, or the word gaikokujin (foreigner) is gone. Actually, yeah. When the word gaikokujin is gone. Because that word alone says everything. Foreigner is a literal translation of gaikokujin, but to me, they don’t mean the same thing. “Gaikokujin” is “outside-country person.” It’s almost like a label to me. And that shows their perspective of it.

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