The killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer last year inspired debates, conversations and substantive action all over the world. One notable exception was Japan. While demonstrations in Tokyo and Osaka drew a few thousand people in June, there was no nationwide reckoning in a country that hasn’t fully come to terms with historical racism against ethnic minorities, such as the indigenous Ainu and Zainichi Koreans.
The issue was generally viewed as a foreign problem, not relevant in a place where many buy into what social scientists have called the homogeneity myth, or the belief that there isn’t much diversity to begin with in Japan. In reality there’s plenty, including a growing number of mixed-race citizens commonly referred to as “hafu.”
VICE World News interviewed a photographer whose work touches on diversity in Japan, as well as two mixed-race Japanese nationals who described their experiences living there, the racism they have been subjected to, and the inspiration they took from the BLM movement. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
I was at a march in Tokyo, but sadly most of the people weren’t Japanese. I can’t forget the look in the eyes of people seeing our march. They were ignoring us, not interested at all. It made me cry. What are we doing if it doesn’t matter to them? Urusai! [“annoying” in Japanese].
On television, they don’t talk about it. My friends didn’t really ask about the Black Lives Matter movement until I started posting about it on social media. I also wrote about what it’s like to be a Black person growing up in Japan. I wasn’t used to talking about this, but the timing was right to talk to them about it, it felt liberating.
Growing up in a small town near Osaka I never talked about racism. My mom is Japanese [she prefers not to disclose her father’s nationality], but when I was six they divorced and he left. In our town, people stared at me and pointed at me, “look, a foreigner.” It was so sad, it made me depressed, I didn’t want to go out except for school.
Although I was Japanese, I was never considered to be Japanese. I knew it was the color of my skin. I had a foreign name, that didn’t help. When I was eight I asked my mother to change my name, I wanted a Japanese sounding name.
Things changed when I moved to Tokyo last year. Tokyo is more diverse, so I feel more comfortable. It’s more international, people don’t look at me as much. I don’t need to care how to behave, that I need to be “Japanese.” Now I don’t need to be seen as Japanese anymore.
Sometimes the police stopped me, but I was never afraid. When I dated a Black guy he was stopped by the police a lot. Restaurants didn’t let us in and taxis refused to stop.
In a way, Japan is changing for the better. The country is becoming more diverse, you see more hafu, and hafu models. But there are still issues with diversity, such as the notion of “beautifully white” or “bihaku” in Japanese. It’s the idea that people want to have a white skin color, it’s considered beautiful. And it’s everywhere you look, on television, advertisements, and on almost all beauty products. For companies, it’s just a way to make money, but it shows we have a long way to go in educating people about diversity.
After I posted about racism in Japan, I received a lot of comments, a lot of opinions. “Because we’re homogenous we don’t know about this problem,” people commented. Japan is not homogenous. That’s nonsense! Even in June when Naomi Osaka retweeted the protest of Black Lives Matter in Osaka, she was criticized for talking about racism in Japan openly. People were saying that there’s no racism in Japan, and that Japanese people are just not used to dealing with dark-skinned people. My real friends understand my point, but with some others, I felt like cutting ties.
Some people said they don’t feel comfortable sharing online about racism because they’re not Black, but I don't think that’s right. If only Black people say something, nothing will change.
Tetsuro Miyazaki, a Belgian-Japanese photographer who interviewed dozens of “hafu” in Japan for his book Hafu2Hafu
I have interviewed hafu, or mixed-race Japanese people with many different origins. While most have faced some type of discrimination, it rapidly became clear to me that skin color is a determining factor in the severity of it. Most of the non-white hafu talked about subtle or blatant racism. A Black Japanese woman, for example, talked about her school time where kids would give her a sponge to wash off her Black skin color.
This is the most extreme example I heard, but I am afraid that it wasn’t an isolated event incident. While this would cause indignation or anger in other countries, a sense of guilt concerning racism is often missing in Japan. In Japan, teachers all too often play it down or laugh it off.
When you’re non-white and raised in Japan, and everything you know is Japanese, it’s extremely painful to be excluded and to be constantly confronted with people who don’t see you as Japanese and not being able to participate because of your name or skin color.
Since many of the protesters in Japanese BLM marches are non-Japanese citizens, mixed-race Japanese people or Japanese citizens who have lived abroad for a while, the protests are seen as something exotic. Media would suggest the protesters are addressing an American problem. There was some, but way too little, debate following Japan’s own racism issues.
You often hear Japan is a homogenous country, as a starting point for explanations about racism in Japan, but I believe we have to recognize it isn’t that homogenous at all. Japan needs to move away from this homogeneity myth.
My mother is Japanese and my father African-American. I was eight when I moved to Japan for the first time. You want to belong to a group, you don’t want to stick out, but that was hard as the only half-Black kid in school. In our city in Chiba, close to Tokyo, my brothers and I were the only half-Black kids.
One day a group of kids thought it was fun to stick erasers in my hair. “It doesn’t fall off,” they laughed. That’s one incident that comes to mind. I never told anyone. Even though it didn’t feel good, I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. During that time, I probably thought, if this is how I can make friends, it’s not all that bad.
I first left for the U.S. when I was 17 and I lived there for a year before I moved back to Japan. I left Japan to live in the U.S. again when I was 23. I returned to Tokyo in 2018 to work in publishing. This year I started to work for a non-profit organization.
In Japan people see the Black Lives Matter movement as something unrelated to Japan, and that racism is not a problem, which is not true. Perhaps this is because people don’t interact with Black people in their daily life. It’s hard to know what it’s like if you’re not familiar with the issue. Even my friends weren’t aware of what happened in Japan, because they weren’t exposed to it. I’m their only half-Black friend. And it’s not something you talk about in daily conversations.
In the past, when I talked about microaggressions, it was pushed under the rug. “They don’t mean it,” “they don’t have a bad intention,” or “Japan is homogenous.” But it’s not true, all excuses. I don’t think they’re trying to dismiss my feelings, but they don’t know how else to deal with it or talk about it. This is the Japanese way of dealing with it, shoganai, “it can’t be helped.”
That way they’re putting the onus on the oppressed, this concept of making the oppressed responsible for educating people. I think we haven’t reached that state in Japan. In Japan, institutional racism is perhaps less visible, but everyday racism is worse here. I do feel safer here in Japan compared to the U.S., but a lot of the discussions about racism are surface level in Japan. People still find it hard to perceive it as their problem. I think education is a good place to start.
Representation is a problem here too. Even with Naomi Osaka people still perceive her as some kind of unicorn. I don’t think it helps a lot, I think there should be representation in other areas outside of sport, such as politics, literature and science. For a real meaningful impact, however, we have to continue talking about it.
*Pseudonyms have been used for privacy reasons