Protesters in Tokyo Declare Black Lives Matter, but Issue of Race in Japan Remains Complicated

From online trolls to controversy over biracial celebrities, Japan's track record on race, like most countries', isn't perfect—but some hope that's beginning to change.
June 15, 2020, 6:11am
tokyo BLM protest afp
People take part in a Black Lives Matter protest march in central Tokyo
on June 14, 2020. CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP

As Black Lives Matter protests continue to challenge centuries of systemic racism in cities across the United States and the world, Tokyo on Sunday held a demonstration in solidarity with the movement for the second time in as many weeks.

The protest was organized by a group of students from Temple University’s Tokyo campus, and drew a crowd of over 3,500 Japanese nationals and foreigners, many of whom carried signs with messages written in Japanese and English. But while such protests voicing support for the BLM movement have become commonplace around the world in recent weeks, Japan’s sometimes spotty history of dealing with issues of race in its historically homogeneous society suggests it may be due for a reckoning of its own.

"I’m surprised there are this many people,” said Shimizu, a Japanese woman who attended the march with her two daughters, "but people in Japan cannot ignore what’s happening in the world; they should learn something." Shimizu and most others who spoke to VICE News for this story, asked only to be identified by their first name.

Indeed, Japan has historically made assimilation difficult for foreigners, only easing immigration restrictions in recent years due to a labor shortage. The country has since offered foreigners fast-track permanent residency, expanded the number of blue-collar visas, and provided blue-collar workers with paths to permanent residency.

As of late 2019, there were 2.8 million foreign nationals living in Japan, just over 2% of the population, a number that has increased annually in recent years, and a 2018 study showed that one in eight young people turning 20 were born outside Japan.

However, with the face of the country evolving in real time, those demographic changes have not come without hiccups.

Sunday’s march followed another BLM demonstration on June 6 that called attention to the Tokyo Police’s recent violent arrest of a Kurdish man. In that incident, the man, a 15-year resident of Japan, was shoved to the ground and allegedly choked by police after being pulled over while on his way to the dentist in late May.

But while such scenes may be difficult to square with outside perceptions of Japanese society as orderly and polite, foreign protesters at Sunday’s march said incidents of racism in Japan were all too common.

“It’s not just an American issue, it affects us all,” said a protester named Michelle, a British-Ghanaian woman who moved to Tokyo two-and-a-half years ago. "I think everyone who doesn’t look Japanese has experienced some sort of discrimination or some sort of ignorance towards them, whether it’s intended or not."

Bilal, a Ghanaian-Japanese man who was born in Tokyo and educated in West Africa before returning to Japan three years ago, said he too had dealt with racism, both individual and institutional.

“You always notice [racism] in the trains, when people don’t sit next to you,” he said. “I’ve been stopped by the cops a couple times, and I’m just walking around and I don’t know why they did that. But I do know, being different from them is why they stop you.”

While some commentators have sought to chalk up Japan’s struggles in dealing with foreigners to naivete on the subject of race, there does exist a virulent strain of anti-foreign sentiment in the country. Leading up to the march, organizers warned of potential run-ins with anti-foreigner groups, who had vowed online to confront protesters in Shibuya.

True to their word, those groups did indeed appear at Shibuya Crossing, and in buses with loudspeakers, trying to drown out the demonstrators’ "Black Lives Matter" chants with their own chants demanding that they speak Japanese.

"In Japan, there are few opportunities to learn about the discrimination going on around the world, because we’re not really conscious about the issues," said Saki Ideguchi, a 22-year-old university student who was born and raised in Japan. "I think we need to have a better education and go abroad and experience different people."

But high-profile incidents of homegrown racism are hard to ignore. In 2015, Ariana Miyamoto, whose mother is Japanese and whose father is Black, was crowned Miss Universe Japan, prompting online vitriol that claimed she did not adequately represent the country. Meanwhile, tennis star Naomi Osaka, who is of Haitian and Japanese descent, appeared in an animated ad last year for Nissin Foods that white-washed her with pale skin and caucasian features. The company apologized soon after the ad’s launch.

Osaka is one of the country’s biggest celebrities, but is still referred to as "hafu" by Japanese people, a play on the English word "half" that is often used to describe those of mixed-race backgrounds.

"Being called ‘hafu,’ it’s not a malicious intent or anything, but it sort of implies that you’re half of this culture, or this Japanese person that you’re supposed to be,” said Ray, a Ghanaian-Japanese man who has lived in Japan for the past year.

Many blame Japan’s lack of exposure to outside cultures as the reason for its disconnect between understanding and intention, but in a 2018 column in the Japan Times, Gifu University anthropology professor John G. Russell pointed out that Japan, like much of the rest of the world, isn’t immune to more toxic forms of racism expressed online.

Among the hateful comments Russell cited were ones suggesting Miyamoto, the beauty queen, "blames everything on Japan—just like a Korean," and "should be shot to death by one of America’s racist cops." Another called Megan Markle the N-word, and suggested her marriage to the U.K.’s Prince Harry was "the end of England."

Russell also alluded to a study by Matsumoto University that found "Japanese participants showed an implicit preference for ‘white people’ over ‘black people,’" a phenomenon researchers said may be linked to more positive portrayals of white people in the media.

Just days before Sunday’s demonstration, state broadcaster NHK released an animated video about America’s protests that trafficked in offensive imagery of Black Americans, even as it sought to offer a sympathetic explanation of the protests taking place in the U.S.

The video was also faulted for focusing on the economic gap between Black and white Americans, while failing to mention the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans who died at the hands of police. The U.S. Ambassador to Japan called the video "offensive and insensitive," prompting an apology from the network.

These insensitivities are not only perpetuated in the media, however. In a report released by Japan’s Justice Ministry in 2017—one year after the country passed its first law against hate speech—29.8% of foreign residents described experiencing prejudice at some point, whether through derogatory comments or housing discrimination.

“The time I arrived here in Japan, you could face a little discrimination when you looked for an apartment, not only for Black people,” said Mansour Diagne, a Senegalese man who moved to Tokyo 28 years ago. “So I couldn’t say that’s something against Black people, but it’s something xenophobic.”

The highest percentage of Japan’s foreign nationals live in Tokyo, specifically in Shinjuku, just minutes from where Sunday’s march began. As waves of demonstrators marched through Yoyogi Park, Shibuya, and Harajuku, the mix of Japanese people and foreigners represented what at least one participant described optimistically as a renewed effort in Japan to turn a corner when it comes to race.

“At my company, we’ve started having weekly talks about social issues and this has been a big one recently,” said Michelle, the British-Ghanaian woman. "There are some ignorant voices that arise, but I feel like if we’re able to hear those voices and talk to them, hopefully we can change their mindset and that will cause a domino effect. So even though we have a long way to go, small steps are crucial, and it’s happening now."