Race in Japan

It has been over a year since my last entry. I am moved to post for two reasons. First, I’m about to embark on a cruise to several Asian cities, including Nagasaki; and second, I saw an article about race and Japan that saddened but did not surprise me.

Thus far, the vast majority of my entries have been very complimentary of Japan and its culture. Indeed, there are so many laudable facets about Japan and its society from which we and other cultures could learn. I believe the only negative entry I’ve written thus far had to do with pollution.

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As I think may be true for countries and individuals, one’s strengths can also be one’s challenges. The US has a highly diverse population compared to that of many other countries. Our diversity is a great strength, but it is also the soil out of which seeds of discontent may feed racism.

Other nations that have fairly homogenous populations may experience much less racist friction and outright violence, but the racism is still often present, though expressed in different, subtle ways, and often left unspoken or unchallenged in the absence of advocates for broader understanding and diversity.

Japan is one of the most homogenous societies in the world. Legal foreign citizens comprise only 1.6% of Japan’s population. The largest populations of legal non-Japanese residents are from China (.52%), and S. Korea (.42%). The next largest groups, from the Philippines and Brazil, respectively, each represent less than .2%.

Given tiny foreign populations and a restrictive immigration policy, as well as a strong cultural sense of group and national identity, it should not be surprising that someone different might be regarded with curiosity or suspicion.

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Chatting with schoolchildren

During my three trips to Japan, my height and appearance may have drawn stares, especially in smaller towns. I have heard stories about redheads in Japan being pointed at and people wanting to touch their hair. During my trips, I cannot recall seeing a single black person.

My year in Germany in the late 80s includes tainted memories as well. I rarely saw black people then; and the casual, off-hand comments and jokes I heard people voice about blacks often made my blood run cold.

A black writer who is married to a Japanese woman and raising a biracial child describes what it is like to live as a visual anomaly in such a homogenous society.

I will soon visit the city on which the second atomic bomb was dropped. Feelings of “otherness” and racism are significant factors in major conflicts and wars. In the 60 years that have elapsed since the two atomic bombs were dropped, Japan has been a major voice for peace and understanding in the world.

Nagasaki is also the birthplace of Ariana Mamiko Miyamoto, who was crowned Miss Universe Japan 2015 and represented Japan at the Miss Universe 2015 pageant where she made it to the Top 10.

Since she had an African-American father, her crowning elicited controversy, and as a child she was shunned. Her dark skin and curly hair was too “other” for children and many adults to accept with equanimity. But when another biracial friend committed suicide, Miyamoto decided to dedicate her life to combating racial prejudice.

My visit to Nagasaki will be brief. But like my visit to Hiroshima in 2015, I anticipate strong feelings relating to identity, race, peace, and compassion. Race is an area in which Japan and Japanese society, which I appreciate and respect so much, may yet have a lot to learn from other countries.

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