Mount Fuji

Foreigners in Japan say openness all talk 


(This article was first published in the Chicago Tribune of April 15, 1990)

Kokusaika. It means internationalization, and it is a word perpetually on Japanese lips.

But as more and more of Japan's foreign residents and ethnic minorities are discovering, simply saying kokusaika has not necessarily made the nation more international. Nor does the word's ubiquitousness obscure the flagrant racial and cultural discrimination.

Ask Victor Baylon, a businessman from the Philippines who was turned away by 19 real estate agents in the last three weeks as he searched for an apartment in this western Tokyo suburb.

"They all have ads for apartments plastered on their windows. But as soon as I walk in and they see I am not Japanese, they say they don't have anything to show me," Baylon said.

Janice Lin, a Chinese-Canadian business consultant who moved to Tokyo from Seattle, knows what Baylon is talking about.

"I went to almost 25 real estate agents trying to get them to show me apartments," she recalled. "Finally, one of them took me aside and said, 'Japanese don't like to rent to foreigners. Many Japanese actually hate foreigners.'"

Lin eventually was forced to go to one of the handful of Tokyo real estate agents who specialize in renting to foreigners — and who exact commission-inspired rents that are often 4 and 5 times what Japanese might pay for the same house or apartment.

"Without a doubt, Japan is the most discriminatory place I have ever lived in," she said.

Thousands of foreign residents agree. In a recent study conducted by Tokyo's Shinjuku ward, 81 percent of the ward's 16,833 foreign residents (the largest foreign population in Tokyo) said Japanese were prejudiced toward them or had discriminated against them.

Article 14 of Japan's constitution declares that "all people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin."

But according to Mitsuyo Suga of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's Foreign Residents' Advisory Center, which provides free legal advice to foreigners, making a legal fuss isn't the answer in Japan, the least litigious of all industrialized nations.

"It is extremely difficult to prove discrimination in Japan," she said, adding that the shakka-ho (renters' law) and other anti-discrimination laws are weak and ill-enforced. Instead, virtually all discrimination suits are settled out of court, said a spokeswoman for the Tokyo Bar Association.

"Filing anti-discrimination lawsuits is not the way these problems are solved in Japan," she added.

One way discrimination problems apparently are solved is through public apology. Earlier this year, the National Police Agency was forced to make a highly publicized official apology to the Pakistani Embassy after an internal police document was leaked that said Pakistani suspects "have a unique body odor, have skin diseases and tend to lie a lot."

Perhaps the most famous official gaffe occurred in 1986 when then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone said in a speech that average intelligence in the United States is lower than in Japan because of America's "large number of blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans." Nakasone eventually apologized.

But it is the everyday discrimination that outrages most foreigners in Japan. And it isn't confined to apartment and house hunting.

Many bars and restaurants in Tokyo have signs that say "No foreigners allowed." When a foreigner attempts to enter, owners and patrons alike often block the door.

Banks refuse to issue credit cards to foreign residents without a Japanese guarantor. And all resident foreigners must be fingerprinted and carry identity cards at all times.

Taxis often refuse to stop for foreigners at night, and Japanese often decline to sit next to foreigners on subways and trains.

"The Japanese love to talk about their kokusaika," said Italian banker Marco Martelino. "But Japan is still a very 'sakoku' (closed country) when it comes to racial and cultural tolerance."

Martelino was turned down by eight realtors in his Tokyo neighborhood when he tried to move to a new apartment.

Many foreigners who face such biases are highly assimilated. There are, for example, about 700,000 ethnic Koreans, many of them descendants of slave laborers brought to Japan during World War II. While they speak perfect Japanese and have adopted Japanese customs, even third-generation Koreans still are not considered citizens and have limited civil rights.

Ethnic Koreans are not allowed to teach in schools or use their Korean names if they decide to become naturalized citizens.

Even more disturbing is the bias faced by 3 million Burakumin, racially Japanese outcasts who are descendants of families employed as tanners, butchers, executioners and crematorium workers in pre-industrial Japan.

Employers often fire Burakumin from jobs when their background is discovered, and engagements and marriages are often ended and annulled.

"When the Japanese talk about being international, what they really mean is that they like to buy foreign products and travel to foreign countries," Lin said. "They don't mean they want foreigners settling in their neighborhoods and marrying their children."

According to figures from the Justice Ministry, 22,626 foreigners were booted out of Japan last year — a 27 percent increase over 1988 and double the total of 1986. Many of them were illegal, unskilled Southeast Asian immigrants.

"Japan is not a melting-pot country like America or even some countries in Europe," a Justice Ministry official insisted. "We cannot absorb the world's have-nots, nor should we encourage them to come to Japan."

Editor's noteRonald E. Yates launched his professional career with a BSJ (Bachelor of Science in Journalism) from the University of Kansas back in 1969. Apart from Japan, where he served as Tokyo bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune from 1974 to 1977, and once again from 1985 to 1992, his colorful and sometimes hazardous life as a foreign correspondent has taken him to Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, as well as Mexico, and various hot spots in Central and South America.

Besides penning something like 3,000 articles over the years, he has authored and co-authored several books, perhaps the best known of which is The Kikkoman Chronicles: A Global Company with a Japanese Soul — the fascinating story of how a centuries-old Japanese soy sauce maker steeped in tradition embraced modern technology and marketing methods in order to win success in the tough U.S. market.

From 2003 until his retirement in 2009, Prof. Yates served as Dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois, which includes the Department of Journalism he previously headed. I would like to express my sincere thanks to him for granting permission to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.