Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


The elephant in the foreigner's room now has a name: microaggression

Some positive and negative readers' reactions to Debito Arudou's provocative and widely read May 1 Just Be Cause column, "Yes, I can use chopsticks: the everyday 'microaggressions' that grind us down":


A weight off my shoulders

I just wanted to thank you for writing this article. It is the first time anybody has been able to articulate this phenomenon that has frustrated me for 20 years.

News photo

I am bicultural and bilingual. I was born and raised in the U.S. but am half-Japanese. I was home-schooled in Japanese by my mom, attended summer schools in Japan, am a Japanese citizen, visit frequently, etc.

Although I am completely fluent in Japanese language and culture, I look Caucasian, so I encounter this phenomenon with every single Japanese person I meet. Therefore, over the years, I have developed a distaste for Japanese people, and I actively avoid them.

The only Japanese friends that I keep for any significant time are those that have lived abroad, and are open-minded and aware enough to look at Japanese society from an outsider's perspective. My American friends simply brush my frustration off as hypersensitivity.

In short, reading your article lifted a weight off of my shoulders in a way, because it validated that what I am experiencing is real, and it put into words something that I couldn't.


San Francisco

Drained by 1,000 paper cuts

Kudos to Mr. Arudou for this article. While there are often many things I've disagreed with in some of the issues he's brought up (the McDonald's campaign he refers to, for example), this piece definitely brings up a number of things worth noting.

Subtle (and not so subtle) caricaturing can be seen by simply turning on the television here, and it is certainly something dealt with every day by nonnatives either in the workplace or the social arena.

While I don't believe it is potentially more harmful psychologically than overt racism (I'll take 20 paper cuts over a knife in the stomach any time), it is certainly more pervasive, and a lot more tiring to deal with. One has enough problems to deal with simply getting through the day, and little slights (or a lack thereof) can certainly matter.



Staring at the blonde

Debito, again, fantastic article!

Although I loved Japan very much, these microaggressions ground me down so much I left (along with many other reasons, one of which was Japan's child custody laws). But not before I had developed a few cheeky responses:

"Where did you come from?" (particularly when asked about your nationality before your name or any other question).

I always answered "Ebisu" (the place where I lived), and never wavered. If they were particularly insistent (or drunk?) I would say, "Guess, but first I have to guess where you are from." Shoe on the other foot usually deflated the fun for them.

This won me a few firm Japanese friends who liked my pragmatic approach to systemic racism.

For people in the countryside that stared at me (a blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigner), I would ask, "Which way is it to the foreigner zoo?" or "Is this the foreigner zoo?" (Gaikokujin no dōbutsu-kōen wa? A rough translation but they got the point). Or "Have you never seen a foreigner before? Konnichi wa!" (politely, of course).

And for people that asked if I could use chopsticks, I would ignore the question, then ask them if they could use a knife and fork, and then be really surprised when they said yes. Most get the message.

"Is Japanese difficult?"

"No, its really, really easy. Chinese is difficult."

"Do you like Japanese men?"

When I was in a bad mood, or the questioner was drunk/annoying I would say, "No, actually I prefer Koreans, they are better-looking". That usually produces a stony silence.



Dealing with the 99%

I lived in Japan for two years and I must agree with the author of the article that I got bored of the "You can use chopsticks!" exclamation after about three months. Many of the sentiments written hit right home.

I also like that the author pointed out the sticky situation of informing the perpetrator of these exclamations of their crime. What does one do? Ninety-nine percent of the people who said such things to me did not mean to make me feel inferior or "other". It's just so ingrained in their society to think of themselves as hosts, or to spew out seemingly inoffensive complements.

I can't wait for another article, preferably by a social scientist, that gives us some solution. However, I sincerely hope that the social scientist is Japanese or else Japan as a society will not listen.


Kearny, New Jersey

Stick it on the buses

This article should be translated and stuck on the sides of buses. Precisely why I prefer to work from home: No daily annoying, dumb questions. If it weren't for this annoyance, Japan would actually be a pleasant place to live.

No offense if you are Japanese and are reading this, but Japanese people need to be educated on how it feels to be on the receiving end. This is my 12th year here and this microaggression continually worsens year by year.



I don't like what Japan does to me

Mr. Arudou, I just wanted to write in to thank you for writing your column on this topic and drawing it out into the discourse. This behavior, beyond anything else, is the reason I decided to move away from Japan after living there for years, and why I wouldn't consider returning to live there again long-term, despite my facility with the language and love of the culture more generally.

I don't like who I become when I'm there; every few months, I would snap at people for asking one of these inane questions, not because they were any different than the hundred people who asked before, so much as one just gets fed up eventually.

If this could change, I would be so much happier there, and so I commend your efforts to move things in that direction.

I've been a fan of yours for years, and I wish you all the best.



40 years of chopstick mastery

Your article made me smile, as for the past 40 years I have been congratulated by Japanese friends and family because "Yes, I can use chopsticks."

I have been married to my Japanese husband for 37 years. I have never lived in Japan but had the chance to visit there many times. I cook Japanese food every day for dinner, which is much easier nowadays than 40 years ago. We live in Paris and Japanese-Korean groceries and/or middle-size department store allow us to buy any item we could want.

But that kind of "joke" is universal, and I know many foreigners or French people of foreign ancestry who have the same story to tell us. Ganbatte!



Not a shower of horse manure

I'm an Australian man who has been living in Japan for the past four years, and I just wanted to tell you that I loved your article about the microaggressions we foreigners encounter.

For a while I thought I was being too sensitive and thinking too much, but it's good to know others feel the same.

One such microaggression that's really irritates me recently is many Japanese avoiding sitting next to me on the train — like I had a shower in horse manure that morning or something. I didn't, for the record!

My cousin lives here too but she has only been here for a year and still has the mind-set of "I am a guest in their country," something that she needs to get over. If she decides she wants to live here for a long period, then you have to call this country home and expect to be treated like you live here, not like a tourist.


Pot, kettle and blackness?

I have to agree with (the writer about) the set questions asked by Japanese.

I tend to be very assertive in most of my discussions with Japanese. This has yielded me some good friends and a lot of people who think I am indeed difficult.

I never answer the chopstick question. I just ask if they can use a knife and fork. Most of the times this makes them think.

Whenever people tell me I have long legs, a small head, tall nose (?) (hana ga takai) or that I'm tall, I mostly counter by saying the same thing about them having short legs, a long body, or being short. This is my coping strategy, and it has made people around me realize that those questions are indeed weird. I also point out to them that it only matters in Japan.

I worked in public elementary schools, and in one school the teachers asked me every week (sometimes multiple times a day) where I was from. I got so tired of it that at the end I explained to them if they could not remember for three hours what country I was from, they are probably not interested in that knowledge, so asking the question was pointless. That made them realize that they were indeed rude. I also started to ask those teachers if they were Korean every time they asked if I was American (I am from Europe).

In daily life I just think that Japan is like the rest of the world. Most people you meet you will have superfluous contact with, not really worth bothering about too much.

I can also say that the Americans I meet also ask the same 10 initial questions and act like they are your best friend from the moment I meet them. It is something that bothers me, but I doubt David (Arudou) will ever find a psychological term for that to condemn that behavior. A bit of pot, kettle and blackness?


Parallels exist in South Korea

This piece is neither an idle rant, nor pitifully apologetic. It is a keen observation.

I must have explained my life story (to the same neighbor) more than once already, yet sometimes it devolves into a fish tale or comic snippet, which is emotionally draining.

Mr. Debito's piece in some sense finds parallels in the Republic of Korea, but not wholesale. And, though I agree with most points, I do still hesitate to fully commit to (the concept of) "microaggression." Often, I have found the offensive questions are just small talk — harmless lapses into the idle.

Though there is no real way to escape foreignness, at least an international (person) can build as much as "cultural cachet" as possible by learning and speaking the language, and importantly acquiring the rules.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of international people here never get that far (or have a reason to), leaving in just a few years. So, there is an origin to the stereotype. Such behavior is found in many other countries, not just in East Asia.

Nevertheless, Debito develops an excellent account of both sociological and psychological bases for microaggression. This gives the article lots of traction.


South Korea

Bicultural blues

Thank you, Debito Arudou, for your excellent article. Having lived in Japan for over 20 years, I am well aware of the things discussed in your article but was at a loss as how to articulate the discomfort felt.

In fact, I realize years later, growing up a nikkei in Canada, I was often faced with similarly awkward and indeed demeaning questions and comments — "othering".

I recently started a rock band and our songs are about some of the strange conversations and situations that regularly come up in Japan: titles such as "This Gaijin," "Hashi Jouzu" and "Big Black Bus." Your article is able to clearly define the ironies/power plays we have been singing about in our songs.

Reading your article was like a ray of light, validating (hopefully) the stand we make with our music. We try to get listeners to get a better understanding of the imbalances, which exist with virtually all people living in this country. Sometimes we have success.

We will record this year with any luck. Please look for us, "Snack Mama."


Toyohashi, Aichi

Not just another foreigner

I found your comments about microaggressions really interesting because I felt the same way when I lived in Japan for eight months in 2008. It's probably not as long as you might think, but I was aware of these microaggressions and I found myself nodding with every comment you wrote.

Every time I entered a restaurant I was always offered an English menu and a fork or a "Sorry, no English menu," without even being asked if I understood Japanese first.

Or I found myself in situations where people just wanted to "practice" their English with me regardless of their low English level or the fact that I wasn't a native English speaker at all. But, you know, every non-Asian foreigner is considered an American in Japan.

Although the stares in the beginning were flattering, they quickly became annoying. And the nonstimulating conversations became routine: "Where you from?" "How long have you been here?" Or, as you mentioned , the "You speak Japanese really well" after only saying "arigatō gozaimasu."

Now that I find myself close to going back to Japan to continue my studies, I believe that the best way to tackle this microaggression is to deal with it. Instead of replying to the dumb questions, I take the conversations to more interesting topics. Whenever I enter a restaurant, I start asking in Japanese for suggestions or whether or not they have X item on their menu. That somehow proves in a simple way that I'm not just another "stupid gaijin" who has been there a few weeks, and most times I don't get offered a fork. It could be tiresome to have to keep proving yourself to Japanese society, but at least you don't get into the gaijin conversation loop.

In the end, no matter what, "you will always be a gaijin" but, as you mentioned, you will only get bad experiences if you react to those microaggressions. Instead of trying to blend in, I believe that I can use that extra attention to my benefit — it's like being peacocked all the time.


Guadalajara, Mexico

Japanese must read this article

I very much enjoyed your article "Yes, I can use chopsticks: the everyday 'microaggressions' that grind us down."

It's great to nail down a word to define this passive suppression.

Next step, how do we go about explaining this phenomenon to the Japanese public (neighbors, coworkers, etc.)?

I thought of translating your article into Japanese; after all, it's not "us" that needs to read this, it's "them." But I don't think I'd do your article justice.

Therefore, I request you write a similar article in Japanese (maybe not so blunt) to accompany the English so that we may forward it to our Japanese acquaintances and educate the public (or at least those around us).

Honestly, how else will the gaikokujin get his point across if our opinions and feelings are only published in English?




Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.