Monday, April 13, 2009

Old-school racism?

I realize what I'm about to say is going to be somewhat controversial and sensitive. So I'm going to write it carefully. And I hope you'll read it carefully too.

I'm not writing this post to single out Japan as a racist country. Racism is alive and well the world over. But the truth is I've had a few brushes with racism in Japan that range from the mildly backwards to the downright ugly.

Before I get into it, I want to stress that living here has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. The vast majority of people I've met have showered me with kindness and generosity. I have Japanese friends who treat me like family. My day-to-day life is generally smooth and uneventful.

But it would be dishonest to only write about the good stuff. The isolation and alienation are just as much a part of the experience as the fun and adventure.

I once wrote that sometimes I feel like my life in Japan has been a lesson in loneliness. As much as you try to fit in, you never really will. You are an outsider living on the fringes of a world you are part of but don't really belong to.

No matter how enmeshed in the community you are, no matter how good your Japanese is, you are constantly being pushed back into the gaijin box. It can be as benign as having no one sit next to you on a crowded train or as blatant as being refused entry into a bar.

It seems counterintuitive but I've experienced more xenophobia in Kyoto than I did when I lived in a small, rural town in the south of Japan. I may have been followed around with stares in rural Japan but I was never once barred from a restaurant or told I couldn't join a club because I wasn't Japanese. Never. I was welcomed into the community with open arms.

It's a different story here in Kyoto. During the last six months, I've had three brushes with blatant racism. It was never a hostile or confrontational experience. It was a calm "this is the way things are and it's not going to change" experience. But this normalcy is what makes it that much more profound.

The first time it happened was in November. My friend Kathleen and I had spent the day taking in the fall colours. That night, we decided a few drinks were in order. We picked a bar at random. We slid the door open and asked the hostess for a table for two. She told us to wait while she conferred with the manager.

The hostess disappeared behind a corner. Kathleen and I heard a male voice asking her if the two women waiting for a table were gaijin. Kathleen and I are far from fluent in Japanese but we both understood that part loud and clear. The hostess confirmed we were foreigners. The manager then said something else neither of us could catch. The hostess came back and told us there were no seats.

No seats in a half-empty bar? Kathleen and I were dumbstruck. I think Kathleen tried to ask if there was a waiting list. But we were told again, adamantly, there were no seats. So we left. Neither of us could believe we had just been banned from a bar because we were foreigners.

"Maybe all of the empty tables are reserved?" I said, holding out hope that we had misread the situation, although we both knew we hadn't.

We eventually found another bar that was more than happy to have us. But, still, it left a bitter taste in both our mouths.

My second brush with racism happened at a travel agency last month. My friend Elena and I were using a Japanese travel agent to book a trip to Hong Kong. The travel agent printed out a quote for the plane fare. A few minutes later, she realized she had made a mistake and had given us the wrong quote.

"Sorry," she apologized. "That price was for Japanese only."

She quickly printed off a second quote, which was $50 more expensive than the original price. Once again, I was dumbstruck. How could there be one price for Japanese people and another (more expensive) price for everyone else? Was that even legal?

Once again, I didn't fight it. I just accepted it. Why take our business elsewhere when every other travel agency in the city probably had the same policy?

My third brush with racism happened last week. I went to the sports centre at Kyoto University to ask about joining the swim team. The guy in charge wasn't affiliated with the swim team itself. He's an office worker at the sports centre, but you have to go through him to get to the sports clubs.

He hummed and hawed.

"The swim team trains very hard," he said. "They swim almost everyday. They are very serious. It's not for fun."

"Yes, that's the point," I replied. "I used to train like that back in Canada and I want to do the same thing here."

Seeing that I wouldn't be easily dissuaded, he broke down and told me the real reason I couldn't join the team.

"It's for Japanese only," he said.

Japanese only? What is this? 1950s America redux?

Once again, I was dumbstruck. I didn't even know what to say. So I said nothing at all. I just left. But I can't stop thinking about it. Should I complain? Or should I just let it be?

Again, I want to stress that these are isolated events and not an everyday occurrence. I don't want to come across as being gratuitously negative. Japan is no more or less racist than any other country.

The thing is, I'm not really that angry or upset. If anything, I feel sorry for Japan. Sorry to see this kind of stuff is still going in 2009. It's all just so stupid.

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