Tokyo Report | Society | East Asia

How Public Discourse Keeps the ‘Domestic’ and the ‘Foreign’ Separate in Japan

Caricatured images pervade Japanese portrayals and understanding of foreigners.

By Xiaochen Su for
How Public Discourse Keeps the ‘Domestic’ and the ‘Foreign’ Separate in Japan
Credit: Andre Benz on Unsplash

On August 23, 2019, multiple Japanese news outlets reported that a 41-year-old Chilean man who had successfully pickpocketed wallets across Tokyo had finally been arrested. While calling on the audience to be more careful about their valuables in public, the news reports all put focus on the man behind the crime. Revealing both the full name and photo of the man, the news report at no point attempted to hide the fact that the man was a foreigner who used the Japanese people’s lax attitude toward public security in order to part them from their money.

News articles about foreigners committing crimes in Japan are quite different from those discussing crimes committed by locals. News reports showing the real names, photos, and professional backgrounds of criminals are common, but under no circumstances do media reports of Japanese criminals directly make note of where the criminals’ hometowns are within Japan. By playing up the foreign criminals’ geographical origins while ignoring those of Japanese criminals, Japanese media are subtly linking criminality with nationality for foreigners, while dismissing corresponding ties between criminality and prefectural or municipal origins for the Japanese.

The relevance Japanese public discourse assigns to the connection between nationality and behavior for foreigners goes beyond just extreme cases like crime. At a more mundane, everyday level, Japanese public discourse on foreigners stresses their fundamental, irreconcilable differences from Japanese people. From a young age, Japanese students are exposed to school programs designed to boost their awareness and understanding of just how different foreigners are. In these programs, students come to see foreign countries and peoples in highly caricatured forms, consisting of stereotyped ways of dressing, talking and eating. The emphasis on presenting differences ensures that students grow up with the image of certain foreign lands as exotic and not relatable.

School education on foreign stereotypes is further reinforced in the workplace. Existing programs run by firms promoting globalization in Japan inevitably think in a “Japan-overseas” dichotomy, with lessons on how a change in mentality, toward both business culture and everyday life, is essential for Japanese heading abroad and foreigners heading to Japan. A sense of “Japanese exceptionalism,” or a unified Japanese way of thinking that is fundamentally different from anywhere else, becomes the underlying basis for such programs of global business education.

This sense of persistent gaps in cultural values extends even to public discourse on foreign-oriented entertainment. The import of foreign-originated recreation, while maintaining their visual resemblances to foreign originals, undergo changes in content in order to fit what Japanese people are used to in their daily lives. An example of such “Japanization” is present at Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki prefecture. Catering to customers visiting on dates, the Dutch theme park has many romantic rides that can only be entered in pairs. However, many rides clearly state that two male customers are not accepted as a pair. The subtly homophobic rule is all the more glaring considering that the Netherlands, which the park otherwise seeks so hard to emulate in the forms of architecture, food, and costumes for the staff, is one of the most socially progressive countries in the world when it comes to marriage equality. 

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The prevalence of Japanese public discourse on the irreconcilable differences between how Japanese and foreigners think and behave is bound to put a limit on the acceptance of foreigners as regular functioning members of Japanese society. Even if the average Japanese do not see foreigners as “culturally inclined” to commit crimes, as the Chilean man was implied to be, schools and workplaces will educate Japanese youths of fundamental differences that lead them to conclude that social integration with non-Japanese is inherently impossible even at great effort. The image of the “perpetual foreigner” will only be cemented, rather ironically, as both public and private institutions put in more efforts to raise awareness of foreign cultures and peoples.

Reversing the harm of portraying foreigners as fundamentally different requires a radical revamp of how public discourse discusses the identity of non-Japanese people. Gone should be identifying foreigners primarily by visible stereotypes, propagated by school education and theme parks like Huis Ten Bosch. Caricatured images of foreigners should be replaced by discourse on contributions of foreign workers living and working alongside Japanese people, using the Japanese language, in Japanese workplaces as regular taxpaying members of society, rather than short-term visitors. By normalizing the presence of non-Japanese people as long-term residents of Japan, public opinion can finally accept them not as “the other” that will perpetually stick out in Japan, but as fellow humans with plenty of shared values who just happen to look slightly different. Changing the public discourse on foreigners will be the first step to achieve that normalization.

Xiaochen Su is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tokyo specializing in immigration issues. He previously worked in East Africa, Taiwan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia.