Building an Unbiased Society: Reflections on Discrimination in Japan

Society Gender and Sex

Trying to have an objective discussion about discrimination in today’s polarized society is risky business. On one extreme are conservative-minded types who dismiss the very notion of prejudice; on the other are so-called bleeding-heart liberals who find bigotry at every turn. People brave enough to bring up the issue of social bias can find themselves the target of right-wingers who leap to discredit any seemingly critical assertion (“it isn’t discriminatory to point out differences between people”) and then resort to name calling—“lefty,” “anti-Japanese”—and taunts of “Love Japan or leave it” to intimidate their opponents and stifle dialogue.

We must accept that prejudice exists in every society, though, and strive to overcome it openly and honestly. People need to be able to pull back the curtain on inequality without being attacked for “Japan bashing.” Unfortunately, many Japanese find it easier to skirt the issue. They seek to “keep the lid on the stinky pot,” to borrow the Japanese saying, even resorting to cloying perfumes to mask the stench when it inevitably seeps out. I cannot agree with this approach. If something smells foul, tackling the rot where it is happening is the only way to improve things.

I understand that Japanese society is neither wholly benevolent nor a seething hotbed of bigotry. Here, just as in my native Taiwan, I have witnessed heartwarming acts of kindness and have been angered to tears by barefaced prejudice. Rather than seeing the issue through a single, static lens, though, I let my experiences temper my views in the hope of fostering an honest and open-minded discussion of discrimination in Japan. 

An Adopted Homeland

I came to Japan—fled may be a better word—in my early twenties. Due to the way I lived my life, I was the target of violence in Taiwan from the time I was a teenager. Remembering the long, lonely nights I spent because my lifestyle did not agree with the views of some self-righteous bully still brings me to tears. Moving to Japan saved me. I found freedom here and immersed myself in the language and culture. The country responded to my needs in kind, and now feels as much home to me as my native land.

I arrived on a university exchange program shortly after the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. Although the disaster had disrupted the clockwork flow of Tokyo, the city offered me sanctuary from my own troubles in Taiwan. I felt a twinge of loneliness, as is normal when moving to any new location, but this paled in comparison to the blissful feeling of being a completely unknown in a foreign land. I am not naturally a loner, but after enduring so much personal strife I needed time to myself. Fortunately, the denizens of Tokyo are normally reserved when interacting with new people and are careful not to pry into private matters, attributes that I found wonderfully refreshing.   

Once my confidence returned, I inched my way back into society. By the time my year-long stay had finished I had joined club activities at my school and started attending networking events, including those hosted by Peer Friends for Girls, a now defunct lesbian social group that regularly hosted get-togethers in Tokyo.

Shortly before I returned to Taiwan, some friends I had met through Peer Friends threw me a farewell party in Shinjuku that included dinner at a restaurant on the west side of the station and a trip to the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to check out the nightscape of the capital. We stayed out late and headed our respective ways home just before the trains stopped running for the night.

I had headed to the subway and was standing on the platform when I received a cellphone call from K——, a friend who had been part of the evening’s festivities. I answered, a little uncertain what she wanted. Mumbling, her husky voice sounding low in my ear, K—— asked, “Um, you on the train?” “No,” I said, curious where she was going with her question. After a brief pause she continued. “Sorry to ask all of a sudden, but you want to pull an all-nighter?”

K—— was famous for acting on a whim, but I admit I was pleasantly surprised by her unexpected invitation. She was dating another group member, but their relationship had started to cool recently. She had come to me several times for advice and I thought she might want to have one more talk before I left for Taiwan. Although I had known K—— for only a few brief months, I found her confidence in me warming, making me forget momentarily about the cold February chill.

I was exhausted from the day’s event and also had plans to meet a friend for lunch the next afternoon, but I pushed these to the back of my mind and took K—— up on her offer. We regrouped with the others at a nearby meeting spot and spent the night chatting at a café in 2-chōme, Shinjuku’s gay district. I remember only bits and pieces of that evening—fleeting images of playing with the candle on our table and struggling to keep the sandman at bay—but I can still vividly recall my emotions as we stood in the hazy sunlight the next morning saying our farewells, my eyes welling up with tears as I realized that I might not see my friends again for a long time, if ever.

As I was about to head for the station for a second time, one of the group turned to me and exclaimed “I can’t wait for you to come back so I can say ‘welcome home.’” In that instant I realized that I was no longer a stranger here; Japan had become a second homeland where I had friends who cared about me. Riding the train, my last thought before dozing off was of returning. When my eyes opened again, after several loops around Tokyo’s central Yamanote Line, I knew I would be back to my second home, and wiping the sleep from eyes I strode out of Shibuya Station to meet my friend for lunch.

Facing Discrimination as a Foreigner

A year and a half later, I returned to Japan to stay. In the six years since, I have come to know my adopted home of Tokyo better than any Taiwanese city, and my love of the metropolis continues to grow. I speak Japanese well enough, and look enough like a Japanese person, to pass as a native most of the time. In fact, my life in Tokyo is so comfortable that I sometimes have to remind myself that I am a foreigner. I know that not everyone is as fortunate, though. Many who come to Japan to work or study face harsh living conditions or are exploited by employers who pay slave wages for low-skilled jobs that Japanese no longer want to do.

This does not make me a complete stranger to the discrimination that exists in Japan, though. One area where I have come up against discrimination is when trying to a rent an apartment. In 2018 I decided to go freelance and was looking for a new place to live. Having resided in the company dorm for two and a half years, I had forgotten about the barriers foreigners face when apartment hunting. I had permanent residency status, good Japanese communication skills, and a job at a major firm, but these were insignificant against the simple fact that I was a foreigner. Not being Japanese put me in a “risky” bracket, resulting in several of the real estate agencies I contacted turning me down flat before I could even ask about listings.

I was eventually able to find a nice apartment in my price my range, and all I needed to finish the deal was a rental guarantor. Without any family who could co-sign, though, I had to turn to a guarantor company. These are common enough in Japan, but I was shocked to learn from the real estate agency that I could not use the same firm as Japanese clients. Instead, I had to avail myself of one that specialized in dealing with foreign renters. To add insult to injury, the service fees was double what the “Japanese-only” company charged.

Young and uninhibited—I was still only 25—I was determined to fight. I pointed out to the realtor that the policy blatantly discriminated against foreigners, to which he candidly agreed. To my surprise, he promised to talk with his superiors, and several days later he called to say that the higher-ups had sympathized with my situation and would allow me to rent under the same conditions as Japanese clients.

I was pleased with my victory, but the battle was far from over. Soon after, the real estate agency called to tell me that the guarantor company, a purported leader in the industry, had balked at me being a foreigner and required I have a co-signer to use their services. This was confusing since my reason for going to the firm in the first place was that I did not have a guarantor. I immediately called a company rep, but argue as I might he stood firm, insisting that there was nothing he could do as it was “company policy.” In the end, I had to cough up twice the fee as a Japanese client for the exact same service.

I am certainly not alone in my experience. The Japanese news agency Jiji Press recently reported that nearly half of foreign residents in Japan say they have been turned down at some point when trying to rent. I would not be surprised to learn that the figure was actually much higher.

Even if it is not explicitly illegal, refusing to rent or charging exorbitant fees because a person is a foreigner is without question wrong. However, discriminating against foreign nationals has long been a practice in the real estate industry. Reform is necessary, but any attempt will be a slow, step-by-step process. Change will certainly not happen from within, which makes it vital for people to point out the industry’s biased policies. The same is true with the labor market. As Japan opens its doors to a growing number of foreign workers, people need to call out discriminatory practices if the nation hopes to safeguard the human rights of laborers coming from abroad.

Toward an Open Society

I firmly believe that all people should have the right to live freely and follow the path of their own choosing, regardless of factors like their birthplace, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or skin color. Put like this into words, this society, open and tolerant of people’s individual lifestyles, whatever they may be, sounds like laughably wishful thinking. But how wonderful would it be to freely make our own decisions and chart our own courses in a society like this? Looking back over my works I find that the longing for it underpins many of the stories I have written.

In my novel Hitorimai (Solo Dance), the main character Cho Norie flees to Japan from Taiwan to escape the memories of a violent attack. Even in Tokyo, she is haunted by her thoughts and begins contemplating suicide as a way out of her personal torment. Justifying her self-destructive thoughts, she concludes that “since none of us ask to be born, we should at least have the right to decide whether to endure or escape the absurdities of life.” Similarly, the female protagonist of my novel Itsutsu kazoereba mikazuki ga (Count to Five and the Crescent Moon. . .) struggles in her youth under the rules and expectations of society before eventually discovering that she has the freedom to choose her own identity.

There are aspects of our lives we are born into and must accept. Words like male, female, gay, straight, cisgender, transgender, and even foreigner and Japanese define us, whether we like it or not. It is my hope, though, that society will learn to disregard such labels. Only when liberated from the assumptions and expectations of society will people finally be able to truly live as equals.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo © Show99/Pixta.)

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