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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

No Foreigners

Tokyo from Mori Tower_3270

Yesterday was a pretty good day. My MacBook was returned after its third major operation, and late in the afternoon I was able to spend a couple of hours on the roof of the 53-storey Mori Tower in Roppongi, watching the sun set.

It was marred by two things though, the first of which was my being told by the local pensions office that I need to pay all contributions that I missed whilst I was not working in Japan (between 2002 and and 2008). This is for a pension that I won't even be claiming due to my not being here at that age.

The second was my being told to leave a barber shop because I'm a foreigner. This took me completely by surprise. I'd gone in and asked the owner (in Japanese) if he could cut my hair despite my not having a reservation. His reaction was simply to point to the door and tell me to leave.

Confused, I asked him "Oh, aren't you open?", to which he mumbled something under his breath ...before gesturing for me to leave again.

I left. Standing outside I looked at all the signs - no, they were open. There was one customer inside, and three staff - the owner and the second staff member were sitting watching TV - waiting for customers.

So I went back in. "I'm very sorry, but could you tell me exactly why you can't cut my hair?"

The owner wouldn't look me in the eye, and just said "Please leave". I turned to the woman beside him, and asked politely, "what's the problem here?" She seemed to feel a bit awkward. Gesturing towards the owner she told me, in English (and bear in mind that I had used no English whatsoever) "We no English". Thinking that she must have learnt that line for situations such as this, I replied, in Japanese, that that wasn't an issue, as I could speak Japanese.

Silence. Then the owner told me to leave again, this time kindly opening the door to facilitate my quick exit.

Walking towards home I felt pretty pissed about this. I considered reporting them to the police, but looking at the time I decided I didn't want to waste my afternoon trying to change the opinions of others.

Since I twittered about this I've had a few comments (mostly on facebook) from others who've experienced such discrimination themselves. Whilst of course I was aware that this is by no means unknown in Japan (and think of the famous Otaru hot spring law suit in which the Supreme Court, i.e. the highest court in Japan, ruled in favour of the owner of a spa who banned customers that didn't look Japanese), I am still very surprised to find the no-foreigner policy being practiced here in the centre of Tokyo.

Tonight, I'm going to get my hair cut by a friend. He is not afraid of gaijin lice.

[Update] A recent article on this subject in the Japan Times has gained widespread attention. Check it out here.

Also, see Black Tokyo's take on the article.

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OpenID Mike said...

Wow. First hand discrimination. I commend you on your persistence to ask them why. Perhaps going back with a Japanese friend, or even your darling wife to clear things up might help? They seem like they were just genuinely afraid to have to speak English.

While some may argue that you should just leave it, I think it's important to try and help these people understand that not all foreigners are scary. Not quite in the way that Debito does it, but in a gentle, 'bring them a gift and surprise them with how hospitible you can be' kinda way. Food for thought.

20/1/09 08:54  
Anonymous Ronny said...

Get Twinkle to go along with your camera and a notepad, pretending to be a journalist, and ask some probing questions :D

On reflection, be glad he didn't get to stand behind you, eyeing up your neck and brandishing a pair of ultra-sharp scissors. ;)

20/1/09 09:06  
Blogger Orchid64 said...

I feel very bad for you for having had this experience, as I know you've been endeavoring not to allow any walls between you and the Japanese and to feel connected with those around you. You make that effort and then someone forcefully throws up a wall between you for arbitrary reasons.

I was thinking about this last night, and I think that after this happens enough times, you become a bit dead to it. I've faced things along this sort of continuum a lot (not always service refusal, but just the whole gaijin as alien thing) and after awhile you have a choice to make. The three choices as I've seen them are:

• Rationalize and empathize too much with the prejudice of the person mistreating you. These are the people who become apologists for racist behavior to cope (a recent Japan Times articles stating that racism is "right" for Japanese is a good example of this).

• Grow angry and fight hard against it every time (this is the Debito route).

• Learn not to be shocked by it and try not to react at all because there's really nothing you can do about it.

I chose the last path because I am not blind enough to go the first and I didn't want to be angry all the time so I didn't choose the second. I'm not sure if this is a good thing, but I think it's a form of learned helplessness coupled with learning emotional control. No bad behavior surprises me in Japan, but I don't necessarily "expect" it either. The same goes for good behavior.

At the very least, you may take comfort in the fact that any time you are with Twinkle, you're very likely to be spared overt acts of prejudice against you which may occur if you're alone. These things are far less likely to happen in front of a Japanese companion.

By the way, that pension thing has to be wrong. If I were you, I'd keep pursuing it. Very often you get different answers when you speak to different people. I can't imagine you have to pay for time when you're not here. It just makes no sense... though I could be wrong.

20/1/09 09:22  
Blogger Joseph said...

Thanks for your comment Mike. The thing is, they didn't have to speak English at all as I only used Japanese, not one word of English!

20/1/09 12:14  
Blogger Joseph said...

Good point Ronny!

Thanks Orchid64.

I understand why you've chosen that route. I tend to fall between the second and third choices as you've described them. I rarely get angry, but was pretty pissed by his attitude.

I don't want to lower my expectations because I feel that lowered expectations will result in more people fulfilling them (if you see what I mean). I think I'd rather be shocked or disappointed now and then.

Anyhow, Mr. D has kindly offered to cut my hair using an old pair of scissors he has in his drawer,so it's all sorted :-)

Oh, and regarding the pension thing, Mr. D says it sounds completely wrong. He's asked Kizaki san to look into it as if what they said to me is true he would also be liable to pay donkey's years of contributions!

20/1/09 13:54  
Blogger Orchid64 said...

It's been a hard path for me to get to the "no expectations" road and it's one that T. has always encouraged. Neither expecting the best or worst but allowing the possibility for either allows people to act in accord with their own conscience with no contributing energy from me along either path. Expecting the best of people has seen me sorely disappointed and hurt on too many occasions, and I'm a really sensitive person and take bad behavior very hard when it comes in the face of the expectation of a good experience.

Of course, it's better to expect the best and to face people with a positive outlook as you're contributing to a good atmosphere and perhaps encouraging a better outcome, but Japan is a hard place to live that life due to the relatively lack of progressiveness in attitudes toward anyone who is different or from the outside.

I cut T's hair, and he cuts mine. We do it to save money, but it's also good for self-sufficiency. I see Mr. D has yet another hidden talent! One must wonder if there's nothing he can't do!

I thought the same thing about the pension thing. Both D. and I would be liable for years and years of payment. I did wonder in retrospect if it has to do with the country you are from. If the U.K. has some sort of mutual relationship with Japan, the money you pay here may actually factor into your pension in England (the U.S. does not have this so it's not an issue for us). At any rate, I hope you'll post about the outcome as I'm curious to know what you learn.

BTW, you may want to send the address and name of the business that snubbed you along with the URL of your story to Arudou Debito. This is the sort of thing that deserves to be known, if for no other reason so that other foreigners can give the shop a wide berth.

20/1/09 15:07  
OpenID Mike said...

True, but some Japanese I have found to have such an ingrained fear of english and foreigners that they will actually just not listen to the words coming out of your mouth. Until they are told by a Japanese person with you and have it calmly explained to them by someone who looks Japanese, they probably won't even try to listen.

20/1/09 21:15  
Blogger Joseph said...

Mike, thanks for the explanation. Yes, I see what you mean. But I find it hard to believe that he was so sheltered, living in Tokyo, working in the service industry. It's not as if there's loads of barbers round here either.

Orchid64: thanks for your comment. yes, Mr. D is a man of many talents, although I turned down his haircut offer. He's been inspired to secretly develop a new online course using Moodle but won't tell me the details yet.

I understand that not having high expectations leads to a life with less disappointment - I guess I'm yet to experience such bad disappointment.

I will indeed post when I know the outcome of the pensions thing, and will contact Debito too. I'm sure he'd like to add it to his archive!

21/1/09 19:03  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alternatively, it is much more likely the case that an irrational dislike of foreigners caused the discrimination.

A business in New York or London would have a lot more trouble should they engage in the same practices with 'foreigners' coming into their establishment.

It's unfortunate, but it does occur in all countries, at all levels. It's a shame that people like Mike feel the need to bring up an excuse for what is, in essence, racial discrimination. I suffered discrimination a lot as a child, and dismiss excuses such as "they're not clever/they're afraid/they were probably attacked by x/etc..."

However, it would make local media in my neck of the woods if, in this day and age, an owner of a business refused to cut a black man's hair because he 'doesn't know how to.' Strange how, in a country revered for its advanced culture around the world, acts like this happen on an everyday basis, without counter-action.

Although what little problems I had were infinitesimally smaller than those I grew up facing, I chose to ignore any experiences of discrimination in Japan. There's little point in 'suffering' these petty know to avoid the place in the future. I lived out there, and haven't dwelled on/thought about any of the relatively minor incidents of discrimination I experienced or bore witness to.

Apologists such as Mike are probably wrong about this 'no engrish' stuff, although it is nice that some people still have faith in humanity - though that blind faith comes at the expense of common sense!

Join the real world...people shouldn't endeavour to curry favour with those who have an engrained prejudice against 'their kind' - buying a gift may bring a haircut - but it probably will only change feelings for the individual, not beliefs about majority of the race. After all, in the 1980s, there was an element of the typical English football fan that would revere black footballers successfully plying their trade in their own team...but would without thought chuck bananas and suchlike at black players of the opposition...and, if logic is applied, maintain a racist elsewhere in their life.

Good guidelines for treating people:

1) Treat all people (regardless of their position in the social hierarchy - boss, co-worker, brother, friend, elderly, child, foreign, acquaintance) with the same deference in tone and speech. This includes babies - why talk down to them? The relative closeness to the centre of my own 'circle of trust' will dictate the openness and subject matter of the conversation. i.e. if that baby is a niece or nephew, you can lower and cross your eyes together to get a cheap laugh!

2) Be unfailingly polite and courteous in speech, even if facing an angry conglomerate of one-eyed idiots. Should the other individual choose not to treat you with the same level of respect, don't dwell on that. And, for Christ's sake, don't buy them a present to show them that you aren't hostile.

A. Nonny Mouse

24/1/09 18:31  
Blogger Joseph said...

Thanks for the epic comment A. Nonny Mouse, and the advice. Appreciated.

(Based on what you said in 1 & 2 I conclude that you are not anonymous of anonymous fame)

25/1/09 23:43  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Outrage! But nothing new....I remember well having a few of these experiences while serving my time in Japan. As an American, or any Westerner, it's so against what we're taught is "right". On the other hand, every rule we've been taught has to be bent a little to live in Japan, as I'm sure you've discovered, Joseph. Don't let it wound you too deeply- it's so not worth it!

27/1/09 08:36  
Blogger Joseph said...

Thanks anonymous.

27/1/09 12:07  

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