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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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