People who follow this blog know how much I love Japan. A testimony to this is the section on my blog entitled “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“, where almost all the posts are positive. I live here by choice, not because of some historical accident or family ties. I am well aware of the fact that as a foreigner in Japan I am not exposed to many of the less pleasant aspects of Japanese society and can enjoy life here.
But, as the saying goes, there is occasionally trouble in paradise. I’ve written before on how discriminatory Japan can be when it comes to foreigners, especially when the going get tough. An example of this is the following quote, displayed during the press conference held last week by the committee of experts on the corona virus, which was convened after the rise in infection rates these last couple of weeks:
The caption reads: “Differences in language and culture are why foreigners do not follow the rules to prevent infection”.
he committee is referring to foreigners residing in Japan (not tourists, which haven’t come here since March). As with many other foreigners living here, my immediate reaction was: “here we go again with the Japanese xenophobia”. Blaming foreigners for the rise in infections is not only factually wrong, it is an expression of the inherent suspicion, common in many Japanese, that foreigners are “less intelligent” and “less refined”. We don’t understand Japanese, our culture is different, so evidently we are the cause of infections. I will add that, as a Jew, this brings up connotations of darker times in history.
Other foreigners did not see this as xenophobia. A Facebook friend pointed out that this was a single quote that was taken out of context. The fuller explanation by the committee included comments about how foreigners cannot get the correct treatment due to language differences, how the government is working with embassies to translate materials, and that there were cases of discrimination against foreigners that must be condemned.
But the fuller explanation does not detract from the fact that the committee singled out foreigners, with no factual basis. Let me make two points about why this does in fact point to a xenophobic attitude, even given the full context of the press conference.
First, this is a pandemic. There is no country in the world that is not affected. Foreigners residing in Japan, even if they don’t speak the language and live in a bubble with no Japanese family members or friends, are well aware of what steps need to be taken to prevent infection. They speak with their families back home and they read news in their language. Pretty much everyone on the planet knows by now about masks and about the need to avoid crowded, unventilated places. It’s not as if a Nepali living in Tokyo will now get materials in Nepalese about how to prevent the spread of the virus and go: “Oh, if only I had known earlier about this! All that Japanese… I couldn’t figure it out! I was infecting people unknowingly!”.
Second, while it is true that, generally speaking, Japanese are more obedient and follow rules – both legal and social ones – compared with other nationalities, this difference in culture does not explain anything in this particular instance. Foreigners residing in Japan are well aware of the cultural norms here and, by and large, the vast majority of them follow them. If anything, percentage wise, there are more Japanese walking around without masks than foreigners (especially the young ones, and old men). Furthermore, even if we assume for the sake of the discussion that foreigners flaunt the rules and waltz around infecting others because of their “culture”, then the number of foreigners here is so small that mathematically speaking, the rise in infections cannot be attributed to them.
The very fact the committee singled out foreigners, citing language and culture differences, is the xenophobia I’m talking about. Foreigners don’t need to be taught how to prevent the spread of infection, certainly no more than the average Japanese. Many of them understand Japanese or have family and friends that do, and they can figure out how to wear a mask and avoid crowded bars.
In light of the government’s discriminatory policy against long-term foreign residents in Japan during the current pandemic, these comments can be construed only as a manifestation of the latent distrust of foreigners so prevalent here. To clarify, I don’t think there is a nefarious or malicious intent behind this. I think there are, to use the same phrase as the committee, cultural reasons why the Japanese are suspicious of foreigners. I’m just pointing out its existence in the hope that things will change for the better in the future.