I have half a dozen posts half written in my drafts but a link on Facebook has fired me up to write about something else completely. A Japanese friend posted a Japanese news link about the town I lived in, Ise. In Ise there’s a traditional shopping street with lots of traditional street food and crafts for sale. It leads up to Naiku, a very holy shrine that’s absolutely gorgeous and the main pulling point for the city. The king of that traditional shopping street is the “Akafuku” rice cake shop. Rice that has been hammered into little blobs are covered in red azuki beans and sold in little wooden boxes. Once a month they sell special edition cakes that we used to get up at 5am and queue for 2 hours to buy.
This was all part of the charm of the place I consider to be my home town. I spent just two years there, but I loved it with all my heart. It’s a gorgeous place, and the locals are so welcoming. Some days I completely forgot that I was different from most of the people I saw around me.
But the owners of that cake shop, the shop that dominates that whole street, think that Ise would be a lot better off without foreigners there. The former head of the company, Mr Hamada, was recently at a conference in Tsu and said such things as “with foreigners here, it’s just not right… Ise is the soul of Japan, so it should be a place that makes Japanese people happy. It’s not there for foreigners”.
On one hand, this isn’t surprising at all as this douche (whoops did I say that?!) is 79 years old and old people tend to be more racist than the norm, no matter which country you’re in. On the other hand, the people of Ise, people of all ages, were really supportive of myself and the other non-Japanese in the town. After all, there were only a handful of us there and it was very rare that you’d get a non-Japanese tourist in the town. It was the kind of place where, if I saw another non-Japanese person, I’d narrow my eyes and demand to know who they were and why they were in “our town”.
I’d say that outright dumb racism like this is pretty rare in Japan (unless it’s against Chinese or Korean people in which case you’d be swimming in it there). I’d even say that outright dumb racism is more visible in the UK; just today I was listening to the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2 and even though I knew that every day he picks a stupid racist topic, I still was shocked when he had a whole section which could be labelled as “OH NO don’t let the Romanians in they’ll take all our jobs and we’ll die!” It was really ridiculous – and even though people were phoning in saying that Polish people in the UK do the jobs Brits don’t want to do and that Romanians don’t want to go to the UK (they’ve been able to come to Germany for ages and there’s not a problem here), Jeremy was still spouting out loads of racist crap.
I can’t imagine what life as a foreigner (or even a non-white person) must be like in Britain. But I guess I have a little idea from living in Japan, as it was eventually the racism that got to me and made me want to leave. There was nothing telling me to go home (I was there, after all, on the taxpayer’s dime teaching their kids) but there were people who refused to sit next to me on the train, women who held their handbags a bit tighter when they saw me, colleagues who spoke to me like I had some kind of mental problem when I can understand Japanese perfectly fine.
On top of that you have all the innocent bits of racism “oh, can you use chopsticks?” “you can’t probably eat this because your stomach is foreign”, “look mum! That person’s nose is so tall!!”
I could sit here and type about all the different kinds of racism that happen in Japan and in Britain until the cows come home. The fact is that I really wonder if there will ever be a day when humans will be seen as humans and not a threat or a hinderance or dumb just because of the skin they’re in. What’s great about the JET Programme is that it puts people like myself in little towns like Ise and forces people like Mr Hamada to come face to face with people from other countries. It’s so much easier to hate on a certain kind of person when you’ve never met a person like that before. The world is getting smaller and so many people are living abroad that I hope that one day people are less afraid of people they’re not familiar with and that we can all live with a heck of a lot less racism.
I’d like to end with a letter one of my students wrote to me when I left Japan. She was in the 1st grade so started school in the April and I left in the July to start my new life in Frankfurt. I hope people like Mr Hamada and Jeremy Vine become “able to like” foreigners as well soon, too.
“Thank you for the past three months. Of course, my best memory of you will be the fun games you did with us in class, and also when you passed by me in the hall. I was always really happy when you spoke to me and smiled at me. I wasn’t too keen on foreigners before. But because of the classes with you I’m able to like them now. It was only 3 short months but thank you so much!”