Hearing complaints lavished on the use of chopsticks. People praising your Japanese after you utter an "arigatou". The endless and repetitive questions. In Japan, some find these remarks and questions irritating—a form of "soft racism" called "microaggression". But are they?
As Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D. and David Rivera, M.S. pointed out in a 2010 Psychology Today article, "racial microaggressions are the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated." Psychiatrist Chester Pierce, MD, coined the term back in the 1970s.
American-born Japanese Debito Arudou tackled the issue of microaggression recently in The Japan Times in relation to how he perceives it playing out between Japanese and Non-Japanese. According to Arudou, "Nobody 'means' to make you feel alienated, different, out of place, or stereotyped. But microaggressions are also subtle societal self-enforcement mechanisms to put people 'in their place.'"
Examples Arudou, who is a Japanese citizen, gives are how Non-Japanese are complimented on things like their ability to use chopsticks or speak a few words of Japanese or their ability to eat nattou—as well as questions regarding when Non-Japanese are returning to their home country or personal questions about what they fight about with their spouses or how they raise their children.
"Microaggressions have such power because they are invisible, the result of hegemonic social shorthand that sees people only at face value," wrote Arudou. "But your being unable to protest them without coming off as paranoid means that the aggressor will never see that what they say might be taken as prejudiced or discriminatory."
"Microaggressions have such power because they are invisible, the result of hegemonic social shorthand that sees people only at face value."
But these repetitive questions—as marginalizing as they seem—are in no way unique to Japan. They are, for better or worse, part of human nature. If you meet someone from a different country, your first ice-breaking questions might be asking them about when they left it or displaying what knowledge you do have about their homeland in hopes of making small talk. Japanese people are no different.
As website Mutantfrog Travelogue explained, "It just so happens that when Japanese people see a Western face, it calls up memories of learning English in school, the images on TV, and the experiences they or their friends have had with foreigners in the past. It's all completely natural and utterly mundane."
Much of these questions—even if they are irksome—are innocent enough. And I'm always bemused when people ask me things like if America has Mother's Day. Dopey questions are universal; I've seen my wife gracefully handle silly inquiries in America about Japan, such as whether or not Japan has cookies. (Yes, yes it does.)
But for long-term residents in Japan, I can see how these repetitive questions and remarks would be irksome. Though, when I first visited to Japan many moons ago, I remember thinking people were really nice and keen to learn about where I was from. After you spend a third of your life in Japan, it's easy for those same questions and comments to become dull, but for the Japanese person, they may not know how long you've been in Japan or that you've been using chopsticks since grade school. Not everyone, however, can use chopsticks—my dad cannot, and he always has a tricky time when visiting. If someone complimented him on his chopstick use, I'm sure he'd be tickled.
The issue becomes a matter of when are microaggressions actually microaggressive. That isn't to say soft racism doesn't manifest itself in microaggression—or doesn't exist in Japan. If anyone is going to get up in arms about microaggressions, then things like strangers (or children!) referring to adult non-Japanese by their first names or without a marker (san, kun, chan) is probably a better example of "othering", than asking foreigners if they can eat nattou. Not all Japanese can—heck, not all Japanese like sushi and public baths, so there.
"But your being unable to protest them without coming off as paranoid means that the aggressor will never see that what they say might be taken as prejudiced or discriminatory."
I've also found that the repetitive questions often lead to interesting conversations. I never hesitate to ask people where they are from, about food they eat, or about their jobs. I've found that to be some of the best ways to learn about this country.
Mutantfrog Travelogue smartly pointed out that repetitive questions aren't only limited to nationality or race, but also profession. I'm sure doctors get asked the same questions over and over and over again. I always try to take the questions and remarks in good stride—sometimes there are jerks, because, well, there are jerks everywhere.
Even though some Japanese people love talking to non-Japanese, some really do not care and are busy with their own lives to start firing off a bunch of questions at foreigners. Some people just do not care. And it's somewhat arrogant to think they do or should! Moreover, many people are more than happy to talk with non-Japanese and not ask them any of these repetitive questions.
It's not so much the microaggressions that bother me. Honestly, at this point, they don't. And going around getting upset at each one of them will definitely lead to a very, very stressful life in Japan. Rather, it's other things, like most notably how property is rented to non-Japanese. I was once told I could not rent an apartment in my name, because I might skip out on rent and flee the country. My wife, who was not working and without an income, was asked to sign the lease agreement. Then again, I didn't run into situations like that when it was time to buy a place—or even buy a car—both of which I did in my name.
I remember once when my eldest son started pre-school, the teacher wrote his last name in katakana (the writing system for foreign words) instead of phonetic hiragana like the other kids. Little kids don't know katakana (or kanji), so after explaining that writing his name in katakana would be akin to writing another kid's name in kanji, she quickly apologized and made a correction. The teacher wasn't trying to other the kid, but probably, just wrote "Ashcraft" in katakana as an automatic reflex.
In Japan, there are notions of political correctness—and not only directed at foreigners. The country has changed the word for "nurse" to include male nurses and, like in other countries, renamed crayons that were previously "flesh colored". Being sensitive to others is not a bad thing and neither is being interested in people from other countries and other cultures. How else will they learn that non-Japanese can use chopsticks and like nattou?