Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Asians in Western countries have been targets of a rise in grievous hate crimes (abuse motivated by prejudice or hatred towards individuals or groups with specific characteristics). Where does this hatred come from, and what does it have to do with people living in Japan? Ray Masaki is a Japanese American graphic designer whose self-published, researched-based book “Why is the salaryman carrying a surfboard?” examines the history and context of institutional white supremacy and Westernization in the Japanese design industry. He writes here about his personal experiences in both the United States and Japan.
Before I put any words down on the page, I thought about why I, a Japanese American person living in Tokyo, was asked to write on this topic. My first instinct was that I’m not the right person to address the hatred and violence occurring towards the Asian community in America. Although I obviously identify as Asian American, I’ve lived in Tokyo since 2017 after moving here from New York, and I honestly have no idea or first hand experience of what my Asian friends and their families are currently experiencing in the States.
Given the sensitivity of the topic, I thought it would be unfair of me to blithely make assumptions about their experiences, while I continue to live relatively carefree half the world away. In fact, when these acts of violence first started occurring, I had to message my Korean American friend in New York about it, because it was difficult for me to gauge the fear and reality of the situation. I thought to myself, why does Japan need to have this conversation anyway? Japanese people haven’t or probably won’t ever experience racism in this way as long as they stay in the country.
Though I can’t speak on behalf of my Asian friends and their family members currently living in America, I can speak on my personal experience of growing up as an Asian American person in the United States. From a very young age, growing up in America forces you to be aware of your racial identity. I’ve been teased for the shape of my eyes. I’ve been told that my nori bento (roasted seaweed on rice) that my single mother would make for me before dropping me off at school to go to work was too smelly—a narrative that is so cliché among Asian Americans that it’s practically a tired meme at this point. I’ve been asked how small my penis is. When I would take the downtown 6 train from Harlem, I’ve had people move away from me because, in their words, “they don’t want to deal with that ching chong shit,” despite the fact that I was born and raised in the States and I’m just as American as they are.
The first time I went to Texas, I had a group of white guys try to provoke me by saying things like, “Yooo Bruce Lee!!” In hindsight I find it kind of funny—why would you want to pick a fight with legendary martial artist, Bruce Lee, of all people? This occurred while I was on a work trip and on the way to grab a beer after a long day. I sat in a too-brightly-lit tourist bar in downtown Austin trying to explain to my white coworkers how angry those guys made me feel with the words trembling out of my mouth, and although they felt sorry for me, I could tell they couldn’t understand.
To this day, I still get uncomfortable being in places with too many white people, and my brain can’t help itself from doing a subconscious mental scan of the racial diversity of a room as soon as I enter. My Asian friends and I joke that if we were to ever take a road trip across America, we would specifically map a route that avoids the red states that voted in favor of Trump.
For me, these are events that I consider part of my past and not necessarily my present. These are also not things I experienced everyday, and for the most part I genuinely consider myself incredibly fortunate for growing up in such vibrantly diverse environments like New York and New Jersey. But these events have also definitively shaped who I am to my core.
So imagine my shock when I moved from New York to Tokyo, and experienced the upside-down flip of going from being a minority in America to a majority in Japan. It was as if my race was washed off my face for the first time in my life, and I was just seen for who I am, and not as an Asian guy living in a white man’s world.
I felt safe; I felt common. I felt like a lot of the anxieties that I hadn’t known I was carrying on my body like a weighted vest were suddenly being released. One of the most tangible experiences I recall was when I started using dating apps like Tinder a few months into living in Tokyo. I noticed that I would get more matches than I ever did in the U.S. where Asian guys were generally ranked pretty low on desirability. I remember thinking to myself, is this what being a white guy in America feels like?
At times I even felt guilty for feeling good, because the more I shed my minority identity, the more I experienced the benign nature of feeling like I just belong as a part of the Japanese majority. I’m conflicted towards this realization even now, because internally there are times when I still feel like a cultural outsider, but outwardly I look more-or-less like everyone else.
The fact that I’ve flipped from being a minority to a majority made me reassess why it’s important to speak on this topic in Japan but from a different angle. Maybe these are questions I’m asking you as the reader, or perhaps these are questions that I’m still investigating within myself, especially now that I’ve experienced both sides of the equation. What does it mean to be a part of the dominant culture and what responsibility does that come with? Because if we flipped the script of America, and made Asians the dominant culture – thereby minimizing another community – would that not be similar to the ethnic makeup of Japan? It’s true that our Asian brothers and sisters with faces that look like ours are being bloodied and killed in America because they’re treated as if they don’t belong, but are we not complicit to a similar system in Japan, and have we turned a blind eye to minority communities here in a similar way?
Perhaps the reason the recent surge in violence towards Asian Americans is such a difficult topic to broach in Japan is because it’s an alien concept in general, especially to someone who’s never experienced racial diversity like there is in a country like America. There is a Pandora’s box that is opened when you become cognizant of your racial identity, which I frankly think very few Japanese people have had to confront. I asked a Japanese friend what he thought about the violence towards Asians that’s happening in America and if he could relate. He answered me honestly and said that many Japanese people probably don’t identify as Asian and only see themselves as Japanese, so the Asian American violence probably feels like a foreign problem to most.
Moreover, there is a privileged naïveté and ignorance that comes with being part of the dominant or majority class; it’s difficult to acknowledge your own privilege or interrogate your biases when you’re consistently treated as the standard. Hatred and discrimination often stem from the belief that there’s a way things should be but there’s something or someone challenging that notion – in the case of racism, uplifting minorities to be equal can be framed like the majority is losing power, even if it’s not the case. Regardless of if it’s systemic white supremacy in America or the ingrained hierarchy of Japanese people within Japan, it’s necessary to question the systems of power.
The hatred and violence aimed at the Asian community, although shocking, is not new and is part of a long history of racism in America, so it’s important to understand the context in which these attacks emerged. First, America is racist, and it always has been. The original settlers of the country committed genocide against the Indigenous people and stole the land. The country’s foundation was then built on the back of slaves. Whether it was Black people who were forcibly torn away from their homes in Africa and used as enslaved labor on farms and plantations, or Chinese workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad that connected people and commerce across the country, subordination has always been used as a tool in America, mostly to make white men more powerful.
During World War II, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 127,000 Japanese Americans were wrongfully incarcerated and placed in concentration camps, many of whom were Nisei and Sansei (2nd and 3rd generation Japanese Americans), meaning that their parents and even grandparents were born in America. America has always and continues to treat people who are not white as second class.
The history of racism in America has also played a role in the rise of political leaders like Donald Trump. The former president of the United States is a racist and a white supremacist, but to reiterate, Trump did not create the hatred or racism in the country. He is merely a symptom of the racism that already existed and became a symbol of the gangrenous rotting layer that continues to lie beneath the country’s surface. Trump built his presidential campaign around the slogan, “Make America Great Again,” which imposes a false narrative around returning to a “greater” time – or in other words, when white people were even more dominant. Trump proposed the idea of literally erecting a wall on the southern U.S. border to keep out Mexican migrants, whom he unjustly categorized as “drug dealers, criminals, rapists.” He refused to publicly condemn the violent right-wing white supremacist group the Proud Boys. He has been openly praised by David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
So after a fascist-adjacent person like Trump was elected as president in 2016, it emboldened and validated his supporters to speak and act on their racist beliefs. The violence towards Asians currently occurring in America is an extension of the bigotry that has always existed in America, but it can also partially be attributed to Trump’s vile rhetoric. When Trump used terms based on racial stereotypes of Asians like “Kung-flu” and the “Wuhan Virus” to describe COVID-19, he was not only attempting to misdirect his constituents from his abysmal performance as a leader in the face of the pandemic and misplacing the blame onto China, he was also indirectly painting a target on the back of many Asians living in America.
On March 16, 2021, when Robert Aaron Long went on a shooting rampage of Asian-owned massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia, he claimed that he was “tortured” by his sex addiction and decided to target the businesses to “help” others dealing with sex addiction, using fetishistic stereotypes of Asian women and treating himself as the victim. Later in the same month in New York’s Times Square, when Brandon Elliott knocked a 65-year-old Asian woman to the ground and stomped on her face, he shouted anti-Asian slurs and told her “you don’t belong here” – a direct reflection of the “build-the-wall” language Trump used throughout his campaign and presidency.
While the acts perhaps aren’t as extreme, the same system that violates Asian Americans is at play for the minority population in Japan. It manifests in a number of xenophobic offenses that while not as visceral as violent hate crimes, still have a broad reach that can ultimately be as insidious. For instance, there’s the discrimination of foreigners and immigrants when it comes to housing in Japan. According to Minami Funakoshi of Reuters, over 40% of foreign residents who sought housing in the last five years were denied. Funakoshi interviewed a naturalized Korean woman in her fifties who was denied an apartment despite being born in Japan with Japanese being the only language she knows. She was told by the landlord that she couldn’t live in the building because of her ethnicity.
There’s also Japan’s history and persistent use of racial stereotypes of Black people in the media. Not only are offensive stereotypes employed in various capacities like in advertisements and illustrations, it’s still not necessarily uncommon to see Japanese actors and comedians in blackface, like in the case of famous comedian Masatoshi Hamada cosplaying as Eddie Murphy on a national TV special in 2017.
On the internet I will often witness casually racist and xenophobic tweets and comments by Japanese people. For example, when the highly coveted +J collection (Jil Sander’s collaboration with Uniqlo) came out in the fall of 2020, chaos erupted in many stores with people scrambling to grab products, which caused a buzz online. With these tweets came racist remarks by Japanese people commenting that these shoppers were “acting as low as the Chinese.”
These actions build up like sediment and over time establish discriminatory racial hierarchies not unlike what we’re seeing in the United States. This isn’t a recent phenomenon, either. Much like America’s history of institutional racism, Japan is also several layers deep in racial transgressions that have been occurring since Japan’s own imperial history. Even to this day, issues related to Korean women and girls forced into sexual slavery by Japan’s military before and during World War II remain contentious. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has refused entry of family members of immigrant workers as a way to quell the nationalistic fear that Japan will be overrun by immigrants. Cho-sen schools (schools in Japan for Korean nationals and naturalized Japanese citizens of Korean descent) were excluded from the “Act on free tuition fee at public high schools and high school enrollment support fund,” enacted by the Liberal Democratic Party in 2010.
To me, these cases do not sound that far off from “Build the Wall.”
Discomfort towards engaging with Japan’s own racism and nationalism has been mirrored in the art world, as well. An art exhibition titled 表現の不自由展 (“Non-Freedom of Expression”) was exhibited in the 2019 Aichi Triennale in Nagoya with the following statement:
For one reason or another, due to censorship or self-censorship, most works presented here were not exhibited in the past in Japan. Although the reason for their removal varies, it shows that there is no simple dynamic in regard to “freedom of expression (speech).” “Freedom of expression” is one of the essential ideas in democracy and basic human rights.
One of the most notable artworks was an interactive sculpture that invited the visitor to sit in a chair next to a statue of a woman symbolizing the victims of sexual slavery by the Japanese military. Unsurprisingly, the exhibition was vehemently decried as anti-Japanese by right-wing groups. Later, when the exhibit moved from Nagoya to Tokyo and was scheduled to begin on June 25, 2021, several vehicles repeatedly drove by with loudspeakers saying, “Stop the anti-Japanese exhibits! Stop with the comfort women statues!” and harassed the gallery until it was forced to pause the exhibition. There’s a disturbing irony to the fact that an exhibition conceived around the concept of expression and censorship has once again been silenced. But despite the attacks, the exhibition’s committee is continuing to fight to “protect the gallery and its surroundings as a place of expression.”
As much as I’d like to believe that minorities can fight upwards to effect change, it often feels like a Sisyphean endeavor unless the dominant class acknowledges its own privilege and proactively engages in acts towards equality. I believe that it will take both sides wanting the same outcome.
Yes, racism is systemic, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t change, because we all exist as a part of that system. Change starts with conversations on the ground among people, and pointing out when something feels wrong, and this is where we can’t be complacent. Whether we realize it or not, we are all a part of the structure of oppression, and we need to pose ways in which we can engage in reflection, inquiry, and action.
The truth is, however, that the oppressed are not “marginals,” are not people living “outside” society. They have always been “inside” – inside the structure which made them “beings for others.” The solution is not to “integrate” them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become “beings for themselves.”
— Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
At least in my case, now that I’ve experienced what it means to be a minority as well as what it means to be a majority, I want to use that perspective and privilege as much as I can to help shift perceptions. While racism isn’t transpiring in Japan to the same violent extreme, this doesn’t make it a foreign problem or responsibility – it’s ours, too.