One of the most common questions I’m asked by Japanese when I’m meeting them for the first time is「日本に来たとき、どう思いましたか?」or, “What was your first impression of Japan?” I quickly settled on the answer「皆は日本人です。」“Everyone is Japanese.”

This chart from Priceonomics helps explain:

From the Priceonomics Blog post “The Most and Least Diverse Cities in AmericA”

From the Priceonomics Blog post “The Most and Least Diverse Cities in AmericA”

(Via Priceonomics )

I grew up in California. I lived out in the Sierra Nevada foothills as a kid, which are still far less diverse[1] than most of California, but I lived near Sacramento from mid-elementary to a couple of years after graduation. My baseline normal is seeing whites, blacks, hispanics, asians, and an assortment of people of less-easily-categorizable ethnic and national backgrounds around me all the time.

When I walked around my hotel the night I first came to Japan, it struck me: everyone was Japanese. And I do mean everyone. Once you get away from Narita airport, non-Japanese faces become vanishingly rare. Once you get out of the Tokyo area, you might be the foreigner in a town. I had suddenly become a very small minority in a very homogeneous society.

This was an extremely odd feeling for me. While I never lived in a place where whites (and other Anglo-American mutts like me who appear ostensibly white) were an actual minority, there was enough mixing that everyone mostly treated each other like individuals instead of representatives of a racial group. I did have a few minor encounters with racial tensions in school[2], but knowing how teenage males are, I probably would have had similar experiences with analogous assholes even if everyone in the school was racially homogenous.

Being in Japan was my first experience being on the receiving end of openly discriminatory attention. Sometimes, the attention was benign to neutral: curious grandmas following me around commenting to themselves on what I was buying at the supermarket; children running after me, yelling “haro!” eager to try out their English on a real-live foreigner; or gaijin-groupies using me for vicarious contact with the outside world.

Sometimes, the attention was not so nice: police following me for several blocks or going out of their way to “talk” to me (and <ahem> incidentally check my identification); bôsôzoku[3] making overtly threatening gestures at me when they rode by; people saying that they couldn’t understand my English even when I was speaking Japanese (with, I’ve been told, a pretty decent accent); countless nasty remarks, jokes, and incidents of minor violence that I would probably never have had to deal with if I were a Japanese person.

Diversity is going to be a major problem for Japan in the not-so-distant future. The birth rate [4] is still steeply negative, and the elderly proportion of the population is growing as longevity remains one of the highest in the entire developed world. Japan has been dealing with labor shortages for a time scale edging into decades now, and their immigration policies and domestic systems are absolutely not designed to deal with an influx of foreigners.

The last time Japan tried to import labor, they tried offering special work visas preferentially to the descendants of Japanese residing abroad. That didn’t work out as they hoped, since nisei or sansei (first and second generation descendants of Japanese) are culturally no more Japanese than “regular” Brazilians or Peruvians. They actually started offering financial incentives for them to go back to their country of origin. And not come back.

I’ve run into discrimination even as one of the more desirable minorities; Caucasian, educated, employed in an area that competes minimally with Japanese. Japanese society is going to have to adjust drastically to survive with anything approaching the current standard of living intact.

Even notoriously egalitarian Sweden has had riots due to inequality — whether perceived or real — between mainstream Swedes and immigrants. If Japan stops being 98–99% Japanese, I feel pretty comfortable in predicting race riots in less than a generation.

The US has had a long history of dealing with different races and cultures, and still fuck it up constantly. Japan has nearly zero experience with integration and peaceful co-existence. Oh sure, there are Koreans and Chinese in Japan, but being Asian they can usually elect to “pass” as Japanese and even so, integration into Japanese society has not been at all smooth. I do not expect that to change with respect to people who are quite different in appearance and therefore more easily “othered” than ethnic Asians.

  1. At the time, there were more poor to lower-middle income whites than anything else. Now, I’ve heard some old familiar areas referred to as “tweeker hills”, with all of the usual associations you’d have with an area where meth labs are prevalent.  ↩

  2. There were a lot of asian and hispanic gangs in my area, with a few smaller black and white gangs to provide some flavor. Nearly every violent encounter I had in school was with kids who were either in a gang, or wanted to be.  ↩

  3. 暴走族, “violent speed tribe”; members of flashy biker gangs. (“Speed Tribes”, whose title was inspired by bôsôzoku, was a pretty good book, by the way. Captured the zeitgeist of the time.)

    They tended to have right-wing politics and prejudices, i.e.: “throw out all the damn foreigners and take back Japan for Japan”, and cause (mostly) low-level trouble. More ambitious members often ended up in a yakuza family if they “graduated” to grown-up violence. Known membership has fallen significantly in recent years.  ↩

  4. Working link to the referenced paper available here  ↩