“Before you complain about bad customer service, ask yourself if you are being a bad customer.”
There is a perception in the media that Japan, as a nation, is largely xenophobic and prejudiced against foreigners – even the word itself, gaijin (外人), means “outside person” – a label all non-Japanese will carry no matter how long they live there, no matter how well they assimilate into the culture.
The laws often cited as being discriminatory, including the residence card issued to any foreigner who intends to stay in Japan longer than the 90 day visa allows and is required to be carried on their person at all times, appear on the surface as biased against non-Japanese. A child born in Japan of non-Japanese parents is not considered a Japanese national – they would still have to apply for permanent residence and naturalisation to be granted the same rights as a “full blooded” Japanese. Even then people will often ask them “When are you returning home?”
The media often seems to get into hysterical frenzies about the rights of the individual but how much of this is unfounded media panic and gonzo journalism, and how much of it is a genuine concern to the non-Japanese citizen?
Searches online seem to find a lot of sites claiming discrimination, or at least bureaucratic fumbling and stalling, when dealing with non-Japanese – ranging from being refused entry to shops or bars, being refused rental of apartments and houses through to police hostility and social ostracism.
If I look to my own experiences during my previous short visits to Japan, I can certainly recall no issues; a few moments are memorable, such as my arrival at customs with the officer having studied at the William Shatner school of English – I was greeted with a war chant of “Anything! To! Declare!?” and having already been awake for 26 hours at this time, shook my head numbly and wandered off through the gate, completely forgetting about the two bottles of wine in my backpack that I had brought as gifts for my host family – or at Yokohama station, my associate Quetzal and I were trying to work out which train to take to our next destination so we asked at the Green Window information counter (Midori no madoguchi) and the staff member gestured to an area behind us. We turned to find three sets of stairs leading off in different directions. When we turned back to the counter, the staff member had wandered off to help another customer. Fortunately we were able to find our train with the assistance of some very helpful passengers.
Truth be told, this became a familiar theme – on several occasions we were looking confused (our natural state of being, really) and trying to figure out a map (word of advice – don’t buy your railway guides from the ¥100 shop), we would have people approach us, usually quite elderly gentlemen, and explain things or point us in the right direction. Whilst viewing the Great Buddha statue at Koutoku-in (高徳院), Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, we were given a private tour by one of the groundskeepers, a sprightly 73 years young gentlemen who helped out twice a week.
About the only occasion of “discrimination”, or more accurately exclusion, we encountered was when attempting to buy a camera in Akihabara from the cheapest store we could find online – we entered the store and approached the counter but again and again the staff would address customers standing behind us. Realising that we had somehow become invisible, we decided to move on to the next cheapest store, Wink Digital, would could not have been more helpful. Even though the weekend staff were not fluent in English, they made use of Google Translate to explain things that they did not otherwise know the words for. During the week they had staff more fluent in English (and other languages) but they certainly tried their hardest and made quite a big sale as a consequence.
As a side note, bigger stores like Laox Duty Fee spoke English and stocked the same camera but charged an additional ¥20,000 for the international version, about the same price I could buy it for at home. Though an international warranty appealed to me at the time, 10 years on I am still using this camera.
The only experience we had where we felt uncomfortable was whilst walking around the Imperial Palace in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo – a documentary was being filmed that day so the grounds were closed to the public. We were disappointed but continued on our journey around Tokyo. However, one fellow – a white foreigner like ourselves – didn’t take well to the situation and walked around in circles talking to himself, cursing angrily and gesticulating to no one in particular. We watched which direction he went in and then turned the other way.
Walking through Akihabara, we encountered one of the right wing political groups (uyoku dantai, 右翼団体) with their black vans and slogans – they didn’t slow down or abuse us, merely continued on their way promoting whatever their campaign was at the time.
I made enquiries with a number of friends who recently visited Japan for periods ranging from a week through to several months and not one of them could recall any bad experiences, no harassment or obstruction. Quetzal had spoken of a few restaurants and cafés that had signs up excluding foreigners but there could be a number of reasons for this – there are probably a number of times that they had had bad experiences with foreigners causing trouble, but it could be just as likely that they were merely shy around us and didn’t want to make a bad impression either through miscommunication or unintended insult. There would probably be only a small number of locations who genuinely wanted to exclude foreigners for racist or other hostile reasons. Rather than campaigning to have such locations opened to non-Japanese, wouldn’t it be better to simply take our business elsewhere? If we aren’t welcomed, they won’t profit from us.
During my research, the overall philosophy seems to be “behave yourself and be respectful to the people and to their culture and everyone will get along just fine”. Provided that you don’t stir up trouble yourself or demand everyone conform to your expectations of conduct – how many times have people gone to another country and then complained that no one spoke their language, accepted their currency or served their style of food in restaurants – you shouldn’t run into any troubles. Its not a difficult task to carry your passport or registration card with you when you go out so don’t start a fight when an official requests to see it. Don’t get drunk and disorderly in public, something that seems to be a frequent occurrence among visitors, don’t vandalise other people’s property and don’t talk on your mobile phone on public transport. And always, always be polite.
Don’t be that person who fulfils all the negative stereotypes associated with your culture.
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