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Is There Racism in the Work Culture in Japan?

Categories Japan Work

Irene Medina

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Japan is often viewed as a homogeneous society with little diversity. While over 98% of the population is ethnically Japanese, the country has seen an increase in foreign workers and immigrants in recent decades. However, racism and discrimination remain issues, especially in the workplace.

Though illegal, racism manifests in subtle ways in Japanese work culture. Foreigners may face extra scrutiny, fewer advancement opportunities, and social isolation. Racism also intersects with gender – foreign women report more instances of objectification and harassment. Understanding the roots of racism in Japan is key to overcoming discrimination.

Roots of Racism in Japan

Japan’s long history of isolationism and emphasis on racial purity cultivated an insular culture. Contact with foreigners was limited for centuries. After forced openings by Commodore Perry in the 1850s, the influx of Westerners was seen as a threat. Then the postwar American occupation brought massive cultural changes, leaving many Japanese resentful.

The myth of Japanese homogeneity persists, though this perception is changing. Over 2 million foreign residents lived in Japan as of 2018. But integration challenges remain, especially in the workforce. Strict immigration policies also promote the idea that foreigners should conform to Japanese cultural standards.

How Racism Manifests

In Japan, racism commonly manifests through microaggressions – indirect, subtle discrimination against minority groups. While not explicitly exclusionary, microaggressions indicate that foreigners are outside the cultural mainstream. Common examples include:

  • Assumption of foreign customs or languages
  • Exclusion from after-work social gatherings
  • Stereotypical portrayals in media
  • Preference for native Japanese in hiring/promotion

Workplace discrimination often stems from the perception that foreigners don’t “fit in” or understand Japanese work culture. Rigid hierarchies, group harmony, and extreme politeness norms still dominate. Those who don’t conform perfectly may be ostracized. Racism also intersects with sexism, as foreign women report harassment about appearances and assumptions about sexual availability.

Overcoming Workplace Racism

Combating racism begins with awareness. Foreigners entering Japanese workplaces should understand social dynamics and potential bias. Strategies include:

  1. Research company culture: Understanding expected behaviors helps avoid faux pas. Ask foreign colleagues about their experiences.
  2. Respect hierarchies/harmony: Observe how senior staff interact with juniors. Avoid confrontational communication.
  3. Practice language skills: Speaking Japanese reduces social barriers. Take formal lessons and engage with native speakers.
  4. Adopt etiquette norms: From exchanging meishi to pouring drinks, mastering etiquette rituals shows commitment.
  5. Participate in company activities: Attend nomikai parties and weekend retreats. Bonding outside the office is important.
  6. Seek mentors: Senior colleagues can advise on expected conduct and defend against discrimination.
  7. Remain patient: Changing perceptions takes time. Consistently prove your dedication.
  8. Report serious incidents: Keep records if discrimination exceeds microaggressions. Japan has laws prohibiting direct racism.
  9. Seek multicultural organizations. Though still rare in Japan, some companies explicitly value diversity and inclusion. Doing research to find these open-minded organizations can provide a supportive environment.
  10. Expand your Japanese social circle. Making native Japanese friends outside of work can give insight into cultural norms and serve as a support system for venting frustrations. Interacting casually can break stereotypes.
  11. Display cross-cultural competence. Share positive aspects of your own background, such as teaching coworkers useful phrases in your native language. This builds bridges through mutual exchange.
  12. Advocate for policy changes. Once established within an organization, foreigners can advocate for diversity training, explicit anti-discrimination rules, and recruitment of international talent. Effecting institutional change requires cultural fluency and seniority.
  13. Consider independent consulting. The rigid hierarchy of traditional Japanese corporations often leaves little flexibility. Contracting independently allows foreigners to leverage their skills with fewer cultural barriers.
  14. Recognize positive trends. While racism certainly exists, younger generations in Japan show more openness towards diversity. Government policies are also gradually shifting to address labor shortages through foreign recruitment. Bearing in mind these developments can inspire optimism.

Overcoming Social Isolation

Even foreigners who achieve professional success in Japan’s workplaces often struggle with social isolation. Unable to break into close-knit circles of local colleagues, many report loneliness. Combating social barriers requires proactivity.

Ways foreigners can overcome social isolation include actively organizing group activities, putting in face time during and after standard working hours, and regularly practicing language skills to reduce verbal obstacles. Seeking communities of fellow immigrants, international neighborhoods in major cities, and global workspaces also provides relief from alienation.

However, the impetus remains on Japanese employers to foster inclusive environments. Companies must provide diversity and cultural awareness training, nurture open dialogue around differences, promote interaction between local and international employees, and demonstrate the value of varied perspectives. Top-down commitment to dismantling homogeneity is key.

Senior foreign professionals should leverage their status to advocate for acceptance within organizations. By speaking openly about isolation challenges, they can influence attitudes and policies. Promoting the concept of global citizenship within companies enables a mindset shift.

Evolution Requires Open-Mindedness

Eradicating racism ultimately requires open-mindedness on both sides. Foreigners entering Japan’s job market must do so with sensitivity and willingness to find common ground. Learning the language, making local friends and colleagues, and navigating cultural gaps through open communication all catalyze progress.

Meanwhile, Japanese employers must acknowledge traditional limitations, consciously combat inherent bias, and realize the benefits diversity brings economically and socially. The insular resistance to accepting outsiders as equals must evolve for Japan to thrive.

Younger generations give hope for change, as increasingly international universities foster intercultural exchange and relationships between locals and foreigners. Workplace leaders have responsibility to set precedents for inclusion.

Combating racism exists on individual, organizational, and nationwide levels. Foreign professionals can achieve fulfilling careers in Japan through courage, strategy, and compassion. Likewise, embracing diversity strengthens Japanese institutions. An openness on all sides to candid cultural dialogue and recognizing universal human worth is imperative.

Final Words

Achieving lasting diversity requires social evolution at organizational and national levels in Japan. But foreigners can mitigate workplace racism by adapting to cultural norms while asserting their value. Respectful engagement paves the way for greater inclusion. With preparation and patience, foreigners can gain acceptance and succeed in Japanese workplaces.

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