Why Does Japanese Society Overlook Racism?

"The Japanese government’s official position denies the very existence of racial discrimination."

“Make extreme neutral” is the goal of Tokyo-based NEUT Magazine, which in this project with Public Books shines a light on different forms of violence and discrimination against Asian minorities—in Japan and around the world. Today’s essay, “Why Does Japanese Society Overlook Racism?,” by Yoshitaka Lawrence Shimoji, was originally published by NEUT in November 2022.

Following the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement saw a worldwide resurgence. During this time, Japanese social media was filled with phrases like “there is no racism in Japan” and “racism in Japan is hard to see.” This might suggest an underlying assumption among the Japanese public that racism in the US is “more visible” than in Japan. But such an assumption is not necessarily true. In reality, the racism that exists worldwide isn’t “easier to see” in the US and “harder to see” in Japan.

Contemporary racism in the US is often described as being more difficult to pinpoint than it once was. While blatantly racist laws and legislation may be less prevalent than before, social systems that oppress and discriminate against certain racial groups continue to thrive today in what we know as “institutional racism.”

So why is the reality of racism in the US garnering so much attention? This is because countless people have continued to identify, call out, investigate, and at times even capture evidence of racism on their smartphones, thus revealing the racist structures that undergird the overall social system. Based on these efforts, the average person is finally able to see the lived experience of racism in the United States.

Similarly, there exists material evidence of racism in Japan. Over the years, several Japanese surveys documenting racism have been conducted. For example, according to the 2017 Foreign Resident Survey Report, a research project commissioned by Japan’s Ministry of Justice, 39.3% of respondents said that their “request for a lease was denied” by a real estate agent because of their background. Similarly, 25% have been “refused employment because they are a foreigner.” Additionally, according to the 2016 「日本国内の人種差別実態に関する調査報告書」 [Report on the Reality of Racial Discrimination in Japan] conducted by the Racial Discrimination Investigation Study Group, sixty-three investigations of discrimination against foreigners and racial discrimination were opened at the local government level from 1984 to 2014 alone, including investigations by prefectural and municipal governments. These surveys have revealed specific instances of racial discrimination: in schools, employment opportunities, remarks, financing options (for private businesses), business opportunities (for private businesses), renting or leasing a house, marriage, in the workplace, by management (employees), in procedures at government offices, and so on. Despite such clear evidence, why do many people still believe that “there is no racial discrimination” in Japan?

One of the primary reasons behind this longstanding belief can be attributed to Japan’s political history. There are three significant problems in the political sphere that hinder the public’s ability to acknowledge racism.

We must accept that Japan is racially diverse, and acknowledge that Japanese people engage in discrimination.

First, the Japanese government’s official position denies the very existence of racial discrimination. Despite recommendations from the United Nations and other countries to take adequate measures against racial discrimination, the Japanese government has stated that they “do not recognize that the present situation of Japan is one in which discriminative acts cannot be effectively restrained by the existing legal system and in which explicit racial discriminative acts, which cannot be restrained by measures other than legislation, are conducted. Therefore, penalization of these acts is not considered necessary.” 1 Even if local governments highlight the reality of discrimination in their municipalities, the federal government’s attitude of complete denial strongly influences society’s overall stance on the existence—or absence—of racism in Japan. Although these issues exist, the denial of racism by the Japanese government undermines its reality.

The second problem lies in the methods that  the Japanese government uses to conduct its census. In the US and the UK, census data does not merely record nationality, but ethnic and racial background as well. This is because nationality is not equated with ethnicity or race. However, since Japanese population statistics are only based on nationality, the racial diversity among Japanese nationals is left unexplored by the census. Therefore, this statistic reinforces the idea that the category of “Japanese” refers to a single ethnic group, and that Japan’s population only consists of monoracial Japanese people and non-Japanese people. Yet when we consider the actual racial and ethnic makeup of people living in Japan, we quickly realize that the reality is far more complex. Given that demographic statistics mask the racially diverse reality, it leads to the idea that “Japan is not racially diverse, so there is no such thing as racism in the first place.”


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The third issue is the “single ethnicity myth” propagated by Japanese politicians. Those in positions of political power have continuously asserted that the Japanese are a monoethnic group. However, Japan has always been a country with various cultures and customs that vary across each region, with a rich linguistic diversity (such as Ainu, Uchinaguchi [Okinawan], and Japanese Sign Language) and a long history of migratory movement and nomadism. However, when influential politicians repeatedly contradict this reality—by asserting that Japan is a monoethnic society with one language and one culture that has existed for two thousand years—it reinforces the aforementioned single ethnicity myth. This myth of racial and ethnic homogeneity is used to justify the idea that racism has never occurred in Japan.

Although this article primarily focuses on issues within the political sphere, other sectors such as education and media also play a part in silencing the reality of racism in the country. To move past this fiction, we must accept that Japan is racially diverse, and acknowledge that Japanese people engage in discrimination against foreigners and other Japanese people. From here, we as a society must establish laws and regulations combatting racial discrimination. In addition, we must pay attention to the lived experiences of each individual to understand how racial discrimination affects their daily lives and resist the urge to minimize or silence their experiences.


This article was originally printed by NEUT Magazine in November 2022. This version has been translated from the Japanese by LEIYA and edited by Mike Fu. icon

  1. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2001, Comments of the Japanese Government on the Concluding Observations adopted by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on March 20, 2000, regarding first and second periodic report of the Japanese Government.
Featured Image: Crosswalk in Tokyo, Japan. Photograph by Alex Block / (Unsplash)