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A biracial boy plays baseball in Japan, a country researchers say is beginning to grapple with the microaggressions that are so prevalent in its society towards members of marginalised groups, such as minority races. Photo: Getty Images

Japan wakes up to microaggressions and unconscious bias directed at minorities, and senses it’s time to change

  • People in Japan often direct microaggressions and unconscious bias at members of marginalised groups
  • Although these seem like ‘small attacks’, they could lead to hate crimes, researchers say

A couple are out shopping, but the store clerk addresses only the man. A person of Korean descent, born and raised in Japan, is complimented on their impeccable Japanese. Someone from the LGBT community is told by a friend, “You’re going through a phase – you’ll be cured one day”.

These are just some of the examples of microaggressions and unconscious bias that researcher Kayo Fujiwara recently listed to spread awareness of how they manifest in Japan.
Researchers say that microaggressions – usually unintentional or casual hurtful words or actions – made towards members of marginalised groups, including ethnic and sexual minorities and women, are commonplace.

In late March, Fujiwara, specially appointed at the University of Tokyo’s Centre for Barrier-Free Education, held an online seminar attended by clinical psychologists and human resource consultants to deepen their understanding of microaggressions.

People at a rally calling for anti-discrimination legislation in Tokyo, Japan. LGBT people are often the subject of microaggressions in the country. Photo: Getty Images

Many participants found it eye-opening to learn that microaggressions had been behind the “uncertain feelings they’d had in the past but were unable to verbalise”, says Fujiwara.

“The pattern of most people is just to accept these feelings with reservations, but unless we bring them to the surface, this isn’t helpful”, either for the person committing the microaggression or the person on the receiving end, says Taiyo Okada, 41, a clinical psychologist who took part in the seminar.

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Fujiwara attributes the increasing awareness about unconscious bias to the impact of overseas struggles for equal treatment such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the “growing presence of people with foreign roots or mixed roots” in Japanese society.

“As the times change, the chances of meeting people from diverse backgrounds increase,” she says.

She also cites headline-grabbing remarks disparaging women made in recent times by prominent male figures, such as former Japanese prime minister Yoshiro Mori, who resigned as the head of the Tokyo Olympics organising committee in 2021 after saying “board meetings with a lot of women take too much time”.

Former Japanese prime minister Yoshiro Mori resigned as the head of the Tokyo Olympics organising committee in 2021 after saying “board meetings with a lot of women take too much time”. Photo: AFP

The publication in Japanese, meanwhile, of Derald Wing Sue’s Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, considered by many overseas as the authoritative guide on the subject, in 2020 has “had a big influence” in boosting understanding of the issue in Japan, Fujiwara says, noting that the issue is now being studied in Japanese universities.

Although the “promotion of diversity” has long been a catchphrase in Japan, it is important to think about inclusion, too, says Fujiwara, who has begun corporate training on such issues.

“I think it is necessary to think about the structural advantages or disadvantages and privileges that exist, and not just ‘diversity’ as a sole difference,” she says, giving as examples privileges and disadvantages between males and females, heterosexuals and homosexuals, and cisgender and transgender people.

The cover of Derald Wing Sue’s book.

“Pointing out microaggressions is not the goal in itself. Rather, I would like to spread awareness of microaggressions from the perspective of creating a just society where people from different backgrounds are each respected and can live truly comfortable lives.”

According to Fujiwara, unlike hate speech, it is often difficult to point out microaggressions on the spot since the person who uttered the perceived slight is usually unaware that they have said anything wrong.

But because of this, the offended person will often dwell on the remark or behaviour for longer, worrying that they might have been discriminated against. As a result, the emotional – and even physical toll – can be greater, Fujiwara says.

Kayo Fujiwara recently held an online seminar to deepen understanding of microaggressions in Japan.

At the same time, she emphasises that it is important that “the unintentional microaggressor not become defensive but [learn] humility to gain a new perspective”.

For a foreigner in Japan, microaggressions might include a range of behaviours, from the assumption that a Japanese biracial child whose father is black is “athletic” to unsettling experiences such as an empty seat next to a foreign-looking person remaining vacant even on a crowded train.

As part of the trend of confronting unconscious bias and microaggressions in Japan, companies have even begun changing their branding messages. Beauty brand Kao recently removed phrasing such as “beautiful white” from its products.

And in recent years, educators have pointed out a growing need for diverse children’s picture books that reflect images of people in Japan’s changing multicultural and minority populations.
A couple at a jewellery store. As a woman, being ignored by the salesperson in favour of a man might feel like a microaggression. Photo: Getty Images

The term “microaggression” is said to have been coined by psychiatrists in the United States in the 1970s in research on racial issues and mental health.

Fujiwara says the concept is sometimes pushed back against in society. In the case of Mori’s discriminatory remarks, for instance, some people said criticism of them amounted to “word censorship”.

In Japan, for ethnic Korean residents, or zainichi, who were born and raised there, being told, “You speak great Japanese” is one example of a microaggression particularly hurtful because the potential hidden message is: you are not a person from this country but an outsider and “you must not really be able to speak Japanese”, she says.

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Fujiwara argues that these might seem like “small attacks”, as the word microaggression suggests, which people repeatedly experience over a lifetime, but they may lead to aggressors inflicting more serious damage, such as hate crimes.

To rid society of microaggressions – whether someone unintentionally engages in them, is on the receiving end, or witnesses them – “people need to learn the appropriate response,” Fujiwara says. “It’s being studied in Japanese universities now, but more importantly, it needs to be addressed in school education, so people learn about it from an early age.”