The hand-written sign in the entrance of a cosmetics shop in Japan might have been shocking to many Chinese, but to some observers its message was all too familiar.

The sign, which said Chinese people were not allowed to enter, caused outrage when images of it were posted on Chinese websites last month.

Within 24 hours, the store’s owner Pola Inc ordered the sign to be removed and vowed to suspend operations at the outlet. Pola acknowledged the notice had caused “unpleasant feelings and inconvenience to many people” and said it would deal with the situation “gravely”.

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In contrast with the anger in China, the incident attracted little coverage in Japan and received only brief mention in the few media outlets that covered it at all.

That seeming lack of interest doesn’t surprise Debito Arudou, a human-rights activist who was born David Schofill in California and became a naturalised Japanese citizen in 2000. Discrimination is a sad fact of life in Japan, according to Arudou, and if anything, it is becoming more frequent – and more blatant.

“Back in the 1980s, there was a lot of talk about how Japan was going to internationalise and that diversity was positive, but that has largely fizzled out,” Arudou, 52, says.

For Arudou, the most significant nail in the coffin of internationalisation was hammered in by Shintaro Ishihara, soon after he was elected governor of Tokyo in 1999. In a speech to members of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces on April 9, 2000, Ishihara said “atrocious crimes” had been repeatedly committed by illegal residents that he referred to as sangokujin, a derogatory term that literally means third-country nationals. Ishihara said if a natural disaster struck Tokyo, foreigners would cause civil disorder.

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Despite an outcry, Ishihara brushed off demands to apologise. He even won re-election three times before stepping down in October 2012.

“There were problems before then, but I would have to say that speech made Japanese people look at foreigners as a threat to Japanese society, and I do not think that has gone away,” Arudou says.

And there are plenty of other examples of people in positions of responsibility expressing similar attitudes.

Ayako Sono, an author who has advised the government on education, wrote an opinion piece for the conservative newspaper Sankei Shimbun in 2015 in which she said that while Japan needed immigrants to solve its labour shortage, foreigners should be kept apart from Japanese people.

The best solution, she suggested, was the apartheid system employed by South Africa between 1948 and 1994. “It is next to impossible to attain an understanding of foreigners by living alongside them,” wrote Sono, 83. “Ever since I learned of the situation in South Africa some 20 or 30 years ago, I have been convinced that it is best for the races to live apart from each other, as was the case for whites, Asians and blacks in that country.”

Similarly, Tomomi Inada was revealed to have accepted donations from Zaitokukai, an anti-Korean group designated by police as a hate-speech organisation before she was appointed defence minister in 2016. She was also pictured meeting Kazunari Yamada, the leader of the National Socialist Japanese Labour Party and a fan of Adolf Hitler.

For many foreign nationals living in Japan, life has become significantly more difficult under a succession of Liberal Democratic Party governments, according to Arudou.

There are countless reports of Japanese property owners refusing to lease their flats to foreigners and, because there is no law that explicitly forbids discrimination based on nationality or race, there is little to stop them. Similarly, foreigners who approach government-run agencies for jobs are often refused based on their nationality or because they “look foreign”, according to Arudou, who in 2015 published Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination.

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Arguably the worst demonstration of Japan’s attitudes towards outsiders is visible in education. Schools are permitted to refuse foreign children if they lack the ability to teach them or that doing so would be too difficult for teachers. “This means there is an undereducated underclass of around 20,000 non-citizen children who cannot even read because they have not had the opportunity to learn,” Arudou says.

As many as 40 per cent of those children are second- or third-generation Japanese whose ancestors had been living in Brazil but were encouraged to apply for jobs with companies looking for relatively cheap labour. Having moved to Japan, however, their children miss out on an education.

“For Japanese people, racial discrimination is an inconvenient truth and most Japanese do not want to believe it exists in their society because they have been told there is only one race in Japan,” Arudou says.

And when the domestic media plays up violent incidents involving immigrants in France, Germany and Britain, it comes as no surprise that Japanese resist the idea of permitting foreigners to settle permanently in Japan, even when they are refugees seeking sanctuary from violence in their homelands.

“It is well known that Japan accepts a minuscule number of refugees each year and yes, the media here and the public at large look at the problems that have occurred in Europe and say those problems could never happen here because there are no immigrants,” Arudou says. “They say this is a mono-culture where everyone understands each other. And while that is nationalist claptrap that completely ignores any crimes committed by Japanese, it is how they think. It’s the narrative they tell themselves to reassure each other. But it’s not an honest narrative.”

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And while the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Tokyo Olympic Games the following year are being promoted as demonstrations of Japan as a nation open to outsiders, the changes may be only skin deep.

“I see these as ways of attracting more tourists and, therefore, more money,” he says.

“The people who come will be tourists and they will be shown great hospitality, but when it is over, Japan will wave them goodbye with a sigh of relief.”