In hindsight, learning Japanese may have been a mistake; if you can't understand the language, you don't know when people are making rude comments.
Even as a white male, I do my best to not draw attention to myself. I've seen the looks of distrust and fear my fellow commuters give to foreigners of middle-eastern or African decent on the train. I can only imagine the death by the thousand cuts that everyday life in Japan must be for them.
My poor 5'2" wife isn't immune either. She's fed up with the way little old ladies stare at her and awkwardly avoid her like she was some sort of circus freak.
My coworkers often ask me why my wife and I don't go out and see more of Japan on the weekend. Frankly, at the end of a grueling work week, I don't have any urge to stand on the train some more. But more important, the last thing either of us wants is our weekend spoiled by bigots. Just going to the store can be emotionally draining. Trying to rent a room in the country can be outright impossible (70% x 37.8% = ~26.5% of hotels surveyed illegally refuse to serve foreigners; they cite "language barriers" -- apparently confusing nationality with language ability).
The almost-daily little hints, most of which seems trivially minor in isolation, add up to a roar of "you're not welcome here".
Before we came to Japan, we were familiar with the complaints many foreigners living in Japan have. The comment sections of many popular news sites aimed for expatiates living in Japan are filled with disillusionment. I always figured it was because the people hadn't taken the effort to learn the language, or had unreasonable expectations, or were being obnoxious in public...it had to be something they were doing wrong. Maybe it was; maybe I've made the same mistakes.
Since coming to Japan, I have come to appreciate Dave Aldwinckle's complaints and the hard work he has been doing to try and bring the injustices in Japan into the forefront. Whenever I get worked up enough about something that I want to bitch about it on my own blog, I just need to go hit his debito.org to commiserate.
When I was sitting in the comfort of the U.S.A., Debito's stories seem farfetched and, frankly, unbelievable. More than once I thought he was making a mountain out of a molehill. However, I now realize that he doesn't have to go digging to find examples of racism, discrimination, injustice, and hypocracy...it turns out there is just a lot of material to pull from here in Japan.
Unfortunately, while brave individuals like Debito are trying to recitify the situation, apologists still abound. Guides for foreigners coming to Japan are filled with such insightful advice as:
NOTE: At certain points through this and other articles we note that in some cases foreigners may be refused entry to particular hotels or rental of accommodation. This is not intended to imply any form of prejudice; it is merely a statement of the facts. Almost exclusively this is due to the very low number of foreigners in Japan, and general ignorance among the Japanese regarding foreigners. Smile, persevere, and try to be a good ambassador not just for your own country but for all non-Japanese in general.(taken from http://educationjapan.org/jguide/accommodation.html)
That's right, denying you access to shops just because you are a foreigner isn't any form for prejudice. Nope. People may be ignorant and racist, but if there is one they are not: they are not prejudiced. So just suck it up and deal.
The implicit message: "no one wants you here and if you don't like it, well go home."
Anyway, I don't want to give the wrong impression: I've met a lot of nice people in Japan (and Japanese living overseas). If it weren't for the great folks I have (and have had) the pleasure to work with, I probably wouldn't still be here. That said, I am looking forward to going home. Honestly, many people I have met seem to have no comprehension of how intolerant their countrymen are or, as the quote above demonstrates, don't even recognize actions as being discriminatory in the first place.
So until I can go home, I guess I'll have to continue to find solice on Debito's blog.