Friday, August 13, 2010

Racism! Oops, wait, no...

Racism is a topic that's come up a few times the past couple months. When you're living as a minority in any place, especially one so homogeneous as Japan, it's easy to become more sensitive to being treated differently. I have another story.

Yoshie and I had a fight the other day. She was right. Not in the way that girlfriends/wives are always right, but, in fact, genuinely right.

She was set to play piano at this bar/live house in Kyoto on Tuesday. We get there and walk in together, and she walks inside while I stop at the entrance to pay the cover charge. The guy looks at me, looks at her, then glances at his boss at the bar, and then says something to her that I didn't catch. But I heard the word 外国人 (foreigner; note this is the more polite form of the word). Oh no, I thought. I could feel my blood starting to heat up. This was one of those places? Confused,Yoshie goes over to the bar to ask the manager what the problem is. Meanwhile I ask the guy in front of me "Wait, so I'm a foreigner...and?"

He squirms. 「外国人ですからチャージ取れません。」"I can't charge foreigners."

So they won't accept my money because I'm a foreigner? If I were alone I would have just left with maybe a choice word or two. But Yoshie had a show...I didn't want to ruin her night by going off on the bar staff.

I wait. After a minute, Yoshie and the manager come over. He nods at me and offers a quick すみません (sorry), says something to the guy at the front, and they take my money and give me a drink ticket.

Yoshie said something about how sometimes tourists come in and the staff don't speak any English, but I was too roiled up to understand all of her explanation. What I heard was "These people don't want to deal with foreigners because they don't speak English." Even if that had been the case, it wouldn't have been as bad if they had at least seen if I could speak Japanese before refusing me service. So the rest of the night I tried to calm down for her sake, but wasn't very successful, especially when I saw Yoshie being friendly with the staff. Being the insulted party, I felt kind of betrayed. When our friends came in, I shared the story with them and continued to brood. And in some meaningless protest, I refused to use my drink ticket. Every time Yoshie told me I should have a drink, I told her to use it. Petulant, I know. Not like I was going to hurt the bar by not ordering the drink I already paid for.

So we made it through the show, but I was still moody. On the way back to the station, Yoshie asked me what was wrong and I basically went off on her about how that asshole back there wasn't going to let me in because I'm a foreigner, and my girlfriend should be upset with them instead of chummy. And if it wasn't a big deal, as her behavior implied, they should have talked to me instead of assuming I'm too dumb to speak their language.

Yeah, I shouldn't have went off on her, especially in front of our friends. The next hour and a half of the trip home was quiet and uncomfortable for the most part. Finally we both admitted that we should have handled the situation differently. She agreed that they were rude for not explaining the situation to me and she should have stuck up more for me but didn't know what to do. I conceded that there wasn't much she could do and I shouldn't have yelled at her. And we let it go at that.

Not so bad, right? Well, the next day I was on Gchat telling Dylan about the incident. I went to go take a shower and Yoshie started talking to him. When I got back, Dylan told me that there had been a big misunderstanding. Apparently in my rage I hadn't understood everything that Yoshie had been trying to tell me about the situation. As it turns out, sometimes foreigners go into that live house just to drink at the bar. The staff feel bad because they can't speak much English and many of the tourists who come in can't speak any Japanese, so as a result they often don't charge foreigners the cover fee for the live show if they just come in to sit at the bar. I guess it's easier than trying to communicate the fact that they have to pay a fee because there's a band playing.

So really they weren't being racist at all. As a matter of fact, they were probably trying to be nice. In my defense, I wish they had explained this to me themselves. But ultimately I was the asshole in this story.


  1. This is similar to the situations where women are not charged in some bars. In general, establishments want certain types of people in there, and sometimes foreigners aren't charged because more Japanese people will frequent a bar with foreign clients (in the hopes of either getting a foreign boyfriend or girlfriend, free English practice, or just a chance to hobnob with people from another culture).

    Even though I wasn't there, and before you reached the end of the story, I understood immediately what he meant because I've heard of this before. There are occasions where paid parties are held and the Japanese pay and the gaijin don't. It's all about supply and demand.

    "Even if that had been the case, it wouldn't have been as bad if they had at least seen if I could speak Japanese before refusing me service."

    I take issue with not accepting foreigners because they can't speak Japanese (and your statement seems to say it's understandable to refuse service if someone can't speak Japanese). If anyone said that anyone who did not speak English was to be refused service in America, people would be howling about racism. It's not okay here because it's Japan. At the least, non-native speakers should be seated, given menus, and allowed to try and order. If communication is impossible because of language issues, then the customer can give up and go, but outright refusal based on language is wrong in any country.

    If Japan wants to start discriminating based on Japanese language ability (and that isn't what happened here, but it does happen in other places), perhaps there should be a test of ability before one enters the country for sightseeing. It's not like Japan wants tourists or something, right? :-p

  2. Hey Orchid, thanks for your thoughts.

    No, you're right - that wouldn't have excused their behavior had that been the case. I suppose I meant that I would have considered it the lesser of two evils, though - not doing business with someone because you can't communicate is more understandable to me than not doing business with someone because of their ethnicity.

    In general I think Japanese people/businesses are pretty good about trying to cater to people who don't speak their language.

    You're right, though - this kind of thing does happen sometimes in America, and it does provoke accusations of racism. Geno's in Philly is a good example.

  3. Generally speaking, if you go looking for racism, you'll always find it. I think that's true anywhere in the world.

  4. True, but I don't know that I was looking for it. I heard something about not taking money from foreigners and didn't bother to get the whole story.

  5. Good learning experience. I often jump to conclusions too and I probably would have thought the same thing you did with all of read and heard about place like this that don't allow foreigners. But often it may just be a misunderstanding.

  6. Find a white person who is born in and native to Japan: somebody whose parents successfully immigrated into the country, etc. They'll probably have some quick "codeword" for conveying the fact they're not gaijin. Learn this from them, if your delicate sensibilities are so shattered by this harmless sort of thing. Note, though, that you're really short changing yourself if you use the codeword, forfeiting your status as an honored guest and white badass. Don't go *justifying* the racism by fucking up everybody's evening... Soon you'll start hearing, "Sorry but we don't allow foreigners because they make the ride home awkward for their girlfriends and friends and they're unfriendly to the bar staff too"

  7. Maybe you should make a sign [in English] for them to post in the entryway.

  8. Not to say that there isn't racism at all in Japan...but, in my opinion, most cases of "racism" here are simply situations like this.

  9. Tokyo Five, do you mean most cases of racism in Japan are just well-meaning misunderstandings? Well, I'm going to have to disagree with you on that one. I get a lot less of the free cover charge racism and much more of the old women changing seats when I sit next to them on the train racism.

  10. >the old women changing seats when I sit next to them on the train racism

    If you watch passengers on trains in Japan, when a cherished "corner seat" becomes vacant on a train, many Japanese people will get up and move to it. It has nothing to do whether a foreigner, another Japanese or no one at all is sitting next to them.

    Othertimes, people get up and stand when their station is coming up.

    So, yes, even though many foreigners think Japanese dislike sitting near them. This too is usually a cultural misunderstanding, I believe.

  11. YES, Japan IS CHANGING!

    30 years ago, and today is VERY different! 30 years ago, a walk in Osaka would have brought dropped jaws as people stared at you walking down the street. (usually tourists in from the countryside)

    Good to hear that you made a step up in understanding discrimination! You are almost ready for the next step.

    Next step is when some Japanese DO discriminate you, and you THINK it is because you are foreigner, but in reality they discriminate that way to Japanese as well!

    Example would be moving into an established neighborhood or going into a neighborhood bar.

    Neighborhood anything has its pecking order, and ANYBODY who creates a small wave gets the hammer on them!