by Robert Moorehead
After protests by local non-Japanese residents, the Genky store in Minokamo, Gifu prefecture, has taken down the signs that warned foreign customers that they were being watched as potential criminals.
My Portuguese skills are limited, so hopefully a reader can help translate the video. I am encouraged by the response of the local non-Japanese community in standing up for their rights, and by the fact that the store management responded to those concerns.
Stereotypes are harder to maintain when the person the stereotypes supposedly describe is standing right in front of you. In that case, we sometimes fall victim to what Tim Wise has called “enlightened exceptionalism.” That is, have prejudiced views about a group but making an exception for individual members of that group. This approach lets prejudiced whites vote for Barack Obama, while still holding racist views of African Americans. In this case, clerks at the Genky store might have said to the protestors, “Of course the sign doesn’t describe you. It refers to other foreigners.”
The protestors used the uncomfortable tension the staff likely felt when confronted with protests to their advantage, in demanding that the signs be taken down and in rewarding the removal of the signs with applause. In so doing, they hopefully have taken a step toward turning a foe into an ally. But whether the staff at Genky will still watch non-Japanese customers with suspicion or not, at least that suspicion is no longer publicly posted for all the world to see. The public posting of the signs reproduced and reinforced negative stereotypes of foreigners in Japan.
A Portuguese page on Facebook contains links and discussion about this issue: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Preconceito-eou-Discriminação-no-Japão/551075024924887.
“This approach lets prejudiced whites vote for Barack Obama, while still holding racist views of African Americans.” An unfortunate comparison which is fallacious and doesn’t contribute to the discussion.
Thanks for the comment. How is the comparison fallacious? The point is that Japanese people may have positive interactions and relationships with individual foreigners while still holding prejudiced beliefs about foreigners in general. People can justify this seeming contradiction by thinking that the individual person they know is somehow different from other members of their group.
This is not unique to Japan, as studies have documented similar behavior in the US and elsewhere. In the example I provided, the act of voting for Barack Obama does not necessarily mean that a voter does not still hold stereotypical views of African Americans. (And numerous studies document the persistence of such views in the US.) Rather, the voter may see Obama as different from other blacks. Similarly, the fact that a Japanese person has a friend who’s Brazilian, or a white American has a friend who’s black, isn’t necessarily proof that the person doesn’t hold stereotyped views of those groups. The statements “I can’t be racist, I work with Brazilians” or “I can’t be racist, some of my best friends are black” avoid the issue. Humans are very adept at finding ways to hold onto views that define their group as somehow superior to another group. And to be clear, I am not saying that all Japanese, or all whites, are prejudiced.
In this case, the act of challenging the manager of the Genky store over the sign is likely to produce the response that the manager doesn’t think the individual foreigners standing in front of him are going to steal from the store. Instead, the sign is a warning to “other” foreigners. This isn’t necessarily a deception. It’s easier to apply the stereotype to someone we don’t know. Instead, we make an exception to the rule, without challenging the rule itself.
The phrase “enlightened exceptionalism” in my post is a link to an essay by Tim Wise in which he uses the phrase. I encourage you to check out his essay.
Thanks again for following the blog and commenting on the post.
I have had many conversations like this:
JP Boss: I hate Koreans they are all…..
Me: You know, James is Korean…
JP Boss: That’s different! James is a good Korean, you know what I mean…
Thanks for the comment. This is a great, but depressing, example of enlightened exceptionalism. It’s really hard to fight because actual direct contact with the member of the stereotyped group isn’t necessarily weakening the stereotype.