Society diversity

Japanese society begins to struggle with microaggressions

A couple is shopping for an expensive item, but the store clerk is only talking to the man. A person of ethnic Korean descent but born and raised in Japan is praised for their impeccable Japanese. Someone from the LGBTQ 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 microaggression and unconscious bias that Kayo Fujiwara, a researcher on the issue, recently listed to raise awareness of how the problem manifests itself in Japan, a country that, according to her, could now be ready to start tackling the problem. sincerely.

Researchers say microaggressions — usually unintended or occasional hurtful words or actions — toward members of marginalized groups, including ethnic and sexual minorities and women, are commonplace.

Project researcher Kayo Fujiwara teaches a webinar on microaggressions on March 23, 2022. (Kyodo)

At the end of March, Fujiwara, specially appointed at the Center for Barrier-Free Education at the University of Tokyo, organized an online seminar attended by, among others, clinical psychologists and human resources consultants to deepen their understanding of micro- attacks.

Many participants found it uplifting to learn that the microaggressions were at the root of “uncertain feelings they had had in the past but were unable to verbalize,” Fujiwara told Kyodo News.

“Most people’s pattern is just to accept these feelings with reservations, but unless we (verbalize them), it doesn’t help” either for the person committing the microaggression or for the person receiving it, said Taiyo Okada, 41, a clinical psychologist who attended the seminar.

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

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

She also cites headline-grabbing remarks denigrating women made in recent times by prominent Japanese male figures, such as former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who resigned as head of the organizing committee of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 after saying that “board meetings with a lot of women take too long.”

The publication in Japanese, meanwhile, of “Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation” by Derald Wing Sue, considered by many outsiders to be the authoritative guide on the subject, in 2020 “has had great influence” to improve understanding of the issue in Japan, says Fujiwara, noting that the issue is currently being studied in Japanese universities.

Although “promoting diversity” has long been a slogan in Japan, it’s also important to think about inclusion, says Fujiwara, who has also started corporate training on the issues, addressing the harmful effects of such behaviors exclusion.

“I think it’s necessary to think about the structural advantages or disadvantages and privileges that exist and not just ‘diversity’ as the only difference,” she said, giving as examples the privileges and disadvantages between men and women, straight and gay, and cisgender. and transgender people.

“Denouncing microaggressions is not the goal in itself. Rather, I would like to raise awareness of microaggressions with a view to creating a just society where people from different backgrounds are each respected and can live a truly comfortable life. .”

According to Fujiwara, unlike hate speech, it is often difficult to report microaggressions on the spot because the person who uttered the perceived insult is usually unaware that they said something wrong.

But because of this, the offended person will often linger longer on the remark or behavior, fearing that they have been discriminated against. As a result, the emotional — and even physical — toll can be greater, says Fujiwara.

At the same time, she points out that it is important that “the unwitting microaggressor does not become defensive but (learns) the humility to gain a new perspective.”

A woman attends a webinar on microaggression in Tokyo in March 2022. (Kyodo)

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

There has also been recent controversy over allegations of racial profiling by police, with the US Embassy in Tokyo tweeting last December that it had received reports of “alleged incidents of racial profiling”. .

In the same month, the National Police Agency issued a notice to all prefectural police forces to avoid questioning people in ways that could be perceived as racist, agency officials said earlier in may.

As part of the trend to confront unconscious bias and pervasive micro-aggression in Japan, companies have even started to change their brand messaging, like beauty brand Kao, which recently removed phrases such as “beautiful white of its products.

And in recent years, educators have pointed to a growing need for diverse children’s picture books that reflect images of people in Japan’s changing multicultural and minority populations.

The term “microaggression” is said to have been coined by psychiatrists in the United States in the 1970s as part of research into race issues and mental health.

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

In his seminar, Fujiwara refers to the microaggressions experienced by black people in the United States, including the feeling of being watched by store employees while shopping; not being taken to the “good seats” in a restaurant or having waiters attend to other customers first; and white people who don’t ride in the same elevator with them or grab onto their stuff when they do.

In the case of the restaurant, Fujiwara says, the implication is that it’s okay to treat some people like second-class citizens, while in the store and elevator examples, it’s even worse: the victims feel like criminals.

In Japan, for ethnic Korean residents, or “zainichi,” who were born and raised here, being told, “You speak Japanese very well” is an example of a particularly hurtful microaggression, because the potential hidden message is: you are not a person from this country but a foreigner and “you don’t really have to know how to speak Japanese,” she says.

Fujiwara argues that these may seem like “small attacks”, as the word microaggression suggests, that people experience many times over their lifetime, but they can cause abusers to inflict more serious damage, such as hate crimes.

To rid society of microaggressions – whether someone unwittingly indulges in them, either being the target of them or witnessing them – “people have to learn the appropriate response. It’s currently being studied in Japanese universities, but more importantly still, it needs to be addressed in school education, so that people learn it from an early age,” Fujiwara said.