Top 5 Japanese Microaggressions

  • Microaggressions, that word alone can stir a mixture of emotions that can widely differ depending on the individual. Its polarizing nature is deeply linked with the perceptions people have on microaggressions: some believe they are very damaging, while others do not think they are acts of aggression at all and gag when hearing the term.

    Microaggressions are actions or statements, often done without the intention to hurt, that subtly express prejudices towards members of a marginalized group. As a result of their subtlety, and the fact that they are done unintentionally and unconsciously, microaggressions can be hiding in multiple cultures without being addressed. Another problematic aspect of microaggressions is that the definition of an action that constitutes a microaggression falls on the person who felt offended. As such, conversations involving microaggressions turn into heated discussions with different parties passionately agreeing or disagreeing with certain points.

    by Martin Danker

    With that in mind, what are some of Japan’s most talked-about microaggressions?

    1. Can You Use Chopsticks?

    One of those phrases foreigners in Japan can expect to hear right off the bat. Some people in Japan tend to ask this question before the start of a meal; and if they see that the foreigner in the group is able to use chopsticks in a very natural way, they will express amazement.

    For people in Japan, the question “Can you use chopsticks?” is asked to address something they are simply curious about and has no other hidden meanings. The same happens with their shock and amazement when they see a foreigner mastering the use of chopsticks.

    However, to some foreigners this is one of the most common microaggressions since the question puts a permanent barrier between who is Japanese (or Asian, since not all foreigners are asked this question) and who is not.

    Those who feel most affected by this question tend to be foreigners who have lived in Japan for some years, and those who were actually born in Japan or lived most of their lives there since the question serves as a clear reminder that not looking Japanese will always play a role in their lives and the perceptions that they are outsiders even if they are not.

    2. Being Given a Fork or Spoon

    This falls under a similar category as the “Can you use chopsticks?” question. Some Japanese restaurants proactively give spoons or forks, besides a pair of chopsticks, to their foreing customers. Some people might not make much of it or even notice how uncommon receiving a spoon or fork at those kinds of restaurants is until they see that the Japanese people around them were never given such utensils.

    While providing foreign customers with such utensils could be regarded as attention to detail and the establishment’s careful anticipation of their customers’ needs, it is also an action many regard as a microaggression due to its assumption that foreigners won’t be able to handle chopsticks and eat food like Japanese do.

    An easy solution to make sure foreigners don’t get upset would simply be to let customers ask for spoons and forks if they feel they need them.

    3. The Empty Seat

    One of the biggest hot topics in Japan, the empty seat phenomenon has been the focus of many articles, including one from Japan Info.

    Some foreigners have come to realize that Japanese people tend to avoid sitting next to them unless it’s absolutely necessary. However, some people will not get a seatmate even during the most congested times like the morning rush hour, prompting them to wonder whether racism is embedded in this action.

    This is one of those topics that creates a lot of debate since not all foreigners receive the same treatment, making people wonder whether there are other factors at play like one’s appearance that would dissuade people from sitting next to them.

    If this is something that doesn’t happen to you that often (or at all, for that matter), ask some friends about their experiences to see how prevalent this phenomenon is within your social group.

    4. Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne!

    The mother of all compliments in Japan, which translates to “Your Japanese is so good!”
    Now, at first sight this does not sound bad at all. Japanese is a language many find quite difficult to learn and pronounce, so receiving this compliment should surely lift one’s spirits, right?

    Well… here’s where it gets tricky. “Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne!” is thrown left and right, no matter the occasion or sentence. If one were to say a very complicated and carefully structured sentence during a Japanese lesson, then the compliment would be more than welcome, but what if you are at a coffee shop and say something very simple that falls under the category of survival Japanese? Things like, “I’d like hot coffee, please,” “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Thank you,” and you still received the “Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne!” compliment? Perhaps the first time will sound encouraging, but as you reach the 10th compliment just because you successfully ordered a glass of water you will start to realize that the compliment has other implications. For starters, your Japanese might not even be that good. As we embark on the journey of learning a new language, we become very self-aware of our weaknesses and struggles, and thus receiving a compliment about our not-there-yet Japanese prowess, we will inevitably start to perceive the phrase as nothing but an empty compliment aimed at any foreign-looking person who tries to speak Japanese.

    And things don’t end there. While the compliment could start getting bothersome to those who are speakers at the beginner or intermediate levels, there are also people who master the language, people who use daily at work and in their personal lives, people who have spent most of their lives in Japan or who were even born and raised in the archipelago. They too will receive the “Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne!” compliment. Thus, once again, we have an action that emphasises that as long as someone does not look Japanese they will always be outsiders, not matter how fluent they are in the language.

    5. This is Japan

    The phrase “This is Japan” does not truly fall under the microaggression category. However, it’s a phrase that is widely used to justify both microaggressions and racism. Can’t find an apartment that will allow foreigners? “Well, this is Japan.” People are not sitting next to you on the train? “Well, this is Japan.” Japan left many foreign residents stranded overseas during the COVID-19 pandemic? “Well, this is Japan.”

    It is not uncommon to hear this or a similar expression when challenging a policy or action that would be either racist or a microaggression. Sadly, this phrase is sometimes also uttered by foreigners after they hear another person complain or share their experience with a microaggression or a racist policy.

    However, the phrase is not only used in those contexts. “This is Japan” is also used when promoting the country, and thus can appear quite frequently, including in Isetan’s and Mitsukoshi’s advertisements.