Particularly if you live there.
Particularly if you're an ethnic minority.
Unlike the United States, Japan does not have laws banning racial discrimination in any way. The general concept of equality is mentioned in the constitution, Article 14,
"All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin. 2) Peers and peerage shall not be recognized. 3) No privilege shall accompany any award of honor, decoration or any distinction, nor shall any such award be valid beyond the lifetime of the individual who now holds or hereafter may receive it."
However, in practice, Article 14 proves to be little more than lip service. Much of Japan's legislation is toothless, with informal practices carried out regardless of what the law says. Any minority is fair game for discrimination, or at the very least, patronization. And when legislators attempt to fix the problem, they end up sorry they tried.
In 2002, a human rights bill was bogged down before coming to a vote, with opposition coming from concerns of freedom of expression over an anti-hate speech clause, and a proposal that Japanese nationals be the only people allowed to be human rights protection monitors. North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens played a factor, worrying some about who might end up in a position of influence.
In 2005, the bill was attempted again, with watered-down language concerning hate speech, but still failed to find sufficient support.
We'll cover five of the more prominent groups here, and how they're affected.
The most obvious, the ones that don't look the part at all. 'Gaijin' is a catch-all term for Westerners- Americans, Europeans, Brazilians. Yes, there is a Brazilian contingent in Japan. The Japanese are an insular people, with a very, very complex culture. A culture they on the whole think too complicated for an outsider to ever really understand, no matter how hard they try.
The Japanese mean well in this regard- they want the outsiders to understand, and as most visitors to Japan will attest, the help is welcome. The problem comes when someone decides to move to Japan, and as the years go on, they're seen as just as much of an outsider as when they first arrived. If you happen to be black, you'll get looked at in a kind of gawking manner. There aren't very many blacks in Japan. They've been seen on TV, and often imitated by Japanese looking to make fashion statements, but to see an actual black person standing there is a noteworthy thing. The noteworthiness decreases with further interaction, when one's personality is allowed to assert itself, and the merits of that personality begin to determine how one is regarded afterwards, but it can be a very disconcerting first impression.
It's still never going to be a perfect fit, though. When Japan was hit by the global economic downturn, the Japanese government, in an effort to fight a rising unemployment rate, offered Brazilian and Peruvian immigrants payouts to return to their homeland. And if you happen to need political asylum, look elsewhere. Since 1982, Japan has accepted only 508 refugees out of 8,263 applicants, an acceptance rate of only 6.1%. Comparably industrialized nations routinely receive tens of thousands of applicants per year, with the United States taking in over 1,300 Iraqi Palestinians in a single instance last July.
As one's ethnicity creeps closer to Japan itself, though, the helpfulness dries up. The Chinese are one of if not the largest minority group in Japan, sitting alongside the Koreans. Japanese sentiment towards Chinese immigrants is analogous to American sentiment towards Mexican immigrants. While there are some successful Chinese in Japan, it takes twice the effort to get half the results.
In addition, Chinese immigrants are seen as likely to commit crimes, with the fact that the Chinese show the highest crime rate among immigrants. However, it should be noted that the overall crime rate of Japan is very low compared to that of other industrialized nations, with the vast majority of crimes being committed by the Japanese themselves. And even if the identity of the suspect isn't certain, the Chinese are often blamed anyway.
The word means simply 'staying in Japan', but in practice it's primarily applied to the Koreans, both North and South. The problems here stem overwhelmingly from the North. Starting in 1959, North Korea advertised a repatriation program, which was initially quite popular, in fact more popular than South Korea's program. Then word came back about how things actually were in North Korea. Migration dried up quickly- 74,779 of the eventual 93,000 or so repatriated to North Korea did so from 1959-1961- though continued in fits and starts until 1984. Then North Korea started simply kidnapping Zainichis, and Japanese who had married Zainichis. Relations between Japan and North Korea predictably soured.
However, according to Tessa Morris-Suzuki, professor of history at Australian National University and author of "Exodus to North Korea: Shadows from Japan's Cold War",
"in the second half of the 1950s the Japanese government actively sought to persuade Zainichi Koreans to choose repatriation to North Korea over the option of remaining in Japan. In his conversation with the [International Committee of the Red Cross] official in 1956, [Inoue Matsutaro of the Japanese Red Cross] is reported going on to say that the government had “decided to undertake repatriation, if necessary by provoking individual demands to go to the North”. Precisely how the government intended to “provoke individual demands” is not clear. It should be noted, though, that precisely when this conversation was taking place, the Ministry of Health and Welfare was conducting a campaign to slash the very limited welfare benefits available to Koreans in Japan. Some 60,000 Zainichi Koreans had their welfare payments reduced or cancelled: a move which undoubtedly made the prospect of life in North Korea look more attractive than it would otherwise have seemed."
The South Koreans end up taken along for the ride. As a condition of naturalization, Zainichi Koreans were once required to take Japanese names, carry special identification, and submit to fingerprinting, under threat of deportation. While these requirements are no longer in force, informal pressure still remains to take a Japanese name.
I mentioned during the Olympics that the Ainus were one of the indigenous races that took part in 'Anthropology Days' in 1904, also known as the biggest slap in the face of multiculturalism the Olympics has ever known. Events included mud fighting and rock throwing.
At least St. Louis recognized the Ainus as an indigenous people. Until 2008, Japan didn't. In fact, only five years before St. Louis, Japan, having previously banned the Ainu language, taken land, and making the people take Japanese names, labeled the Ainus "former Aborigines." This might have been a factor in the Ainus agreeing to participate in Anthropology Days.
As such, the Ainu, living mainly on Hokkaido, were expected to fully assimilate, with most Ainu ending up ashamed of their own culture simply because they were told to be. The Ainu culture was damaged nearly to the point of extinction, and those who remain report high dropout rates, high poverty rates, 60% of the income of majority Japanese households, and an equal number stating they'd lost touch with their culture, to the point where it's impossible to tell just how many Ainu are left.
And it is a distinct culture. Men wear beards. Women wear facial tattoos before reaching marriage. Clothes are often made from elm tree bark. The Ainu have a history of story-telling through sagas, known as Yukar, though subjugation has taken away much knowledge of it. (Some is available, though, at Amazon of all places.)
There is hope, however, as the new Prime Minister elected in August, Yukio Hatoyama, is from Hokkaido. Hatoyama has pledged measures to further recognize the Ainu and bring them back from the brink. He's got a long road ahead.
The Burakumin are proof that in Japan, you don't really have to be a minority to be a minority. If you've ever heard of India's caste system and the 'Untouchables' at the bottom, the burakumin occupy much the same position in Japan. The burakumin are descendants from the lowest class citizens of the Edo period, who tended to work in 'unclean' jobs handling corpses in various states, such as butcher, tanner, leathermaker, or gravedigger.
Officially, the class was abolished in 1871 through the Emancipation Edict. In practice, as said before, many laws in Japan are utterly without teeth, and the Emancipation Edict is no exception.
Hiding buraku heritage is hard, and the social penalty for being found out can be severe. Being a burakumin can keep someone from gaining a job, or a mate. A 2006 survey showed that 1 in 5 Japanese consider buraku descent as an important factor as to whether to marry a potential spouse. Marriages that are already scheduled can and do get cancelled if one finds out that the other is a burakumin.
And it's not getting any better. In 2009, Google added some old maps to its Google Earth service of Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo, but was unaware that those maps, which marked off ghetto areas, can to this day be used to track the lineage of modern burakumin, perpetuating the prejudice.
Ironically, in Japan, the dead are revered. One of Japan's most important occasions, the Obon Festival, lasts for three days, during which, according to Buddhist belief, ancestral spirits of the dead temporarily return to the land of the living. This is most famously celebrated through paper lanterns, lit and floated down a river, each lantern denoting one passed spirit returning to the realm of the dead at the conclusion of the festival. Many Obon Festivals also use taiko drums to keep rhythm during dance, and are often the focus of contests.
Taiko drums made with leather, historically made by the burakumin. Who also consigned those spirits' earthly vessels to the ground.
For more on civil rights in Japan, or the lack thereof, check out debito.org.