Personal Experience: Subtle Racism In Japan

To be completely honest, Tokyo isn’t that bad when it comes to racism. You will not hear any aggressive stories in the news about how the Japanese are racist towards foreigners. But in my daily life, I have noticed some very subtle ways that some of their actions can be interpreted as “racist”.

I’m sure that most in most of these cases, they don’t intend to be rude. I also definitely think that a lot of that “racism” stems from shyness and that they don’t do it intentionally, but to us it just comes across like that. As a Japanese speaker who has lived in Japan for six months, here are some small forms of racism I have encountered:

Addressing you in English instead of Japanese

This happens more than you would expect. It’s normal that they would address you in English in very touristy areas. I really don’t mind it then. But when it happens at my local supermarket where I go almost every day… That can really get to me.

One time, the woman at the counter asked me in Japanese if I wanted chopsticks. I politely replied, “yes, please,” in Japanese. Then she repeated the same question in English and pointed at the chopsticks at the same time. This really confused me because I had already said “yes” in Japanese. I repeated what I had already said, and then ended up saying it in English.

A second incident similar to this occurred when I got to a self-scan counter. Before I had even put my groceries down, the woman in charge changed the screen settings to English. These two incidents may seem small and insignificant, but it does kind of make you feel unwelcome.

subtle racism japan dog

Complementing your Japanese

Pretty much every time I go shopping for clothes, or even at the convenient store, the clerk will tell me that my Japanese is very good. Yes, at first this seems very flattering. I used to love it. But I’ve lived here for six months now and it still happens often. Even when all I say are phrases like “yes,” “please,” and “thank you” in Japanese, they still compliment me on it. When this happens, I can’t help but imagine being a foreigner who has lived here for many years, who still has to hear this in his or her daily life.

subtle racism japan gossip girl

Not sitting next to you on the train

I luckily haven’t had to endure this too often, but I notice it occurs a lot more with guys. The process goes as followed: they enter the train and notice the free seat, and then they notice you. There is a hint of panic in their eyes as they search for a different seat. If they find a seat, even it’s at the other side of the wagon, they will probably go sit there. If there are no other free seats, yes, they will sit next to you.

I take the train every day and this scenario doesn’t happen too often. But when it does, it is really noticeable and you realise it’s because of you.

subtle racism japan girl train

I think that in most of these situations the people didn’t have bad intentions. Japanese are known to be shy. So therefore, by switching to English immediately, they could just be avoiding awkward situations where the foreigner indeed doesn’t speak Japanese and becomes very confused. And when they complement your Japanese, they probably DO mean it, because they most likely get a lot of tourists that are not Japanese speakers.

Most of the subtle racism that occurs to me I actually don’t mind, because I always think: “I’ll be leaving in six months, so I can live with it.” But what if you actually lived and worked in Japan as a foreigner that speaks perfect Japanese and you have to face it every day? I just think that it must be very frustrating, even though it’s just little things and they are not actually being mean to you.

I still find Japan an amazing and beautiful country, and would recommend everybody to do an exchange program here. These incidents don’t occur every day. When they do, they’re very subtle and you often don’t notice it. And if you do, just count yourself lucky that it stays at that.

Profile photo of Hanna B


Hanna B

Hanna is a 22 year old Japanese Studies student who majored in Japanese literature in Tokyo, Japan last year. She founded her blog,, where she documents her travels and daily life in Japan. In her spare time she loves to read and write. She also has a big passion for food and fashion.

One comment

  1. Hello, interesting article about your experiences but I think “xenophobic” is the word you’re looking for not “racist”. Just wanted to share.

Leave a Reply