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Asia Insight

#BlackLivesMatter shines light on racism in Japan and across Asia

George Floyd's death finally gets Asians talking about inclusiveness

JADA NAGUMO and NANA SHIBATA, Nikkei staff writers | Japan

TOKYO -- "One time, a man told me to 'straighten my hair like a Japanese girl' if I wanted a boyfriend," said 35-year-old Temple University student Juniper Alexander. For her, that was just the tip of the iceberg of racial discrimination she has faced while living in Japan.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Alexander had dreamed of living in Japan, fascinated by martial arts and modern, technologically advanced cities in the country. After arriving in 2014, however, she realized that discrimination against African Americans was still rife.

"People are generally nice and nonconfrontational but there is still a sense of covert discrimination and we're seen as violent or scary," she said.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May while he was being restrained by police sparked a global outcry over police brutality and systematic racism toward African Americans in the U.S. Demonstrations there have rippled out to Asia with countries like South Korea, Australia, Thailand and Taiwan embracing the Black Lives Matter movement.

Alexander and other students have helped to form "Black Lives Matter Tokyo." In June, it organized a peaceful march around Tokyo attended by over 3,000 people to show solidarity.

Black Lives Matter demonstrators marching in Tokyo after the death of George Floyd.   © Reuters

Japan, however, has a long way to go in educating itself about racism.

Public broadcaster NHK came under fire in June after it posted a cartoon on its Twitter account aimed at explaining the Black Lives Matter movement to children -- but the anime depicted black Americans in an offensive way, failed to explain complex race relations in the U.S. and, controversially, did not mention George Floyd's death.

A group of academics, including Mari Yoshihara, who is an American Studies professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, wrote to NHK to seek an explanation of the rationale behind the creation of the cartoon, and requested that the broadcaster did not perpetuate racial stereotypes in future programs.

"We could not overlook the contents of the program and animation," said Yoshihara.

The letter, signed by 13 scholars in June, stated that "the portrayals in the animation clip reinforce the existing stereotypes of African Americans and violate their dignity. This is simply unacceptable."

NHK has apologized and removed the clip from its Twitter account. A spokesperson told the Nikkei Asian Review that NHK had begun retraining its staff on human rights issues.

Other Japanese companies have also been blasted over racist advertisements.

Instant-noodle maker Nissin Foods Holdings was accused of whitewashing after it aired a commercial last year that featured tennis player Naomi Osaka, who is half-Haitian, as a pale-skinned anime character. The company quickly pulled the advert.

Such incidents show that Japan still has some ways to go in treating issues of race with more sensitivity. This is particularly so, as labor shortage means the country has to increasingly hire foreigners. Persol Research and Consulting forecast that Japan will face a shortage of 6.4 million workers by 2030 due to population decline.

Tokyo has introduced a new visa program in the hopes of drawing in more foreigners. Persol also estimates that the number of foreign workers will jump 63% to reach over 2 million by 2030 from 2017.

Foreign workers at the Lawson convenience store chain undergo training in Tokyo. (Photo by Kotaro Igarashi)

African Americans are not the only ethnic minorities in Japan who face discrimination.

A 25-year-old Kurd, Rekan Omer, left his home in Iraq in 2018 to study and find employment in Japan.

He has applied for over 100 jobs and been rejected every time. "I've been rejected even though I fulfill the requirements. Those companies that reject me usually ask about my nationality," he said.

The lack of opportunity in Japan has frustrated him and is prompting him to rethink his decision to settle here. "I've started considering finding opportunities elsewhere like in Canada or New Zealand where I think there is a more open society," he said.

Anh Le Nhat, a Vietnamese student in her final year at Tokyo International University, is another young foreigner finding it hard to get a job.

"I was looking for a job with other international students from the U.S. and Italy, they've been easily accepted while I'm still struggling," she said. While she continues to search for full-time employment, she has taken up work at a factory production line, where all of her co-workers are Vietnamese.

"I've heard [such opinions that] foreigners are irresponsible and work [more] slowly than Japanese colleagues," she said.

Such discrimination is also prevalent in neighboring Asian countries.

In May, weeks before the death of George Floyd, a video surfaced in Hong Kong of a police officer kneeling on the neck of a man who was confirmed dead the next day. The nationality of the man was not confirmed but an eyewitness said he was South Asian.

Local newspaper Apple Daily reported that the eyewitness said officers had exerted pressure on the suspect's body for five to seven minutes.

In the past year, Hong Kong has faced accusations of police brutality as pro-democracy protesters clashed violently with authorities.

Puja Kapai, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, pointed out that police brutality in the city was not new. "Police brutality experienced by young protesters is something ethnic minorities have faced for decades," she said. "It was just not known or people were just ignoring it."

There were reports of Africans in Guangzhou, China, being evicted and barred from restaurants amid unfounded rumors that they were spreading coronavirus. (Photo by Takashi Kawakami)

In April, China faced criticism for its treatment of Africans during the coronavirus outbreak.

After five Nigerians in Guangzhou city tested positive for coronavirus, baseless rumors blaming them for spreading the disease began to circulate. Stories about Africans being evicted from their homes and being turned away from restaurants prompted the Nigerian government and the African Union to criticize China and demand that the country address its mistreatment of Africans.

As the Asian economy develops, and aging populations force some countries to open their borders, more and more workers are arriving in the region.

In 2019, Asia was home to 84 million migrants, according to a report issued last year by the International Organization for Migration. The region is slowly shifting toward a more diverse, heterogeneous society. Europe received 82 million migrants, and the two regions together were home to 61% of the world's migrants in 2019.

Migrants to Asia have grown by an astounding 69%, or 34 million people, from 2000. Europe had the second largest growth with an increase of 25 million migrants.

"Many Asian countries are now countries of destination rather than countries of origin," said IOM spokesperson Itayi Viriri, citing "increased economic growth and prosperity."

There has been an inflow of migrants to Japan, reaching a total of 2.5 million people as of last year, a 47% jump from 2000. The number of migrants has more than doubled to over 3 million in Thailand and Malaysia during the same period. The trend is similar in South Korea, Singapore and China.

Meanwhile, this year has been a challenging one for migrants as the coronavirus outbreak forced countries to close their borders, essentially putting a stop to the inflow of people.

The pandemic, however, has also reinforced the importance of lower-skilled jobs in Asia that have typically been carried out by migrant workers. Jobs like "caregiving, agriculture and manufacturing, as well as food and retail, have been deemed essential services," said Viriri from IOM.

Chiho Ogaya, a professor at Ferris University in Yokohama predicted that Asian countries will continue to be destinations for migrants in the post-coronavirus era.

She raises an important condition, though: "There is a possibility for a new kind of racism where foreign workers are depicted as carrying the virus," noting that addressing and rectifying this will be important as countries ease lockdowns and aim to further increase the number of migrants.

In order for Asia to embrace diversity and inclusiveness, many are calling for a reexamination of education surrounding racial discrimination.

Bishnu Prasad Bhatt, principal at the Everest International School Japan, is one of those. The school educates Nepalese students in Japan. Bhatt said they are constantly taught about equality and diversity.

Diversity and equality are concepts drummed into students at the Everest International School in Tokyo, which caters to Nepalese people. (Photo courtesy of the Everest International School)

The Nepalese community in Japan has grown substantially to over 90,000 at the end of 2019 from a little over 20,000 in 2012, based on data from the Ministry of Justice.

Bhatt, who has faced discrimination in the country, said: "It feels like Japan's immigration system welcomes young laborers to foster the economy but then there isn't much support for people to keep on living in Japan."

Tokyo-based English teacher Patrick Smith stressed the importance of educating children about such issues from a young age. One of his kindergarten students recently pointed at Smith, who is an African American, and said "[Your] face is dirty."

"I immediately stopped the lesson and calmly explained to my students how my face is not dirty, that it is the same as everyone but just a different color," he said.

"Japanese schools can benefit by using educational content that includes people of color," he said, noting that "the younger the better," so kids can get exposed to what the world looks like.

The United Nations' Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes migration as a key contributor to sustainable development. It calls on countries to facilitate safe, regular and responsible migration by implementing planned and well-managed policies.

However, according to U.N. data from 2019, Asia still lags behind the West in promoting the integration of those from overseas. Around 57% of governments in East and Southeast Asia reported that they provided migrants equal access to public education while the figure was 65% for Europe and North America.

For the percentage of governments that implement measures for equal payment, East and Southeast Asia was 29%, while the number in Europe and North America was 35%.

The Migrant Integration Policy Index, published by institutions such as the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, also highlights how countries like Japan and South Korea fall behind their counterparts in anti-discrimination policies.

There is no easy path, but the struggle continues around the world.

Philonise Floyd, the younger brother of the late George Floyd, testified to the U.S. Congress on July 10: "If his death ends up changing the world for the better -- and I think it will, I think it has -- then he died as he lived."

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