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I've heard that there can be discrimination against foreigners, and even naturalized citizens born in other countries, in Japan, and that it happens in onsen, bars, and adult entertainment establishments.

Is this a more common problem in more rural areas, such as Tohoku, than in metropolitan places such as Tokyo?

Are most places that discriminate against foreigners strict about their policies, or are they willing to ignore the rules if you're obviously not a trouble-maker? What if you explain that you aren't one of (Nationality X) that's caused trouble lately?

In places where a significant proportion of establishments discriminate against foreigners, are the places that don't discriminate fairly inferior to those that do discriminate?

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My advice: Find a place that is foreigner friendly. Generally, it doesn't matter where you are from. People that hate you because you're X will also hate Y. Unless of course someone says, "I hate Americans/Dutch/Ethiopians." In that case, just be "Canadian/German/Kenyan." If someone tells you foreigners aren't allowed here at all, or after a certain time, just go elsewhere. Japan is a nice place, but there is quite a bit of discrimination. Don't let that get you down. –  Ginamin Jan 22 '12 at 2:52
    
Too many great answers for me to choose an accepted answer while on holiday! Mark, make your choice for the bounty independent of me please. –  Andrew Grimm Feb 13 '12 at 1:11
    
oh it's done :) thanks –  Mark Mayo Feb 13 '12 at 19:55

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The short answer is: no, you can't, but it's really not a problem.

I assume your profile picture is accurate, and you are a white male.

The Western notion that everybody should get an even break, regardless of background or appearance, just doesn't exist here in Japan. The Japanese feel entitled to judge according to appearances. White men have a role here, and it's not a bad one. You won't experience the same conformist pressures as the natives (e.g. bald Japanese men have a rotten time) and, if you're single, you'll be thoroughly spoilt!

The "Japanese Only" signs are very rare (except for the sex industry). They usually only appear in places where foreigners have caused problems. It's not fair, but if you want fairness don't come here.

One piece of practical advice: fit the profile. A conventional, preppy appearance will get you a long way. If you have tattoos, only let your close friends see them. Enjoy playing the role of honored guest. It will wear thin after a while, but by then you should have figured out for yourself whether Japan is for you.

So don't worry about discrimination. Just go with the flow, and I'm sure you'll have a great time.

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Wasn't aware of any discrimination what so ever when I traveled in Japan. I was told that foreigners weren't allowed in some hotels. Personally I was never rejected. My guess it is as common as in any other country. Maybe I am just too thick to have noticed any. In that case you have your answer, just be as thick ;)

Actually I would say the opposite. People would go great length to help you, sometimes even to an extent that I started feeling uncomfortable, because I was clearly interfering with their personal life.

There might be some aspects of "Japanese" life that could explain some sense being ignored. The first is the existing language barrier if you don't speak Japanese.

Then there is the stamp to sign a contract. In Japan you apparently don't sign contracts, you have a a little stamp. I ended up having such a stamp, which is a great souvenir. I was denied buying a phone I really, really wanted. The first comment was that it was not allowed to foreigners, just because the stamp requirement was too complicated to explain. A Japanese not only needs to explain the stamp system, he or she also need to figure out a Japanese writing for your name, if you want to have such a stamp.

Finally there is some notion of society levels in Japan. I didn't completely understand the different levels, but it matters if you are for example a diplomat or studied at Tokyo university. This was explained to me by one guy on the train, so it could also be completely rubbish.

Personally I was never aware of any discrimination, other then from the same idiot, you would find anywhere in the world.

But then again thinking about it, I actually didn't meet that idiot.

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My impression is that it's hidden below the surface so that it's pretty likely you won't run into it as a traveller, but if you talk to any expats living there it turns out to be one of their major topics. –  hippietrail Oct 25 '13 at 4:50

It's hard to make general statements about this issue because it's different for every region, business and individual. I'll just list some points:

  • In general, explicit discrimination (i.e. a sign "Japanese customers only") is rare, I don't think there are any "places where a significant proportion of establishments discriminate against foreigners".
  • The adult entertainment business may be different (often operated by yakuza, which tend to be very nationalist).
  • Rural areas see hardly any foreigners, so they're less likely to have an explicit policy but perhaps more likely to feel uneasy about foreigners.
  • If there is an explicit policy, there probably won't be any exceptions; don't bother starting a discussion.
  • Caucasian-looking foreigners are less likely to encounter discrimination than others. Nationality matters less.
  • Speaking Japanese helps a lot in alleviating fears that you'll be a difficult customer and might get you into some places that might otherwise claim to be fully booked.
  • Being in the company of Japanese people willing to vouch for you is better yet and might even get you into places with an explicit "no foreigners" policy.
  • If you want to be absolutely certain not to face any discrimination, go to Roppongi in Tokyo - it's an entire entertainment district that specifically caters to foreigners.
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Regarding your second point, yakuza are indeed often connected to right-wing, but if they do avoid foreigners (which I am not sure), that is not because they are nationalist. That is for sure. –  sawa Jun 19 at 7:09

Japan is a much more culturally and racially homogeneous society than the US, and within the Japanese population, people enjoy lower barriers to trust because of these shared norms. I remember once when I was a kid, me and my family were flying to Japan, and my Japanese mom started chatting with a Japanese lady in the seat next to her. A few hours later, the lady had invited her to send me to spend a week or two at her place, in I-forget-where, just to experience a very different area of Japan from my mom's home, where we were headed. My mom was all for it, but to my American dad this seemed like madness.

Having lived in Japan a few times, I can see that it wasn't; people really will honestly go out of their way to help you, as @Andra points out in his answer.

The downside to this of course is that when an outsider is thrown into the mix, a few (few!) people can get nervous, because these norms of politeness, and other more arbitrary and hard-to-explain norms (like the silly stamp thing that @Andra also mentioned), are all of a sudden not necessarily shared. It's less "ugh I hate non-Japanese people" and more "is this interaction going to go smoothly?" and also some "oh god I don't remember any of my high-school English" :)

If you can speak some Japanese, obviously that goes a long way, but just being friendly but respectful will diffuse any uncertainty they may have about how awkward things are going to be. Like others have pointed out, they come from a place of high politeness standards, so if you present your self similarly, you will find your "in".

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I lived in Japan for a year and a half in the mid 90's. I was, at the time, fairly fluent in Japanese and very respectful of their customs. I remember one night, a few friends and I were out on the town and we stopped outside a bar and started talking to the doorman. After several minutes of friendly chatting in Japanese, we started to walk inside. Doorman put his hand up, and stepped slightly to the side revealing a "No Gaijin" sign. Despite the fact that my friends and I were fluent in Japanese and obviously not people who would start problems, there was no way we were getting in that bar.

Incidents like that were few and far between, though. In my experience, most people were very kind and courteous and I faced little discrimination as a foreigner, and even when I did like in the incident above, they were actually pretty polite about it. Even the people I knew who didn't speak any Japanese had few troubles, as long as they weren't jerks.

For the most part, Japanese people, especially younger people, thought Americans were pretty cool.

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First of all, reading Debito.org will give you quite a misleading picture of Japan. The guy's on a crusade to ferret out every piece of discrimination and "discrimination" he can and, while I respect some of the stuff he's done, he goes way overboard at times.

So the good news is that as a white guy, you've very unlikely to run into overt discrimination. (Many of Debito's horror stories involve darker-skinned migrant workers, who get treated with much less respect. I don't like it either, but shikata ga nai.) I've lived in Japan for four years and I can't recall ever seeing a single "no foreigners" sign, even in places like onsens in northern Hokkaido that are -- if you believe Debito -- supposed to be hotbeds of anti-Russian sentiment. Then again, I didn't spend much time trying to gatecrash dodgy hostess bars, which from what I can tell are pretty much the only kind of place where "significant proportion of establishments discriminate against foreigners".

The bad news is that there's some less overt discrimination, and if these unwritten rules are "policy", they'll apply it across the board and will not bend the rules. That's the point of prejudice, after all: it's easier to ban all X than to start trying to distinguish between various flavors of X. However, this is mostly for things like renting apartments, getting credit cards and the kind of thing you will only run into if you actually live in the country long-term.

Finally, there is no black and white rule for where discrimination happens. Tohoku gets less foreigners, so people are less used to dealing with them; however, in my experience, this is often a positive, as people will be genuinely curious and you'll be treated with extra respect. In Tokyo, gaijin are a dime a dozen, so nobody will bat an eyelid -- but more people will have prejudices born from previous bad experiences.

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"Then again, I didn't spend much time trying to gatecrash dodgy hostess bars" - you only go to the more upmarket hostess bars instead? –  Andrew Grimm Feb 13 '12 at 1:14
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I'm being snarky. But as it happens, a good many upmarket hostess bars actually employ Western ladies and would not necessarily object to Western men as customers. –  jpatokal Feb 13 '12 at 2:09

One of the assumptions I had was that banning a subset of a group (eg Russians) is less discriminatory than banning the whole group (eg all foreigners).

That may have been an incorrect assumption. When all foreigners are banned, it's like "we like nihonjin", whereas if a particular group were banned, it'd be like "we remember when your mates trashed the joint last year".

That's my theory based on the tattoo bathing question, anyway.

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Actually, the tattoo bathing ban comes from wanting to keep out yakuza, who were (traditionally) the only group in Japan with extensive tattoos. –  jpatokal Feb 13 '12 at 2:05
    
@jpatokal: that's what I was meaning. They only want to ban yakuza, but they ban everyone with a tattoo to make it less offensive. –  Andrew Grimm Feb 13 '12 at 3:53
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I think it's just easier to implement, since you've either got tattoos or you don't. Remember, it's management coming up with this stuff, but front line peons enforcing it. Offensiveness is not really a factor: I've seen signs prohibiting entry to bōryokudan (暴力団), lit. "violent group", which is the legal term for yakuza. –  jpatokal Feb 13 '12 at 22:21

There is explicit discrimination in some places, but these are based on the behavior of the foreigners in the past.

  • When you try to rent an apartment, sometimes foreigners are explicitly rejected (sometimes in written form in advertisement). The reason varies for different nationalities of people. The major concern a landlord has with Westerners, especially Americans, is that they have the custom of wearing the shoes inside the house. Accordingly, Americans tend to keep that custom in a Japanese house, ending up messing and damaging the tatami. As for Chinese, landlords are concerned about them speaking loud. And for most foreigners, the major difficulty is that, in Japan, you can dispose trash only within a limited time in the morning of a particular day of the week depending on the type of the trash. Many foreigners do not follow this rule, causing headache to the neighbors and/or the landlord.

  • I have heard that there is a struggle at public baths between Russian customers and the bath owners. Here, the problem is that many foreigners try to go into the bathtub without washing their body clean. The purpose of soaking yourself in the bathtub is different between Western countries and Japan. In Japan, the bathtub is for heating your body, increasing the blood flow, and getting relaxed. People stay in the tub for a while, and the water in the tub should stay clean. Washing the body should not be done inside the bath tub, but should be done outside of it, prior to soaking your body in the tub.

Some of them are just prejudice, and some are real things that happen particularly with foreigners, and that is the major reason there is discrimination in Japan. I do not consider this is the way it should be, but it is the reality. This is indeed discrimination, and if people wanted to avoid such trouble, they should think of something other than discrimination based on the appearance.

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This trip, I stayed in Sapporo, Zao Onsen, Sendai, and a few nights in Tokyo.

Outside of the adult entertainment industry, and a store that sold weapons inter alia, I didn't face any discrimination on the basis of race or nationality. I went to bars in all of these locations, and didn't have any problems. I went to onsen in Zao Onsen, Tsuru no yu onsen, and Odaiba onsen, and far from banning foreigners, all three provided English-language information of one sort or another, and the latter two also had Korean-language info.

I had mixed success with hostess bars. I tried a couple of hostess bars in Sapporo with no luck, and all but one of the touts I came across ignored me. However, in Sendai, one place touted itself to me and I spent an hour there.

Somewhat frustratingly, even though I wasn't allowed in hostess bars in Sapporo, I came across touts for スペシャルマッサージ (Supesharu massāji) in both Sapporo and Sendai. As far as I remember, they almost always spoke in English to me! When I explained that I was looking for hostess bars, not massāji, one tout helpfully explained that that wasn't possible in Sapporo, but that as well as massage parlours, he had a soapland that I could go to. Kekko desu (no thanks)!

I only saw one "no foreigners" sign in Japan. It was outside a soapland in Sendai.

We are very sorry but we can't accept foreign customers in our form, then something in Japanese

So in conclusion, rural versus urbanized didn't make much of a difference in this trip, nor did my specific nationality help much, and it wasn't much of a problem outside of the adult entertainment industry.

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As a traveler, you will not experience discrimination in Japan. Japnaese are clever people, and can tell if you have lived in Japan for a long time. If they feel you are a "gaijin" meaning you live in Japan but your not Japanese, then they will treat you as an outcast. gaijin means outcast or outsider; it has its roots in an ancient caste system leftover from the feudal era. It has nothing to do with being a forienger in the context that some countries use it. It means non Japanese; somebody outside the loop. So as a traveler, japanese see something in you they dont have in themselves, you express yourself freely and have not become japanese and will giggle and treat you so well. your naive and somebody they can express themselves too in an otherwise very cold and insolent society. This is why so many newbies to Japan walk away from Japan thinking oh, what a great country when in reality they just experienced the Japanese fine are of manipulation. Its the hook that brings many in, but latter the snake bites and you see how it really is. True, there is discrimination everywhere, and every defender of Japan points to this, but discrimination in Japan isnt the same as elsewhere. In Japan if your not Japanese then your not part of the wa or big family so your an outcast, it doesnt matter what race you are. Japan shares this with many asian cultures.
My advice is enjoy your travel, enjoy the fake admiration that Japanese give you, then leave before the charmed snake bites :)

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protected by Mark Mayo Sep 30 '13 at 0:51

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