It’s New Year’s Day at a shrine situated in a residential area in central Tokyo. There is a long line of people waiting to enter the shrine to pray, dispose of last year’s good luck charms, and purchase new ones for the coming year. Tables selling a wide variety of charms to aid in making every wish for the coming year come true are set up opposite the two temple areas where folks will take turns clapping their hands, bowing, and saying a silent prayer. The mood of the scene is relatively sedate and people are respectful of those around them despite the crowd. Even the people imbibing hot sake at a tent near the charm sellers are on their best behavior so as not to interfere with the spiritual observances of those visiting the shrine.
A middle-aged American couple has come to the shrine to learn more about the cultural practices of the Japanese on their most important holiday. They know enough about kanji to read the symbols on the teabag-shaped good luck charms on offer, and decide to buy one. There are people lingering at the tables in front of the couple, so they wait patiently and silently behind a mother and her pre-teen daughter. As the daughter surveys the charms, she catches the red-haired, blue-eyed foreign woman out of the corner of her eye and immediately taps her mother’s shoulder and pulls her down to whisper in her ear. The mother turns around and stares straight into the foreign woman’s eyes for a full three seconds, then slowly and carefully surveys the foreigner from head to toe. The woman’s behavior suggests someone looking over an animal which cannot comprehend the scrutiny being applied to her, not the actions of one human being interacting with another.
The previous scenario recounts an actual experience and an example of the type of prejudice betrayed in the body language of Japanese people when interacting with foreign visitors and residents in Japan. While most foreign people do not experience quite this level of overtly rude behavior, this is one point along a scale which begins with the Japanese person who makes quick, self-conscious glances at the foreigner standing on the train and ends with the child who does a wide-eyed double-take and gasps, “gaijin da!” ("It's a foreigner!")
Japan is hoping to host the Olympics in 2016 and, if it does, it’s going to have to spread awareness among its people about the possible negative consequences of betraying prejudices and lack of regard for the feelings of foreigners with both subtle and gross displays of body language which single out foreigners and make them uncomfortable. Staring, pointing, and talking about a foreigner with a traveling companion may not land one in hot water when the foreigner resides in Japan and is motivated to grit his teeth and bear it, but it may not go over so well with visitors who won’t sanguinely put up with such disrespectful treatment. The results could range from hostile stares to unpleasant verbal confrontations to physical violence, depending on the disposition and sensitivity of the object of unwanted attention. The ultimate consequence could be an increased prejudice toward Japanese people on the whole and a feeling that they are much more comfortable with overt racism than are citizens of many other developed countries.
A good point at which to start raising awareness is with parents. If the previously mentioned scenario at the shrine were to happen in a western country, the mother would almost certainly chastise her child for staring at or whispering about another person based on his or her unusual appearance. Parents in western countries try to train their children not to gesture toward or talk about other people, particularly minorities (or disabled), but parents in Japan often reinforce such behavior by even more aggressively engaging in it. With such behavioral role models, children are bound to grow up objectifying foreigners and regarding them as unworthy of the same respect as fellow Japanese.
Apologists in both the foreign and Japanese communities excuse this sort of behavior by explaining that many Japanese people don’t often see many foreign folks and they cannot help but stand agog when they encounter them. For rural Japan, this explanation may hold water, but it doesn’t work nearly as well for Tokyo. There are thousands of foreigners in Tokyo, and many commuters see them on a semi-regular basis as they go about their daily business. What is more, Tokyo has some of the most well-traveled and sophisticated residents in the world. Many of them have been to foreign countries, and the sight of blue eyes, dark skin, or blond hair should not elicit these types of reactions. The time has long passed when Tokyo folk can get away with this sort of behavior and claim Japan’s relative isolation and homogeneous culture as a credible excuse.