VOX POPULI: The battle between hospitality and xenophobia in Japanese society

March 13, 2014

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.

Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward is starting a project called “A shopping district with people who understand and speak a little English.” I like the part that says “a little.” Shinagawa will be the venue for some of the events during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The ward came up with the idea as a way to welcome athletes and visitors from abroad.

Why “a little”? Few Japanese can confidently say they can speak English. Many more think they can perhaps speak “a little” English. According to Kiyoshi Terashima, the ward official in charge of the project, it is aimed at encouraging such people to positively try and communicate in English. The ward will ask foreigners to visit the stores so that attendants there can learn how to take orders and receive payments using English.

Writer Saiichi Maruya (1925-2012) vividly depicted the trend of 50 years ago when Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics for the first time. Just because we are having the Olympics, “there is no need to stir up an atmosphere that all 100 million Japanese must turn into interpreters,” he wrote. The quote appears in “1964-Nen no Tokyo Orinpikku” (1964 Tokyo Olympics), compiled by Masami Ishii. I wonder if we can be a little more relaxed when Tokyo hosts the Olympics for the second time.

Warm smiles are considered good manners in welcoming guests. By contrast, I found the following development quite alarming: On March 8, a banner with the English words “Japanese Only” was put up at the entrance to a stand at Saitama Stadium during a soccer game.

Posting such a xenophobic message is utterly thoughtless to say the least. This is not the first time. In the past, an onsen bathhouse in Otaru, Hokkaido, put up a sign that said “no foreigners” and refused the entry of some people, including a U.S.-born naturalized Japanese man. The Sapporo District Court in 2002 ruled that the action was “racial discrimination” and ordered the bathhouse to pay damages to the plaintiffs for pain and suffering.

Hate speech against foreigners is another example. Hostility is becoming increasingly prevalent and Japanese society is losing its gentleness. Are we a society that denies and shuts its doors to people or one that welcomes and receives them? Which one is more comfortable to live in? Let us learn to be more tolerant toward each other; for starters, if only by just a little.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 13

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts, social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.
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A "Japanese Only" banner is displayed at one of the entrance gates to seating during a soccer match on March 8 at Saitama Stadium. (Provided by a fan of Urawa Reds)

A "Japanese Only" banner is displayed at one of the entrance gates to seating during a soccer match on March 8 at Saitama Stadium. (Provided by a fan of Urawa Reds)

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  • A "Japanese Only" banner is displayed at one of the entrance gates to seating during a soccer match on March 8 at Saitama Stadium. (Provided by a fan of Urawa Reds)

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