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A thousand cuts: A 'Zainichi' Korean reporter's deep dive into microaggression in Japan

Residents protest a group that has repeatedly mounted hate speech rallies, in front of JR Kawasaki Station in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Sept. 20, 2020. (Mainichi/Jun Ida)

TOKYO -- A throw-away quip here, a thoughtless comment there, none meant to hurt anyone's feelings, but revealing of certain ingrained attitudes, and still painful to the person on the receiving end. These are "microaggressions."

    More specifically, "microaggression" refers to an unconscious but offensive comment or an unintentionally condescending attitude toward a certain gender or minority, whether ethnic, sexual or otherwise. When 83-year-old Yoshiro Mori, the erstwhile president of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic organizing committee, declared that meetings with many women participants ran too long, he could be said to be committing a microaggression. Mori is by no means alone; anyone can say and do things in a similar vein. But why do microaggressions occur? How should we deal with them?

    The concept of microaggressions emerged in the United States in the 1970s to express offensive language and disdain directed at Black Americans in a society dominated by whites. Typical examples include baseless racist ideas such as that Black people are "emotional" and "intellectually inferior." It is now apparent that microaggressions are directed at many minority groups, not only at races and ethnicities.

    Here, I would like to share some of my own experiences with you.

    I am a third-generation Korean resident of Japan, or a "Zainichi." Now 36, I have South Korean citizenship, but was born and raised here in Japan. I speak Japanese at home, and attended ordinary Japanese schools based on Article 1 of the School Education Law, all the way from elementary school to university.

    Psychiatric social worker Shunsuke Maruichi (Photo courtesy of Maruichi)

    I have always used my real name instead of an alias, as some Zainichi do, because my parents wanted me to cherish my roots. And so, I have adjusted to Japanese society while at the same time treasuring my family's origins on the Korean Peninsula. This is the life I have chosen, but I have become keenly aware of the gap between me and other people's impressions since joining adult society.

    When I exchange business cards and greetings with other people, some tell me, "Your Japanese is so good," or, "How long have you been in Japan?" As I explain that I was born in Japan, they respond with the comment, "Then you are the same as Japanese people." Some people have even asked me to explain South Korean government positions upon learning that I am a citizen of that country. This usually happens when Japan-Korean relations are going through a tense patch.

    Microaggressions are not limited to those meeting me for the first time. My boss once asked me, "Could you interpret for an interview in Korean?" As I've mentioned, I attended only Japanese schools. Though I am personally studying Korean, I am not fluent enough to use the language on the job. When I told my boss this, they ridiculed me, saying, "'Annyeonghaseyo' ('hello' in Korean) may be the only phrase you know."

    None of these things is obvious discrimination. Am I being too sensitive? But I'm bothered every time I hear such comments. I had been wondering what that feeling was for many years, when I encountered the term "microaggression."

    "It literally means 'a small attack,' but the connotation is closer to 'discrimination in everyday life,'" said Shunsuke Maruichi, 44, a psychiatric social worker in the city of Kyoto. "Though the concept is not widely known in Japan yet, everyday life is full of identifiable cases."

    Maruichi heads the Zainichi Korean Counseling & Community Center (ZAC), which was founded in Kyoto last October. It is one of only a few private groups in Japan that conduct microaggression research.

    When it comes to discriminations in Japan, the anti-hate speech law that took effect in 2016 is well known. But what is the difference between hate speech and a microaggression?

    "They're linked; they are not completely different concepts," Maruichi explained. "People who commit microaggressions are nonchalant (about discrimination), and there're some cases in which they make comments with good intentions, or they mean to encourage others. Sometimes it's hard to tell instantly whether a comment or action is a microaggression, and whether it's discriminatory."

    As a wider variety of comments and actions can be considered microaggressions compared to hate speech, which is obviously meant to hurt others, Maruichi added, "One of the characteristics of microaggressions is that they can occur easily in close relationships, such as among friends."

    A counseling room at the Zainichi Korean Counseling & Community Center (ZAC). (Photo courtesy of the ZAC)

    Maruichi said that microaggressions reveal the values and prejudice of the people that make these kinds of comments, and at the same time, they are deeply related to social structures.

    "In Japan, politicians are overbearing toward the countries of the Korean Peninsula, and the media tend to follow them," Maruichi said. "This situation generates a disdainful hostility against people from the Korean Peninsula, and an implicit feeling that Zainichi Koreans are to be treated as 'inferior citizens.' Some people probably unconsciously try to exclude those with diverse roots including Zainichi, believing that Japan is a homogeneous country."

    According to a ZAC survey, microaggressions that Zainichi Koreans often face include, "Are you a North Korean agent?" "Many South Koreans are rude. I don't think you are, though," and, "If you want to complain, go back to your country." These comments are malicious and, in a sense, easy to recognize. They are unacceptable even as jokes. However, it is even more difficult when it's unclear whether a remark is malicious or why it was made, and I have gone through that experience many times.

    "First, I'd like to emphasize that it doesn't matter what the intention of a speaker (committing microaggressions) is," Maruichi said. "Though each microaggression may seem small, they accumulate throughout someone's life because microaggressions are aimed at something innate about themselves. That is the big difference from common teasing. A U.S. study has pointed out the possibility that accumulated microaggressions can lead to mental illnesses such as depression." He also noted that "though it can lead to mental health concerns, if someone targeted with microaggressions is treated as 'the problem' by others, they can suffer further damage by telling themselves, 'It only bothers me because I'm weak.'"

    Then, how should we deal with microaggressions?

    The ZAC responds to consultations from Zainichi Koreans targeted with discrimination. A clinical psychotherapist working for the group, who is also a third-generation Zainichi in her 30s, said: "Microaggressions can occur anywhere, anytime, and everyone could make such a remark. I think it's ideal to have relationships with people you can discuss these things happen with, rather than just blaming the other person. If they can take a cue and think about the social structural problems behind such comments, I think we can reduce microaggressions."

    For such situations, she raised three main approaches one can ask of a person who has committed a microaggression: Keep the door open to dialogue; notice their own prejudice; and consider what they have excluded from their thinking. The person cannot be excused from responsibility just because anyone could make a microaggression comment.

    However, it seems difficult to point a microaggression out to a person to their face. In my case at least, I tend to brush off the situation in some vague way. The psychotherapist said, "It's not always right to tell the person directly, depending on your relationship with them." In that case, what can a person do? She answered: "You can't overcome microaggressions by carrying them around or by looking at yourself. It's important to have a third person whom you can consult with or who can think about the situation with you. We founded the ZAC because we wanted to be that third party."

    Microaggressions are also known to affect the aggressor. For example, their circle of friends could shrink because people with diverse attributes start to avoid them before the perpetrator has noticed the damage they are doing. In a workplace where a boss repeatedly makes discriminatory comments and displays prejudiced attitudes, their subordinates may not be able to fully express their talents.

    The psychotherapist pointed out, "A person who has a tendency to microaggressions will see a decrease in opportunities to talk with and hear opinions from other people in different situations. Though there're all kinds of people in the real world, the person will miss more and more opportunities to recognize that. At the same time, that means the person will miss chances to gain the self-knowledge that comes from seeing oneself through relationships with others."

    Now, let's think about Mori's remarks, which were lambasted both in and outside Japan. The first problematic comments were made at a meeting of Japanese Olympic Committee councilors, a set Mori was familiar with. One remark considered extremely problematic was, "Our organizing committee also has a number of women, I think about seven. All of them know their place."

    Yoshiro Mori speaks at a Feb. 12, 2021 Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic organizing committee meeting at its headquarters in Tokyo, on Feb. 12, 2021. Mori announced his resignation as committee president. (Pool photo)

    In his mind, this was probably a compliment. Also, his insistence at a Feb. 4 news conference that "I didn't mean to look down on women," followed by his declaration during a Feb. 12 meeting of committee executives where he announced his resignation that "it's a matter of interpretation," imply that he was nonchalant about discrimination. These facts seem to meet the definition of microaggressions.

    "I imagine that he was unhappy about being criticized, because he apparently thought he had good intentions," said Maruichi. He added, "The problem is built on the social structure. The reason Mr. Mori can't conceive that his comments were wrong is not completely unrelated to the fact that important posts are occupied by men. It's natural to think his remarks grew out of the base-state of the ongoing male-dominated culture."

    However, as the remarks were made by a public figure at public occasions, applying the microaggression concept -- not yet commonly understood in Japan -- to Mori's case "needs consideration because this may blur the problem," according to Maruichi. He added, "What's important is that the intention of the person who makes comments like these doesn't matter, regardless of whether they're microaggressions, harassment or open discrimination. There may be people who think, 'It's all right because the person had good intentions,' but we need to clarify what's right and wrong."

    If Japanese society is really aiming to respect diversity, this perspective is a must.

    (Japanese original by Yukinao Kin, Integrated Digital News Center)

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