Face discrimination? Mental health suffering? Let’s take the time to talk.


When I recently read the news about tennis star Naomi Osaka’s struggle with mental health issues, her bouts of depression in particular, I could immediately understand.

I bet we can all understand each other a bit now, especially during this ongoing pandemic. However, there is an added dimension of being visibly non-Japanese in Japan – or a person of color in a predominantly white society in the West – that can make the struggle a little more intense.

I’m sure the situation is similar for other people discriminated against, be it women, those who identify as LBGTQIA, people with disabilities, or people falling into more than one of these categories.

To get a different perspective on this, I decided to contact Mark Bookman, a colleague of mine. Based at the University of Tokyo, he is a historian of disability policy and connected social movements in Japan, and works as an accessibility consultant, collaborating with government agencies and businesses around the world on projects related to inclusion. of disability. Mark has a rare degenerative neuromuscular disease similar to ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) that affects only six people on the planet, so he uses a motorized wheelchair for most of his daily activities.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike was hospitalized two weeks ago due to fatigue. Mark and I thought this would be a good time for a quick mental health check-up by talking about our experiences as non-Japanese residents invested in this country. We’re also pretty sure that many readers will be able to relate.

Baye McNeil: My experience is that discrimination is normal for a visibly foreign individual living in Japan. While it’s true that the cops here don’t systematically open fire on blacks, we are subjected to an overabundance of pesky micro-attacks that act like paper cuts. These are emotional and psychological assaults which, when you report them, can sometimes elicit reactions from Japanese and non-Japanese alike telling you to “get out” or “resist”. It can cause you to remain silent about this stuff for fear of appearing overly sensitive and being accused of playing the victim card. I say “accused” because when “victim” is used that way, it sort of sounds like an insult. What is your experience with discrimination in Japan, Mark?

Face to Face: When it comes to interacting with people with disabilities, sometimes a person interacts with a caretaker rather than the person with a disability themselves. This can lead to misunderstandings. | GETTY IMAGES

Mark Bookman: My experience of discrimination in Japan as a person with a disability is, in a way, quite similar to yours. No one has explicitly or intentionally used insults against me, but I often encounter obstacles in the built environment that make life much more difficult. For example, the public toilet is not set up to accommodate my large foreign wheelchair, so it is difficult for me to travel too far from home. Lack of accessibility kept me away from many spaces and prevented me from talking about my needs to others, so people often make incorrect assumptions about what they can do to help me. when I need support.

I remember one incident in particular where I called ahead to ask if a restaurant was accessible. The owner said the place had accommodated wheelchair users before so I decided to go. When I arrived, I saw that there was a step outside the entrance that my chair could not take. The owner insisted that he could lift my wheelchair above the step, despite the fact that it weighs 300 kilograms.

I knew if I turned down his offer it would cause a scene and get other people in the area to get involved. Not wanting to have to explain to so many spectators why they couldn’t help the owner, I decided to say, “I don’t know if this is a good idea.” By the time I finished my statement, however, the owner was already pulling up on my chair. I’m sure he had good intentions and was trying to help. Yet he injured my arm, and the psychological damage was more healing: I had no easy way to prevent such incidents from happening, as I could not correct misunderstandings like those of the owners at the time. .

Baye: What should he have done?

Mark: He could have simply questioned me directly about my needs. It is possible to do this in a polite manner that promotes understanding of the situation. I understand that this goes against the Japanese concept of omotenashi, in which the host has to anticipate a guest’s needs, but if he had just struck up a conversation with me, I could have explained why pulling on my chair would put us both in danger, and we could have work together to find an alternative solution to the accessibility problem.

In addition, it often happens that a person interacts with a caregiver who is present in the place of the disabled person. Not only does this dehumanize the person with a disability, it also creates misunderstandings because caregivers do not know much about the people in their care.

Baye: I recently interviewed Kinota Braithwaite, a black Canadian who learned that her biracial 9-year-old “Blackanese” daughter – a future Naomi Osaka – was being bullied at her elementary school here in Japan. No physical assaults, just persistent efforts towards her and stigmatizing her skin color that bothered her and harmed her mental well-being.

For example, he wrote a children’s book called “Mio The Beautiful”, which is in Japanese and English, about his daughter’s experiences of discrimination to be used as an educational tool. Not everyone can write a book, but I mention it because he was a loving father who did something positive to help his daughter and the well-being of the community as a whole.

I myself periodically go through episodes of self-imposed isolation for mental maintenance. During these “sabetsu (discrimination) sabbaticals ”, I only venture out in public when absolutely necessary.

There are very few welcoming spaces for strangers who are “safe” from the psychic onslaught of otherness. A man refusing to get on an elevator with me, a woman clutching her wallet harder when she sees me, or a store clerk telling me that they cannot speak English in response to my speaking completely understandable Japanese to them – this stuff can be disturbing, it can trigger me. So, these restorative sabbaticals are what I prescribed for myself to try and take a break. And, more recently, these breaks include my Japanese wife and our two adopted kittens. It’s amazing what a little time with some kittens can do for the soul.

Mark: I hear you on this idea of ​​friendly and safe places. We need them so that we can talk to others about the physical and social barriers we face that create significant difficulties.

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can bring some relief and solidarity, but many people cannot use these media due to stigma, shame or lack of resources. We need to remember this fact and do our best to build multiple and diverse places where we can hear those affected talk about their experiences of discrimination. Then we can learn more about the needs of these people and start building a more inclusive society.

Personally, I found solace in the private online settings I created with friends. We will play games, watch videos, listen to music and discuss the problems we face every day with the aim of thinking about solutions. We try not to judge too much and to pool our resources so that everyone is happy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But with community members from all over the world, we know someone will always be there, regardless of the time zone.

Baye: I told my friend Selena Hoy from TELL about it. TELL is a certified mental health nonprofit that serves the international community in Japan and acts as a safe space for many people. She said to me, “If you’re overwhelmed, you’re not alone. And you don’t have to struggle alone. Speak with someone – a friend, family member, coworker… or if you prefer to keep it a secret, you can always call the Lifeline, which is anonymous and non-judgmental.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, there are resources available. In case of an emergency in Japan, please call 119 for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free, anonymous advice at 03-5774-0992. For those located in other countries, visit International Suicide Hotlines for a detailed list of resources and assistance.

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