Microaggressions or Icebreakers? Everyday Irritations for Foreigners in Japan

By Michael Gakuran | | Japan | 20 Comments |

Over the last month or so the foreign community in Japan has been abuzz with talk of ‘microaggressions’ – a psychological term that describes everyday slights that alienate and offend people of different ethnicities and backgrounds. As with the Gaijin Debate, we’ve heard opinions from both sides – those who think the term is an accurate and succinct way of referring to the problems foreigners face while living in Japan and the opposing camp who think the word blows the issues out of proportion.

I’ve been thinking about the topic and would like to approach it from another angle. I take issue with the original definition of the term itself and argue that ‘microaggression’ is an inappropriate word to use when addressing many of the situations foreigners face when living in Japan, as well as other cultures.

So here’s where it all started – an article from activist Debito Arudou in the Japan Times. This was the first time I’ve ever heard the word ‘microaggression’ used, and it was cleverly woven into a colourful, emotive piece about the everyday irritations that many foreigners such as myself experience while living in Japan. To his credit, Debito reasonably accurately identified some of the many irritations that foreigners experience. Typical examples are as follows:

“Can you use chopsticks?” お箸は使えますか?

(Implying that foreigners are usually unable to do so, or perhaps that they are presumed to lack the manual dexterity to use chopsticks).

“When are you going back to your home country?” いつ国へ帰られますか?

(Implying that the recipient does not consider Japan to be their home).

“You speak Japanese really well!” 日本語はお上手ですね!

(Usually spoken after hearing just a few words of Japanese. Implying that foreigners are usually not good at Japanese, usually don’t learn Japanese or perhaps that they are unable to learn to speak and use the language).

“Can you eat natto 納豆は食べれますか?

(Natto is a type of fermented soybean with a pungent smell. Implying that foreigners usually cannot eat natto or that it does not exist outside of Japan).

As anyone who has ever gone to live in Japan will attest, at first these questions are quite charming and almost flattering. As a newcomer to the country, you enjoy the interactions with the locals and quickly learn many aspects of the culture. But stay a while and you soon find that these questions are never-ending. Inevitably when you meet somebody new (particularly Japanese people who have little experience living abroad), the conversation will generally include one of more of these questions or observations. There are a whole host more, as well. It all gets to be rather frustrating, especially when you have begun to make progress in the language and understand the country and culture. It’s not isolated to Japan either – Reddit readers in Korea, Taiwan and China all weighed in talking about similar experiences.

Why must I always be asked when I came to Japan and when I will go ‘home’? What about people who grew up here? Is it really necessary to compliment me on using a pair of wooden sticks? Eating natto is really not that unusual. Try a tin of sardines.

It may perhaps be a little difficult to appreciate how these seemingly innocent questions can be negatively received, but used time after time, they do grind you down. You end up longing for a conversation that doesn’t involve these hackneyed lines and observations. Complain about it to friends and you’ll inevitably either be told to just put up with it or given a creative solution that turns the situation around in a rather spiteful manner.

“Yes, I can use chopsticks. Can you use a spoon?”

Personally, I’ve learnt to just smile, bear the pleasantries and steer the conversation to more current or interesting topics. After all, they are what I consider to be icebreakers. The average person isn’t particularly original when starting up a conversation in the West either… “Hi. Do you come here often? Where are you from?”

Which brings me to the main topic of this article, and my incentive to write about this issue. I think that the word ‘microaggression’ is in itself misleading terminology and that it does not accurately apply to many of the common situations that foreigners encounter in Japan. Furthermore, I find Debito’s article to be problematic, in that it overstates the aspects of discrimination and encourages viewing the issues and perpetrators in a racist manner. Let’s get started.

Racial Microaggressions


The general definition that is used when introducing the term ‘microaggression’ is found in the opening paragraph of an academic paper entitled “Racial Microagressions in Everyday Life”, written by professor of psychology at Columbia University, Derald Wing Sue. (Article mirror)

Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnic minorities. … Microaggressions seem to appear in three forms: microassault, microinsult, and microinvalidation. Almost all interracial encounters are prone to microaggressions. …

To add to that, a brief clarification of the problems:

The experience of a racial microaggression has major implications for both the perpetrator and the target person. It creates psychological dilemmas that unless adequately resolved lead to increased levels of racial anger, mistrust, and loss of self-esteem for persons of color; prevent White people from perceiving a different racial reality; and create impediments to harmonious race-relations (Spanierman & Heppner, 2004; Thompson & Neville, 1999).

The term was originally coined in the 1970s by Chester M. Pierce, a clinical psychiatrist. We’ll use Sue’s definition as our starting point as it’s the source cited in Debito’s article as well as many others.

In the article “Unmasking ‘Racial Micro aggressions’” on the American Psychological Association website, author Tori DeAngelis provides an exemplary summary of Sue’s views and criticisms from other professionals of the term. Particularly interesting were the criticisms to the original paper which help clarify Sue’s view of microaggressions as being a largely unnoticed (or at least, unlabelled) phenomenon.

Mountain or mole hill?

Not everyone agrees that microaggressions are as rampant or destructive as Sue says they are. In rebuttal letters to the 2007 American Psychologist article, respondents accuse Sue of blowing the phenomenon out of proportion and advancing an unnecessarily negative agenda.
“Implementing his theory would restrict rather than promote candid interaction between members of different racial groups,” maintains Kenneth R. Thomas, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, one of the critics. In the therapy relationship, for example, having to watch every word “potentially discourages therapist genuineness and spontaneity,” says Thomas, who is white.
Likewise, aspects of Sue’s theory enforce a victim mentality by creating problems where none exist, Thomas asserts. “The theory, in general, characterizes people of color as weak and vulnerable, and reinforces a culture of victimization instead of a culture of opportunity,” he says.
Kenneth Sole, PhD, whose consulting firm Sole & Associates Inc., trains employees on team communication, agrees with Sue that microaggressions are pervasive and potentially damaging. Indeed, clients talk about them all of the time, he says. But instead of encouraging their anger, he works with them on ways to frame the incidents so they feel empowered rather than victimized, he notes.
“My own view is that we don’t serve ourselves well in the hundreds of ambiguous situations we experience by latching onto the definition of the experience that gives us the greatest pain”—particularly in one-time encounters where one can’t take more systemic action, he says.
For instance, if a white person makes a potentially offensive remark to a person of color, the person could choose either to get angry and see the person as a bigot or to perceive the person as ignorant and move on, he says.
For Sue’s part, he believes it’s important to keep shining a light on the harm these encounters can inflict, no matter how the person of color decides to handle a given encounter.
“My hope is to make the invisible visible,” he says. “Microaggressions hold their power because they are invisible, and therefore they don’t allow us to see that our actions and attitudes may be discriminatory.”

For those interested in reading the full responses to Sue’s article, and his own response to the criticisms, they can be found here. Unfortunately all are behind a paywall. I did manage to read one response here in Google Docs.

Inherent Bias


There are a few problems I have with Sue’s ideas, although I agree with his overall observations almost completely. Everyday our actions and words unconsciously insult or harm people around us. Our thoughts betray bias and prejudices long since instilled within us and our intentions, no matter how noble they are, almost never manifest themselves in the manner in which we hope. Sue should be commended for pointing out the invisible nature of these discriminations and how they are often unintentional.

However, I find Sue’s focus on white westerners as the main perpetrators of microaggressions rather ironic in itself. Take for example (p281):

Last, White counselors and therapists can impose and value their own cultural worldview while devaluing and pathologizing the cultural values of their ethnic minority clients.

In labelling a set of people as guilty and focussing the bulk of his article the problems ethnic minorities experience at the hands of white people, he is demonstrating the same bias he claims is damaging and should be extinguished. In other words, he is guilty of being fixated on the problem from his own western worldview as a Chinese-American.

In order to present a balanced piece, Sue should have also included more examples of the reverse situation of racial bias and discrimination that white people experience at the hands of ethnic minorities. Arguably this is far less prevalent, but it is certainly not non-existent. However, given that Sue was introducing the term microaggression in this article, I feel the focus on white perpetrators can be seen as justified in illuminating the problem. What we should be very careful not to forget is that anything and everything we do as human beings is bound to offend somebody, somewhere. If microaggressions are a problem (and I agree with Sue that they are), then they are a problem that everyone is guilty of, although perhaps not everyone is equally guilty. He also notes this in his conclusion (p284):

[R]acial microaggressions are not limited to White–Black, White–Latino, or White–Person of Color interactions. Interethnic racial microaggressions occur between people of color as well. In the area of counseling and therapy, for example, research may also prove beneficial in understanding cross-racial dyads in which the therapist is a person of color and the client is White or in which both therapist and client are persons of color. Investigating these combinations of cross-racial dyads would be useful, because it is clear that no racial/ethnic group is immune from inheriting the racial biases of the society (D. W. Sue, 2003).

Within the multitude of prejudices we hold, quite naturally some are bound to be racist, or at least ‘race-related’. My attitude towards a white person and a black person for example is different. When I meet a white person, different things come to mind to when I meet a black person. Similarly so when meeting Asians, Germans, Christians and children. The list is endless. I also contend that it is inevitable I hold these stereotypes. After all, they are what allow us as human beings to simply and classify the world, just as we use labels and categories to organise and sort different objects.

When I think of a child, the first things that come to mind are concepts like ‘small’, ‘energetic’, ‘messy’, ‘playful’. For Asians: ‘darker skin’, ‘different shaped eyes’, ‘dark hair’, ‘smart’. For black people: ‘brown skin’, ‘basketball’, ‘large’, ‘wide grin’. All of these things are personal to me; associations formed throughout my life for a variety of reasons, from media influence to personal friends and acquaintances. It may well be correct in some technical way to label me as ‘racist’ for holding these ideas, and I know myself many of the ideas are certainly mistaken and inappropriate. Yet, despite knowing this fact, I still hold these preconceptions. For me to react to a person or situation without any sort of bias is, I contend, an impossible feat. I can never completely free myself from preconceptions, because it is these very preconceptions that provide the basis for me to interact as a functional member of human society in the first place.

One need only look at the way a child views the world around them to see evidence of this. Children will often innocently point out differences and ask questions that would be inappropriate in adult society, yet we would hesitate to call an innocent child racist. The issue as I see it then, is with our communications, rather than the underlying preconceptions in our thoughts (although obviously educating oneself to minimise mistaken preconceptions is immensely important).

To what extent should we be expected to control the biased thoughts that exit our mouths and discrimination that manifests itself in our behaviour? To what extent is it actually possible for us to think about the implications of each word we utter?

Misleading Terminology


So, what does this have to do with microaggressions? It’s useful here to stop a moment and introduce the variations that Sue proposes to categorise the term (p274). A diagram is also provided.

Microassaults: A microassault is an explicit racial derogation characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions. Referring to someone as “colored” or “Oriental,” using racial epithets, discouraging interracial interactions, deliberately serving a White patron before someone of color, and displaying a swastika are examples. … They are most likely to be conscious and deliberate, although they are generally expressed in limited “private” situations (micro) that allow the perpetrator some degree of anonymity. …

Sue focuses on the latter two definitions as they are less obvious and prone to misuse. In short, microinsults contain hidden messages that hold a clear insult, but one that may be unintentional or unconscious to the perpetrator. Microinvalidations are characterised by communications which seek to exclude, diminish or negate the opinions of the target person. Again, these may be unintentional.

Microinsults: A microinsult is characterized by communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. Microinsults represent subtle snubs, frequently unknown to the perpetrator, but clearly convey a hidden insulting message to the recipient of color. When a White employer tells a prospective candidate of color “I believe the most qualified person should get the job, regardless of race” or when an employee of color is asked “How did you get your job?”, the underlying message from the perspective of the recipient may be twofold: (a) People of color are not qualified, and (b) as a minority group member, you must have obtained the position through some affirmative action or quota program and not because of ability. Such statements are not necessarily aggressions, but context is important. Hearing these statements frequently when used against affirmative action makes the recipient likely to experience them as aggressions. Microinsults can also occur nonverbally, as when a White teacher fails to acknowledge students of color in the classroom or when a White supervisor seems distracted during a conversation with a Black employee by avoiding eye contact or turning away (Hinton, 2004). In this case, the message conveyed to persons of color is that their contributions are unimportant.

Microinvalidations: Microinvalidations are characterized by communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color. When Asian Americans (born and raised in the United States) are complimented for speaking good English or are repeatedly asked where they were born, the effect is to negate their U.S. American heritage and to convey that they are perpetual foreigners. When Blacks are told that “I don’t see color” or “We are all human beings,” the effect is to negate their experiences as racial/cultural beings (Helms, 1992). When a Latino couple is given poor service at a restaurant and shares their experience with White friends, only to be told “Don’t be so oversensitive” or “Don’t be so petty,” the racial experience of the couple is being nullified and its importance is being diminished. …

All three of these categories provide examples of how the perpetrator’s bias has a negative impact on the target person. As Sue did however, we will put aside microassaults (as they are clearly intended to hurt the recipient) for the time being and focus on the latter two definitions. Note too that Sue has focussed here on racial bias, but the same approach can be applied to other problems, such as discrimination of sexuality, religion, disability (etc).

Now we’re getting to the crux of the problem I have with Sue’s definitions and label of ‘microaggressions’. He partially admits the problem himself in one paragraph:

“Such statements are not necessarily aggressions, but context is important. Hearing these statements frequently when used against affirmative action makes the recipient likely to experience them as aggressions.”

So the recipient experiences these communications as ‘aggressive’ in some way. That is a debatable point in itself, but I think everyone would agree that there is the possibility the recipient experiences the communications negatively. As explained above, I contend that bias is a fact of life and unavoidable in human interaction. As from Sue’s explanations, the perpetrator in these scenarios is largely unaware of their bias and may even be intending to make a positive remark to the target person.

It seems to me that communication that is both unconscious and unintentional, as well as unavoidable is a long way from what we think of as an aggressive act. Typically when we talk of aggression, we are referring to acts that knowingly and willing aim to harm the target person. Indeed, it seems rather ludicrous to suggest that we would call a person asking where somebody was born or complimenting somebody on their good use of a (non-native) language in any way ‘aggressive’. Indeed, Sue’s own language hints at this understanding by his further labelling the two invisible ‘aggressions’ as ‘microinsults’ and ‘microinvalidations’.

It might seem as though I am just making a linguistic quibble here, but it really goes much deeper than that. By lumping intentional acts of aggression (microassaults) in with largely unintentional acts of ‘aggression’ (microinsults and microinvalidations) under the banner ‘microaggressions’, Sue is conflating what I see as two very distinct issues. One may argue that they have the same outcome (they all make the recipient feel bad), but I think that even the degree of insult and ‘aggression’ felt by the recipient is contentious. Certainly, a direct and intentional threat seems to me to be a far greater problem than the unintentional remarks that may be construed negatively. It also seems readily apparent to me that the target person would experience very different feelings in response to someone being overtly aggressive and insulting to somebody who betrays their inherent bias and prejudice when trying hard to avoid it. Sue also mentions this (p284):

[I]t is highly probable that microaggressions vary in their severity and impact. As indicated, a microassault does not evoke a guessing game because the intent of the perpetrator is clear. However, the racist intent of microinsults and microinvalidations is less clear and presents different dilemmas for people of color. Some questions to ponder include the following: (a) Are the three forms of racial microaggressions equal in impact? Are some themes and their hidden messages more problematic than others? Although all expressions may take a psychological toll, some are obviously experienced as more harmful and severe than others. (b) Is there a relationship between forms of racial microaggressions and racial identity development?

I am in agreement with Sue that both cases cause a problem and negatively affect the target person. Neither are issues to be merely swept aside or derided as ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’. More research and examination of the extent of the issues is needed, as well as education about the issues faced in areas ranging from clinical applications to international relations. We should be especially careful, however, to avoid misusing the term Sue has proposed, particularly in the media. The layman coming across the term ‘microaggression’ could be forgiven for thinking of the perpetrator as having a racist intent or actively wishing to cause psychological harm to the target person. As we have discovered, this is absolutely not the aim of Sue’s article or his intended use of the term ‘microaggression’ to highlight invisible discrimination. For these reasons, I think the term to be inappropriate when talking about issues of communication, especially outside of an academic context or without adequate background knowledge. Debito’s Japan Times article that attempts to apply the term to issues in Japan is a prime example of how the word can be misused and contribute to spreading mistaken and rudimentary ideas that are ultimately more damaging that the issues they attempt to highlight, as I will now examine.

‘Microaggressions’ in Japan


So how does this all relate to Japan? Let’s get back to Debito’s article.

There are numerous problems to address, but the core point I’d like to make (aside from the one above that the group classification of these problems as ‘microaggressions’ is terribly misleading) is that Debito conflates many different examples of problems foreigners in Japan experience in their day-to-day lives. His attempts to highlight that Japan, too, has microaggressions is worthy of note, although it is questionable as to whether Japan has a higher frequency of these problems than any other country. The difficulties begin right from the start of the article:

For example, the taxi drivers who have the odd fascination about where you’re from, whether you’re married, how much you like Japan, and how hard you think the Japanese language is?
The barkeeps and clientele who try to slot you into their hackneyed preconceptions of some country and nationality, what you can and cannot eat, and (as things get drunker) how much you enjoy having physical liaisons with Japanese?
The neighbors who have a white-hot curiosity about how differently you raise your kids, what you fight with your spouse about, and how much you like Japan — regardless of how many years you’ve been interacting?

It’s a tangled mess of examples, not all of which are offensive (although, of course, everything is offensive to somebody) and many of which are also vaguely linked to to the concept of ‘microaggressions’. As we saw, Sue’s original definition was primarily focussed around race and ethnicity, Indeed, the title was ‘racial microaggressions’, hinting that there are other types of microaggression. Some of the examples Debito gives are not related to race, and are the sort of conversation starters you would expect to have anywhere in the world (taxi driver asking if you are married), especially after finding out that somebody is not a native of the country. Take the two conversations, for example:

“Where are you from?” (As a foreigner speaking in imperfect Japanese: “The U.K”). “Ah, England! I’ve been there once to visit London. The beer was really good. So, how are you liking Japan?” (Cue predictable conversations about coming to Japan, Japanese food, cultural differences, length of stay, chopstick use – etc.)

“Where are you from?” (As a person not of Japanese ethnicity, speaking in Japanese: “Japan – I grew up here”). “Really! That’s interesting” (Cue possible conversations about mixed-races, growing up in Japan as a minority or perhaps something completely ordinary – etc.)

The point I’d like to make here is that ‘microaggression’ does not equal ‘hackneyed conversation starter’. You can have a predictable, boring conversation anywhere in the world. Most reasonable people would, if discovering that you are actually not a foreigner who has come to Japan, proceed to conversations that do not talk about things like length of stay, Japanese food, chopstick use (etc.) Of course, there will be exceptions and unfortunately ignorance should be considered the norm, rather than the exception. Since Japan is still populated mostly by people who are ethnically Japanese, anyone who does not look Japanese will inevitably make the other person curious about their heritage. Again, this is not something unique to Japan and it would be unreasonable to expect people to ignore this fact in societies that do not yet have a diverse range of ethnicities and cultures. It’s simply a matter of standing out. No amount of education about the issues is ever going to stop people being curious and asking questions about things that look or seem different to usual.

Okay, so what about the people that, despite finding out you have lived in Japan a long, long time (although did not necessarily grow up here), still proceed to fire off the usual boring lines about chopstick use and Japanese ability. The ignorant people who continue to make assumptions about you and your culture. Are these really microaggressions? It might be helpful to consult the table from Sue’s article below. As Debito notes:

They include, in Japan’s case, verbal cues (such as “You speak such good Japanese!” — after saying only a sentence or two — or “How long will you be in Japan?” regardless of whether a non-Japanese (NJ) might have lived the preponderance of their life here), nonverbal cues (people espying NJ and clutching their purse more tightly, or leaving the only empty train seat next to them), or environmental cues (media caricatures of NJ with exaggerated noses or excessive skin coloration, McDonald’s “Mr. James” mascot (JBC, Sept. 1, 2009)).

Now these are what Sue is talking about. Actual situations where things are assumed and invisible bias may be present. “How long will you be in Japan” directly correlates to Sue’s ‘Alien in One’s Own Land’ category. Or does it? As a foreigner in Japan, by definition, it is not your home country. Asking how long somebody will be in the country is a reasonable question, but only after finding out that the target person has come to Japan from abroad. Assuming that the target person is not from Japan or didn’t grow up there on the basis of how they look is indeed racial discrimination and very unwelcome. Similarly, a Japanese woman clutching her purse tightly as she walks past a black foreigner is discrimination, as is leaving the seat open next to a foreigner, despite the train being crowded. If you agree with Sue’s definition and labelling of these phenomena, they would indeed be microaggressions. I fully agree that in these sort of situations, better education and cultural understanding is necessary in order to try and mitigate the problems and discrimination felt by the target person. The last example about stereotypes is another complicated issue that I will not address here, but suffice to say, I think stereotypes can play a positive role in society if used appropriately, mostly for humour and parody.

But look now. Where is chopsticks example? And the complimenting of one’s Japanese ability? How about eating natto? Debito mentions them soon after:

It’s a powerful analytical tool. Now we have a word to describe why it gets discomfiting when people keep asking if you can use chopsticks (the assumption being that manual dexterity is linked to phenotype), or if you can eat nattō (same with taste buds), or if you’ll be going “home” soon (meaning Japan is just a temporary stop in your life and you don’t belong here). It can even help you realize why it’s so difficult for the NJ long-termer to become a senpai in the workplace (since NJ subordination is so constant and renewed in daily interaction that it becomes normalized).

There are numerous issues in this paragraph, the biggest of which is the erroneous jump from true microaggression to what I consider to be mere icebreakers – those hackneyed conversation starters I mentioned. It seems to me that a woman clutching her purse as she walks by a black foreigner is quite a different scenario to asking if somebody can use chopsticks. The most obvious difference is the racial undertones present in the former example. It is very clear to both the perpetrator and target person what is going on. Even with the empty seat on the train, despite there being other possible reasons the seat is left empty (many Japanese people will stand up even on trains with many empty seats, for example) there is a reasonable probability that there is something deeper at work, especially if the train is crowded.

Let us consider the chopsticks example. First we must consider the possibility that being able to use chopsticks is actually something that can be found difficult. As it (unsurprisingly) turns out, there are indeed people who are unable to use chopsticks well, including some Japanese people. You can buy ‘training chopsticks’ for children in Japan in order to teach them how to hold the sticks properly, for example. As a personal anecdote, I never used chopsticks at home unless ordering from a Chinese takeaway. I also remember struggling to use chopsticks during my first months in Japan. So, it’s no exaggeration to think that people from Western countries may not be able to use chopsticks very well.

Debito’s stating that there is an assumption that manual dexterity is linked to phenotype is not a fact at all (although he presents it as such). It is one possibility, and I would argue that it is the less likely of the scenarios presented here. Far more likely is that the person asking the question is genuinely curious if the target person is able to use chopsticks without a problem. Another likely reason is that the Japanese questioner has met the foreigner for the first time and is searching for ways to start the conversation. Asking if the foreigner can use chopsticks is a tried and tested example. No points for originality, but it’s a pretty neutral way to break the ice. As with the chopsticks example, natto is another example of a curious Japanese person asking if the foreigner enjoys a food that some people (even Japanese people) dislike.

We might also contrast the chopsticks question to Sue’s microaggression example of a white person asking a black person how they were able to get a job. There may be assumptions implicit that suggest the black person used some nefarious means to land the job, or that they are not qualified to do the job because of intelligence. The difference is that in the chopsticks example, plenty of people do have trouble using chopsticks. There is enough evidence to justify the question. In the job example, there is little evidence (if any) and a lot of mistaken assumptions about black people. It is not easy to evaluate at what point an innocent question really becomes discrimination, but I see far too many differences in the two examples to think of them as the same thing.

The example about asking when a foreigner will go home is a tricky one. There are elements of Sue’s microaggressions in this question, as it does implicitly assume that the foreigner is not interested in living in Japan for the long term. Debito is correct to identify this as alienating the target person and making them feel as though they are always an outsider. The difference between this question and the chopsticks and natto questions is that the assumption is implicit in the question itself. We do not need to guess anything about the questioner’s state of mind, because they have already betrayed their biased thinking that the foreigner must eventually ‘go home’. I agree with Debito here that ignorant questions such as this one are damaging and that we should make efforts to educate people about their negative effects.

The statement “You speak such good Japanese!” after only uttering a few words is another more complicated example. One could be forgiven for thinking that the questioner is mocking them in a roundabout way, but in my experience and after talking frankly to several Japanese people there seems to be no real malice present at all. It’s simply an ice-breaker, intended to start the conversation off on a positive note. Unfortunately, it gets old very quickly, often having the reverse affect to the one intended. It also has elements of Sue’s microaggressions because there is the possibility of implicit assumption that foreigners cannot or do not speak Japanese very well. On the other hand, most foreigners living in Japan actually do not speak Japanese very well, so the assumption, if present, also has elements of truth to it. All in all it’s a very tricky example to properly analyse in the context of foreigners in Japan. In my personal experience it’s usually meant as a positive icebreaker. There is no deeper meaning to it.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with my interpretation of the above scenarios, what I do hope I’ve made abundantly clear is that is that analysing microaggressions is far from a simple matter. It is not at all clear what actions and words cross the line, especially once we step outside the racial framework that Sue originally identified. Debito has attempted to apply this framework to everyday irritations that foreigners experience in Japan. Naturally there will be some crossover – notably in the more racially-orientated cases such as the woman clutching her purse. But when we get into the ‘uniquely Japanese’ statements and questions about chopsticks and language, things get a lot messier. It is often unclear where to draw the line between ‘microaggression’ and ‘icebreaker’, and there appears to also be a middle ground that satisfies neither. What is quite clear to me, however, is that we are really, really stretching Sue’s original ideas in order to try and fit many of the situations outlined above. That should be an indication that microaggressions do not easily fit outside the original context in which they were raised, and for that reason the term is inappropriate to label all such negative experiences that foreigners in Japan encounter.

Conclusion


My, this article became far, far longer than I anticipated! I will attempt to summarise my points and conclusion below.

・Everyday our actions and words unconsciously and unintentionally insult or harm people around us.
・Everybody has biased thoughts and discriminatory attitudes that are impossible to ever fully extinguish.
・Communication or behaviour that is unconscious, unintentional and unavoidable is not usually classified as ‘aggressive’.
・Grouping intentional acts of aggression (microassaults) in with largely unintentional acts of ‘aggression’ (microinsults and microinvalidations) under the banner ‘microaggressions’ is very misleading.
・The degree of insult and ‘aggression’ felt by the recipient differs between intentional and unintentional discrimination.
・Without deeper explanation, the term ‘microaggression’ could lead the reader to think that the perpetrator actively wishes to cause psychological harm to the target person.

Thus the blanket term ‘microaggression’ is inappropriate to talk about bias and discrimination in general media outside of an academic context.

・Foreigners living in Japan have a variety of positive and negative experiences, but not all of them are adequately explained as microaggressions.
・Racially-orientated scenarios and ignorant assumptions are generally easier to identify as microaggressions.
・Hackneyed conversation starters or ‘icebreakers’ are not ‘microaggressions’.
・We do not have access to the thoughts of the perpetrator so the assumptions identified can never be presented as facts.
・Microaggressions are not easily identified or defended in many of the common situations foreigners encounter in Japan.
・Mistakenly identifying situations as examples of microaggressions could lead to further discord between foreigners and Japanese people.

Sue’s microaggressions theory is not easily applicable outside of its original racial context, thus we should avoid using the term to describe situations that are unclear.

While my conclusions may seem rather negative, I actually think Sue has done some great work identifying these invisible discriminations. It’s also helped clarify just how difficult it can be to free ourselves of bias and interact with other people such that we do not cause offence. I fully agree with Sue in his assessment that this area needs further research and clarification, especially in areas other than race and ethnicity. Better understanding between people of different races and cultures should ultimately lead to a more positive experience for everyone involved, and hopefully better conversations too.

However, given the propensity for the term ‘microaggression’ to be misused and misunderstood, as well as the difficultly in accurately assessing which situations actually demonstrate discrimination of the type identified by the term, I think that it is better we avoid using it altogether. Certainly in the context of benign Japanese icebreaker situations like the infamous chopsticks example, it is highly inappropriate as a label and fosters mistaken understanding and resentment which could further cause problems between foreign residents and the Japanese. The elephant in the room does not have a new name. It’s a case of conflated scenarios being forced under a banner that attempts to make it easy to point fingers. The real world is a lot more nuanced than that.

20 comments on “Microaggressions or Icebreakers? Everyday Irritations for Foreigners in Japan
  1. David In Taiwan says:

    Hi. I think that there is a concern over your defining what direction “microaggression” is being perceived from. I didn’t see in your response the term being perceived from the point of view of the aggressed. Whether or not the “chopsticks” comment is only an “icebreaker” from the point of view of the person icebreaking, the comment can be perceived by the the person being addressed as aggravating, annoying, or just rude, etc. So whether or not the icebreaker was consciously or subconsciously microaggressing, the result could still be completely microaggressive to the recipient. Without taking this perspective into account, I think you do the term microaggressions a disservice! That said, I do agree with you that many people will not go so far as to understand the intricacies of the term, and it could very well end up a commonly misused term with a negative connotative definition far from its clinical denotive one. Either way, thanks for the argument – good read!

  2. Ben Cooper says:

    Loco: “…it seems you are suggesting that lay-reader,
    when enountering the word “microagression” might easily misconstrue
    it as meaning aggressive and therefore arguably intentional and conscious and
    thus develop a negative opinion of “innocent” Japanese “icebreakers.”

    Well, geez, man. If they can’t comprehend what is being
    clearly stated we can hardly fault Sue or Debito for that, can we? I mean, would these same people have trouble
    distinguishing between a micro-organism and an organism, or a microscope and a
    scope? lol Seriously though.”

    I happen to be one of those people you are describing, Loco.

    When I first heard the term microagression on your blog and
    in your book, the first impression I was given was that your usage of -and
    reaction to- the term were similar to someone having been the target of what
    ‘lay-readers’ might call aggression. Later I read the term ‘microaggression’ in
    an article by Debito for the Japan Times, and that pretty much destroyed the
    remaining capacity I had to view ‘microaggression’ as a genuine and significant
    psychological theory. It is, after all, a theory, and an inherently cloudy and
    hard-to-define one at that. I’d wager that the average human being cares not
    for linguistic arguments or even behavioral psychology, and so seeing you and Gakuranman
    arguing the semantics does nothing but present the internet with two opinions
    perpetually attempting to become more valid than each other.

    Loco -While I admire your dedicated study of racism in it’s
    various forms I sometimes think you over-analyze situations. Example being the
    bag-clutching women on Japanese trains that could paradoxically be a result of
    you having carefully observed their eye and hand-movements and in doing so
    ended up giving them undue attention.

    I don’t aim to ‘defend the ignorance of Japanese’ as your
    mention in your book. Rather I view their reaction to foreigners as a
    universally human trait. People are more aware of things that look different –
    particularly so in the repetitive, monotonous environment that is the daily
    commute. That is how I rationalize the behavior of the Japanese folk I rub
    shoulders with on a daily basis. They do strange things like suddenly cut me up
    when they are walking toward me on a busy sidewalk, and it pisses me off, but
    it’s no different the time I saw a Japanese man wearing a skirt at my local
    train platform, and I nearly walked into a vending machine because my mind was suddenly
    pre-occupied. Unusual shit provokes unsual reactions.

    Gakuranman – I’m amazed your post became as long as it did,
    and I (believe) I share your sentiment that the ‘aggression’ part of the trendy
    term ‘microagression’ is overplayed; the term itself even becoming irrelevant
    in that form of a label that Debito and co are applying to mundane conversation
    that one encounters as a foreigner living in Japan. However, I also think that
    the debate surrounding the term is doomed to be a etymologic, linguistic,
    social science-y mess with no reasonable or rational outcome. In my
    pissing-myself-off-and-beginning-to-sound-like-I-think-I-know-everything-opinion,
    there is no way of discussing a theory pragmatically when people are arguing
    perception.

  3. My friend, who’d been here teaching English for a few years, moved to another country. She complained mildly that this put her into the category “Foreigner who only stays here a short time.” I was once in a grocery store, unable to find the price label for some bread, so I asked the woman next to me 「パンはいくらですか。」 She froze like a deer and said sheepishly, “I don’t understand English.” I nodded solemnly and pointed out that I was speaking Japanese. We laughed and eventually found the price label.

  4. What a wonderful post! I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said, and had very similar reactions to the work of the individuals you quoted.

    I have had  experience with many of these points, and I think two of them might be worth sharing:

    I am an Alaskan, born and raised. I am, however, white in appearance, so this fact isn’t readily visible. I have two separate experiences to share regarding this heritage, but they are both related to this very complicated concept of “microaggression.” The first involves the “Alien in One’s Own Country” category. Alaska is (contrary to what some people seem to believe) part of the United States, but any familiarity with it seems to degrade from West to East. Currently, I live near Philadelphia, having moved from Alaska to finish college in Philly. Again, in basic appearance, I look and talk like a white American. But the very moment someone finds out I’m an Alaskan, the questions pour forth, always with surprise or fascination. And, almost every time, there’s the same question: “When are you going home?” These interactions are very often white person to (me) white person, but are sometimes asked by persons of other nationalities or heritages.

    Normally I don’t find this question insulting, just merely irritating after the umpteenth time it is asked. I do enjoy talking about Alaska, and I still very much consider it my home (I have not taken to the Philly area, at all, for a variety of reasons but one of them is because of the people). Already, though, this question is assuming that the city isn’t my home even though I’ve lived here for 7 years. As soon as it is asked, right after finding out I’m Alaskan, I become the “other.” This I am troubled by, to some degree, since it immediately isolates me and makes me feel very lonely. I’m not so much troubled by, from then on, being known as “the Alaskan” since I am proud of my heritage.

    Even though the degree of ignorance about my home state is very high on the East Coast, I do find that most people are curious at the very least, and fascinated at the most. They genuinely want to learn about a place and culture that is so foreign to them despite being in the same country. The ignorance seems due to distance rather than prejudice. As you move back towards the West Coast, the degree of “otherness” fades away, so that Washingtonians for example will very much understand an Alaskan (a lot of them ARE displaced Alaskans!).

    Thus, I don’t believe in the slightest that all of these scenarios, or even most of them, are white people against people of color or minority. Wherever a person stands out, there are going to be questions or unconscious reactions. There’s no excuse for ignoring the interactions and biases against white people, because they do occur. A bit of poking around will reveal them. Maybe there aren’t so many in the US, but it’s a different story when you open up to an international scope (which is one of the points of your post, discussing Japanese reaction to perceived foreigners). In this way, I agree with you, and not so much with Sue.

    The second experience I’ve had with this topic again falls into the “alienation” category, but this time while I was still living in Alaska. Up there, there is actually a lot of racial tension between the Native Alaskans and the white “colonizers.” I wasn’t aware of this until I was older, when I began looking for ways to engage with the Native Alaskan culture and artwork. This is where I hit a brick wall. Even though I’m white in appearance, and have no Native Alaskan blood, I still identified very heavily with the culture and artwork of the Natives Alaskans (the Tlingit and Haida in my area). I respect their identity, culture, and artwork very highly. I have always wanted to be a part of it, to be accepted into that community. They wanted nothing to do with me. I find this fact very hurtful, because I’ve wanted nothing more than to understand them, their culture, and practice their highly symbolic artwork as an expression of my utmost respect. But to them, I will always be an outsider, even though I was born and raised in that same state! This causes me so much distress, but I have no idea how to come to terms with it. I don’t know how to open lines of communication.

    Communication and “standing out” are really what this is all about, it seems to me. If only these lines of communication can be opened, I believe a lot of these issues can be worked out in a positive manner. People will, however, always have biases (it’s a natural part of our development and psyche, and how me modulate our interactions with others and organize our world), and I wonder if it’s worth working so hard to avoid them. Communication will naturally start with preconceived notions, and hopefully curiosity, and will hopefully blossom into better understanding as time goes on. There’s no denying that these notions can be hurtful and significant, but I do feel that a lot of them are unintentional and due to a disjunction between cultures in understanding one another.

    There are so many deep topics you’ve included in this post that I believe each one would take many books to fully explore. I do feel that they are all worth exploring, though. Sorry for the long post–but I do enjoy discussion.

  5. Bill says:

     “I agree that it would require an effort that heretofore has not been
    fully embraced but, hell, 50 years ago if you told people that instead
    of 1 garbage can you’d need upwards of 5 to sort your garbage they would
    have lauighed at you and said humans just aren’t capable of caring
    about the planet that much. And they would have been wrong. All we’re
    talking about here is a bit of, let’s call it, ecology for the soul.
    Sort through all that foolishness we’ve been hoarding, recycle what is
    useful and discard the rest. Leran to approach humans without
    preconceived notions of their background because as we all know there is
    a very good chance you could be worng and wound up “unintentionally”
    being offensive. It’ll take some time, maybe a couple of generations or
    so, but it’s doable. I know, cuz I’m doing so as we speak. And if I can
    do it, with all my faults, I gotta believe many others can too.”

    Or the few oversensitive types who consider it an “assault” to be asked where they’re from could remove the stick from their backsides and get on with their lives. You are basically describing a world where everyone walks on egg shells to avoid any possible offense and squanders a lot of time and energy accommodating and encouraging a small group of people who are mentally ill (or at least highly dysfunctional). It is bizarre – incomprehensible – that you seem to want everyone to make intercultural communication the focus of their lives. Hopefully, most have hobbies, jobs, social lives and hundreds of other things that are more important. The logical conclusion of your argument seems to be that people should reside in homogenous communities since even the most basic communication is not possible without an unrealistic amount of time and effort. More realistically, I think a paradigm shift where Sue and other members of the perpetually aggrieved have their complaints greeted with disgust and hostility would largely resolve the issue. Such voices are already largely ignored but have exacerbated the problem of communication by delegitimizing discussion of the issue (i.e., most reasonable people will think someone who raises such issues is a Sue or Debito-style crank and not give them serious consideration).

  6. Bill says:

    The Sue article is a good (although I hope extreme) example of the instinct of many minorities to travel through the world as a throbbing exposed nerve, struggling to find racism and malice in the slightest inconvenience. The description of his reaction to being asked to move on a plane was truly cringe inducing. It is interesting as an illustration of psychological dysfunction rather than any sociological phenomenon. It is interesting to consider whether this psychological dysfunction is an inherent part of being a minority or whether it reflects a rotten culture that encourages a victim mentality. As an extreme example, I’ve observed many white professionals in Tokyo, many of whom would be unemployable elsewhere, who receive high six figure salaries for doing nothing lamenting that they are an oppressed minority in Japan.  I’ve observed this behavior even among non-Westerners who find themselves in situations where they are minorities so perhaps culture is not to blame.

  7. Bill says:

    Frankly, anyone who is seriously offended (as opposed to slightly annoyed) by any of these sorts of things singles himself out as someone worthy of disgust and isolation. Debito is a solid member of the grievance industry and basically builds his identity around concocting reasons to be offended so his screeds are best ignored. Analyzing his rants is like looking for meaning in a Lou Farrakhan or Al Sharpton speech.

  8. Locohama says:

    Interesting post, Michael.
    Your analysis, while well thought out (commendable) does have a bit of a linguistic quibbling to it. Also, you tend to remove the prefix “micro” whenever it suits your argument. While Sue’s thesis is arguable, upgrading microaggressions to aggressions at your convenience defionitely doesn’t support your argument.
    I tend to think of what Sue described as nicroassaults as flat out assaults and definitely aggressive., Nothing “micro” about them. There is intent and I’m not even sure why he did (or would) group them in with microaggressions. Maybe he just wanted to provide fodder for the naysayers to challenge him with. (joke)
    As for the icebrakers described in Debito’s article, while I agree that some of those acts are microaggressive, the ones mentioned in the articles — in comparison to the worst cases of microaggression one encounters here in Japan — are the cream of the crop and can easily be dismissed as “icebraekers” or Japanese idiosyncracies. There are many others, as you mentioned, that he did not discuss (and maybe he was just trying to keep his article lighthearted) that definitely could not be classifed as icebreaking by any stretch of the imagination and indeed are borderline aggressive.
    Also, in your argument, you suggest that as childen we see the world very simply and proceed to make our way through it with these childish perceptions as our roadmap. And this explains why adults do the same? I gotta disagree with you on that. I think once you’re all growed up it’s time to put those childish things away. I agree that it would require an effort that heretofore has not been fully embraced but, hell, 50 years ago if you told people that instead of 1 garbage can you’d need upwards of 5 to sort your garbage they would have lauighed at you and said humans just aren’t capable of caring about the planet that much. And they would have been wrong. All we’re talking about here is a bit of, let’s call it, ecology for the soul. Sort through all that foolishness we’ve been hoarding, recycle what is useful and discard the rest. Leran to approach humans without preconceived notions of their background because as we all know there is a very good chance you could be worng and wound up “unintentionally” being offensive. It’ll take some time, maybe a couple of generations or so, but it’s doable. I know, cuz I’m doing so as we speak. And if I can do it, with all my faults, I gotta believe many others can too.
    Or maybe I’m just being optimistic…
    Anyway, I liked this piece. Well written and researched and aside for the convenient twisting and convoluting of the microagressive (mostly unintentional) and the aggressive (difficult to argue as unintentional) well done!

    • Gakuranman says:

      Hey, thanks for your comment!

      >>While Sue’s thesis is arguable, upgrading microaggressions to aggressions at your convenience defionitely doesn’t support your argument.

      Could you point out where I do this? It certainly wasn’t my intent to pick and choose, so it could be a misunderstanding.

      >> I tend to think of what Sue described as microassaults as flat out assaults and definitely aggressive.

      Good point. A microassault seems to be the same as a regular verbal assault, but from reading Sue’s explanation, it does seem far more nuanced than a simple verbal assault. I wouldn’t call call a waiter serving a white person before a black person guilty of committing an assault, nor are they aggressive, even if the intent is there.

      >> There are many others, as you mentioned, that he did not discuss (and maybe he was just trying to keep his article lighthearted) that definitely could not be classifed as icebreaking by any stretch of the imagination and indeed are borderline aggressive.

      Agreed. I think this is far more telling than you realise. If there are more important discriminatory issues in Japan (and we know that there are), why did Debito focus on petty icebreakers? It seems to me as though he would like the word to apply to all negative acts experienced by foreigners, and in doing that he weakens the real meaning of ‘microaggression’.

      >>Leran to approach humans without preconceived notions of their background because as we all know there is a very good chance you could be worng and wound up “unintentionally” being offensive.

      My example of children admittedly wasn’t thought out in great detail, but I think you misunderstood my main point, which was that we *cannot* ever free ourselves completely from bias. You seem to suggest it is possible, but I think what you really mean to that we should eliminate as much of our bias as we can consciously manage. Of course I completely agree with you on this in regards to bigger issues (such as the woman clutching her purse). What I think is impossible is being able to anticipate the reactions of smaller issues. For example, asking somebody where they are from is, according to Sue, a microaggression. I seriously doubt we can ever really eliminate this sort of question from society, nor do I think we should. It all comes down to being tactful and polite – do that and the question itself is not really a problem.

      That’s why Sue’s ideas are difficult to get a handle on and problematic. We have such a mixture of differing scenarios all lumped together under one label, some of which are far more of a problem than others.

      • Locohama says:

        “It seems to me that communication that is both unconscious and unintentional, as well as unavoidable is a long way from what we think of as an aggressive act. Typically when we talk of aggression, we are referring to acts that knowingly and willing aim to harm the target person. Indeed, it seems rather ludicrous to suggest that we would call a person asking where somebody was born or complimenting somebody on their good use of a (non-native) language in any way ‘aggressive’.”
        I think the above section is an example of where the “micro” was removed to make your argument. Unless I’m misunderstanding what your saying here, you’re making it clear that you think unintentional and unconscious acts (microagressions) are a long way off from being agressive. Of they are, by their very definitions. Or did I misread it?
        Also, and I didn’t mention it before, it seems you are suggesting that lay-reader, when enountering the word “microagression” might easily misconstrue it as meaning aggressive and therefore arguably intentional and conscious and thus develop a negative opinion of “innocent” Japanese “icebreakers.”
        Well, geez, man. If they can’t comprehend what is being clearly stated we can hardly fault Sue or Debito for that, can we?  I mean, would these same people have trouble distinguishing between a micro-organism and an organism, or a microscope and a scope? lol Seriously though.

        ” If there are more important discriminatory issues in Japan (and we know that there are), why did Debito focus on petty icebreakers?”
        Whoa! The article was about how the pervasivenenss of the “petty” can grind you down. I wholeheartedly agree. It was not on “the more serious issues of discrimination.” (which he covers sufficiently and admirably on his blog and through activism, I think. My point was that the particular instances of microaggression he chose to highlight would not have been my first choices,and, in fact, in my opinion, are so petty in comparison to the microaggressions I encounter regularly, as to be almost inconsequential. But, that’s only in comparison. And not in comparison to important discriminatory issues like housing, employment and refusal of service, etc.. But in comparison to the microagressive and humiliating acts of criminalization, ostracizaion and “other”ization (that don’t quite rise to the level of outright aggressive discrimination) that occur here as a matter of course. The kind of stuff of cover on my blog, as you well know (-;

        And I agree, we cannot free ourselves completely from bias…but I think the world stands to improve a great deal if we give it our best effort, if we proceed like it is not an impossible goal. Children do not come out of the womb with this affliction. They acquire it from their parents, schools, environemts, etc…If we earnestly addressed this ignorance there would certainly be a marked improvement in our thoughts and behaviors, you’ve gotta agree.

        You’ve painted the microagressions Sue and Debito sed as examples with the most innocent of brushes, and that’s fine, but I’m of the mind that the same culprits that causes purse clutching, child defense tactics,  evasive maneuvers, avoidance and other examples of the pandemic that exists here in Japan (and other places in the world as well of course), and various other underdiscussed “microagressions,” are behind these as well: ignorance and unwarranted fear . And these can be addressed. It will take some time and a decidedly concerted effort, but it’s doable.

        It is NOT impossible.

        At least I hope not…

        • Gakuranman says:

          >>Unless I’m misunderstanding what your saying here, you’re making it clear that you think unintentional and unconscious acts (microagressions) are a long way off from being agressive. Of they are, by their very definitions. Or did I misread it? 

          That’s exactly what I’m saying. My point was that, if something is not considered aggressive, why label it as aggressive? Why confuse people by using a word that means something else? Just putting ‘micro’ in front of the word ‘aggressive’ does not change the actual meaning of aggressive itself – it adds something else to the original word. That something is the concept of ‘small’.

          You give two examples, but both of them are simply iterations of the same thing. A microorganism is still an organism – just one that is very, very small. A microscope is still a type of viewing device – just one that magnifies objects to a much greater degree than a normal scope.  Similarly, words like ‘micromanagement’, ‘microprocessor’ and ‘microbrew’ all follow the same logic – they are versions of the original thing that differ such that they are ‘smaller’ or ‘lesser’.

          Following the same logic, a microaggression would still be an aggression – just one that is aggressive to a lesser extent. This is what I dispute – unintentional acts are *not* in any way aggressive, so it is a mistake to label them as ‘microaggressions’. To be very clear – Sue talks about 3 types of acts, and only one of them (microassult) is intentional and malicious. A microassault is intended to hurt the receiver, just like a physical act of aggression, so labelling it as a microaggression seems fine to me. This is not the case with microinsults or microinvalidations, so labelling them as microaggressions is inappropriate and confusing.

          This isn’t just about layreaders mistaking the term (although that is a very real possibility, as demonstrated by the recent ‘buzz’ surrounding the word). It’s more about the lazy terminology created to talk about the issues. The issues themselves still exist, of course, but I propose we use a different word or drop the label altogether, as it does more harm than good.

          >>If we earnestly addressed this ignorance there would certainly be a marked improvement in our thoughts and behaviors, you’ve gotta agree.

          Agreed. I’m all for better education about the issues and mutual effort to eradicate them, just so long as we are sensible about how far we go and in our expectations of the other side. (Referring here to things like ‘where are you from?’ being a normal phrase. Getting annoyed by questions like this is the fault of the receiver, in my opinion).

          >>You’ve painted the microagressions Sue and Debito sed as examples with the most innocent of brushes, and that’s fine, but I’m of the mind that the same culprits that causes purse clutching, child defense tactics,  evasive maneuvers, avoidance and other examples of the pandemic that exists here in Japan (and other places in the world as well of course), and various other underdiscussed “microagressions,” are behind these as well: ignorance and unwarranted fear . And these can be addressed. It will take some time and a decidedly concerted effort, but it’s doable.

          Actually, I haven’t painted anyone with anything. I presented the issues as Sue identified them and commented on them, explaining where I think his ideas go astray. I’ve said nothing about Sue or Debito that misconstrues their views as I directly quoted them, providing the original texts for verification and clarification. My focus in this article was explaining why I think the term ‘microaggression’ is inappropriate in its current form as it conflates several different types of issue.

          The actual problems we face in the world, such as the purse-grabbing (etc.) are still out there and as you rightly point out, need to be addressed through education and deeper exchange between people of different cultures. There’s only so much I can talk about in one post though, so that’s a topic for another time. One thing I would be very interested to hear you write about on your blog are potential solutions to the problems of ignorance and unwarranted fear. How can we go about eradicating these things and stopping the actions and communications that alienate other people? I’m talking about practical things that the average person could do and ideas on how to educate people effectively. I would love to hear some of your ideas!

          • Locohama says:

            Sorry for the late reply…been hectic with promoyional stuff..

            OK, here’s the thing. While “microagressions” may not be intentional or rather intended to offend, make no mistake about it, they ARE aggressive and intentiona, my friend. There is an aggressive assertion being made by the microaggressive person. In many cases the unsung assertion is this: “I have certain preconceived notions about who you are, and what you’re capable of, and, righ or wrong, I’m not afraid…in fact, I believe it is my privilage to tell you to your face! This is how we break ice in Japan…by spewing our preconceived notions at people who don’t look lke us.” Now you might want to equate that with “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?” and you might be right…but that’s not to say that even that western icebreaker is not aggressive to some. Ask women how they feel about it. I’m sure their responses will vary from it means nothing to the user has made a judgment about her.
            That kind of presumptiousness IS aggressive (however mild) in my book, and in your book as well, I’d wager (but I might be wrong).
            Here’s where your brush comes in, when you choose to describe this microassault with adjectives like “benign.” Presumptiousness is hardly benign or harmless. Even when done without any traces of malice or out of ignorance, it isn’t. Do people all over the world do it? Of course. Is it rude, offensive, and, yes, aggressive (to varying degrees) in those places as well? Yes it is!
            “・Grouping intentional acts of aggression (microassaults) in with largely unintentional acts of ‘aggression’ (microinsults and microinvalidations) under the banner ‘microaggressions’ is very misleading.”
            Is it?
            I guess depends a great deal on trust. For me, anyway. I mean, I know for a fact that the vast majority of the people here, at least, have a profound fear of non-Japanese, particulalry blacks,, and are rarely inclined to hide that fear. It’s on display for all to see, shamelessly. So, when it comes down to giving the benefit of the doubt (and there is a doubt) as toi the intention of these micro whatevers, while yourself is inclined to extend that benefit to the natives here, my experiences here have made it much more of a challenge to do the same.
            I see nothing benign in “microagressions” I witness daily. And the root of the behavior I see is the same thing at the root of these icebreakers: aggressive, intentional and assertive ignorance (but perhaps at times without the intent to offend)
            It is malignant and troubling, to say the least. 

            • Gakuranman says:

              >>While “microagressions” may not be intentional or rather intended to offend, make no mistake about it, they ARE aggressive and intentional, my friend. 

              This  is your opinion. My opinion is that *unintentional* actions and communications that are a result of unconscious bias (which is in itself something I believe to be unavoidable, no matter how much we educate ourselves) are not aggressive. Intentional actions and communications intended to harm are aggressive. I’ve provided further evidence below that would suggest my definition is closer to what is a standardly accepted definition of aggression.

              >>There is an aggressive assertion being made by the microaggressive person. In many cases the unsung assertion is this: “I have certain preconceived notions about who you are, and what you’re capable of, and, right or wrong, I’m not afraid…in fact, I believe it is my privilege to tell you to your face! 

              You’re conflating issues here. The first half of your quote suggests unintentional bias while the latter half suggests intent to offend. I’ve already made it clear that I think there is a very important division to be made between the intentional and unintentional.

              >>but that’s not to say that even that western icebreaker is not aggressive to some. Ask women how they feel about it. I’m sure their responses will vary from it means nothing to the user has made a judgment about her. 

              That’s correct. Indeed, that is Sue’s argument too – that it is perceived to be aggressive by the receiver. But the receiver’s opinion does not make the action or communication aggressive; the action of communication is aggressive because of its nature. My argument, as well as, it would seem, academic consensus, states that there must be intent for something to be aggressive.

              According to the book ‘Human Aggression’ by Robert. A Baron (a social psychologist well known for his research on aggression), ‘aggression’ is defined as follows (p7):

              “Aggression is any form of behavior directed toward the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment”

              Pages 4-7 gives several different scenarios and proposals for different definitions of aggression, but Baron comments that:

              “While there has been considerable controversy concerning these alternate definitions of aggression, many social scientists have now moved toward acceptance of a definition similar to the second mentioned above; that is, one involving intention as well as the actual delivery of harm or injury to others.”

              That’s not to say the definition is fixed, but if what Baron says is correct, then it seems academic consensus rules that intent must be present to label behaviour as aggressive. So my point about Sue’s definition of ‘microaggression’ stills stands; that it misleads people into thinking the perpetrator has intent to harm and relies on a non-standard definition of aggression. I am of course open to new evidence which challenges the source I have quoted as being the most standard definition.

              >>I mean, I know for a fact that the vast majority of the people here, at least, have a profound fear of non-Japanese, particularly blacks, and are rarely inclined to hide that fear. It’s on display for all to see, shamelessly. 

              Fear is a interesting example. To what extent is it possible and reasonable to expect the person afraid to change their psychological state? I assume you mean fear based on ignorance (purse clutching woman), in which case I agree that it is possible to change and better educating people about cultural differences is a good way to start combating this, but I would not call somebody who is afraid, guilty of being aggressive (or use the label ‘microaggressive’, for reasons previously stated). Although I’d like to make it perfectly clear, I think this sort of behaviour is a problem that needs addressing. I am only disagreeing with the labels applied to the problem.

              >>So, when it comes down to giving the benefit of the doubt (and there is a doubt) as to the intention of these micro whatevers, while yourself is inclined to extend that benefit to the natives here, my experiences here have made it much more of a challenge to do the same.
              I see nothing benign in “microagressions” I witness daily. And the root of the behavior I see is the same thing at the root of these icebreakers: aggressive, intentional and assertive ignorance (but perhaps at times without the intent to offend).I can appreciate that your experiences make it difficult to give people the benefit of the doubt. I’m certainly not challenging you on your experiences or the fact that black people and other minorities do experience more discrimination than white people in Japan. My aim with this article was to address the distinction between benign icebreakers and real problems of discrimination, which were heavily conflated in Debito’s article. I also take issue with Sue’s labelling of a wide variety of different situations as ‘microaggressions’ due to issues related to the definition of ‘aggression’ and the differences between intentional and unintentional behaviour.I agree with you that ignorance is one of the key factors leading to damaging behaviour and presuming things about people can be very harmful, but it is not aggressive under the accepted definition of aggression that I have highlighted. The discriminatory issues you encounter however, such as the purse clutching woman, are very real and very much a problem we all need to work to address. 

              • Locohama says:

                “My opinion is that *unintentional* actions and communications that are a result of unconscious bias (which is in itself something I believe to be unavoidable, no matter how much we educate ourselves) are not aggressive.” I think we are possibly talking about two different things that need to be distinguisehd. The action is intentional. This is not a matter of opinion. What’s open to opinion here is whether or not that intention is to offend or not. But whether or not the action, which in this case, is an assertion of their beliefs, is done with an intent to, at least, inform the recipient of their opinions and in many cases ignorances about the stranger before them. Why this is considered an icebreaker anywhere is beyond me.
                I mean, to simply ask questions would seem the less dangerous course to take when interacting with a person you nothing about, that is if the intent is to learn about the person and to disprove or confirm your own presumptions. Not to assert them  For what intent exactly? To show the person that though you have never met them before and know not a single fact about them, that you have seen and heard enough about them (or people that share their racial, national, etc… characteristics) from various media and other sources to form an opinion? Geez…
                Anyway, the point is, this assertion is intentional. The offense may or may not be intentional, That’s the part that’s left to opinion. Not whether or not it was intentional. What was the intent is this debatable question.
                “If the speaker is telling somebody what they think they are, that seems to me to be a pretty blatant attempt to offend. If the speaker is talking to somebody but their thoughts betray bias but there is no intent to offend – that’s something altogether very different.”
                Really now?
                So, if, for example, you try to rent an apartment here in Tokyo, and the landlord tells you “I’ve never rented to foreigners before because they are not clean people, too noisy, and make my Japanese tenants uncomfortable, particularly Chinese, Koreans and blacks, but you seem ok,* that wouldn’t be troublesome to you because, though he betrayed his race based bias, clearly there was no intent to offend you since he wants you as a tenant. Am I right? Or would that act fall under intentional offense?

                Am I really conflating?
                There are examples of both aggressive and microaggressive here.
                Mybe I could have been clearer, i guess. I hope this response has cleared it up a bit.

                Even you have recently experienced a bit aggressive microaggresion quite recently you mentioned. I felt for you. i wanted to ask you how did it make you feel, did it hurt? Did it change you in any way? Does it impact your thinking on this issue at hand? But, I dunno, I read through the thread, at how your support circle responded and addressed it…very coldly, I think. Just work around it. Ignore it. Shit happens, this is Japan. Supportive practiclly and pragmatically, unsupportive emotionallly and spiritually, I think. I know we’ve had our issues but I really felt for you. Esepcially since you champion Japan and its people (at least on my blog) I know you love it here.

                Anyway, for the record, I’m sorry you had to experience such a thing. No one of any race or nationality should have to. It’s an indignity that must be eradicated from humanity. It’s inexcusable and imho unacceptable! But, endured here because of iroiro…

                I think of this as a microcosm of the microagressive issue. Did that company have the intention of harming or humiliating you? Was it just a monetary consideration? Was it aggressive or microagressive? What was in their hearts and minds? We may never know…like I said before, it comes down to trust. And like you said, that’s my opinion.

                • Gakuranman says:

                  >>What’s open to opinion here is whether or not that intention is to offend or not. But whether or not the action, which in this case, is an assertion of their beliefs, is done with an intent to, at least, inform the recipient of their opinions and in many cases ignorances about the stranger before them. Why this is considered an icebreaker anywhere is beyond me.

                  Well clarified. It was my wording that confused this issue. Instead of ‘unintentional actions’ I should have been saying ‘actions without intent to offend’.  All actions are intentional, unless the subject has lost control of their will (drugs, mental health etc.) , but that doesn’t mean all actions have intent to harm.

                  Is the action an assertion of one’s beliefs? As you note, asking questions would not be asserting one’s beliefs and likely not be aggressive because there is no intent to harm (although I can think of ways of asking questions that do intend to harm, so questions are not exempt from being discriminatory altogether). The sort of icebreakers (chopstick skill, etc.) I refer to are in most cases genuine attempts at making conversation and getting to know the other person. They are not questions with intent to offend, nor are they assertions of what the target person does or thinks.A question like ‘so, you’re black, you so must play basketful, right?’ may not have an intent to offend, but it is a hopelessly crude and tactless remark to make. I would not consider this an icebreaker. Which brings me back to the point I made in my original article – it’s very difficult to decide where to draw the line, and you may not agree with my interpretation of all situations. That’s perfectly fine, of course! But it’s also another reason why trying to apply a blanket term like ‘microaggression’ fails, because there is no consensus on how far the term can be applied (something Sue also notes in his article).

                  I’d even go as far as to say that it explains why there has been such a divide between people talking about this issue, because everyone categorises situations in different ways. One man’s microaggression is another man’s icebreaker.  I’m sure you’ve noticed, but very few people are saying there is no discrimination in Japan. We’re all just disagreeing on what is considered discriminatory and what labels to apply. This is the very problem brought about by using ill-defined terminology like the word ‘microaggression’.

                  >>So, if, for example, you try to rent an apartment here in Tokyo, and the landlord tells you “I’ve never rented to foreigners before because they are not clean people, too noisy, and make my Japanese tenants uncomfortable, particularly Chinese, Koreans and blacks, but you seem ok,* that wouldn’t be troublesome to you because, though he betrayed his race based bias, clearly there was no intent to offend you since he wants you as a tenant. Am I right? Or would that act fall under intentional offense?

                  This is where the line gets very blurry, but I think that you are right that this is the sort of thing that Sue wanted to highlight with his label of ‘microaggression’. Personally, I think anybody speaking in this way lacks common sense, as it’s obvious to me that outright saying foreigners are noisy and unclean is an insult and aggression. (You’d have to be very stupid not to realise that such statements would offend, hence in my opinion it is intent to offend). However, if the landlord said ‘my previous experience is that foreign tenants were noisy and unclean, and the neighbours complained they were uncomfortable around people of different colour’, then that seems much less contentious statement with no obvious intent to offend. The sort of microaggression Sue wanted to label.It is still discriminatory and definitely troublesome, but the landlord is giving reasons based on experience (as well as something that affects his income) to justify his policies. That makes it far less of a simple matter to call. Mistaken thinking or bias gained from media and indirect sources is one thing, but opinion based on real, negative experience? That’s a lot more difficult to just dismiss as unwarranted racism. It’s easy to point out and say ‘well, blanket labelling all foreigners or people of colour is just silly, because people differ greatly between cultures and colour has no affect on personality’, but what about blanket labelling a particular race or religion?

                  For example, what if the landlord refused to rent the apartment to a person of Islamic faith because he knew they intended to set up a mosque nearby? (In case you aren’t aware, many mosques have prayer sessions several times a day and broadcast the fact very nosily on loudspeakers, even early in the morning). Or how about a case I read about a while ago, where an Islamic woman was refused employment at a hairdressers because she wouldn’t remove her burqa. The employer saying that they targeted young, fashionable people and it would present the wrong image. Simply labelling the perpetrator as acting aggressively (or microaggressively) strips the situations of nuance. They are very hard to call on what is right or fair, even though they are discriminatory.

                  >>Even you have recently experienced a bit aggressive microaggresion quite recently you mentioned. I felt for you. i wanted to ask you how did it make you feel, did it hurt? Did it change you in any way? Does it impact your thinking on this issue at hand? But, I dunno, I read through the thread, at how your support circle responded and addressed it…very coldly, I think. Just work around it. Ignore it. Shit happens, this is Japan. Supportive practiclly and pragmatically, unsupportive emotionallly and spiritually, I think. I know we’ve had our issues but I really felt for you. Esepcially since you champion Japan and its people (at least on my blog) I know you love it here.

                  Thanks for your concern. It did suck to experience that discrimination, but I did not consider it aggressive (or microaggressive). As a white male, I don’t experience discrimination as often as other minorities, so it reminded me that working to solve the issues is as important as ever. I think the way others responded was typical of being resigned in that they cannot change anything. Fighting this battle will not win the war – that kind of thing. So why their replies were vey cold and matter-of-fact, I am sure most if not all of them want to end the discrimination. Unfortunately, few of us are proactive in these pursuits, knowing full well that trying to change something as deeply embedded as this would be a full time job.

                  For the record, I resent being referred to as somebody who ‘champions Japan’ or being labelled as an ‘apologist’. People who apply labels are usually mistaken and guilty of many things themselves, so I try to avoid the practice where I can. This goes for Debito too – I try to present his ideas verbatim and let him speak for himself. Far too many people use him as a scapegoat these days. I try my best to talk about both sides of all situations and promote healthy discussion. One need only look back through my blog to find examples of debate about some of the deeper issues in Japan.It’s very easy to slip into the trap of constructing ideas of a person and their views, however. I’ve been guilty of it myself in the past and I’m sure I will slip up again in the future too. As much as I have my own image of you and the scope of your thinking, I constantly try to remind myself that I can never have the full picture, so try to assume as little about you as I can and focus on the arguments themselves.

                  >>I think of this as a microcosm of the microagressive issue. Did that company have the intention of harming or humiliating you? Was it just a monetary consideration? Was it aggressive or microagressive? What was in their hearts and minds? We may never know…like I said before, it comes down to trust. And like you said, that’s my opinion.

                  Whether or not it was ‘microaggressive’ is irrelevant because it doesn’t given us any new knowledge about the situation. It doesn’t tell us if the communication was intentional or unintentional, or if it was hostile or not, because ‘microaggression’ can mean any of those things. All it tells us is that the result harmed me, the target person, in some way, and we can communicate that fact without using new terminology. What the landlord said had a negative affect on me and discriminated based on my nationality. No need to mention microaggressions at all.

                  The issue is discrimination, plain and simple. As to intent, that is and will always remain a matter of debate. Personally I do not think the landlord had the intention of harming or humiliating me (although I have never met him/her). I also don’t think it was aggressive, but of course, I can never know that for sure. I think this way based upon my experiences to date with other Japanese people and consider it the result of being ill-informed and having bad experiences. Of course, I do not accept that this discrimination is okay nor that we should do nothing to challenge it. It is a very serious issue that needs to be resolved over time.

                  • Locohama says:

                    Sorry for the delay in responding….again.
                    If I offended you with the use of “champion” I apologize. I too try to refrain from labeling people…that word came to mind about you as I thought about our discussions in the past, where you consistently came from a perspective easily labeled. But, this post is a step away from that and I should have taken that into consideration…there were no assertions that most claims made against the “microaggresive” behavior of people here are due to the recipient’s lack of Japanese ability (which was one of your go-to argument on my blog ) that the people experiencing these misunderstandings don’t have a leg to stand on because the secret to understanding these behaiviors and seeing them for their true harmlessness and innocence is a thorough knowledge of nihongo which would be reflective of the kind of vesting in the culture necessary to accurately interpret ANYTHING going around you. But you’re right I didn’t take into account that people do grow and change (I certainly have)
                    I don’t think “microaggression” is the end all be all. It’s just the start of a discussion that needs to be had. It describes, in part, what I have been blogging about since day one. My struggle has been captured in this albeit problematic  terminology. How should one interpret and address these behaviors? and like I said, the behaviors that push me to the edge of intolerance are not as debatably innocent or devoid of hostile intent as chopstick remarks (and not to say that these remarks are not troubling, but they’re exascerbated by the more troubling behaviors, which to me appear to be just slightly more aggressive versions of the chopstick question).
                    Ask a Japanese person (and I have, many times) why they assert (rarely is there any real Q&A involved…generally you are responding to an assertion, not a question)  their surprise at your ability to use chopsticks, and they’ll tell you. They won’t say, “oh just to defrost the air and make conversation” or anything of that sort, or any of these others benign attributes some people including yourself have chosen to describe this. They’ll tell you it’s because they believe that Japanese and other Asians are the only ones who use chopsticks. It’s an asserion of what they feel to be one of  their racial staples, the way overeating, aggresive behavior, violence, crudeness, etc… are staples of “foreign” races and cultures (and these are also asserted…)  NOW, if you’ve chosen to think of this assertion as benign, that is indeed a choice.; a choice I think that requires quite a leap of trust. What’s at the heart of the apartment refusal can arguably be said is at the heart of the chopstuck argument. Asians take care of stuff, foreigners don’t. of course this is the argument viewed through the eyes of someone who the Japanese people will have to work just a might bit harder to make me say anything in their defense. They’ve demonstrated over the years the capacity to harm without intent over and over and over. And, when asked if the equivalent behavior toward one of their own would be considered offensive, the answer isn’t always yes, but a good number of times it is. (and YES, I have asked…I’m a writer and in general, an inquisitive thinker, in English and Japanese, for the record) so I do try to get to the bottom of things. I don’t like to take things for granted intellectually, and I don’t hand my trust over to people who have demonstrated a capacity to abuse it “unintentionally” or otherwise so often, I’d be a fool to do so.
                    I used to find it hard to believe that anyone living here could not see this, but as I’ve said, I have grown, so I’ve come to accept the fact that everyone’s experience here, and / or sensitivity to what’s going on around them is different. Instead of envying these folk as I used to, now I just try to learn from them. And I learned a few things from this piece here, so i thank you, sir. And again I apologize for the “champion” jab. You deserve better.

          • Locohama says:

            You read my blog so you know I do (at least you used to I guess)  but suffice it to say my contribution to focusing on the next generation so that they don’t grow up half as clueless as their parents. I do this everyday and over the past 8 years with all my students. That means potentially thousands of people are have been influenced by my positive interactions with these people.  And I have every confidence that some of these kids will grow up to be lovely citizens of a world that is not all Japanese, and I’ve hopefully impacted my adult students similarly. In fact I know I have!

  9. Great post ;-)
    and I m 100% with you about icebreaker.. a lot of think that people put in “racism” category are for me, Icebreaker… there is stupid question in EVERY country.. and it s normal.. how to start a conversation with someone you see for the first time without asking stupid question?

    The “can you use chopstick?” question is a good one.. and everytime I ve been asked that it continued to a nice conversation..

    Now I might be considered as a noob because I m living here for almost 5years only.. but I never felt “racism” against me.. never experienced the “empty seat” in the train, or situstion where people avoid me.. so I don’t really know what Debito was talking about..

    I just experienced Icebreaker situation that can happen all my life, I absolutely don’t care about it..

    ^_^

    • Gunther Marzin says:

      100% agree with Jonathan.
      – I never experienced the “empty seat”.- Icebreakers are necessary ! In my home country, it’s : “Hoo, nice weather, isn’t it ? In Japan, it’s : “Can you use chopsticks ?”. No microaggression here.

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