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.


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.

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