My Recent Experiences With Race (Plus, your comments!)

Jul 12, 2021
Katheryn Gronauer

Recently, I sent out a newsletter sharing my experience with race in relation to the business world. In a nutshell, I shared how there are occasions when I've been asked to give talks about topics I'm unfamiliar with simply because I "look more Japanese" than other English speakers. I have also been passed over for cross-cultural training because I "don't look Japanese enough". 

I asked you all if you have any similar experiences either personally or as a business decision-maker and produced your anonymous responses below.

Note: These stories are from the survey; if you emailed me directly, I have not included your story here as I wasn't sure if you wanted it shared. 

Have you ever experienced something similar? Describe what happened:

Not really a Japan example but in the USA my brother and I have had some interesting experiences. We're both half-Pakistani / half white, but because my brother looks far more Pakistani than white and I look more white than Pakistani, he got a lot of racism that I almost totally never experienced, even though we're the same racially.

In terms of race in Japan, one of the biggest things that bother me in Japan is going out to eat with friends or on dates with people who aren't gaijin. Here are some examples to explain this (although I'm sure you've heard of this phenomenon before):

Example 1) I go out to dinner with a Japanese person. Result: The waitress refuses to look at me when I order in Japanese, confirms my order with the Japanese person even though they totally understood it and my Japanese was perfect. When I pay for the bill, they look at the Japanese person and say ありがとうございました even though I'm the one that paid!!

Example 2) I go out to dinner with a non-Japanese-speaking Asian person. Result: The exact same as above. Even though the Asian person CLEARLY cannot speak Japanese at ALL and I'M THE ONE interpreting and ordering for them, the waitress continues to just check with the non-Japanese speaking Asian person every step of the way to make sure the order is correct, etc. Even though they have no idea what the waitress is saying and are giving the waitress the most "clueless" look they can muster!

Example 3) I go out to dinner with a person who is half-Japanese and has native level Japanese. Result: The waitress perceives the half-Japanese as a gaijin person despite native-level Japanese and will actually listen to and take my order as normal. NOTE: For some reason, waitresses are far more likely to ignore me than waiters, I don't know why. Also, there was some video on youtube that perfectly captures this phenomenon, although it could have been more brutal IMO.

One interesting thing to note is that so far, at least with all of my half-JPN friends who are raised in Japan, they really don't care at all or seem to be bothered when the waitress/flight attendant assumes they don't speak Japanese and speaks in English or gives them an English menu or looks at their full Japanese friends for confirmation that their order was correct.

When I ask them "Why doesn't it make you mad??" they just shrug and say they think it's funny or entertaining or sometimes they even go along with it and just reply in English. Or they say they really just don't care and have bigger things to worry about. It's Japanese-speaking foreigners like myself or people who are half-Japanese but raised abroad that seem to be the ones that get upset/triggered by this the most, which is also something interesting to ponder.

I realized that I myself do that when I am being assessed for a job. Japanese companies/ clients generally feel comfortable with having a Japanese person to work with, unless they want a "foreigner's" perspective or some out of the box thinking so I felt my Japanese looks and being while having an international perspective is my strength and never really thought anything of it. But I see it from your perspective, being passed for a job for your looks does seem unfair but something that happens naturally and all the time...Sometimes it is being a female, sometimes it is being older that people choose but I never really thought too much about it as a negative as I thought that was my uniqueness and strength. Thanks for raising it. It's something to think about.

Hi, I’ve worked in eleven different countries and therefore experienced all sorts of different cultures, racism, and decision-making at the top of the tree. I love learning about different cultures and the reasons for those differences. It is so important in being able to manage workforces that are different from your ‘norm’. I’ve worked in a 99.99% black community where I was the 0.01% and had to choose between different black communities for workers! I’ve worked in third-world countries where you have to understand their recent history just to know what their expectations are. In Japan, there is a unique culture unmatched in the world that explains many of the ‘unusual’ ideas and decisions that are made. Honestly, without this knowledge, you don’t have a chance. Your background and race is so important to helping bridge this divide and I’m glad that you can offer your services (even if they are not appreciated sometimes) Thank you.

I am pure Japanese lived overseas for a long time. They want to understand overseas cultures, but their expectation is usually so high and not in details. Then they would say as I am Japanese, I should assume or pleased their expectation.

Have you been in a decision-making position where the topic of race has come up? How did you navigate this situation?

Yes, I have. I once ran a hair-care company in Japan, 100% owned by a US/Israel company. They use beautiful models but mostly caucasian for PR and marketing materials. So when I asked for using Asian models (black/dark hair), they used South East Asian. I got huge resistance from my distributors and so many Japanese influential hairstylists because they could tell that those models were not Japanese (or north Asians). I went ahead and used the SE Asian models and told my clients that if we get negative comments and affected sales, then we would replace them asap. Well, it didn't at all.

I have made decisions based on race too for hiring. Whether having an international mix will be beneficial for the team/ client or we need more Japanese to bring in the local perspectives to projects. Never really thought of it too much I guess.

Not a decision maker in the companies I worked for. However, I usually say the constructions of people are the same. (No one ever seen someone who has got 3 eyes.) So, I usually say "even people in the same nationalities have different preferences, so why not other nationalities then"?


Thank you all for sharing your thoughts on this topic, it's given me some food for thought - and feel free to continue to add input in the comments below!

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