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July 26, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Prejudice hits too close to home

With Billy on a visit to Kyushu

April 28, 1994

I am sure it came as no surprise to anyone when it was reported in a government survey, released two months ago, that almost 90 percent of real estate agents in Saitama “are hesitant or refuse to rent” to foreigners. Some firms in the survey replied that they’d rent to foreigners “depending on the circumstances” while others said they would not rent out housing to “specific nationalities and races.”

I wonder if my friend Robert was in the latter category. Two years ago Robert, an American, along with his Japanese wife and their teenage daughter, returned to Japan after living in the United States for five years.

After many unsuccessful attempts to rent an apartment with the generous allowance provided by his company, Robert was outraged.

“Imagine,” he said to me, “people not renting you and apartment because of how you look!”

Unfortunately, imagination plays no part in my awareness of this situation.

But I haven’t had this problem in Japan. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, or maybe it’s because my husband Billy, whose skin color is about 75 shades lighter than mine, rented the places we lived before we built our house. But actually, when we rented our old farmhouse, and later a beautifully preserved traditional house, we went to the owners together. And when we lived in the city, it was I who found our new,  comfortable 4-bedroom apartment overlooking a lake.

Still, I’ve heard so many bad-news stories about foreigners trying to rent places here, I wouldn’t really want to push my luck.

Robert has now gone back to America with his family. He could have renewed his contract but jumped at the opportunity to resume his former position in the States. Two years in Saitama were enough for him, and he’d really been ready to leave a lot sooner. He just never got over what he termed the “vicious racism” of the many realtors who’d turned him away.

I first met Robert when we lived in that apartment near the lake. Although our backgrounds were as dissimilar as they could possibly be, we had in common a love of writing and reading. He was one of the few people with whom I lent and borrowed books — which, always precious, around here easily take the place of gold.

Robert counts among his forebears some of the settlers of the original 13 states. His family lends its name to several towns and a river. On his his 21st birthday he inherited land thad had been in the family for generations. He told me he was “career-tracked since birth, and before.” He’s also said that it hasn’t been easy for his prominent, conservative family to accept that he’s the first scion to marry “outside of the race.”

I had an opportunity to meet Robert’s family during a visit to the East Coast. His father, a man who personifies the word “patrician” welcomed me graciously. Telling me how much he loved Japan, he showed me photos of himself as a young soldier, and smiled with nostalgia as he spoke about how well he’d gotten along with the “Japs.”

For Robert, as for many others, living in Japan is their first experience of living as a minority. Here, they become, as one dictionary defines minority, “a part of the population differing from others in some characteristics and often subjected to differential treatment.”

As we all know, “minorities” are those people who are well-known for not being well-thought-of. All sorts of things are imputed to them: they’ve been accused of starting plagues and poisoning wells. They’re barred from some places and not welcome in others, Generally, they struggle to be accepted by the majority in the mainstream of society.

So, for some foreigners, living here many be the first time they’re judged solely on their looks. Some find this beneficial, and even profitable. Others take offense at being treated like a “gaijin accessory”.

Any number of people have told me that after living in Japan they learn what it’s like — what it feels like — to be a minority, and it has opened their eyes to the many injustices minorities around the world face daily.

They say they now know what it means to be singled out and to have decisions made about them, not based on their character or behavior, but simply on what the majority expects of them. I don’t think it’s unusual that more than a few people find this unpleasant. For my friend Robert, it was unbearable.



At the time this was written, I obtained books in English by sending an order form to a book outlet in Queens, New York. My shipment of books really came by ship, so I could expect a two-month wait. In our area, there is still no library where you could borrow books in English, or bookstore where you can buy them. So while it might be a little much to compare them to gold — I couldn’t have dreamt then that I’d be able to order books online and have them delivered to my door the next day, as I do now.


© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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