Foreign Women in Japan No Longer Take Safety for Granted

Assaults on foreign women in Japan are becoming commonplace but are largely ignored not only by the nation’s police departments but by witnessing bystanders, according to an article in Japan Times written by Holly Lanasolyluna, a foreign white female writer living in Japan.

Lanasolyluna suffered two attacks in Japan. In one she was literally picked up by a large Japanese man who tried to carry her into a nearby love hotel. In another she was riding her bicycle when she was grabbed by a Japanese man who accused her of having stolen the bike she was riding. In both cases the author was unsuccessful in getting help from passersby and had to rely on her own devices to escape. She tried to report the latter incident to police but was unable to get them to take her seriously though she was aided in the effort by her Japanese boyfriend.

Disturbed by the incidents, Lanasolyluna solicited other foreign women in Japan for similar incidents and discovered that virtually every one had suffered them. A Japan Times survey accompanying her article had logged 4,317 responses to the question, “Do you feel safe while out and about in Japan?”

While 38% (1,637) responded that they had never felt in physical danger in Japan, nearly the same number (37% – 1,592) responded that though they generally felt safe, “There have been times and/or place where I have felt unsafe.”

Further casting doubt on the widespread perception that foreigners feel safe on Japan’s streets, 15% responded, “It depends on the time/place.” Japan’s image for safety was flatly rejected by 6% who chose, “Despite its reputation… Japan is a dangerous place.” Another 4% felt, “No, generally I feel uneasy about my personal safety.”

Lanasolyluna tries to explain the frequency of such assaults on foreign women by positing objectification and dehumanization of foreign women, especially white women.

“As a minority in Japan, foreign women do receive a lot of male attention and are often offered work as hostesses,” she writes. “They also complain to me about how they feel objectified in Japan. White models and mannequins are seen everywhere, even though white women represent a tiny percentage of the population.

“In a way, white women become plastic here: imports without feelings — strange, exotic dolls. And if we are dolls, perhaps the groping, leering, stalking and attacking is somehow justified in the perpetrator’s mind as a game rather than a crime.”

Lanasolyluna and the other foreign women she cited were especially troubled to discover that they couldn’t count on help from passersby who witnessed the assaults or the police officers to whom they reported them.

“When I first moved to Japan, I tolerated the staring, following and persistent nampa (pickup artists), but after being assaulted twice in public, they have taken on darker undertones,” she writes. “I now know I can’t rely on the goodwill of strangers, as I have in the past when I was verbally harassed in countries such as Mexico. Interest from strangers that I could have dismissed as innocent curiosity a few years ago now gives me the chills.”

She concludes that the attitude she faced from both bystanders and police may reflect the intense “othering” with which Japanese distance themselves from foreigners and crimes involving foreigners.

“Some of us do wonder: Are these types of attacks more prevalent among foreign women? It is hard to tell, but perhaps for the attacker such a target could be less risky. Many foreign women would not know where and how to report such an incident. Even in my case, having a Japanese boyfriend to go with me and translate, the police still didn’t record any information or search for the people involved. Moreover, since foreigners are often associated with crime, bystanders might be less likely to intervene or call the police.

“After all these years, I clearly remember anti-groping cartoon posters in the Fukuoka subway depicting a man with dark skin touching a white woman. Even at the time, I thought it reflected a still-prevalent view in Japan: Crime and criminals are non-Japanese. When a crime happens, people almost always ask, ‘Was (s)he Japanese?’ Of course, Japanese people too commit crimes, and ‘othering’ the victims and perpetrators only makes it easier for crimes to go unaddressed, thus making society less safe for both foreigners and Japanese.”

The relatively brief article (Japan: No Safe Country for Foreign Women) provoked an extensive discussion among a number of foreign women and men living in Japan, as well as a few Japanese. The discussion reveals both a widespread belief that Japanese tend to objectify foreign women and that women in general are often victimized by the privileges accorded Japanese men.