Diversity in Tokyo

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CIEE wants all our students to feel welcomed, supported, and empowered to succeed while studying abroad. On this page, local CIEE staff have provided details about conditions and cultural attitudes that students with specific identities might encounter at their location. 

The information below is just a broad overview so if you have specific questions or concerns not covered here, please email inclusion@ciee.org. We would be glad to have local staff share their perspectives, talk with you about accommodations, connect you with resources, and/or put you in touch with a program alum who could speak about their experiences navigating a program in this location.

No matter where you choose to study abroad with CIEE, our staff—all of whom receive regular and comprehensive training in diversity, equity, and inclusion—will be on hand throughout your program to provide advice, resources, and support regarding these issues. 

Body Size/Image

In Japan, people often talk about each other’s weight when meeting after a long time, hearing from their relatives, for instance, “You’ve gained (or lost) weight!”  Many things in Japan are of a smaller size than you might be accustomed to, which can be quite challenging. This includes shoe sizes, rooms, and meal portions. As a foreigner, you may appear bigger than the average Japanese person, but although some prejudices persist, the chance of being treated differently because of your size is rare.

Because of Japan’s history with the Yakuza (underworld crime groups, many of whose members have tattoos), Japanese homestay families are sometimes uncomfortable with tattoos.  In recent years, however, Japan has become more understanding of cultural differences; we should also make an effort to understand the cultural roots of this attitude toward tattoos.  If you have a tattoo, you might be asked to cover your tattoos in public bathhouses, Onsen (hot spring baths), or swimming pools, temporarily taping over your tattoos in order not to offend other bathers.

Disability

In Japanese society, physical disabilities are generally taken care of and respected – encouraged by public service announcements – and you will notice evidence of this in special seating in trains/subways, raised markings on many sidewalks (alerting sight-impaired people to crosswalks), braille in elevators, wheelchair accessible slopes at crossings, and chirping sounds signaling it is safe to cross the street in one or the other direction.  Similarly, most restrooms in public places and newer buildings have – in addition to gender-specific restrooms – separate, well-equipped, gender-free, accessible restroom facilities. 

However, not all facilities in Tokyo are easy to access for those with disabilities. While the Japanese government and businesses are working to address this through construction regulations, particularly for new structures and facilities, accessibility is still a challenge.  Train stations have varying levels of accessibility, with some stations equipped with elevators, and others equipped with escalators fitted with platforms for staff-operated wheelchairs, and train station staff are assigned to accompany passengers using wheelchairs not only to the platform, but ensure they safely board their train by installing portable ramps from the platform to the train.  When the passenger reaches his/her destination, another station staff will be there to help the passenger safely exit the train. 

We are mindful that many disabilities are not physical or visible, and CIEE Tokyo is keen to assist those with emotional or learning disabilities, in addition to those whose mobility may be impaired. Students are encouraged to provide as much information as they can related to their specific disabilities (or related needs) prior to arrival so CIEE staff can assess potential challenges and arrange for appropriate accommodations.

Gender and Gender Identity

Japan is aiming to be a society in which everyone can play an active role regardless of their gender.  In that context, the role and status of women in Japan is gradually changing in a more equitable direction.  However, many women still feel they are “second class citizens” and that there is a “glass ceiling” in the workplace.  They are raised in a culturally conservative environment to be demure, self-effacing, and modest in public, so they allow men to show a stronger, more aggressive, and even “macho” face to the outside world.  In fact, the situation is often quite the reverse at home, where women have greater decision-making power and often control the family’s finances.

Gender identity and LGBTQIA+ issues – although increasingly discussed in Japanese society – have not gotten as much public attention as in Western societies.  Serious efforts are under way to increase awareness, dialogue, and societal acceptance.

Heritage Seekers

If you have Japanese heritage and are seeking to explore your own “roots,” be aware that Japanese people may have higher expectations of you than your peers who do not have Japanese heritage.  You might find that they speak faster to you in Japanese and expect you to be more conversant – even fluent – than your peers who do not appear to be Japanese. They may see your Japanese identity before they see your western identity, or it could be the opposite, as they may only see you as an American and not Japanese.  However, getting back to Japan is the best time for you to explore how you choose to define yourself.  You can be both a U.S. passport holder and a heritage seeker learning to appreciate Japan’s culture, get involved in the community, and bridge cultural gaps between the two.  To help others understand the unique pressures you may find from Japanese people’s expectations of you, be prepared to explain your eagerness to understand them – and in the process deepen an understanding of that part of you that shares a cultural heritage with Japan and its people.

Japanese Review of Cultural Anthropology (jst.go.jp)

Racial and Ethnic Identity

Japan is a relatively homogeneous society with an absolute majority of the population being of Japanese ethnicity.  Historically, non-Japanese ethnic minorities – including those of Korean or Chinese descent – but also the Ainu people of Hokkaido in Japan, and the “outcaste” Burakumin minority who are of the same Japanese ethnicity, have suffered lingering prejudice and outright discrimination.  Efforts to encourage greater inclusiveness and diversity in Japanese society have been made and continue apace. 

Overall, the Japanese people are considered very friendly and kind, treating others politely and with respect.  Sometimes, however, students from overseas are treated differently because of their race or ethnicity, although many Japanese people are not conscious of the racial or ethnic prejudices in society that lead to such discrimination.  An example witnessed by many foreigners – but particularly by people of color – is that Japanese people may leave seats next to foreigners on the train or subway empty, choosing not to be seated.

To address both overt and latent racism and discrimination – although rare – CIEE Tokyo staff are available to provide support and resources to help all CIEE students enjoy and learn from their study abroad experience, irrespective of – indeed, celebrating – our diverse racial and ethnic identities.  CIEE Tokyo is sensitive to the range of these issues and will provide information and support to proactively create an inclusive community.

Religion

The predominant religions in Japan are Buddhism and Shinto, neither of which is monotheistic.  These two religions coexist in harmony, with locals using both Shinto rituals and symbols for certain purposes, and Buddhist rituals and symbols for other purposes. For instance, both historically and to the present, the christening of newly born babies, the celebration of a marriage, and prayers welcoming the New Year are observed in a Shinto shrine, while ringing out the old year, sending the spirits of departed loved ones back to “the other world” in the Obon season, funeral rites, and maintaining family alters and gravestones are all observed in Buddhist temples. 

Japanese society is tolerant toward other religions. While other major world religions such as Christianity (Protestant and Catholic), Judaism, and Islam are minority religions in Japan, students who practice these and other faiths may find receptive communities of faith in Kyoto.  Synagogues, mosques, and churches of various denominations are publicly listed and welcome participation by students seeking out their faith communities, and those wishing to personally experience meditation or Buddhist rituals, for instance, will also find opportunities and will be welcomed.

Sexual Orientation

Japanese society has been relatively slow to actively promote open discussion and constructive dialogue on issues of sexual orientation, but recent decades have seen a gradual – and in recent years, dramatic – opening to lifestyle choices and accommodation to diversity in sexual orientation.  The mass media and social discourse have “caught up,” with increasingly widespread advocacy efforts for LGBTQIA+ rights and inclusion, and broader understanding spreading in society. Legal norms have been challenged in court, and some local municipalities have proactively registered same-gender marriages, for instance, while at the national level many hurdles remain. 

CIEE Tokyo is supportive of students of all orientations.  Students who identify as LGBTQIA+ and who wish to search out supportive communities may find LGBTQIA+ student groups on your affiliated local university campus.  In that context, the following website has been recommended by a program alumnus as a helpful resource: https://stonewalljapan.org/

Socioeconomic Status

CIEE Tokyo Center staff are aware that students joining us for studies and cultural experiences come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and circumstances. Our commitment is not only to treat each and every student equally, but to plan and carry out a full range of activities in such a way that participation will not cause financial hardship or lead any student to forego participation due to the activity’s cost.  We have organized a full range of activities and events – already included in the program – where all costs are absorbed, and participation will not entail an extra charge for anyone. These activities include daytrips to nearby historical towns, museums visits, workshops, and other outdoor activities. 

It is important to point out that extracurricular outings and traveling with friends – activities not planned or funded by your CIEE Center – can add up, as transportation in Japan is not inexpensive.  Please plan your budget carefully, and if you need advice on more economical modes of transport, or are having trouble in managing your expenses, please feel free to consult our CIEE Tokyo staff. We will be happy to discuss your concerns in confidence, exploring ways to enable and enhance your study abroad experience.

Programs inTokyo

Live from Tokyo

A city like no other, Tokyo is all about what’s new. With a population of more than 13 million people, it’s crowded, but it’s also super clean and safe. See how limited space has been maximized in ingenious ways and enjoy an astounding variety of shopping options and entertainment. In Tokyo, every customer gets the royal treatment - from helpful clerks and super-fast trains, to plenty of places to relax in nature. Learn more about programs in Tokyo