One day, when I was still living in Japan, I was shopping in Uniqlo. This was back before it was an international hit, back when it was just a place to buy cheap jeans in western sizes. The one in my town was along the highway, not on a high street.
As I walked to the counter with my purchases, I heard strange music from outside. Peeking out the windows, I saw a black van with thick Japanese writing on the side, playing strange old fashioned music, over which an older guy was speaking passionately.
I asked the guy serving me what the noise what, and what the vans were. He looked so embarrassed, couldn’t meet my eye and muttered something about “uyoku dantai”.
Once I got home, I googled it to find out what it was all about. Uyoku dantai are Japanese right wing groups. They support a wide range of things, depending on the group, but are against things like WW2 being seen as a bad thing for Japan, textbooks teaching students about WW2, and are against all foreigners in general.
The people in the van couldn’t have seen me, I was well hidden in the shop. The town I lived in only had a small handful of non-Japanese, and we all got on well with our local communities, getting involved in events. We all had good jobs there, and we could all speak Japanese well, even could mimic the local dialect, much to the amusement of the locals (imagine a Japanese person speaking with a strong Texas or Scouse accent).
The next day, I saw my Japanese mum (side note: most westerners in Japan have a “Japanese mum” – a woman who looks after the foreigner, teaches them how to kill cockroaches and explains things that we don’t understand about the culture). I asked her about the uyoku dantai group in the town, and she said that more and more people are agreeing with what they say and that they are growing in popularity, especially in our town.
As I stood in front of my students that morning, watching as they wrote, I wondered how many of these kids, who loved being in my lessons and who I had amazing connections with, went home in the evenings and had all the international peace wiped out of them by parents who supported groups like this. How many kids play nicely around me but secretly wish I’d leave their country. How many parents resent that I teach their children?
Over my time in Japan I rarely received outright racism. Sometimes, people would ignore my Japanese and only listen to Asian faces (even if they didn’t actually speak Japanese).
Once, I was denied entry to a restaurant because I was with a large group of westerners. They told us there was no room in the place, when it was barely half full.
Otherwise, I felt overall welcomed and valued in the community.
No one ever told me to go home, no one ever accused me of being lazy, of taking someone’s job or of using up their taxes (with which I was paid, tax free). The van above made me question my place in their community, but they didn’t know I even existed.
So imagine what it’s like to be Polish right now in the UK. Or European in general. Or Muslim. Or non-white.
People are being told in the streets to go home – people who have lived here all their lives. My Indian-British friend was told to do just that the other day – her home is High Wycombe.
Polish children are being given cards telling them that they are vermin and that they should go home.
Brexit has made people feel comfortable to be racist and xenophobic publicly.
Last night, I went to a #CambridgeStays meeting in town, where we listened to local politicians, and a scientist from Cambridge University talk about how sad they are at Brexit, and what we can do to make things better.
The bottom line is, people voted for Brexit because something is broken – people are poorer, they feel they don’t have any control, and we don’t have the education or experiences that teach people to love their neighbours, no matter where they are from. We need to show people that we can build a better Britain without hatred, without making people feel unwanted and without shunning our European friends.
We need to combat this negativity with positive actions and with love.
I cried in that crowd last night, remembering how I was able to integrate with not only Japanese culture but also German as well. Being able to live in Japan was a drawn out and lengthy process, whereas I hopped on a plane to Germany and was able to live and work there.
I believe that not only should more people be given the chance to live abroad, to see things from someone else’s eyes, to learn languages, make friends and integrate in a different culture, but that it should be as easy as possible to do so. Thinking that there are people living in the UK now who do not feel welcome any more breaks my heart.
I will do all I can to spread the love and make my non-British friends feel welcome here, to stand up for non-white people being harassed on the street. And I really hope that we can make people feel welcome here again soon.