A couple is out shopping for an expensive item, but the store clerk addresses only the man. A person of ethnic Korean descent but born and raised in Japan is complimented on their impeccable Japanese. Someone from the LGBTQ community is told by a friend, "You're going through a phase. You'll be cured one day."

These are just some of the examples of microaggressions and unconscious bias that Kayo Fujiwara, a researcher on the issue, recently listed up to spread awareness of how the problem manifests in Japan, a country she feels may now be ready to start grappling with the problem in earnest.

Researchers say that microaggressions -- usually unintentional or casual hurtful words or actions -- made toward members of marginalized groups, including ethnic and sexual minorities and women, are commonplace.

Project researcher Kayo Fujiwara teaches an online seminar on microaggressions on March 23, 2022. (Kyodo)

In late March, Fujiwara, specially appointed at the University of Tokyo's Center for Barrier-Free Education, held an online seminar attended by clinical psychologists and human resource consultants among others to deepen their understanding of microaggressions.

Many participants found it eye-opening to learn that microaggressions had been behind the "uncertain feelings they'd had in the past but were unable to verbalize," Fujiwara told Kyodo News.

"The pattern of most people is just to accept these feelings with reservations, but unless we (verbalize them), this isn't helpful" either for the person committing the microaggression or the person on the receiving end, said Taiyo Okada, 41, a clinical psychologist who participated in the seminar.

Fujiwara attributes the increasing awareness about unconscious bias to the impact of overseas struggles for equal treatment such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the "growing presence of people with foreign roots or mixed roots" in Japanese society.

"As the times change, the chances of meeting people from diverse backgrounds increase," she said.

She also cites headline-grabbing remarks disparaging women made in recent times by prominent male Japanese figures, such as former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who resigned as the head of the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee in 2021 after saying "board meetings with a lot of women take too much time."

The publication in Japanese, meanwhile, of Derald Wing Sue's "Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation," considered by many overseas as the authoritative guide on the subject, in 2020 has "had a big influence" in boosting understanding of the issue in Japan, Fujiwara says, noting that the issue is now being studied in Japanese universities.

Although the "promotion of diversity" has long been a catchphrase in Japan, it is important to think about inclusion, too, says Fujiwara, who has also begun corporate training on such issues, addressing the ill-effects of such exclusionary behaviors.

"I think it is necessary to think about the structural advantages or disadvantages and privileges that exist and not just 'diversity' as a sole difference," she said, giving as examples privileges and disadvantages between males and females, heterosexuals and homosexuals, and cisgender and transgender people.

"Pointing out microaggressions is not the goal in itself. Rather, I would like to spread awareness of microaggressions from the perspective of creating a just society where people from different backgrounds are each respected and can live truly comfortable lives."

According to Fujiwara, unlike hate speech, it is often difficult to point out microaggressions on the spot since the person who uttered the perceived slight is usually unaware that they have said anything wrong.

But because of this, the offended person will often dwell on the remark or behavior for longer, worrying that they might have been discriminated against. As a result, the emotional -- and even physical toll -- can be greater, Fujiwara says.

At the same time, she emphasizes that it is important that "the unintentional microaggressor not become defensive but (learn) humility to gain a new perspective."

A woman participates in a microaggression online seminar in Tokyo in March 2022. (Kyodo)

For a foreigner in Japan, microaggressions might include a range of behaviors, from the assumption that a Japanese biracial child whose father is black is "athletic" to unsettling experiences such as an empty seat next to a foreign-looking person remaining vacant even on a crowded train.

There has also been recent controversy over allegations of racial profiling by the police, with the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo tweeting last December that it had received reports of "suspected racial profiling incidents."

The same month, the National Police Agency issued an advisory to all prefectural police forces to avoid questioning people in a way that could be perceived as racially motivated, agency officials said earlier in May.

As part of the trend of confronting unconscious bias and microaggressions pervasive in Japan, companies have even begun changing their branding messages, such as beauty brand Kao, which recently removed phrasing such as "beautiful white" from its products.

And in recent years, educators have pointed out a growing need for diverse children's picture books that reflect images of people in Japan's changing multicultural and minority populations.

The term "microaggression" is said to have been coined by psychiatrists in the United States in the 1970s in research on racial issues and mental health.

Fujiwara says the concept is sometimes pushed back against in society. In the case of Mori's discriminatory remarks, for instance, some people said criticism of them amounted to "word censorship."

In her seminar, Fujiwara refers to microaggressions experienced by black people in the United States, including a feeling of being monitored by store clerks when shopping; not being taken to "the good seats" in a restaurant or having wait staff attend to other patrons first; and white people not getting on the same elevator with them or clutching at their belongings when they do so.

In the case of the restaurant, Fujiwara says, the implication is that it is acceptable to treat some people as second-class citizens, while in the shopping and elevator examples, it is worse still: the victims are made to feel like criminals.

In Japan, for ethnic Korean residents, or "zainichi," who were born and raised here, being told, "You speak great Japanese" is one example of a microaggression that is particularly hurtful because the potential hidden message is: you are not a person from this country but an outsider and "you must not really be able to speak Japanese, she says.

Fujiwara argues that these might seem like "small attacks," as the word microaggression suggests, which people repeatedly experience over a lifetime, but they may lead to aggressors inflicting more serious damage, such as hate crimes.

To rid society of microaggressions -- whether someone unintentionally engages in them, is on the receiving end, or witnesses them -- "people need to learn the appropriate response. It's being studied in Japanese universities now, but more importantly, it needs to be addressed in school education, so people learn about it from an early age," Fujiwara said.