Un-True Blood: Japan’s Weird Taste for Discrimination Against ‘Type Bs’

If you have Type B or AB blood in Tokyo, you may not want to admit it, lest you be considered impulsive, even degenerate.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

TOKYO—At least since the 1920s, many Japanese have held a superstitious belief that there is a serious correlation between blood type and personality. Type As, (like Jake Adelstein), are supposed to be considerate, hard-working, and pay great attention to details. Type Os are good baseball players, happy-go-lucky, easy-going, and amiable. However, in recent years, according to a prominent critic of this pseudo-science, there is discrimination against certain blood-types—especially “the opinionated and extremely curious” Type Bs.

The Japanese term for this is “blood harassment” or “burahara” when abbreviated.

“There is no scientific basis for assessing character by blood type,” says professor Shigeyuki Yamaoka, a social psychologist who has done extensive research debunking the myth, “But even in a country like Japan where roughly 98 percent of the population is the same ethnicity, people still find a way to discriminate and group people into convenient molds.”

Japan’s fascination with blood types began with the published, and flawed, research of psychologist Takeji Furukawa. He published a paper in 1927, “The Study of Temperament Through Blood Type,” which was influenced by research in Europe that aimed to prove arguments for racial superiority.

Although based on nothing more than observation of 11 of his relatives, Furukawa’s theory was used to deepen “understanding” of the strengths and weaknesses of army soldiers, resulting in the Imperial Army embarking on its own research into blood types. Not surprisingly, when put to practical tests, the theory fizzled out.

But despite the fact it was a fallacy, the notion that blood type was closely linked to personality gradually permeated into the psyche of Japanese society and as early as 1937 there were instances in which a part-time doctor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggested that a group-O person would make a better diplomat. Furukawa also suggested that in Japan’s colonized Taiwan, Japanese occupiers should increase their intermarriage with the Taiwanese to dilute “the rebellious blood type.”

When the war ended, stereotyping people by blood type fell out of fashion for several decades. Then it took off again in the 1970s when Masahiko Nomi, a writer with no medical background, decided to expand on Furukawa’s ideas and published Understanding Affinity by Blood Type (1971) which became a bestseller, followed by Blood Type Humanics (1973), and several other books that also became huge hits. Nomi’s intentions were not to create animosity and divide. On the contrary he said he wanted to deepen understanding and improve lives through blood type analysis and to enhance communication across blood type borders. It was well-intentioned pseudo-science, very profitable, but also not entirely harmless.

The blood type trend continued well into the ’90s and was thought to have quieted down by 1999. Then: another comeback. In 2004, the theory was picked up on more than 70 television shows in one year, a trending fad that lead the Broadcasting & Ethics Programming Improvement Organization (BPO) to issue a warning to stay away from potentially dangerous content that promoted negative stereotypes.

On the surface, one might draw an analogy with horoscopes, but because one’s blood type is innate, like skin color or hair texture, and because the theory is rooted in the discredited notion of eugenics (so beloved of the Nazis), the potential for bigotry is high.

The media coverage died down after the BPO warning, but another wave came in 2007, when the Guide to Yourself Based on Blood Type sold 5.4 million copies—once again perpetuating the myth that blood types determine personality.

Masao Ohmura, personality psychologist at Nihon University, suggested in a Japan Times article, that because the Japanese are genetically quite a homogeneous people, grouping by blood was a way of achieving diversity—if only the illusion of diversity.

The article notes, “It was believed that the four blood groups corresponded to the classes of feudal Japan: type O (confident and strong-willed) for warriors; type A (mild-mannered and submissive) for farmers; type AB (intelligent and sensitive) for artisans; and type B (cheerful and outgoing) for tradesmen.”

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The Japanese population consists of roughly 38 percent A types, 31 percent O types, 22 percent B types, and 9 percent AB types. As you can see, the majority fall into A and O blood groups. Negative stereotyping credits the B types as selfish, and ABs as eccentric and unpredictable.

Once again, one comes across the Nazi precedent. Hitler’s minions used blood types to explain “German character” with notions of “blood purity” and they argued that Jews were mostly the troublesome Type Bs and “degenerates.” Indeed, blood group B was thought to spawn psychopaths and criminals.

It’s worth reiterating that there has been no scientific evidence—zero, zip, none at all—found to link blood types to personalities, yet the myth persists.

Professor Yamaoka has done extensive research debunking the myth of blood-type-based personalities and showing the discrimination that the stereotypes bring. He shared with The Daily Beast the results of his survey of over 5,000 people in Japan which indicated that almost every blood type had experienced some perceived discrimination or bullying, but the Bs and ABs fared the worst. (B: 28 percent, AB:18.5 percent, A:2.3 percent, O: 9.3 percent). Three out of four Bs had received verbal abuse related to their group.

Professor Makoto Kikuchi, who specializes in physics at Osaka University, has raised the issue of companies choosing candidates and assigning posts based on their blood types—so much so that the Ministry of Health and Labor noted in its “Guideline to a Fair Employment Selection Self-Inspection” that employers must not ask their candidates’ blood type, birthday, or horoscope signs at interviews since “it may lead to an unfair discrimination based on the stereotype and prejudices deriving from this information.”

Even after one manages to join a company, one may face remarks like “that’s why Bs are no good.” Although there are no cases in which a victim took the harasser to court, the snubs are felt so frequently that among our friends there are “closet Bs” who lie about their blood type to avoid negative stereotyping.

In some cases, blood type becomes an excuse. In 2011, Japanese Reconstruction Minister Ryu Matsumoto was forced to resign because of callous comments about the areas devastated in the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that year. In a post resignation conference, he took the opportunity to blame his behavior on his blood group: “My blood is type B, which means I can be irritable and impulsive, and my intentions don’t always come across. My wife called me earlier to point that out. I think I need to reflect on that.” He was politely pushed out by the administration for his gaffes.

According to professor Yamaoka’s studies, the general awareness of blood group stereotypes and people’s tendency to judge others on that basis have declined. But books on the subject are still being published and blood-type-based fortune telling is a regular on morning TV shows. It’s commonly referred to when looking at relationship compatibility. The imprinting is on-going.

Japan has long been a country where the population is 98-99 percent Japanese, and discrimination against identifiable outsiders remains prevalent. Third or fourth generation Korean-Japanese who often do not speak Korean and are indistinguishable from Japanese people in appearance often are treated with disdain. There’s even discrimination against the burakumin, the former outcast clan of Japan who were once butchers and leather workers.

Blood type discrimination is an extension of these attitudes and the government is discouraging it officially. But, ironically, Japan’s governments have done little as yet to discourage more blatant forms of racism. If only there were more aggressive and courageous B-types or open-minded internationally inclined AB types in the government, perhaps we’d see some change for the better.