Is the idea of a mono-ethnic Japan simply a myth?


by Henry Watts

It is the most common and universal of ice-breakers, but “where do you come from?” is a curious question, especially for those who, like me, do not apparently ‘look like’ where they say they come from.

The question can mean “where were you born?” or “where were your parents born?” or even “where do you feel you belong to?” for those who might not feel any particular attachment to wherever they happened to have been pulled out of the uterus. As a British man in every sense, it is a simple enough question for me to answer, but my Indian appearance often means I have to field further questions to give confirmation, to whoever needs it, that British nationality is no longer limited to white folk. I have concluded, however, that the half-Japanese, or the misleadingly “foreign-looking” Japanese with their larger noses and more exotic complexions, must encounter far more of these questions than I, as well as those inevitable presumptions that national identity and ethnicity are inseparable somehow.

In his book Multiethnic Japan, John Lie of the University of California, Berkeley, finds these ethnically-based perceptions of national identity very prominent in Japan, due in part to the legacy of what he calls, the “myth of mono-ethnic Japan” – a denial contrived after the war with the hope of building unity, or rather, uniformity in aid of the recovery. Japan’s ethnic minorities – Koreans, Ainu, Okinawans, Chinese, Burakumin, people of mixed ancestry, and others – though rich in their own cultures and histories were, he argues, subsumed under a national polity dominated by the Yamato majority, repressive of all related to war, colonialism, and diversity.

The “myth” largely exists today as a political currency for particular flag-waving politicians who want to pit themselves as protectorates of Japanese, or Yamato, culture against the often-exaggerated “threat” of diversity and foreign forces. Former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Taro Aso, for instance, said in 2005 that Japan was unique for having “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, and one race”, as if to prove the enduring nature of the “myth” Lie describes. He neglects to add, of course, that Japan has one Emperor with Korean blood, one parliament based largely on Westminster, and one language imported from China.

Taro Kono, contrastingly a myth-busting LDP member of the House of Representatives who has lobbied to radically increase the number of immigrants in Japan, went as far as to tell me in an interview that Lie’s “myth” has congealed; that there is a “psychological barrier” between the Japanese and immigration – a point which, after I pressed him further, he called “xenophobia”. This, he claimed, was the driving force behind his party’s repeated blocking of his proposed immigration legislation to help solve the problem of shrinking labour markets. They always “change the topic” to women or seniors when discussing the issue, he said, as though they are mutually exclusive with increased immigration.

This “barrier” could also have been behind the selective immigration of the Latin American nikkeijin in the 90s, who were awarded working visas to Japan purely on the strength of ancestral blood ties, and later, the cold-hearted unemployment-reducing attempts in 2009 to send some of them back, or indeed, the 2005 Supreme Court ruling, after a decade-long fight, in which Chung Hyang Gyun was barred from becoming a supervisor at a public health center because she was technically a foreigner (according to nationality laws), even though her mother was Japanese, she was born in Japan, and had lived here all her life.

Carer Yasuko Amahisa thinks Japan is “decidedly anti-immigration” and unwilling to tap into the foreign labour market, which, she says, is why robots have been employed to make up the numbers in elderly care instead. Her reasoning is instructive as to the sort of trepidation felt towards immigration in Yamato parliament, since robots need only to be programmed, whereas immigrants with their own affinities place on Japan the demands of assimilation and, with it, all the unpredictability that conservatives apparently abhor.

Interactions with foreigners on the streets are rather more benevolent than these policies might suggest, but there is no denying the real lack of acquaintance with diversity in Japan. The Q&A section of one of the most popular Tokyo restaurants – the ninja-themed restaurant in Akasaka – asks, for example, “May we bring in foreigners?” It answers in the affirmative, thankfully, then continues, “there are many foods that foreigners cannot eat. Can [the restaurant] accommodate this?” before answering that “there are times where we cannot [accommodate them] of course, but we will do what we can”, as if the foreigners who have ventured to Tokyo and taken it upon themselves to try out a novelty ninja-restaurant are going to be the picky kind?

Anyway, only asking the question reveals what you might call an ‘inclusive exclusivity’ – that is to say, an acknowledgment of the existence of an exclusive club that knows foreigners not as members, but as guests.

These guests may be, and almost always are, treated with the utmost kindness and grace by Japanese people, but they nonetheless retain their transient, non-member status in Japan because of the protracted illusions of parliament toward diversity and immigration: that they are disproportionately criminal and unstable, that they seek to displace Japanese culture, that they can offer little of their own culture to Japan, and that it is heritage not values that constitute the essence of Japan.

Mr. Kono represents the small, if expanding, side to the discussion that wants to challenge this status quo and repackage foreigners as unthreatening, and he may well find a more receptive audience for his reforms as Japan watches its aging demographic decline further and further; its elderly less supported, its labour markets shrinking, and its social and healthcare bills climbing.

The pragmatic case, as compelling as it is, has done relatively little so far to make the myth-makers flinch, but the momentum is against them and it is getting harder and harder to deny the contribution that foreigners, mixed raced Japanese and others have made in what is already multi-ethnic, if not yet multi-cultural Japan.

Image: Bunny Bissoux