Written by Griseldis Kirsch.

When, in 2005, Asō Tarō, then Minister for Interior and Communication, said that Japan consisted of “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture and one race. There is no other nation (that has such characteristics),” he did not just stir controversy as he glossed over the diversity of Japan, but also regurgitated old stereotypes about Japan’s supposed cultural homogeneity.

While admittedly, around 98 percent of the Japanese population are classed as ‘Japanese’ in population statistics, there is more to those numbers than meets the eye. Japanese nationality laws are based on the jus sanguinis principle: one must have Japanese ‘blood’ in order to become Japanese. There is a long-held belief that with this ‘blood’ comes an innate knowledge of culture. In the 1970s and 1980s, this led to the creation of often bizarre theories about how ‘different’ Japan was to the rest of the world, up to the extent that it was suggested that Japanese brains were unique.

Nonetheless, the statistics and stereotypes conceal the minorities that actually live within Japan, and the plight that they suffer in a country in which the overwhelming ideology is, still, one of ethnic homogeneity. But the issue of Japan’s own minorities is complex, often they are either classed as Japanese or foreign, rendering them all but invisible.

Japan is anything but a monoethnic, monolingual, monocultural nation

The Korean residents of Japan perhaps receive most academic attention. They are the descendants of Korean (forced) labourers who came to Japan during the time that the Korean peninsula was a Japanese colony (1910-1945). Many returned to Korea after 1945, but as the situation on the Korean peninsula was difficult, many others stayed on. Some came back to Japan during the Korean War (1950-1953), because, as of then, they were  still citizens of the Japanese Empire.

The San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1952 turned them into foreigners with all legal hurdles that being a foreigner in a ‘strange country’ entails. Additionally, they were made to choose their allegiance to North or South Korea. The nomenclature differs for the two groups: South Korean residents of Japan are called zainichi kankokujin, North Koreans zainichi chōsenjin. Zainichi literally means staying in Japan and has the nuance of being temporary. Kankokujin and chōsenjin refer to the different names of North and South Koreans in Japanese. Throughout the post-war period, both groups of Koreans fought for recognition in the Japanese state, mainly for access to the health care and pension systems. The zainichi are currently entering the fifth generation, they are no longer fluent in Korean, but still cannot become Japanese easily – only a long and complicated naturalization process is open to them. Yet statistics only ever show ‘Korean residents’ without distinction between long-term residents and newcomers, hiding the true number of the zainichi.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the burakumin. Literally meaning village people, burakumin are culturally and ethnically Japanese, but they are descendants of those outcasts that dealt with blood and death in Japan, prior to the abolishment of the class system in 1871. The outcasts had to live in certain areas reserved solely for them, so, when the Japanese family registration system was reorganised in 1872, they had to register their family according to where they lived. This system, to maintain the family register at the place of residence, meant that certain areas were known to be burakumin and while one could move away from the area, the family register remained. Changes in registration laws that the burakumin fought for, such as keeping the register at one’s birthplace rather than the ‘family residence’ might help future generations to escape from their background. The burakumin are very vocal, there are novels and films describing the discrimination they still face.

The Ainu and Okinawans are also classified as Japanese in the census, but have a different culture and language, refuting once more the claim that Japan is a nation of one culture and one language. The Ainu live in Japan’s North and Northeast, and when Japan integrated the main Ainu territory, the northern island of Hokkaidō into the Japanese Empire in 1868, the Ainu were forcefully asked to assimilate, having to give up their culture and language. As a result, there are only few Ainu left in Japan, and one of the most visible is probably the actor Ukaji Takashi. Additionally, Ainu is one of the most endangered languages in the world.

In 2008, after more than a century of fighting back against assimilation, the Ainu finally were recognised as Japan’s ‘indigenous people’. The Okinawans, the inhabitants of the Southernmost archipelago of Okinawa, face similar issues. Okinawa once was an independent kingdom with its own language, the kingdom of Ryūkyū. It was tributary to both Japan and China, but was integrated into the Satsuma domain in South Kyushu much earlier than Hokkaido. Okinawa also saw some of the fiercest battles of the Asia-Pacific War, at great cost to the civilian population, and was under US control and jurisdiction until 1972. This fostered not just a sense of being different, but also of having been victimised at the hand of the Japanese.

Culture is always a liquid concept, and as much as consecutive conservative governments in Japan would like to freeze it in time, a country’s boundaries and who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ have always been shifting. Japan is anything but a monoethnic, monolingual, monocultural nation in which one magically becomes Japanese by being born to Japanese parents when even the very concept of ‘Japanese’ cannot be clearly defined. Asō could not have been more wrong.

Griseldis Kirsch is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Japanese Culture at SOAS. She is a member of the Japan Research Centre, the Centre for Cultural, Literal and Postcolonial Studies, and the Centre for Media Studies. She has been published in many journals and wrote the book Contemporary Sino-Japanese Relations on Screen, a History, 1989-2005. This is the first of a two-part series. Image Credit: CC by Pixabay.

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