Feng Wuyong / Xinhua

The case for a more multicultural Japan

The aging nation must consider its future. Banning hate speech would be a crucial first step

November 12, 2014 2:00AM ET

Last month Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto made headlines for his heated face-off with Makoto Sakurai during a debate on hate speech. Sakurai is the chairman of Zaitokukai, an ultranationalist organization whose full name translates to the helpfully descriptive “group of citizens who do not tolerate privileges for ethnic Korean residents in Japan.” The debate, at Osaka’s City Hall, began contentiously, when Sakurai addressed Hashimoto without the honorifics typically used for formal interactions and concluded when Hashimoto declared, “We don’t need racists like you here in Osaka.”

Osaka, which is Japan’s second-largest metropolitan area, is considering the implementation of a ban on hate speech. In August the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged such a move, citing a rise in anti-Korean sentiment throughout the island nation. Zaitokukai arguably became the face of xenophobic rhetoric when in 2009 and 2010 its members demonstrated in front of a Korean elementary school in Kyoto, hurling racist invectives at children as they made their way to class. Recently, residents of Korean neighborhoods in Tokyo and Osaka have reported demonstrators marching through the streets and chanting for the massacre of Koreans.

Japan has long had troubled relations with its ethnic minorities. The largest such group, known as Zainichi Koreans, has lived in the country since the imperial period, when Japan annexed Korea; hundreds of thousands of Koreans were conscripted during World War II. The descendants of those who remained navigate the Japanese language and culture with fluency, but many lack citizenship and voting rights, living as “guests” in a nation that is the only home they know.

Ironically, it is this supposedly special treatment that raises Zaitokukai’s hackles. Zaitokukai is undoubtedly a fringe movement, but even mainstream Japan is, at best, ambivalent about multiculturalism and has resisted loosening its immigration laws despite a rapidly aging citizenry. An ordinance outlawing hate speech would be a significant step toward tolerance, and Osaka, known for being a comparatively lively and liberal city, would be an appropriate leader to soften attitudes about difference.

But it’s unclear how the Osaka municipal government might proceed. Despite Hashimoto’s recent anti-racism stance, he hasn’t always been a human rights crusader. In 2013 he told reporters that the use of so-called comfort women — the women and girls, many of them Korean, forced into sexual slavery by Japanese imperial forces — was necessary to “give these emotionally charged soldiers a rest.” Japan’s tensions with Korea extend, as well, to the realm of pop culture; hundreds demonstrated outside Fuji TV’s headquarters in Tokyo in 2011 to protest its broadcast of Korean soap operas.

If some Japanese seem apprehensive about overseas influence, it may be in part because they have had little interaction with outsiders. Only 1.25 percent of the population is foreign-born, the smallest ratio of immigrants in the developed world. This tiny trickle of newcomers is not enough to compensate for the nation’s plummeting birth rates; by 2060, it is predicted, half the country will be over 65. Soon Japanese lawmakers will be faced with a decision: Either they must brace for a radical downscaling or begin accepting more immigrants in order to maintain its status as the world’s third-largest economy. The Japanese are well acquainted with the implications of a graying populace, but a poll conducted in April by the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun revealed that only 37 percent of the public felt that more foreign workers should be accepted to secure Japan’s labor supply.

Revolution or obsolescence

Why, then, do the majority of Japanese remain immigration averse, even when it means there may be no one to care for them in their old age? The anti-Korean demonstrators put a vile, racist face on the nation’s resistance to diversity. But for mainstream Japan, it’s more about protecting, as Japanese studies scholar Rumi Sakamoto put it, a “myth of homogeneity … centered around the ethnic purity and cultural uniqueness of the nation.” 

A social revolution is necessary, in which Japan is reconceived as a multiethnic nation.

The postwar period saw the rise of Nihonjinron, a now discredited field of study focused on national identity and the exceptionality of the Japanese people. Japan, which developed in isolation for much of its history, the thinking went, has produced a culture, language and system of etiquette that is impenetrable to outsiders. Nihonjinron proposed fundamental differences in the functioning of Japanese thought; one theorist claimed that the Japanese language modified speakers’ brains over time, resulting in biological differences between Japanese and Westerners. Therefore even those who achieved fluency in Japanese as a second language would remain essentially distinct from native speakers.

Nihonjinron has fallen out of favor and is now seen as a reactionary and ethnocentric response to globalization. But some of its tenets persist. When I lived in Fukuoka, a city on the island of Kyushu, where I taught English at a public high school for three years, a co-worker informed me that Japanese were more attuned to the sounds of insects than other people. I heard claims that Japanese people have longer intestines and that Japanese women are pregnant for 10 months, not nine. Some of my students seemed to have a shaky concept of what was considered normal in the rest of the world; during cleaning time one day, as we swept, a girl asked me, “Do you have brooms in your country?”

Of course, Americans can be notoriously clueless on matters of geography and foreign culture. But they also tend to be more accustomed to the possibility of foreigners entering their realm and gradually assimilating. In Japan many of my colleagues and friends seemed to find such a circumstance highly unlikely. A common complaint among gaijin (foreigners) in Japan is that no matter how long they’ve lived there, locals react with shock when they are able to use chopsticks or speak even a few words of the language.

Japanese culture is ancient, cultivated over centuries, and its people are relatively homogenous, which leads to an in-group understanding that can look almost like telepathy to outsiders. But insularity can grow corrosive, particularly in times of crisis. In 2013, Hidehiko Nishiyama, an official in charge of the cleanup of contamination around the damaged Fukushima nuclear plants, turned away foreign companies that offered to lend their expertise. “The soil in Japan is different,” he said, which sounds like an echo of Nihonjinron theories of uniqueness. “And if we have foreigners roaming around Fukushima, they might scare the old grandmas and granddads there.”

On a microscale, friends and I experienced a similar opposition to aid when we went to a local Red Cross to donate blood after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The staff there initially tried to turn us away, saying that the screening process would be too “troublesome” to go through with foreigners. They relented only after a Japanese friend in our group insisted she would translate any medical terms we didn’t understand. According to Sakamoto, “the possibility of communication itself is always already closed down because of the pre-assignment of the category of gaijin.”

There is an immediate assumption, then, that foreigners are impediments to the smooth functioning of Japanese society — not barbarians, exactly, but a hassle to deal with. Hidenori Sakanaka, the head of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, said that a social revolution is necessary, in which Japan is reconceived as a multiethnic nation, in order to save it from aging into obsolescence. Such a dramatic shift in the self-conception of the Japanese people would be, he admits, painful.

But a move toward pluralism is essential if Japan is to avoid drastic economic downscaling and social stagnation. It’s time to take the first step and prove that hate speech is indeed unacceptable, and that there will be no room for racism in a changing Japan. 

Alanna Schubach is a freelance writer living in Queens, New York. Her writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Dame, Refinery29 and XOJane, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter: @AlannaSchu.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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