Japan is famous for its supposed ethnic and social homogeneity, but there is much more to the history of the Japanese than this popular myth. The current view of Japanese society includes minority groups that have historically been marginalized, such as the Ainu of Hokkaido and the Ryukyuan of Okinawa, as well as Koreans, Chinese, Brazilians, and many more.
A person, a race?
The Japanese at first glance appear to be one of the most socially and ethnically homogeneous groups in the world.
It is reasonable to equate Japan’s postwar rapid economic development to the 1990s with social solidarity and conformity. Despite labor shortages since the 1960s, authorities resisted officially sanctioning foreign workers until the 1980s, relying on greater mechanization and a larger female workforce.
Until recently, Japanese workers have mainly associated with the company they work for: an entrepreneur will introduce himself as “Nissan no Takahashi-san” (I am Mr. Takahashi from Nissan). By extension, we could have the idea that a Japanese person is subordinate to the goals of society.
In 2008, however, veteran Japanese politician Nariaki Nakayama resigned after declaring Japan to be “ethnically homogeneous”, showing that the old idea of ”one person, one race” has become politically incorrect.
Criticism of Mr. Nakayama’s statement centered on his contempt for the indigenous Ryukyukan people of southern Okinawa and the Ainu people of the northern island of Hokkaido, colonized by the Japanese in the late 19th century.
Modern demographic development}
The most recent census asked people to define themselves by nationality and not ethnicity, so the true demographics of the country are still unclear. Although only about 15,000 foreigners naturalize each year, immigration has continued officially and unofficially since Japan ended its policy of isolation in the mid-18th century.
In addition to foreign immigration, the Japanese and their descendants have moved freely since the borders were opened. Although the census does not recognize them, there are now approximately 750,000 Japanese citizens with mixed heritage, as well as 1.5 million permanent foreign residents out of a total population of about 126 million.
Some “harufu” (Japanese people of mixed heritage) have gained a high profile in Japan, challenging the nationalist claim that homogeneity is synonymous with Japanese prowess. In 2004, Yu Darvish, of mixed Japanese and Iranian descent, pitched a complete game for the professional baseball team Nippon Ham without a batter reaching first base. More recently, Tsurunen Marutei, of Finnish descent, became a member of parliament.
Given that Japan’s main indigenous and immigrant ethnic groups tend not to reside in the densely populated areas of Kanto and Kansai in central Honshu, where tourists often go, a tourist would likely conclude that the non-Japanese population is relatively small. . There is a floating population of Western English teachers and financial sector workers, particularly in Tokyo, but the authorities have extremely strict restrictions on extending specialized work visas beyond three years, so very few become permanent residents.
The largest ethnic groups represented are actually originally from Korea, China, Brazil, and the Philippines. Since the 1970s there has been a steady stream of Brazilians of Japanese descent, and this group now represents 5-10% of the population in some industrial cities in Japan. Today, the younger generations only speak Japanese and not the language of their ancestors. In addition to these families, tens of thousands of long-term “guest workers” have been recruited to work in factories and minor jobs under agreements since the 1990s.
The argument for ethnic diversification is evident throughout Japanese society. The UN predicts that Japan will reach an economic crisis point by 2050, where the non-working population will outnumber the working population. Initiatives such as the 1994 Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement suggest that Japan is seeking a solution by granting more three- to four-year stays for skilled workers and carers, although it is still very reluctant to grant permanent residence.
Conservative politicians still advocate greater mechanization as a solution; Rapid advances are being made in robotics, particularly in the field of elderly care, but production would need to increase exponentially if the UN estimate of a deficit for 2050 is accurate.
Beyond ethnicity, there are cultural differences between regions, most of which have been around for a long time, but are not immediately obvious to a foreign visitor.
For example, Osaka-ben, which is the idiom used in the Kansai area, advocates open discussion of money, while Tokyoites probably go to great lengths to avoid discussing raw figures. The residents of Kyushu, the southernmost of the four great Japanese islands, are compared to the Mediterranean, “with the traditional Japanese reservation taking a backseat to the more demonstrative temperaments.”
Challenges for the next generation
Other differences are also evident between generations since the burst of the economic bubble in the 1990s. Younger generations face a radically different work culture in which work for life is no longer guaranteed.
Consequently, the worker’s identification with the company is weakening. Japanese companies now routinely outsource work and lay off workers who may have been with the company for decades, as dramatized through the character of the father in the 2008 film Tokyo Sonata.
While that film is, of course, a work of fiction and does not necessarily represent a typical situation, it does highlight the cultural shift of an often-cited Japanese expression: “the nail that rises must be hammered.”
The film advocates individual development over conformity, as the son thrives as a piano prodigy despite his father’s attempts to make him conform to the existing system of education and employment. The wide generation gap and the imposition of values is evident in the fact that the average politician is in his sixties.
In a highly competitive job market where learning English fluently is considered one of the keys to success, more and more young Japanese are studying abroad, mainly in the United States. This means that some are developing more stereotypically Western individualistic perspectives in their formative years.
There is also the social phenomenon of furita: young people taking multiple part-time jobs instead of a single full-time position, and interrupting them with stints in places like Bali and Australia.
Traditionalists are particularly concerned about the number of hikikomori, an estimated one to three million young adult population who never leave the home. In a significant number of cases, they are not employed and do not pay taxes. This adds to the state’s dilemma of how to provide a growing elderly population (the largest in the developed world) while the overall population is declining and some young people only enter part-time employment, if at all.
The long-established equation between age and position in a clearly defined hierarchy seems to hold firm, and the relationship between the senpai (experienced) and the kohai (inexperienced) is evident everywhere from college baseball teams to offices and hierarchies of factories. However, these structures are under scrutiny in economically uncertain times, and may disprove a paradigm shift in the values and goals of young people who question what it means to be Japanese.
1 – Minorities of Japan: The Illusion of Homogeneity, Michael Weiner
2 – Jazz Up Your Japanese Onomatopoeia contains opposite chapters to illustrate this.
3 – National Geographic Traveler: Japan ed. Nicholas bornoff
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