Articles Japan Japan Futures

Emergent Japanese Discourses on Minorities, Immigrants, Race, Culture, and Identity

Written by Millie Creighton


Anthropologist Harumi Befu claims that the appreciation of “diversity within diversity” is essential for twenty-first century Japan (Befu 2008, p. xxiv). The immensity of this challenge may be difficult to grasp for people from espoused heterogeneous societies, especially in cases where immigration history is embraced and considered important to cultural identity. Japan has historically excluded immigration and emigration and based identity on homogeneity. Minorities and foreigners have long been present, but were denied, erased, or placed off the margins of Japan’s espoused identity of similarity, encapsulated in the phrase tanitsu minzoku, meaning a people of one ethnic group.  Since Japanese citizenship is based on the idea of “blood” through biological descent (sui sanguinis) rather than accorded through place of birth (jus solis), homogeneity beliefs sometimes merge with ideas of race creating a belief that being Japanese involves shared genetic features, plus shared culture and language – almost as if these were also biologically determined. Although Boas (1940) established “race, culture, and language” as falsely equated, many Japanese still feel this linkage seems “natural”.


This article will address the long-term denial of minorities in Japan, along with a shifting social mandate to consider diversity and a Japanese version of multiculturalism. It will consider long-standing attitudes towards foreigners generally and those residing in Japan, as a background to the situation surrounding new immigrants as Japan experiences the need to open its door more to immigration. It will also address Japanese Brazilians as an important new wave of immigrants.  Japanese Brazilians challenge the very basis of Japanese identity and society, because they cannot easily be classified as “Japanese” or “Other”. As with other immigrants to Japan, understanding Japanese Brazilian immigrant experience requires knowledge of Japanese cultural history and pre-existing attitudes towards minorities and foreigners.


Japan is a pivotal case to consider in terms of its response to immigrants. Until very recently Japan asserted it had no minorities, because of centuries of relative isolation. As an island country, Japan has had less foreign interface than typical non-insular countries. Additionally, Japan adopted a policy of “closed country” for two and a half centuries (1600-1868), minimizing interface with foreign countries, and prohibiting immigration and emigration. This government policy was strict and straightforward–anyone caught leaving or entering the country in violation of it was executed (Oka 1994:7). Japan was forced to open up to the world from 1868 and retained a strong tendency to demarcate anything considered Japanese from anything understood as “foreign” – including people – whether abroad or existing within Japan. Japan continued to resist accepting foreign residents, and even now is considered to have the lowest rate of foreign residents among industrialized nations (Sellek 2001). According to immigration statistics, less than two percent of the total population living in Japan are foreigners (Zaidan Hojin Nyukankyoku 2005). Ministry of Justice statistics position the percentage of foreigners at 1.57% for 2005 (MOJ 2006), a figure that might seem nearly inconsequential to other developed countries, but which for Japanese is noteworthy and sometimes a cause of anxiety or concern (Roberts 2008; Tachibanaki 2006).


In order to understand more recent occurrences, a review of attitudes towards minorities and foreigners residing in Japan from the last two decades of the twentieth century is pertinent. In 1980, Japan’s official government response to the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Minorities claimed discrimination against minorities did not exist in Japan because Japan had no minorities. This drew outcry from groups who could not adequately pursue their human rights given denial of their minority status. Further outcry ensued in 1986 when then Prime Minister Nakasone claimed Japan, as a homogenous population, had a higher intellectual level than the United States where the intellectual level was brought down by its minorities.1 Japan had groups which in most other countries would be considered minorities, but they were defined either as “Japanese,” hence not minorities, or “foreigners” (rather than immigrants) and thus not minorities either, even when entering Japan under immigration laws.


Since the 1990s in particular, significant fissures have been cracking Japan’s homogeneity ideology.  Scholars more frequently analyze Japan’s diversity, while government and grassroots discourses address minority issues. Japan also now considers international opinion. Adopting kokusaika (“internationalization”) as a goal in the mid-1980s, it learned that externally diversity is often valued in contrast to internally valued homogeneity and “cultural purity”. By the 1990s there were confrontations for change. Japan was internally shaken with the twin dynamics of an aging population and a declining birthrate. A shock rocked Japan when 1990 marked a new all-time record low birthrate since such statistics were kept – and the birthrate has continued to decline further.2 With an older population, fewer children as future workers, and young Japanese adults who were raised in an affluent age and thus less willing to take what Japanese call 3-K, or in English 3-D jobs–Dangerous (kiken), Dirty (kitanai), and Difficult (kitsui), Japan recognized it needed foreign labor. As a result, Japan’s revised Immigration Control Law went into effect in 1990.  Whereas there continue to be foreign workers entering Japan from South, Southeast, and West Asia as both legal and illegal foreign workers, the revised immigration law allowed second and third generation people of Japanese descent from elsewhere to legally enter, live, and work in Japan.  The International Labor Organization does not allow labor recruitment by ethnicity, but Japan claimed its policies were directed at allowing Japanese descendants to work to support themselves while experiencing their ancestral homeland (Roth 2002; Shimada 1994). Scholars and social groups were concerned about conditions new immigrants would face given the background of Japan’s denial of minorities and definitions of non-Japanese as “outsiders”. There were calls to consider how newcomers would be integrated into Japanese society and calls to reconsider social issues facing long-existing minorities.


As these shifting trends began emerging around 1990, the government was slow to address the likely social problems of legally entering Japanese descendants or illegal foreign workers, so other segments of society began to challenge mainstream Japanese people’s exclusionary attitudes and fears of foreigners. Precisely in step with the 1990 shock over the decade beginning with an all time low birth rate, and the 1990 changes enacted to Japan’s immigration law, in 1990 Isetan Department Store ran a confrontational advertising campaign challenging exclusionary Japanese attitudes and prompting discussions of diversity. Its advertising posters showed a black woman, a white girl, and a non-Japanese Asian man. The characters used in the campaign slogan formed a visual pun that could be read either as, “Up to How Many People Are We Able to Love? or “Up to What Kinds of People Are We Able to Love?”3 This controversial department store advertising campaign appeared in the midst of raging social debates over whether Japan should open up more to other kinds of people, both incoming immigrants and existing minorities, or should revert to long established exclusionary values on homogeneity. While many other organizations initially attempted to embrace a Japanese predilection for harmony by shying away from any definitive stance or statement, this large-scale retailer as an economic institution–with something potentially to lose–took a stance. More recently social discourses regarding minorities (until recently denied) have adopted from English the terms “oldcomer” (urodokama) for long existing groups and “newcomer” (nyukama) for more recent arrivals.  Pertinent waves of immigration to Japan within this so-called newcomer category include people from Southeast Asia (notably Vietnam), South and West Asia (notably Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iran), and Nikkei (Japanese descendants, most notably entering from Latin America, particularly Brazil) (Oka 1994; Okubo 2008: 173).


Japan values its culture and tradition, and fears of greater diversity are linked to fears of losing them. However, contemporary anthropological theory recognizes culture and tradition as “emergent” – constantly being shaped, and re-shaped, negotiated and re-negotiated.4 In considering Japan’s future, it is pertinent to look at underlying patterns of culture that affect attitudes towards others, along with newly emergent social discourses on diversity and inclusion, as Japan struggles with loosening its insistence on homogeneity towards a new social vision of suggesting a Japanese version of multiculturalism, with the newly espoused concept of tabunka kyosei “diverse cultures living symbiotically” or “multiple cultures living together”.5


Japan’s Uchi/Soto Consciousness and the “Place” of Foreigners and Minorities


A consciousness of inside (uchi) and outside (soto) underlies Japanese life, social organization, and identity.  Spatially, areas are conceptualized as uchi or soto, requiring differential treatment.  Temporally, annual cycles, seasons, eras, and the life course, comprise zones in which one is either within (uchi) or without (soto).  These concepts extend to human relations.


The word gaijin, often translated as ‘foreigner’ or ‘foreigners’, contains the character for “outside” (which can be read either as gai or soto) and the character for person or people. Gaijin thus literally means ‘outside person’ or ‘outside people’. This often seems overtly exclusionary to non-Japanese, but it is important to realize these differentiations have long been maintained to varying degrees among Japanese themselves. For example, in rural areas people from different villages are considered outsiders to each other. These concepts are even extended to intimate biological family relations. While I worked in rural Japan in the 1990s, Japanese discussed their grandchildren as uchi mago (inside grandchildren) and soto mago (outside grandchildren).6Inside grandchildren were usually children of the oldest son, who would inherit the household, while children of daughters and other sons were outside grandchildren.5 Among Japanese, human relationships are indexical and shifting, such that who are ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’ is situational, but many scholars suggest that being Japanese is an ultimate insider category, which non-Japanese are always outside (Bachnik and Quinn 1994; White 1988; Creighton 1995a).


Until the 1980s, the word gaijin was most often used for white Westerners (Creighton 1995a; Manabe et al 1989). Associated with the outside, such foreigners were structurally like gods, from whom either blessings or destruction flowed – thus either to be glorified or shunned. Japanese scholar Ohnuki-Tierney claims [white] Westerners “receive the red-carpet treatment” (Ohnuki-Tierney 1984: 585).  This is sometimes true, but Whites also experience negative treatment, and can find living in Japan difficult, and emotionally or psychologically painful. This is clear when they experience bullying, such as ridicule and ostracism, and can be true even if receiving the “red carpet” treatment, because they are then transformed into “spectacles” (“misemono”) stripped of their individuality and humanity. While diminishing due to recent social discussions, such treatment continues. A current party novelty sold in Japan, is the “gaijin face” kit. One version sold, with an image of a white man on it, has attach-on paper blue eyes and large pink plastic nose with big nostrils. Another, showing a white woman with blond hair, has attach-on huge plastic red lips. The heading on these mask sets being sold in stores reads; “Party Joke haro- gaijin-san (“Party Joke Hello [white] Foreigner/Outsider).


Different attitudes often prevailed towards Blacks and other Asians. Decades spent “catching up with the West” involved Japanese seeing white Westerners as hierarchically high, with the corollary of looking down on Blacks and other Asians. Not all Japanese held such ideas. An informant once told me: “I myself do not understand this, why Japanese tend to discriminate or look down on other Asians like ourselves” (Creighton 1997: 226).



Whites and other foreigners have long resided in Japan, but were not considered minorities because they were “foreigners,” even if they were permanent residents and even if they spent a life-time in Japan. Other minorities were denied in other ways. Japan’s largest minority group, resident Koreans have been in Japan for a century, and are typically descendants of Koreans who were brought to Japan for labor before or during Japan’s colonial period when Korea was annexed by Japan (1910-1945). These resident Koreans are from families who have now been in Japan for four or even five generations, were born and raised in Japan, and are often culturally and linguistically like Japanese. Since Japanese citizenship is based on descent, they have been classified as “foreigners,” not a minority. Resident Chinese were similarly defined. Until 1989, all legally defined foreigners were required to carry a 10 page passbook at all times and undergo full fingerprinting every three years. Many (especially those born in Japan and living there their entire lives, hence in that sense members of Japanese society) felt this was discriminatory because Japanese are only fingerprinted if they are criminals or criminal suspects. American residents, along with some other foreign residents, often criticized Japan’s fingerprinting policies without realizing such practices towards resident foreigners also occur in the United States (as well as in other countries), and Japan adopted this from American practice during the post-war American occupation. This reveals that people from a particular country, often do not fully realize or understand how their own country treats its immigrants or resident foreigners. Resident Koreans, who have been in Japan for generations, and usually have no other home besides Japan, felt particularly insulted by the fingerprinting requirement and requirement to carry the passbook.  In 1980, in a scenario somewhat reminiscent of Rosa Parks refusal to sit at the back of the bus in the United States sparking a renewed Civil Rights Movement, a resident Korean simply refused to be fingerprinted. This initiated a widespread campaign of resistance, eventually resulting in 13,000 people refusing to comply with the law before an amnesty was declared in 1989 via which “foreigners” (including resident Koreans) would only have to be fingerprinted once, and carry a plastic ID card rather than a passbook.


Burakumin are a group stigmatized because of descent from historically defined outcastes.  According to Japan’s homogeneity ideology, because Burakumin are Japanese citizens they did not constitute a minority. In attempts to assimilate Ainu and Okinawans, the Japanese government made them Japanese citizens, and hence similarly claimed that because of their Japanese citizenship they did not constitute minority groups. In these cases both their status as minorities and as Indigenous peoples were thus summarily dismissed.7


Already recognized as an Indigenous People by the United Nations, Ainu fought a legal case against a dam built without considering its effects on Ainu culture and identity. The dam was erected on the Saru River, sacred in Ainu culture, and at the heart of the Ainu identity movement. In 1994, a Sapporo court decision reaffirmed Japan’s homogeneity, stating there could be no relationship between ethnicity and development in Japan (Creighton 1995, 2003; Levin, Mark A. 2001; Stevens 2001). The Ainu appealed and a subsequent 1997 ruling overturned this, referencing Ainu as a distinct group and as an Aboriginal People. The decision was a legal rupture in Japan’s espoused homogeneity, because before this ruling minorities were not legally recognized. This included both minority groups among the Japanese citizenry, groups such as resident Koreans born in Japan but not accorded citizenship, and immigrants who were considered “foreigners,” not minorities. The 1997 court decision was a milestone for Ainu, other existing minorities, and for new immigrants, including those entering Japan in the 21st century.


Japanese attempts to value diversity have not been entirely unproblematic for minorities. The “oldcomer” and “newcomer” labels pose problems, suggesting minorities “came” to Japan. Although the labels were initially attached to groups considered immigrants, they sometimes get applied to other minorities. For groups like Ainu and Okinawans, “oldcomer” diminishes claims of Aboriginality. “Oldcomer” also sometimes gets applied to Burakumin who, while a minority, are Japanese rather than people who “came” to Japan. In the case of resident Koreans, it is problematic because Koreans had Japanese citizenship during the colonial period when many of their forebears entered Japan–not as immigrants coming to Japan but as “Japanese citizens” traveling within the boundaries of what then was designated Japanese territory.


Once minority members felt pressure to “pass” and fit into the Japanese construction of homogeneity. Now, with Japan’s willingness to more openly consider diversity, they may reversely feel pressure to perform as minority representatives. Okubo describes a school with Vietnamese and Chinese children, where the new Ministry of Education mandate for teachers is to “maintain and nurture [their] ethnic identity” (minzokuteki aidentiti no hoji shincho). The teachers have the children join ethnic clubs, perform cultural practices for other students, and reprimand them if they speak only in Japanese rather than also speaking Vietnamese or Chinese (Okubo 2008: 177).  This is a complete reversal of previous practices where individuals (notably Koreans, Okinawans and Ainu) were punished if they spoke their own languages, rather than only Japanese. Ironically, it may precisely be attempts to reverse inappropriate past practices that result in new pressures on minority individuals, such as in these cases in which children can feel forced to perform and be on display as minority representatives, rather than just acting naturally.


Intermarriage is also contributing to Japan’s increasing diversity and recognition of that diversity. Some Japanese politicians continue to assert exclusionary values, and denounce intermarriage.  Inflammatory Tokyo Governor Ishihara claims intermarriage is genetically polluting Japan (discussed in Komai 2003, see also Graburn and Ertl 2008: 20). Despite such pronounced statements against it, there has been a general increase in international marriages involving Japanese. Yamawaki (2006: 11) states that now one in every 18 marriages in Japan involves a foreign partner, and that the vast majority of these (80%) are Japanese men married to non-Japanese women. There has specifically been an increase in Japanese rural men who cannot find Japanese brides marrying women from other Asian countries, notably China, the Philippines and Korea (Yamashita 2008). Some people note that these foreign brides are bearing and raising children who are Japanese citizens–at a time when Japan is concerned about having less children–and thus they should be recognized as contributing important “reproductive work,” rather than having their value to the society questioned because they themselves come from outside countries. Such recognition of their value and contribution is valid, however it is also important to recognize that the context of extended relationships linked to intermarriages furthers “diversity within diversity” within Japan. Foreign partners do not see their child-raising purpose as only imparting a Japanese heritage, and both parents’ cultural backgrounds are more likely an influence on growing children. Intermarriages also create shifting cultural customs among extended family relatives. For example, the cultural customs or family practices of a non-Japanese relative through marriage become integrated into household practice. Japan has more mixed heritage individuals, once derogatorily called “half” (“haafu”). Against the negative current of people like Governor Ishihara, a contrasting wave within Japan has worked to replace the negative term “half” with “double” (“daburu”) to promote a positive identity for mixed heritage people, and to point out to others in Japanese society that duo-heritage individuals can contribute to Japan’s future in a globalizing world.



Nikkei, particularly Brazilians, as a “Newcomer” Minority


A few years after Japan lifted its centuries-old policy of closed country in 1868, Japanese could emigrate abroad. Since Japanese inheritance patterns usually only allowed oldest sons to inherit, there was incentive for other sons to leave, and Japanese began to emigrate, particularly to the United States, Canada, and Latin American countries. Japanese emigration to Brazil accelerated after 1924 when the United States passed exclusionary immigration laws refusing any more Asians (Oka 1994: 8). Another wave of Japanese emigration occurred after World War II which left many Japanese impoverished and struggling for survival. Latin American countries were the primary receiving sites for this post-war wave of Japanese emigration.


As indicated, revisions to Japan’s Immigration Control Law, passed in 1989 and put into effect in 1990, allow second and third generation people of Japanese descent and their spouses from other countries to live and work legally in Japan. The significance of the legal changes can be seen by the increase in immigration within only a few years.  By 1996, there were over 233,000 immigrants from Latin America residing in Japan, compared to only slightly more than 6,000 in 1988 before the revision (Kaigai Nikkeijin Kyokai 1997: 43. See also, Oka Takashi 1994) .8 Economic incentives drew people from Mexico, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, with the greatest number coming from Brazil. This has been called reverse or “return migration” – although the individuals were born and raised elsewhere hence in that sense are not “returning”.


In Japanese, these are called Nikkeijin, meaning “people of Japanese descent”. Japanese are also people of Japanese descent and in theory could be included in this term, but they are kept conceptually distinct by being called Nihonjin (‘Japanese”). I use a shortened form, Nikkei, without italics because Japanese descent communities outside Japan have adopted this term, introduced it as a self-identity referent into English, and have been networking within communities and internationally to discuss their identities and their own understandings of what they feel it means to be Nikkei (Creighton 2005). Pertinently, Japanese rhetoric surrounding Nikkeijin, and that of descent communities surrounding Nikkei, is sometimes different. Within Nikkei communities outside Japan, the word encompasses a Japanese heritage, but embraces their membership in their home societies. It is used as a more –not less– inclusive term, embracing diversity within Japanese descent communities with increasing intermarriage and offspring of multiple backgrounds. South American Nikkei are not always positive about the new Japanese policies. During international Nikkei gatherings, South American delegates raise concerns that the economic incentives take young Nikkei to Japan during years they might be obtaining advanced education or establishing better careers in their home countries (Creighton 2005).9


Having Nikkei “return” to Japan as workers was consistent with an ethnocentric desire to maintain homogeneity (e.g., Tsuda 2003). It was a solution seemingly based on the expectation that being biologically of Japanese descent, Nikkei would be like Japanese – or at least more like Japanese than others. The resulting structural, cultural, and interpersonal challenges shattered these illusions.  Japanese discovered that Japanese Brazilians were culturally and linguistically different. As Japanese began seeing Japanese Brazilians more as outside people, Japanese stopped calling them Nikkeijin, and started calling them Brazilians. While growing up in Brazil, Japanese Brazilians often thought of themselves or were positioned by others as “Japanese,” but after residing in Japan they came to see their own identity more clearly as Brazilians. Japanese culture values restraint (enryo), while Brazilian culture allows a more expressive style. Japanese criticized Brazilians for not knowing enryo, or not knowing restraint. In contrast, a Japanese Brazilian woman I knew living in Tokyo frequently complained Japanese were “too uptight”.


While problems result from cultural differences, several scholars find structural factors more explanatory. Brazilians came to fill factory and labor jobs to make money, with economic goals of sending money home, saving for a house, or starting a business. Many were well-educated by Brazilian standards and held higher status jobs in Brazil, even though they could make more money as workers in Japan. They experienced frustration at their downward social status in Japan, and at Japanese discriminatory attitudes towards them because they filled lower status jobs Japanese no longer wanted. They were irritated by a perception that Japanese considered Brazil lower on a global hierarchical scale than countries like the United States (Roth 2002: 4; see also Ishi 2008).


Social problems facing Brazilians were not adequately considered by government policies. When their children had problems with language and adjusting to school, Brazilians were often blamed.  In Japan, mothers are still expected to spend an inordinate amount of time with children. Japanese were critical of Brazilian families in which both parents worked, and attributed the children’s problems to lack of maternal care because the mothers were working. Ironically, the extreme maternal involvement expected in children’s upbringing and education is one reason Japanese women have fewer or no children, thus one reason Japan requires foreign workers in the first place.  Japanese making this complaint, also conveniently forgot that a “pull” factor for coming to Japan was making money, best accomplished by both partners working. This type of reasoning that blames Nikkei or foreigners married to Japanese, for children not attending school is evidenced in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) commentaries on the Basic Plan for Immigration Control. One part of this MOJ publication acknowledges that long-term foreign residents, such as Japanese descendants and foreign spouses, contribute valuably to the globalization and diversification of Japanese society, but goes on to point out that some of them “remain in unstable working environments and fail to make social insurance payments or have their children go to school” (MOJ 2005). What is ignored in such statements is that people would prefer not to be in unstable working environments, and the underlying reasons children are not attending school. The problem of so-called “school refusal syndrome” (of children in Japan generally) and absenteeism (toko kyohi) have been major topics in Japan for over two decades. Along with this, is what has been called gakkyu hokai, or “collapse of the classroom”. Bullying, or ijime, is often discussed as one reason Japanese children in general refuse to go to school. It is a likely possibility that the children of Nikkei, and those of mixed parentage, experience such bullying, and this may be a likely underlying cause of their not going to school rather than irresponsibility on the part of their parents.


The changes in Japan’s Immigration Control Law allowed Nikkei to come with their spouses, and many descendants of Japanese in other countries are married to people of various backgrounds and heritages, not necessarily to people of Japanese descent. The arrival of Nikkei with spouses of various backgrounds is also influencing increasing diversity in Japan. The non-Nikkei spouses of some Japanese Brazilians also reported incidents of discrimination. A white Brazilian spouse of European descent complained his employers placed him in a back area, because they wanted to hide him from customers since he did not blend in with the Japanese workers as much as Nikkei did (Oka 1994: 43).


Brazilians were more likely to quit or change jobs, resulting in Japanese claims they were lazy and not loyal. However, Brazilians were often paid less and not integrated into the socially reaffirming sense of company community as Japanese. Roth notes that even bath facilities for Japanese and non-Japanese workers (including Nikkei) were separate – with the bath for foreign workers not as pleasant nor as hot as the bath for Japanese workers (Roth 2002: 38). Japanese bars and clubs also often prohibit foreigners, and often openly post this policy. I have seen such signs on bars and clubs recently even in cities such as Minamata, in Kyushu, Japan. I found it interesting that such bars and clubs persist with this policy in Minamata in the 21st century, given the decades of human rights struggle in Minamata over the mercury poisoning (now referred to globally as ‘Minamata Disease’) caused by factory emissions into Minamata Bay, and the struggles to expose the discrimination involved in the denial of the cause by attributing it instead to lower hygiene practices of certain Japanese social groups living in the area. In the cases of bars and clubs denying entry to foreigners, this often ends up being more discriminatory towards Whites and Blacks than Nikkei or other Asians, because they are immediately perceived as non-Japanese.10 Despite discriminatory attitudes, there is another side to the story. Local movements have tried to address difficulties, and create lifestyles where Japanese and Nikkei, along with other foreigners can join together to enhance community interaction and well-being.


Latin American Nikkei, or family members, experience various social difficulties living in Japan.  Particular problems emerge when health or medical care is required. Even when, as legal immigrants, they have access to the Japanese medical and insurance systems, it may be difficult for them to access such services due to communication problems. Whereas communication in English at major hospitals or other public organizations might likely be available, translation services in Portuguese or Spanish are less likely available. In discussing the problems of Latin American men in Japan who are HIV-Positive or have AIDS, including those who are legal immigrants, Castro-Vazquez and Tarui (2007: 202-205) point to the generalized problem of the availability of language translation in Portuguese or Spanish or a sense that the language translators who were available were inadequate to their needs, as major impediments in adequate medical care. Since translators in these languages were often volunteers, the patients felt they could not complain about them or be too vocally critical of how this impeded health care delivery. Latin American patients with AIDS encountered the cultural idea held by many Japanese doctors that people wanted to return “home” to die. Since they were perceived as “dying” and as “foreigners” this often meant it was expected they would want to leave Japan. Although, the situation for HIV-AIDS patients is compounded by social prejudice related to the nature of their illness, problems with language translation and cultural attitudes surrounding life, death, health, and the human body mentioned here, may also be relevant to immigrants living in Japan experiencing other types of health or medical problems.


It was initially expected that Nikkei would stay in Japan a few years and leave, but many are settling in with their families, or marrying Japanese. The slowness of government programs to respond to their social problems, possibly stems from a belief that even if immigrant Nikkei are not fully integrated themselves, their children or grandchildren raised in Japan will “regain” Japaneseness, and a Japanese version of homogeneity will be restored. This simple scenario is unlikely.  Brazilian Nikkei have created Brazilian cultural centers, and added Brazilian events to Japanese festivals–sometimes gaining support and involvement from local Japanese when doing so. Many have spouses from non-Japanese descent backgrounds, thus children with multiple ethnic backgrounds. Many are raising their children with an awareness of their Brazilian and Japanese, and sometimes additional, cultural heritages. As a “newcomer” minority, Japanese Brazilians, along with other Nikkei, reflect the expanding “diversity within diversity” within contemporary Japan.


From Gaijin to Naijin?


Japan’s late 20th century goal of internationalization spotlighted its denial of long-existing minorities and its reluctance to fully integrate foreigners or accept new immigrants. In 1995 the United Nations told Japan it should accept more foreigners and refugees, for the benefit of Japan–otherwise Japan could not maintain its level of economic well-being. Since then the number of “foreigners” living in Japan has doubled. Has Japan responded to the United Nations statement by allowing foreigners in and creating communities in which diversity is valued?


There are indications Japan is shifting, with changes fostered by scholars, social and religious organizations, and community groups. A church in Osaka exemplifies work being done to achieve this. It operates as a networking venue for different groups of foreign residents. It holds events with simultaneous oral or printed written translations in Japanese, Korean, Chinese, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Tagalo, Vietnamese, and French. Seeking to go beyond helping foreigners and minorities cope with being ‘not Japanese’ (or ‘not quite Japanese’) in Japan, it helped instigate a new festival, in English called “International Day”.11 Now held annually since 2000 in a park near Osaka Castle, the new festival has become very popular.


The festival sought to involve average Japanese in a “taste” of foreignness at a “fun” level, to build positive associations with diversity. People performing or running “foreign” food booths are often long-term foreign residents of Japan, discernible by information posters and media coverage. The message is: these are not “gaijin” (outsiders) but “naijin” (people within Japanese society).


Appreciation of other Asian countries has grown. With the “Korean Wave” boom, sparked by popular Korean dramas and films engulfing Japan since 2004, many Japanese reconsidered previous negative attitudes towards Koreans and resident Koreans in Japan.


The strength of commitment to making better interactive communities at the local level was shown after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. After the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923, latent prejudices erupted, and resident Koreans were killed by Japanese due to irrational fears they caused the damage that occurred with or following the earthquake, or that they would use the ensuing chaos to engage in criminal activity and create further damage. Nothing like this earlier case of violence against minority members occurred after the Kobe earthquake. Instead, Japanese, resident Koreans, and resident Chinese worked together to address the disaster (see, for example, Takezawa 2008).


Once, white gaijin were rare for Japanese and treated like misemono–spectacles or show pieces. As a student in Japan 20 years ago, I was called to the sick bed of an elderly woman in a rural area who had never seen a “real” gaijin in person and wanted to have this experience before she died. Since then, programs like Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) have brought interactions with foreigners to Japanese even in remote areas.


Inadequate understandings of Blacks have begun to change. There were problems with potentially stereotyped or derogatory images of Blacks, often attributed to a Japanese lack of understanding of racial issues. For example, in the mid-1980s a line of ‘Little Black Sambo’ dolls was produced in Japan (oblivious to debates over this book in North America) depicting Sambo and family members as cute and lovable, but also clumsy, idiotic and uneducated (e.g., Russell 1996; Creighton 1997).


Japanese reactions to the 2008 U.S. presidential election exemplify changing attitudes since then.  In the 1980s, when Jesse Jackson was televised as a possible democratic candidate for president, some Japanese people I knew expressed surprise, saying he could not run for President because he was “African”. I explained U.S. citizenship was not based on race, nor on ancestry, and many African American families had been in the United States for more generations than my own. In contrast to these earlier reactions, President Obama’s election campaign was followed with interest in Japan, and often great enthusiasm. Many Japanese seemed less interested in race, and instead appreciated the period Obama had lived outside the U.S. as a child as granting him greater insights to other countries and international affairs.



Japanese Cultural Identity as a Raceless Concept?


Discrimination against minorities and foreigners in Japan has long been accomplished through the denial that such discrimination exists–and until fairly recently through the denial that minorities existed. Such arguments built on forms of denial persist, and reappear sometimes in somewhat new forms, even involving the denial that denial exists. Wetherall, with whom I take issue, propagates such a revisionist version of denial suggesting there is no “racism”–hence no discrimination linked to racism–in Japan, because, according to his claim, Japanese citizenship is a “raceless” concept having nothing to do with race or “ethnicity by any definition” (Wetherall 2008: 266) and that Japanese ancestry is a purely civil status (Wetherall 2008: 281).


To achieve this slight of hand magical erasure of how Japanese citizenship and ancestry are tagged to being ethnically Japanese through the overwhelming way of acquiring them, which is through biological descent from a Japanese person,12 he emphasizes the much rarer case of individuals who are able to naturalize and gain legal Japanese citizenship (who are nonetheless not thought of as “Japanese” but as foreigners with Japanese citizenship, something even Wetherall acknowledges).  However, one could argue that not granting Japanese citizenship at birth to people such as resident Koreans whose families have lived in Japan for generations, suggests that an underlying racialist and ethnic concept of Japanese citizenship as something for Japanese descendants persists.  Wetherall eliminates groups such as Okinawans from consideration as “minorities” or at least “racial minorities,” saying they do not strictly constitute definitions of racial categories–a problematic conclusion given that race is largely a social category rather than something inherently real. Wetherall claims Burakumin are not a minority/race because by law they are Japanese. He further asserts that there are no “outcastes” in Japan because this would be discrimination under the Japanese Constitution. This particularly fuzzy logic erroneously equates law with social reality.  If there were validity to this type of reasoning, it would prevent us from believing there could be any gender discrimination in Japan because that would be against the Constitution, too. Burakumin, who are the descendants of “outcastes,” are not themselves legally outcastes, however, they are a minority group whose members are discriminated against because of descent, one of the criteria recognized by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).


The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination requested that Japan describe the ethnic composition of the Japanese nation. Wetherall upholds the validity of the Japanese government’s inability to do so because it does not keep statistics of any non-Japanese ancestry among Japanese citizens from birth, nor of naturalized citizens (my emphasis) (Wetherall 2008: 271). Here Wetherall makes the error of equating the concept of a nation’s population with the concept of legal citizenship. Since Japan does not grant citizenship by place of birth there are legal permanent residents, who are born and live their entire lives in Japan, who are not Japanese citizens–they are, however, people who are part of the composition of Japan as a nation. There are also long-residing foreigners and entering immigrants who, while not citizens, are part of the fabric and composition of Japanese society. Wetherall’s argument appears to be a new way of re-packaging old forms of legitimation–the idea that there is no discrimination against minorities in Japan because there are no minorities in Japan, the idea that there is no racism in Japan because even if there are distinct groups they do not constitute different “races” (particularly when race is configured on a ‘White,’ ‘Black,’ ‘Asian’ model of “race”), the idea that there is no discrimination or racism because only Japanese citizens are considered in the understanding of people comprising the Japanese nation despite the clear and long-term existence of people not accorded Japanese citizenship as persisting members of Japanese society and of the Japanese nation, often with legally recognized status. Even illegal residents of Japan are recognized as part of Japanese society in the sense that there are laws governing their rights within Japanese society. Thus, the time has long come to reject such fallacious reasoning, to advance work against discrimination within Japan and towards the furthering of all human beings in social participation as members of society, including minorities, immigrants, and foreign residents–all of whom also need to be viewed as part of the inside fabric of Japanese society.





Japan is at a crossroads that may significantly impact its future as a society. A declining birth rate, and the need to fill laboring jobs, means that Japan has had to reconsider its long resistance to allowing in immigrants and more foreign residents, and whether it can value the concept of diversity. A looming question for Japan’s future remains; even if Japan opens up to more immigration, what kind of society will it create in the process? On one hand, the rubric of homogeneity remains strong in Japan, and there are segments of society trying to re-invent and perpetuate it. Along with this, is often found a correspondingly common place feeling that it is only “natural” that Japan is the country of the Japanese people, ethnic group, or race. On the other hand, new movements also taking place within Japan question the homogeneity rhetoric as a basis of identity, and are raising consciousness to the existence of diversity within Japan. These segments of society call for greater social recognition of, and openness to both previously existing minorities and incoming waves of new immigrants.


Even the programs to allow Nikkei to live and work in Japan can be seen as an attempt to re-inscribe Japan as a place for those who are ethnically Japanese by descent. Japan required immigrant laborers. At the background to the policy to admit Nikkei lurks a possible persisting idea that by taking in people of Japanese descent, eventually (even if only in subsequent generations) they (or at least their offspring) would become culturally more similar to Japanese and their Japanese genes would allow them or their descendants to blend in and contribute to a “remembering” of a homogeneous Japan.


Increasing numbers of Nikkei residents of Japan, often with spouses from other backgrounds, have shown that despite having Japanese descent, they represent cultural and linguistic diversity. They are finding ways to add new elements to Japanese family life, community events, and to the fabric of Japanese society as a whole. The increase in immigrants from other areas has also given rise to a new mandate to integrate them into Japanese society, while allowing them to retain their own cultural identities, languages, and traditions. Increasing rates of intermarriage, and offspring of multiple heritages, has resulted in further calls to understand and accept the interstices of diversity in Japan.


With a new focus on understanding and accepting a social model recognizing greater diversity, Japanese society is undergoing a review of former practices and attitudes towards long existing minority groups and foreign residents. Campaigns run by organized volunteers join new educational campaigns run by government and sometimes by large companies as discussed in this article, to further attitudes of inclusion, acceptance, and respect for different kinds of people, and an understanding that people from diverse backgrounds can provide valuable contributions to Japanese society and possibly enhance the continuation of Japanese traditions in a globalizing 21st century, rather than more simply being seen as a threat to the continuing survival of Japanese culture and tradition because of their difference.


However, old ways do not always die easy. In 2007, after several years hiatus, Japan re-instituted its requirement that foreigners be fingerprinted every three years (exempting certain so-called “old comer” groups such as resident Koreans). Foreigners, particularly Chinese and Koreans, are proportionately much more likely to be interrogated as crime suspects. The press plays up stories about foreigners illegally overstaying visas. Brazilians and other Nikkei face discrimination.


The prolonged recession has also taken its toll. As unemployment persists, many in Japan become less, not more, open to accepting immigrants and a more diverse Japanese society. With the continuing stagnant economy, the Japanese government announced that as of April 1, 2009, Japanese Brazilians, Japanese Peruvians, and other Nikkei residing in Japan would be given the equivalent of a ‘Golden Handshake’–for leaving. Under this “goodbye Nikkei” policy, Japan would pay Nikkei the equivalent of US$3000 per person, and US$2000 per family member, to leave Japan as long as they agreed they could not come back again under the preferential Nikkei eligibility visa.  This program was put forth as a response to the stagnant economy, but is also read by some as a failure of the race-based acceptance of people of Japanese descent and as a decision to send them away when the realization of difference, and emerging social problems, became clear.


Despite these attempts to deal with the problems of diversity by sending Nikkei back home, Japan can no longer ignore demographic issues of an aging population and declining birthrate.  According to United Nations projections, Japan has already peaked in population, and will steadily decline in both population and in the ratio of the working-age population to the retired-age population (UNPD 2000: 49). Even though the Ministry of Justice’s Basic Plan for Immigration Control formulated in 2000 takes a harsh stance towards illegal foreign residents of any kind, including those who inadvertently forgot to renew their visas on time, it nonetheless recognizes a need for Japan to be more open to foreign nationals–or at least those it considers desirable (MOJ 2005). While not open to solving its demographic issues solely through foreign immigration, Japan seems aware that one of the primary challenges for its future is allowing a greater degree of immigration while finding ways to more justly embrace all members of society–not only mainstream Japanese accorded citizenship by birth through descent from Japanese parents.


Despite continuing problems, there are signs average Japanese are becoming more accustomed to different kinds of people and more accepting of them in Japanese society. A Japanese informant once told me: “The internationalization of Japan will start from the inside, and will come” (Creighton 1995: 156).  Japanese scholar Hatsuse similarly discussed Japan’s emerging future as “internationalization from within” (uchinaru kokusaika) (Hatsuse 1985). It is now also frequently referred to as “internationalization from within the country” (kokunai kokusaika). Japanese society has begun to appreciate diversity, and even diversity within diversity. Identity campaigns teach minorities and foreigners to value their cultural backgrounds, while mainstream Japanese are shown Japanese society has many different kinds of people. The term “half” was replaced with “double,” suggesting positive aspects of a duo heritage. Many Japanese voices proclaim gaijin can no longer be considered “outsiders” but must be accepted as “naijin,” people within Japanese society. In place of homogeneity, the newly emergent social vision of tabunka kyosei, “multiple cultures living together,” continues to prompt Japanese to contemplate the challenging question: “Up to What Kinds of People Are We Able to Love?” as Japan contemplates what kind of society it wants to be in the future.


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1. Nakasone’s statement has been translated into English, using the phrase IQ or IQ level, but the wording does not necessarily imply the precise meaning of this English phrase and instead also suggests degree of educational level or learned ideas rather than only innate intelligence.  Nakasone’s comment was criticized both for the denial of Japan’s minorities, and for the negative attitude suggested towards American Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities.

2. According to a United Nations report, the total fertility rate in Japan in 1950 was 2.75 births per woman, and reached the low of 1.49 births per woman in 1990, while at the same time the life expectancy for both sexes overall rose from 63.9 years to 79.5 years (UNPD 2000).  For a discussion of how the declining birth rate boosted consumerism surrounding children’s products, see Creighton, Millie. 1994. “Edutaining Children: Consumer and Gender Socialization in Japanese Marketing. Ethnology  33.1 (1994): 35-52.

3. The characters in Japanese can either be read as “nannin made ai saseru ka,” which given the ambiguous nature of Japanese subjects could mean, “Up to How Many People Are We (You or I) Able to Love?” or alternatively  “nanbito made ai saseru ka,”–“Up to What Kinds of People Are We (You or I) Able to Love?” See Creighton, Millie. 1997. Soto Others and Uchi Others: Imaging Racial Diversity, Imagining Homogeneous Japan. In Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity, ed. by Michael Weiner, pp. 211-238. Routledge: London and New York, 233.

4. For a summary of some of these theories, see Kendall, Laurel. 1996. Getting Married in Korea. Berkeley: University of California Press, 18-24.

5. This phrase has been translated into English in various ways.  Roberts uses  “Multicultural Co-existence Society” (Roberts 2008: 135) and it is sometimes referred to as “multiculturalism”.

6. These were pertinent distinctions in the past, when Japanese family size was larger and the birth rate higher.  In the past, initially grandparents had strong attachments, for example, to their daughters’ children.  According to the common Japanese practice of Satogaeri (returning to one’s home birthplace), daughters who had married out would return to their parents home and community to give birth there due to their own feelings of comfort having grown up there rather than in their husband’s household or community.  Daughters and other sons might likely have brought their children while small to visit their grandparent’s homestead during holidays or for other occasions.  However, over time, grandparents interactions with and attachments to their ‘outside grandchildren’ would likely begin to diminish relative to their ‘inside grandchildren’ who were an ongoing part of their daily life and households.  In cases I knew of where people had great grandchildren, there seemed very little attachment to the great grandchildren that were children of ‘outside grandchildren’ but a deep attachment to those who were the children of ‘inside grandchildren’ and again were part of the elderly person’s ongoing daily life, year in and year out, as members of their household.  These patterns of attachment may be shifting, now that people are having fewer and fewer children.  With less children to be cared for, grandparents often attempt to maintain stronger attachments to all of their grandchildren.  Likewise, parents of fewer children seem to attempt to maintain stronger attachments to them in their adult lives than was feasible when people had many offspring.

7. I use the policy encouraged by the Native Law Centre (see Levin 1993, x) and certain other organizations involved in international discussion of these issues, to capitalize the words “Aboriginal,” “Native,” and “Indigenous” unless they are quoted from another source.

8. The year 1988 is used as a comparison here, because the changes to the law were discussed, and passed in 1989, with the new legal changes taking effect in 1990, thus the year 1988 before the passage of the law enacting the changes in 1989 seems the most logical comparison.

9. For a more thorough discussion of these various issues of the intersections between Japanese policy or conceptualizations and that of Nikkei communities throughout the Americas, see Creighton, Millie. 2005. Nikkei Ethnicity and Identity Through Japanese Diaspora Transnational Networking. Ritsumeikan Gengo Bunka Kenkyu (Ritsumeikan Language and Culture Studies) 17.1: 109-128.

10. Such clubs are pointed out by naturalized Japanese citizen and activist Arudou Debito (a.k.a. David Aldwinkle) in the documentary film, Sour Strawberries: Japan’s Hidden Guest Workers (2008/09. Directed by Tilman Konig. Produced by Matsumura Shingo and Alexander Nohl. Tokyo and Leipzig: Independent Film Group Cinemabstruro).

11. In Japanese, this festival is called Kokusai Kyoroku no Hi, which means “International Cooperation Day,” but in English is given the simpler designation, “International Day”.

12. It is important to note here that concepts of Japanese citizenship were longed based not only on a descent basis, but on a patriarchical and patrilineal concept of descent.  Until Japanese family law was revised in 1985, one became Japanese by being born as a biological child of a Japanese father.  Despite the provision of gender equality in Japan’s constitution promulgated in the immediate post-World War II period, for nearly 40 years women who were married to non-Japanese men could not pass citizenship to their children.  (For cases of women having non-marital children, they could often acquire citizenship through registration in their mother’s natal–more precisely their grandfather’s household, and thus were still considered Japanese citizens due to descent in a male based Japanese line.)  This shows that despite legal and constitutional guarantees of equality, such equality is not necessarily enacted, thus has a bearing on Weatherall’s argument that discrimination or violations of legal concepts of equality cannot occur because they would be against Japanese laws or the Japanese constitution.



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Millie Creighton


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