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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Race, ethnicity and identity in Japan

A narrative of homogeneity through the perspective of six minority groups


JAPAN'S MINORITIES: The Illusion of Homogeneity, edited by Michael Weiner. London: Routledge, 2008 (1st edition 1997), 234 pp., £19.99 (paper)

Japan is a multiethnic society largely in denial about its diversity. Here we can examine the contradictions and consequences of this discourse. This second edition published a dozen years after the first is a welcome update with 10 chapters analyzing, inter alia, Japan's six principle minority groups — Ainu, burakumin, Chinese, Koreans, nikkeijin (Japanese return migrants and their descendants) and Okinawans. Examining contemporary Japan from this perspective offers many insights about identity, ideology, race, ethnicity and the narrative of homogeneity. There may be a better book covering this range of subjects, but I haven't read it.

New to this edition is Gracia Liu-Farrer's superb essay on Chinese newcomers to Japan and their strategies in living and working in a transnational community that enables them to transcend borders and constraints. She traces the evolution of the Chinese migrant community, but focuses on how recent migrants have leveraged their background and skills to embrace transnational life strategies.

They are not just inert targets for Japanese discrimination bemoaning their plight. Instead, drawing on fieldwork conducted 2001-07, Liu-Farrer explains how, "maintaining economic and social ties with the home country and making transnational living arrangements have become strategies Chinese immigrants have adopted, both to circumvent their marginal social positions and to gain social mobility in Japan."

Most of the more than 700,000 Chinese now residing in Japan came after the mid-1980s. Between 1990-2005, 58,879 Chinese became Japanese citizens while as of 2005 there were 106,269 Chinese permanent residents, most gaining this status since 2000. Permanent residency is preferred to citizenship because it offers the advantages of both countries. Typically, these migrants start by working at Japanese firms, but leave to start up their own ventures because they find the rules and regimen oppressive and see "the culture within Japanese firms as depressing." They realize they can't ever really assimilate and don't want to anyway. Instead, they turn their Chinese background into an asset, creating and exploiting profitable niches in the transnational economy.

In recent months, nikkeijin, mostly Brazilians of Japanese ancestry, have been swelling the ranks of unemployed. This is the tragic end of a story for many that began with optimism, but has descended into disappointment and recriminations. Takeyuki Tsuda explains that nearly 300,000 Brazilian-Japanese came to Japan because the government made it easy for them to do so since 1990 by creating special visas without work restrictions for ancestral returnees. Officials created this side-door because of acute labor shortages, especially for unskilled workers, and acted on the assumption that Japanese blood would trump Brazilian culture.

Nikkeijin held similarly unrealistic expectations that confronted the reality of discrimination and marginalization in Japan. Proud of their ethnic background and ancestral homeland, many have been disappointed to discover dingy factories, shabby towns and miserable living conditions.

Nikkeijin suffer from fragmented identities. At home they are an elite ethnic group while in Japan they are stigmatized for being more Brazilian than Japanese. Ironically, here they serve as ambassadors of a Brazilian culture they looked down on back in Brazil.

Tsuda observes that many are first time samba dancers in festivals staged here and few know the proper dance steps or how to make the proper costumes. Even if their performances would be ridiculed back home, in Japan samba enables an assertion of a Brazilian identity that has flowered only after migrating here.

Probing their disaffection, Tsuda writes, "They often complain that the Japanese are cold, unreceptive, and impersonal in social relationships, and that they are unfriendly people." Moreover, most come from the middle-class and find their low status as manual workers in Japan demeaning. Japanese told Tsuda they feel more comfortable with the nikkeijin than ethnic Koreans, but still harbor prejudices. They are looked upon as descendants of losers who fled Japan and now have returned because they couldn't cut it in Brazil. They are also criticized for lacking a strong work ethic and company loyalty.

Tsuda concludes that the nikkeijin's prospects in Japan are bleak due to institutionalized discrimination. Their children are assimilating, but he thinks they will need to mask their identity if they hope to enjoy social mobility.

The "Other Other" by John Russell is another notable new contribution that focuses on the black presence in Japan. He notes, "one of the ironies of transplanted Western anti-black artifacts is that many Japanese refuse to recognize them as 'racist' in Japan, said items having lost whatever racist meanings attached to them in their previous lives by the virtue of the fact that Japan is believed to lack racial prejudice and discrimination." Here, the myth of Japan as a racism-free society is dissected in terms of how it serves, "to reinforce and sustain Japanese notions of difference."

There is much more to savor in this fine collection, one that is ideal for undergraduates and any readers curious about the dynamics of diversity in supposedly "homogeneous" Japan.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.


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