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Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010

JUST BE CAUSE

Census blind to Japan's true diversity


It's that time of the decade again. By now, all households in Japan should have received and submitted Japan's National Census (kokusei chosa), a survey taken every five years expressly to assist in policymaking, drawing up electoral districts and other matters of taxation and representation. This of course includes non-Japanese (NJ) on visas of three months or longer. Get yours?

This time the Japanese government did some nice things for NJ: It offered a multilingual website (Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Portuguese and English) explaining the hows and whys of the census. It also offered the census itself in 27 different languages, along with enhanced privacy protection measures. You can send the form in yourself, for example, so you don't have some nosy census-taker peering over your shoulder (with the white-hot curiosity some people display over anything an NJ does).

Class act. A golden "Attaboy!" from this columnist.

However, one thing is still unfortunately being overlooked in the census: Japan's ethnic diversity.

Postwar Japan has officially maintained (justified in part by the feel-good pseudoscience of nihonjinron) that Japan is a monocultural, monoethnic and homogeneous society.

It wasn't until 1997 that the government officially recognized that any kind of minority even exists in Japan (the Ainu), and it took until 2008 before the Diet passed a resolution recognizing the Ainu as an indigenous people "with a distinct language, religion and culture."

Nevertheless, this time around Japan's census does not measure for ethnicity (minzoku). It still measures only for nationality (kokuseki). In other words, on the form you indicate that you are Japanese or that you are miscellaneous (indicate nationality).

So what does that mean for the Ainu? They are Japanese citizens, of course, but their indigenous status remains unaccounted for.

Then how about naturalized citizens? I of course wrote down "Japanese" for my nationality on the census. But I would also have liked to indicate that I am a hyphenated Japanese — a Japanese with American roots, an Amerika-kei Nihonjin.

But it's not just about me. How about children of international marriages? My kids are just as American as they are Japanese, so why not have it formally acknowledged? It would be in other societies with ethnic diversity. Why can't we show how genetically diverse Japanese society is, or is becoming?

Because of politics. I believe the government still wants to maintain the image of Japan's ethnic homogeneity, as it justifies a lot of status-quo policymaking (e.g., a closed-door refugee regime, no official immigration policy, the firm and oft-repeated belief that Japan is not and will never be an "immigration nation").

After all, Japan's identity is currently based on the ideals of cultural and even racial purity. Why would one dare to collect official data that would undermine that?

The official reason I keep getting from the Census Bureau is that this is a privacy issue. Asking people for their ethnic backgrounds is apparently too personal.

So you're saying other questions on the census, such as household income, are not? Our personal information, according to your flash website, is properly protected anyway, right? If privacy is a concern, why does Japan have such an intrusive, even door-to-door, census at all?

Again, the government says it is for the creation of good policy in Japan. Which means, by extension, that matters of diversity and ethnicity are not part of good policymaking?

Sure, it's nice to believe that by not making an issue of one's roots, naturalized and multiethnic Japanese are officially treated the same as any other Japanese. But invisibility and accuracy are two different things. If accuracy is what the census is aiming for, it would be better to acknowledge that people of a wide range of ethnicities hold Japanese nationality.

Here a statistic the government already knows: International marriages in Japan have increased from 30,000 to 40,000 couples per year this past decade. Assuming not unreasonably that each couple has two children, mathematically Japan must be home to hundreds of thousands of multiethnic Japanese children. We would know better how many if we only asked.

Moreover, we have more naturalized citizens in Japan than ever before. That matters.

My suggestion: To alleviate privacy concerns, make ethnicity an optional question on the census form. Other questions are optional. Why not this one?

Be accurate. Count us as hyphenated citizens if that's what we choose. Because like it or not, Japan is becoming multiethnic. Better get some policies ready for it.

Debito Arudou coauthored the "Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants." Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments on this issue to community@japantimes.co.jp


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