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The ideology of Japanese identity

by Jeff Kingston

MULTIETHNIC JAPAN, by John Lie. Harvard University Press, Cambridge University Press, 2001, 248 pp. $35

Japan and many of its observers have avoided the confusion and contention associated with diversity by assuming, asserting and elaborating a monolithic, monoethnic Japan that jostles uncomfortably with the melange of peoples who populate the archipelago. In teaching Japanese university students for nearly 14 years, I have been struck by the implicit assumption of uniformity that informs discourse on race in Japan. Indeed, the issues of race and ethnicity are often discussed, with no trace of envy, as something only other countries have.

The daily diversity encountered in Japan is extraordinary if one is expecting uniformity and hard to reconcile with popular perceptions. The well-heeled “gaijin” ghetto of Hiroo is only a short clamber from the little Korea off Azabu Juban. The denizens of Roppongi, Harajuku and Ueno would be as surprised as the revelers of Komoro to learn that Japan is only home to the Japanese. The author opens with the wry observation, “If the dominant view of modern Japanese society were correct, then ‘Multiethnic Japan’ would be either an oxymoron or an occasion for a very short essay.”

In crafting the myth of monoethnicity, ethnic groups such as the Ainu, Okinawans, “burakumin,” Koreans and Chinese, constituting some 4-6 million people out of a population of 125 million, are swept under the national tatami. But how can implausible claims of monoethnicity be sustained in the face of the evident diversity and growing assertiveness of previously silenced minorities? Why is it that the fundamental forces that shaped modern Japan and turned it into a multiethnic society are so resolutely denied? What drives a powerful ethno-nationalism that seeks to suppress ethnic heterogeneity and cultural hybridity? These and other important questions lie at the heart of this excellent study on the ideology of Japanese identity.

The author’s encounters with Japanese from all walks of life suggest a dogged insistence on Japan’s ethnic homogeneity despite mounds of evidence to the contrary. Lie, of Korean ancestry, was raised in Japan, is fluent in Japanese and apparently can pass as Japanese. Thus, his fieldwork and interviews provide a unique and refreshingly personal perspective on ethnic “others” in a society that prefers not to recognize such anomalies. The reader is fortunate indeed to have such a perceptive and entertaining guide to contemporary Japan who fearlessly blasts those who have sustained facile generalizations about a country he knows all too well. He wryly observes that, “Wielding ignorance with swagger, without shame, remains a permissible journalistic and scholarly activity.”

Lie has an eye for both the ignorance and ironies common in race discourse. In interviewing some Japanese about why they don’t like weekly gatherings of Iranian workers in certain parts of town, he noted the way respondents inadvertently cited negative stereotypes often ascribed to the Japanese themselves. For example, the Iranians have what is seen to be an annoying penchant to hang out together and always do things as a group!

In surveying Japanese pop culture, Lie serves up a version of Japan that compellingly challenges prevailing stereotypes. Ranging widely and intriguingly from stars to food and games to “manga,” “Multiethnic Japan” exposes the rich hybridity that lurks beneath the polished veneer of uniformity. His unraveling of what is “authentic” or “pure” in a country often obsessed by such labels delivers humorous and revealing insights.

The arrival of large numbers of foreign workers in the 1980s triggered a debate about their role, and human rights, in Japan. This debate has only intensified given calls from Keidanren and other business organizations and the United Nations for liberalization of immigration as a panacea. These groups see an influx of foreigners as a means to recapture economic dynamism and solve the looming labor shortage, rapid aging of society and the attendant problem of too many retiree pensions supported by too few workers. They may be right, but social realities featured here should temper optimism about how such an influx will be accommodated.

Lie examines the link between race and class that mediates the different Japans that different groups of foreigners encounter. Privileged whites do not share a common experience with itinerant foreign workers from Asia who are here to dig the ditches and service the sex sector. And long-term resident minorities in Japan have their own special woes. He observes that,

“The informal labor market in the early 1990s expressed an ethnic hierarchy with Japanese workers at the top, older Korean and burakumin workers in the middle, and the new migrant workers at the bottom, thereby reconstructing the ethnic hierarchy of the Greater East Asian Coprosperity Sphere.” Pan Asianism then and now was based on the harnessing of other Asians for the benefit of Japan.

Japanese imperialism bequeathed a legacy of diversity that haunts contemporary Japan. In 1945 alone, 2.3 million Koreans migrated to Japan to work in the war industries. During the Japanese colonial era, stretching from 1895 to 1945, an empire of diverse peoples was forged in Asia. “The Japanese empire was, like all empires, multiethnic. Imperial expansion was accompanied by the influx of colonized people into the Japanese archipelago.” At this time the Japanese empire was conceived by Japan as an extended family based on the concept of “gozoku kyowa” (the cooperation of five ethnic groups) and Manchuria was where Han Chinese, Manchurians, Mongolians, Japanese and Koreans lived in an imagined harmony.

The nexus of race and empire formed a Japanese identity imbued with Pan Asian paternalism and social Darwinist condescension. According to Lie, “Japanese ethnonational identity became crystallized in encounters with the colonized others. . . . Simultaneously, Japanese colonialism accentuated, if not generated, the Japanese sense of superiority over the colonized population.”

State-making and nationalism were the basis for national integration; the creation of the modern Japanese state at the time of the Meiji Restoration (1868) required the creation of “Japanese.” It is at this time that the Emperor, imperialism, patriotism and national identity became conflated in a caldron of national chauvinism. As the Empire expanded, Japan, like other colonizers, embraced a self-deluding superiority that permitted a hierarchical multiethnicity articulated via the metaphor of family with Japan as patriarch. The notion of “hakko ichiu” (“eight corners of the world under one roof,” i.e. under the Emperor) was imbued with the assumption of multiethnicity based on recognition of proper place in the hierarchy of the assembled races.

Lie argues persuasively that it is the collapse of empire that fundamentally altered racial discourse in Japan. He writes, “Because the empire was equated with multiethnicity, the condemnation of the one led to the condemnation of the other.” This created a social context that proved fertile ground for nurturing a monoethnic identity that responded to the strains of rapid modernization and deracination associated with Japan’s postwar economic miracle. A reassuring monolithic “we” was propagated that “. . . resonated well with the new nationalism born of prosperity.”

A postwar identity was nurtured that broke with the eclectic and accommodating Pan Asianism embraced in the first four decades of the 20th century. Japan became a more homogeneous nation with the ebbing of domestic regional diversity due to mass migration to the cities and a condescending mass media that asserted a Tokyo-defined cultural imperialism. In addition, the apparent decline of status hierarchies and the unifying self-identification with the middle class by some 90 percent of Japanese made it increasingly plausible to assert a cultural homogeneity antithetical to the recognition of multiethnicity.

Even though monoethnic Japan is a post-World War II construct responding to the need to repudiate an expansionist past and shore up a battered sense of identity, “The recent vintage of monoethnic ideology does not prevent the imagined present from transforming the misty past in its image. Nationalist historiography and the nationalist imagination impose a vision of Japan that has been monoethnic from the beginning to the present.” It is intelligently honed insights such as this that make “Multiethnic Japan” a delight to read and earn it a place in the must-read list.