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‘Homogeneous,’ ‘unique’ myths stunt discourse

by Debito Arudou

Last month I attended an international lecture by one of Japanology’s senior scholars. I’ll call him Dr. Frink. Decorated by the Japanese government for his contributions to the field, he talked about Japan as a “unique” state that never really changes, even as it slips to third place behind China’s economy.

One reason he gave for this was that “Japan is still the most homogeneous society in the world.” He defined homogeneity by citing Japan’s tiny percentage of resident foreigners.

That was easily disputed after a quick Google search (the lecture hall had Internet; welcome to the 21st century). I raised my hand afterwards and pointed out that some 60 countries were technically “more homogeneous” than Japan, as they have smaller percentages of foreigners, foreign-born residents and immigrants.

According to the United Nations, as of 2005, Japan’s percentage (listed at 1.6 percent, which means that the zainichi, or Japan-born foreigners, are also included) was still larger than Kenya’s (1 percent), Nigeria’s (0.7 percent), India’s (0.5 percent) and China’s (excluding Hong Kong and Macau, 0.3 percent). Of course, given the boom in international migration this decade, many countries are net exporters of immigrants. But herein lies the flaw in linking monoculturality to an absence of foreigners: Don’t all these allegedly “homogeneous” countries (including Japan) also acknowledge ethnic minorities within their borders?

However, this column will focus on a much deeper problem in Dr. Frink’s school of scholarly discourse: The fixation on Japan’s “uniqueness,” and how a cult of Japanese homogeneity interferes with good social science.

Search academic databases for publications in Japan Studies. Quite a few of them (some with Japanese authors espousing their own uniqueness) toe the line of “Japan behaves this way because it is homogeneous, etc.” Scholar Harumi Befu has written books on how this has crystallized into a pseudoscience called Nihonjinron, affecting debate worldwide.

There is a political dimension to all this: the politics of maintaining the status quo.

The Japanese government funds chairs and departments (especially in Japan) to influence the direction of Japan Studies, and is nowadays attracting students to focus on “soft power,” “cool Japan” cultural exotica.

The point is, ruling elites in Japan are perfectly happy with Japan being portrayed as preternaturally intransigent — due to historical, cultural, geographical or whatever reasons — because they like Japan as it is.

However, for the rest of the people living in Japan, this status quo is sending us down a road of obsolescence.

It is clear that Japan is in a deflationary spiral with a crushing national debt and an aging workforce. Paradigm shifts are necessary, and ideas should also be welcome from knowledgeable people overseas. But some advice, bound or blinded by the cult of uniqueness, becomes muted, veers off-target or is never even offered in the first place.

This doesn’t happen everywhere. Boffins have little reservation in telling, for example, Russia what to do about its economy. Why not Japan? Because of ingrained fears about being insensitive or culturally imperialistic towards this modern-day Galapagos.

It hardly bears saying, but societies of living beings are not preserved in amber. There are constant economic, political and demographic pressures requiring changes in thought and direction. In Japan’s case, the aging society will probably lead to increased immigration and a niche-market economy, where certain things are done well, but no longer on the scale of a world power. People both inside and outside Japan will have to come to terms with that.

Yet some data sets relevant to this transition are not open to scholarship. I mentioned here last year (JBC, Nov. 3, 2009) how Japan’s demographic scientists are not including a fundamental numerator in their equations (i.e., inflows) by refusing to even discuss immigration. I also argued last month (JBC, Oct. 5) that Japan’s census, which only surveys for nationality, not ethnicity, is ignoring the possibility that there might be multiethnic Japanese here already. This is despite all the racial intermarriage, multiethnic Japanese children, naturalized citizens, and the fact there are more permanent-resident foreigners here than ever before.

Scholars should be demanding more official data on this. Instead, we are getting the Dr. Frinks of the world spouting spurious claims based on the false premise that the absence of information indicates homogeneity.

Let’s have more sophistication in the discourse. Japanology now offers the world an excellent opportunity to study how a modern, developed and educated society learns to cope with a fluctuating place in the world. Nihonjinron should be seen and dismissed for what it is: a static ideology, existing for a nostalgic public looking for a comfortable self-identity, a ruling elite unwilling to face a fundamentally different future, or an overseas audience craving exotica over science.

This means we should have a moratorium on superlatives, such as linking the “U-word” with Japan. All societies have their singular aspects, to be sure, but we should never lose sight of the fact that we’re all one big human family with more communalities than differences. To belabor the obvious, no society is “uniquely unique.”

Fixating on Japan’s illusory “uniqueness and homogeneity” takes energies away from studying the very real problems that Japan, like any other country, will be facing this century. Let’s demand better scholarship and help Japan cope with — if not get out of — this mess.

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