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Barriers to multiculturalism are as low as they’ve ever been in Japan

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

Second of two parts

Multiculturalism entails much more than a spot of schmoozing with your friendly checkout counter migrant or splurging once a week on a spicy takeaway.

Rather, it is an entire paradigm of social organization that offers and guarantees equality of opportunity and freedom of ethnic and religious expression to non-native-born members of your community who you have recognized as citizens.

As such, is there really a future for genuine multiculturalism in Japan? The answer: You bet there is.

Last week in Counterpoint I discussed the backlash against multiculturalism, primarily in Europe, that we are witnessing today. In turning this week to Japan, we find the historical, cultural and social contexts very different. And yet the stakes are just as high.

The future of Japanese society — just as the future of European societies — may depend upon how successful it is in redefining its identity as something ethnically and culturally inclusive; in bringing the outside in.

Multiculturalism begins at home. It is not, in the first instance, about openness toward others. It is about recognizing that your own identity is a combination of many currents, factors and trends, and that these are in constant flux.

It does not make sense to talk about Japanese behavior in a temporal vacuum. What was “Japanese” even as recently as two decades ago is not “Japanese” today. Long-stay foreign travel, intermarriage, the facility of communicating electronically with people far away at little or no cost … all of these have combined to allow Japanese people to absorb and assimilate new attitudes and mores.

When I first arrived in Japan in 1967, foreigners who spoke Japanese were frequently greeted with nonplussed looks and ambiguous cheesy smiles. One saleswoman apologized over and over again for not understanding English, even though I was speaking Japanese with her.

The contemporary multiculturalization of Japan began in the 1980s with kokusaika — meaning “internationalization.” Kokusaika is often treated in hindsight as a kind of trendy fashion, and to a certain extent it was. The gourmet boom, the brand-name clothing and handbag boom, and the quickie foreign tour boom reflected the newly achieved affluence of the nation’s middle class.

While few core values were changed, Japanese people did begin to feel more comfortable in a foreign milieu; and, after all, feeling comfortable with yourself is the first step toward acceptance of others.

The number of non-Japanese who spoke Japanese and were conspicuous in the public eye, either in the media or in schools and offices, greatly increased, as did the number of people outside Japan studying the Japanese language. Consequently, many Japanese came to realize that their language was not a secret code decipherable only by themselves.

This internationalization of the Japanese language has become even more pronounced since the 1980s, going a long way toward easing the disquiet felt by many Japanese in the company of foreigners.

What all this represented was primarily a widening of the parameters of what it meant to be a “typical” Japanese. In other words, if there could be different types of Japanese behavior — all of them equally representative of the whole — then there was no reason to believe that a non-Japanese could not be accepted as a Japanese citizen too.

Add to this an expanded acceptance of the nation’s many ethnic Koreans in all walks of life, and the stage was set for the new pluralism.

The term ibunka (different culture) came into trendy use in the 1990s to describe encounters among cultures of the world. But around the same time, Japanese people were also coming to see their own culture as a mixture of any number of ibunka from varying regions of the country.

The Japanese today have a much more pluralistic view of themselves than they did at the end of the last century, with an enhanced acceptance of differing lifestyles. This is where the trendy and the fashionable — often downplayed as superficial phenomena — come to exercise lasting influence on values.

Will this impact upon and within society to the extent that Japan will open its doors to outsiders and accept multiculturalism?

I believe that it will. For one thing, there is a genuine religious tolerance in this country. For another, the Japanese have never thought of their own lifestyle as any kind of universal standard — as Europeans and Americans are wont to do.

So, if non-Japanese living in this society follow their own ethnic ways, this seems to most Japanese to be the norm. In fact, non-Japanese whose behavior approaches the quintessentially Japanese can even appear as oddballs in the eyes of the Japanese.

The Japanese, however, do insist on adherence to their codes of manners, and these can be narrowly drawn and interpreted. When my wife, who is British-Australian, and I sent our four children to Japanese schools, we wanted them to fit in, mainly for their own sake but also for ours. We minded all our Ps and Qs, and followed their schools’ rules to a T.

Some non-Japanese who we knew felt this kind of accommodation an encroachment on their children’s individuality and their own personal freedom. But this is a society in which your individuality is considered an inner virtue, and personal freedom is not viewed as being compromised by adhering to social codes of behavior. To us, following the rules was in no way a compromise of our ethnicity, culture or beliefs.

I was once shocked by the behavior of a foreign man in a department store. He stood at a delicatessen counter in the basement ordering one gourmet treat after another. He simply pointed to one, threw his money on the counter and devoured the treat right there, spilling crumbs everywhere. The man serving him never wavered in courtesy, though the foreigner’s manners were atrocious by any standard.

The fact is that the eating manners of the foreign man were no worse than those of many Japanese men I have seen. But there was a crucial difference: Japanese do not eat (with the exception of samples) over the counter of a department store.

Can the Japanese accept foreigners who act “differently”?

Of course they can. My rather extreme example of the foreign slob is no more than a case of embarrassing manners. If this man did bring up children here, I am sure they would never dream of doing such a thing.

The crux of the acceptance or rejection of multiculturalism rests on this: Does your society have the generosity of spirit, tolerance and patience to wait a generation until the outsiders learn the manners and mores of your country?

Already hundreds of thousands of young non-Japanese, or young people of mixed non-Japanese and Japanese parentage, are living and working successfully in this country. The barriers to their acceptance lie not between the Japanese people and them. They lie within the Japanese people, although those barriers are lower than they have ever been.

Now that Japanese are accustomed to their own identities and lifestyles being, or fast becoming, multivalued and open-ended, there is no reason to believe they cannot encompass outsiders well within them.