Social studies teacher Sho Sasaki is fiercely proud of his native Iwate’s local heritage.

Like many Japanese, he also, and quite self-consciously, calls himself a nationalist.

So when Sasaki charged into the teachers’ room at the high school where he works and loudly proclaimed his outrage at the Supreme Court’s ruling on Iwate-born Korean health worker Chong Hyang Gyun — barred from promotion by the Tokyo government — his were not the words and actions of a rabid, anti-establishment, “loony lefty.”

Nor did his shock that “the racism towards Korean people in Japan was (institutionalized by) the local government,” owe anything to the aforementioned sense of regional pride that pervades here.

Rather his public lambasting of the court’s decision was indicative of a small but growing tide of public opinion that is helping to erode and reshape ill-equipped social norms from the bottom up.

The Supreme Court ruling smacked of state-sponsored racism and highlighted the institutional discrimination that exists here, yet it does not quite put the emerging perception of Japan as being at a multicultural crossroads in doubt.

Japan remains a nation still very much in search of its identity, with a dialectical struggle between homogeneity and diversity being waged to determine just what it means to be Japanese in a global age.

As Japan’s foreign population increases, so, in equal measure, do proud assertions of its ethnic purity.

Questions of identity underlie a great deal of popular debate within Japanese society, influencing relations with Korea and China, the content of school textbooks and the correct method of cooking rice to rulings on a resident of Korean descent challenging the constitution.

While it may be argued that identity is high on the agenda for most developed nations in a global world order — with modernization eroding the borders between nation states and mass immigration shifting demographics — Japan is in many ways a unique case. Forced to engage more actively with the world since World War II, and particularly during the economic boom of the ’70s and ’80s, the Japanese nation sought to unify itself around a set of common values — without being sure of what those values were.

The symbols most often enacted to create the mythical, “imagined community” that binds nation states together — flag, national anthem and a shared sense of history — were tinged with militarism and imperialism by the events of the war, and their potency as “cultural glue” weakened until bills were finally passed to legally establish the “Hinomaru” (national flag) and “Kimigayo” (national anthem).

Within the postwar symbolic vacuum, the Japanese were, according to
Dr. Chris Burgess, a lecturer in Japanese studies at Tsuda University,
Tokyo, forced to gather surviving elements of nationalist discourse from
the Meiji Restoration, sanitize them of their military and imperialist
connotations and recycle them into “Nihonjinron.”
This was a contemporary discourse of nationalism revolving around two
central, complementary elements — a collectivist social organization that
celebrates consensus and group harmony, and the notion that Japan is
uniquely unique (www.japanesestudies.org.uk/articles/Burgess.html).

Key to the latter is the pervasive perception of Japan as a monocultural, ethnically pure society; an idea still widely circulated within Japanese society.

Within this discursive framework, clearly the nail that most obviously sticks up is that tricky foreign one.

Unsurprising, therefore, is foreign residents’ oft-mentioned sense of themselves as perpetual outsiders, who may be accepted, but only ever as the “gaijin-san.”

A key binary within Japanese national identity formation is that of the monocultural, eternal Japanese citizen vs. the foreigner, who is paradoxically different and diverse yet treated as an undifferentiated, monolithic mass.

Of course this is hardly a peculiarly Japanese phenomenon.

The West, especially the European powers, have, after all, been “othering” the East through the discourse of Orientalism for centuries.

However, the dichotomy of “insider” and “outsider” holds a special place within Japanese consciousness, organizing and framing all manner of social relations, from language and the use of honorific or humble Japanese (“keigo”), to the self-deprecating manner in which Japanese people refer to themselves and their family members, and making dividing lines all the more distinct.

While international norms declare it unreasonable to exclude the “Other” through explicit forms of discrimination, foreign residents are nevertheless implicitly “othered” within Japanese society.

The education system, mass media and administrative functions all circulate what Benedict Anderson refers to as “Official Nationalism” — norms of “Japaneseness” that draw parameters for the populace around what it means to be Japanese.

Even subtler are discourses such as Japan’s peculiar form of internationalization — or “kokusaika” — enshrined within government policy supposedly to open up Japan to foreign influences, yet in fact “othering” through the very process of inclusion.

Foreigners are admitted into Japanese society, but they are demarcated, categorized as foreign, and it is made clear that they are expected to perform the role of foreigner with as much cultural difference as they can muster.

An example of this is the ubiquitous “international exchange” event, to which foreigners are invariably periodically invited to show off theirs skills at, well, being foreign.

The Supreme Court ruling on the Chong Hyang Gyun case, however, far from an implicit case of “othering” through excessive glorification of the foreign, appears to be a manifestation of overt exclusion by the state to maintain the idea of a nation composed only of Japanese citizens.

It would be easy to construe such discriminatory heavy-handedness on the behalf of the state as a sign that multiculturalism in Japan is in a precarious position.

This is not the case, however, according to Burgess.

Rather, he suggests, the ruling, together with other recent evidence of conservative resurgence — Koizumi’s controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the flag and anthem bills, the uncertain future of Japanese pacifism with the deployment of Special Defense Forces in Iraq and its bid to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the increased intervention of rightists in mainstream public discourse — is “like King Canute trying to hold back the tide — a sign that Japan is actually becoming more multicultural.”

Thus the increasingly vocal nationalist voice asserting itself within the public realm may be interpreted as a defense mechanism, belying a tacit realization that multiculturalism in Japan is, in fact, gathering momentum; that the mythic national identity propagated by the state in order to create a stable, imagined community into which to insert itself and maintain power relations is being recognized as just that: myth.

Sho Sasaki for one isn’t blind to the myth, recognizing that “since (the Meiji Restoration) almost (all) Japanese people have thought that Japanese people were the same. This is an illusion, this is just a myth, this is just a story to keep the ‘danketsu’ (union, cooperation, status quo) but it is not a fact of Japanese history.”

Certainly, Japan is not as culturally unique as it would have itself believe. Not withstanding its sizable foreign population, the Japanese populace proper is itself quite internally divided.

The Ainu, Okinawans, Burakumin — even the people of Iwate, ethnically Japanese yet still preoccupied with their historical legacy as a last outpost of resistance to the Meiji Restoration — do not have a great stake in the Japanese national identity propagated by Tokyo.

The maintenance of a fixed identity can’t keep up with the pace of social change in a globalizing world. Japan is no exception to this rule. The presence of its growing foreign population has already begun to sow the seeds of profound social change.

The effects of this change can already be felt, for example, in the huge public support for Thai orphan Mevisa Yoshida and increased public awareness of issues such as the status of refugees and Korean “comfort women.”

Historically, government policy the world over has always lagged behind the will of the people, and nationalist pronouncements on non-nationals — such as in the Chong case — are beginning to sound archaic to ordinary Japanese ears.

But the government must catch up with public opinion and fast.

In the early 21st century, Japan finds itself not so much at a crossroads — for this would imply some measure of choice — but on the threshold of multiculturalism, with the specter of economic necessity looming behind it, forcing its first hesitant steps across the line.

Japan’s workforce is aging rapidly and, with birthrates at all-time lows, future generations of Japanese workers will be hard pressed to preserve a welfare state, a sluggish economy and a huge budget deficit.

The International Monetary Fund predicts that the effects of falling birthrates will be felt as early as 2010 and mass immigration of workers may likely become the government’s only option to relieve the economic burden in the short term.

Since immigration policy, like so much in Japanese public discourse, is profoundly underscored by issues of identity, the dialectical struggle between diversity and homogeneity must be reconciled if Japan is to attract skilled foreign workers.

“If teachers or politicians never try to broadcast the truth of history, of culture in Japan,” he muses, “nobody can recognize what is truth, what is wrong,” believes Sasaki.

The introduction of dual nationality must be seriously reconsidered and multiculturalism embraced, since foreign workers versed in international, postracist discourse are unlikely to tolerate a nationality based on ethnic homogeneity and exclusion. They won’t accept becoming what Chong described as “robots paying taxes.”

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