In February, education minister Bunmei Ibuki called Japan “an extremely homogenous country.” Eighteen months earlier, now Foreign Minister Taro Aso described Japan as having “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, and one race.” What was notable about these comments is that they were largely uncontroversial domestically: they received little attention in the mainstream Japanese press.

Ibuki and Aso were speaking within a local popular discourse which tends to view Japan as relatively homogeneous and migration as a threat to public safety. In a 2006 Cabinet Office survey, 84.3% thought public safety had worsened over the past 10 years, with the largest number (55.1%) putting this down to “a rise in crimes by foreigners visiting Japan.”

In recent years, this view has been reinforced by a global popular discourse on migration which has become increasingly negative, fueled by media reports of, for example, terrorist atrocities, ethnic riots and nuclear proliferation. As a result, tougher immigration controls have been introduced, anti-immigration rhetoric has grown louder, and international migration flows have shown signs of stabilizing.

Swimming against these local and global currents is a genre of writing that could be called the “multicultural Japan” discourse. Writers in this style dismiss the notion of a homogenous Japan as “myth” and typically draw on demographic and economic data — such as Japan’s low birthrate and shrinking labor force — to argue for the inevitability of further migration.

Some writers use the term “multicultural Japan” to point to nothing more than the existence of variation in Japanese society, such as the presence of minorities like the indigenous Ainu or resident Koreans.

However, others use it to describe the emergence in Japan of the kind of political ideal which swept through countries like Australia, Canada, and the U.S. in the 1970s. Here, multiculturalism refers not so much to the makeup of society but rather to the adoption of an ideal form of public policy in response to increased numbers of foreign workers and other migrants.

Whether Japan is “multicultural” in this latter sense depends on the answers to three questions: First, does popular opinion in Japan see ethnic, cultural, and racial diversity together with migration as positive? Second, what kind of “multicultural” policies have been adopted in Japan? And, third, are there a large number of migrants present in — and transforming — Japanese society and is this number growing?

In terms of the first question, surveys on public attitudes to migration have consistently shown Japanese as conservative on this issue. Polls sponsored by the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Justice and Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) have generally shown support for more skilled labor, caution about an influx of unskilled labor, and a desire for stricter immigration controls. However, this support is largely conditional, with many stating that Japan does not yet have the infrastructure to deal with an influx of foreign workers. Overall, the phrase that one hears most often in these discussions is the need for more public debate (“kokuminteki giron”) before any consensus can be reached, which suggests there is no great groundswell of support for mass migration.

On the second question, if multiculturalism as a discourse is largely absent in Japan, then one might expect concrete policies to be equally absent. This would certainly seem to be the case if one compares policy in Japan with that adopted in countries where multiculturalism was, in the past at least, officially promoted.

First, Japan does not officially recognize dual citizenship. Second, there is little evidence of national government support for “ethnic” media. Third, backing for minority festivals is practically unheard of, though most localities, often with NGO support, do hold “kokusai koryu” (international exchange) events. Finally, in line with recent global trends, Japan has a tough — and increasingly tougher — immigration policy. For example, although conditions for refugee recognition were relaxed in April 2004, only 34 out of 954 applicants were awarded refugee status in 2006. Even the recent decision to accept up to 1,000 Filipino nurses and caregivers from April 2007 hides a series of tough requirements — such as becoming fluent in the language and passing state-supervised exams or courses within a certain period — which are severe enough to raise doubts as to how many Filipinos will actually be able to settle in Japan.

Also, in terms of official encouragement of minority representation in the larger society, the record is not good. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional to deny Chong Hyang Gyun, the first foreigner to be employed as a health care worker in the metropolitan government, the opportunity to take a promotion exam on the grounds that she was not Japanese.

Finally, although the government has recognized some “Western-style” international schools as accredited educational institutions since 2003, Korean and other ethnic schools remain unaccredited. This means that graduates of such schools are unable to sit entrance examinations for Japanese universities without first taking a separate qualifying test.

Moving on to the third question — the continued and growing presence of migrants — statistics would seem the obvious place to start. In fact, despite a number of tomes focusing on “multi-ethnic Japan,” the “multicultural Japan” discourse may come as something of a surprise to scholars of migration who typically view Japan as an exceptional case. In July 2003, the OECD unveiled what they claimed to be the first internationally comparable data set on migration. Here, the percentage of noncitizens in Japan is calculated at just 1.0%, even lower than the 1.6% figure for “migrant stock” in U.N. data from 2006 (see table). Japan is one of the few industrialized countries not to have experienced the tremendous inflow of international migrants characteristic of other industrialized countries.

The figures lend weight to the popular view that Japan is, at least compared with other industrialized nations, relatively homogenous. Polls back this up. For instance, in a 2000 Cabinet Office survey, just 9.7% of respondents said they had opportunities to speak and interact with foreigners; over 40% said they hardly ever had the chance to even see foreigners.

Of course, some foreign residents, such as second- or third-generation Koreans and Chinese, are physically and culturally indistinguishable from Japanese. This assimilation, however, and the respondents’ perception of monoculturalism, only adds to evidence that the “multicultural age” has yet to dawn in Japan.

Japan may not be particularly multicultural at present, but is it likely to become so in the future? An oft-quoted 2000 U.N. report, “Replacement Migration: Is it a Solution to Declining and Aging Populations?” suggests that a huge increase in migration is the only way to support a rapidly aging population.

Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with this report. First, the study is based on 1995 fertility levels and assumes zero net migration after 1995. In fact, fertility rates rose in 2006 for the first time in six years, while migration has been increasing since 1995. Second, it fails to mention the financial burden involved with increasing migration. A government analysis from the mid-1990s put the social costs of allowing in half a million workers at over 1 trillion yen.

More significantly, the calculations are politically unacceptable. Although the logical answer to aging populations in developed countries may well be more migration, both the local and global discourse on migration limit the kind of political solutions possible.

To sum up, we can say that Japan does not appear to be multicultural in terms of either its ideology, policy, or its people. Moreover, even a brief consideration of the way the wind is blowing, domestically and globally, suggests that Japan is unlikely to become “multicultural” any time soon. Remarks such as those made by Ibuki and Aso do not “shock” Japan, as a recent U.K. newspaper headline claimed. On the contrary, they reflect and reinforce the dominant discourse in Japan which, far from being “myth,” has a key role in structuring the experiences of reality for many Japanese.

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