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Imagining a Japan that thinks beyond blood and binary distinctions

by J.J. O'Donoghue and Gavan Patrick Gray

The recent heroics of Japan’s team in the Rugby World Cup — three wins in the group stage, including the historic nail-biting victory over South Africa — pave the way for two potentially positive outcomes: a bright future for rugby on these islands, and, just maybe, a template to discuss identity and belonging in Japan.

It was obvious to anyone watching the Brave Blossoms’ games that of the 31 players included in Japan’s squad, some of the players did not appear — how should we put it? — typically Japanese. In fact, 11 players were born outside Japan — the same number, incidentally, as for the Welsh and Scottish teams. Under current rugby union rules, a player can be considered for selection for the national team if, amongst other considerations, they have lived in the country for three consecutive years.

But in 2015, how do we define “typically Japanese”? Do we do so through blood, race and ethnicity? Or would we not be better off opening up the field, and, much like the vaunted rugby squad, considering new ideas, while relegating outdated terms and modes of thinking to the sin bin?

Consider Kotaro Matsushima, one of Japan’s try scorers, born in South Africa to a Japanese mother and Zimbabwean father. He later attended Toin Gakuen High School in Yokohama. Matsushima, as well as being a big talent for Japan, is also what is known as a hāfu, a word stemming from the English word “half.” Generally “hāfu” is a benign term, used to signify someone who is half-Japanese and half something else — in the case of our children, half-Irish. It’s also, we would argue, an unfortunate term.

Firstly, much like the truncated word for foreigner, “gaijin,” “hāfu” is a catchall phrase, and not unlike a label: It signifies difference, in this case an ethnic and racial mixture, but stops short of naming those differences, e.g., “Irish-Japanese.” People are denominated as half-Japanese and half-… well, the other part of the equation is not deemed important enough to act as an identifier, as it is the extent to which they are Japanese that matters. This view is broadly, though not universally, accepted.

Secondly, the term is used inconsistently: Do most Japanese consider a Korean-Japanese boy to be hāfu, the way they would a French-Japanese girl?

And there is the baggage and confusion the word “hāfu” carries with it, the flip side of which is wholeness and purity — which is probably why some people reach for the term “double.” But this signifier has gained little traction, as it seemingly creates bias against “singles.”

All of these terms are problematic, and moving from racial identifiers to national ones should be the aim of any progressive society. As a stopgap measure, “Irish-Japanese,” as an example, is a huge improvement over “hāfu,” as it acknowledges both aspects of identity and shifts the focus from the child themselves to their parents. (“I’m Japanese but my father is from Ireland.”)

And this is all before you consider that, genetically speaking, there is no more biological credibility to biracial designations (“Irish-Japanese”) than there is to describing someone with a tall mother and a short father as a person of mixed height. “That we even have the idea there is such a thing as mixed race is a testament to our disarticulation of race from biological facts,” wrote the scholar Walter Benn Michaels.

And yet in spite of this, or because of this, these labels matter hugely, especially in an era when our concept of identity is far more fluid and undergoing transformations.

In some ways Japan has made progress on racial issues, with young mixed-race personalities frequently appearing on television. Ariana Miyamoto, a bi-racial model, won the Miss Universe Japan contest earlier this year. However, the hāfu phenomenon may be nothing more than a temporary fad, with their inclusion in popular media as superficial a symbol of change as the presence of numerous black and transgender personalities, whose own status reflects nothing of the real and ongoing difficulties faced by racial and gender minorities in Japan.

Regarding mixed-race individuals, the widespread admiration from other Japanese seems to stem from an envy of the exotic glamour of their appearance and their ability to bypass rigid expectations of conformity while still being “Japanese enough” to fit in. There is little evidence that it represents any broader growth in the idea of what it means to be Japanese.

And it is this issue that is central to any discussion on what Japan will come to need most in the coming decades: people. Can a more robust Japanese identity be developed, one which is more flexible and goes beyond binary (hāfus, singles, doubles) and blood distinctions?

Japan has become the go-to example of population decline. Projections vary, but they all foretell drastic changes — a population drop of up to 30 percent over the next 50 years, matched by a contracting economy. International investors, generally averse to injecting money into such shrinking economies, are already watching carefully to see whether Japan can adopt a practical response to the problem.

Technology alone won’t provide the remedy, nor will herding Japan’s elderly back to work, and politicians and policymakers generally seem to miss the point that the goals of increasing family size while pushing women to work more are mutually incompatible. Quite simply, without a major wave of new foreign workers — and the U.N. Population Division has recommended figures of up to 600,000 per year — Japan will not be able to stave off economic decline.

The Abe government has floated the idea of increasing the number of three-to-five-year temporary visas for a new generation of disposable workers who can be repatriated as soon as they are no longer needed. There is no short-term solution to Japan’s problems, though, and to survive in the 21st century the country needs new ideas, foremost among which is a reassessment of its concept of national identity.

Japan needs fresh blood, new workers, new ideas, and as many foreign entrepreneurs and innovators as it can entice to its shores. It cannot hope to do this with meager offers of temporary accommodation and an overt fear of societal contamination. Culture thrives and grows only in its exposure to other cultures, with Japan’s explosive growth during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) serving as a prime example.

It is also hard to offer credence to suggestions that Japan, by virtue of its homogeneity and island status, is a special case. Ireland in our youth was largely very white and very Irish; only in the past 15 years, with Ireland’s economic turnaround in the late 1990s, did any significant immigration take place. As of 2012, 17 percent of the population was foreign-born, a much greater rate than in Japan, albeit in a much smaller country.

The influx has been a huge boon for Ireland, both economically and culturally, and the country has received praise for its efforts at adjusting to the new arrivals, including by passing new antidiscrimination laws and offering immigrants the right to vote in local elections. Furthermore, Dublin was ranked highly for its integration policies by a Council of Europe study.

Of course there are problems to be overcome; tensions between groups, especially when stoked by self-serving political or media figures, need to be carefully handled, but most of these issues stem from native reactions to foreign arrivals rather than any inherent problem in the latter group.

In Japan, the native role in such problems has been highlighted eloquently by Haruko Arimura, the former minister for women’s empowerment. While arguing the government position that more female workers, rather than immigrants, is the better road to take, Arimura claimed that Japan’s negative treatment of immigrants could create the kind of resentment against Japan that might lead one of them to decide to become an Islamic State suicide bomber.

Setting aside the inherent xenophobia in this comment and the clear fact that her government’s security policy has vastly greater potential as a precursor to terrorist activity, Arimura offers a clear example of an expectation among Japanese people that attempts to assimilate immigrants into Japanese culture would create irreconcilable tensions.

This represents a fundamental failure to recognize that truly multicultural societies do not demand assimilation, the very idea of which would rob immigrants of the vibrancy and freshness that makes them so vital to Japan’s ability to reshape itself in coming decades. Instead, such communities recognize that a person’s place in society, including their identity as a citizen, should be tied to more important factors than the degree to which they conform to such superficial elements as the appearance of the majority.

So, in the afterglow of the national team’s success in England, let’s consider Japan’s rugby team — a truly talented mix — as something we should embrace as a concept and a model of what Japan has the potential to become.

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