Presumably the recent remarks of former infrastructure minister Nariaki Nakayama about Japan being ethnically homogeneous were correctly reported. If so his remarks were tactless, in view of Japan’s Ainu population, but also showed an ignorance of history. The Japanese are generally considered to be of Ural-Altaic stock, Mongoloid with some admixture from the south (China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific).

Korean influences were also significant particularly in early times and there are indications that Korean and Japanese people developed from similar stocks. The idea that Japanese are a people of ethnic and racial purity is thus a myth.

It would have been more sensible if he had suggested that, because of the way in which Japan’s contacts with the world outside Japan had been limited and because Japan was a group of islands, Japanese society had developed in a different way from other societies and tended to be inward looking. But that would not have been interesting and such remarks would not have attracted any publicity favorable or unfavorable.

Nakayama’s alleged comment about racial purity suggested a throwback to prewar Japanese nationalism and an outdated ideology. Was he indulging in historical revisionism?

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at about the same time, commenting on Barack Obama’s election as the next U.S. president, welcomed his “suntanned” appearance. This was a crass comment on the first African American president of the United States, but was typical of this most gaffe-prone Italian politician.

It is not so long since overt discrimination against black people was accepted as normal in the U.S. I can remember in the early 1970s visiting Richmond, the capital of Virginia, and learning to my horror that the main club there did not admit blacks or Jews.

Fortunately that sort of behavior would no longer be condoned in the U.S. and apartheid in South Africa has been brought to an end, but unfortunately racial prejudice is not so easily eradicated. Racially prejudiced remarks are still made and some colored people do encounter barriers in employment and promotion both in the U.S. and in Europe. There are very few blacks in Japan, but Japanese prejudice against such people has not disappeared.

The Nazi holocaust of Jews has made overt anti-Semitism unacceptable in any European country, but sadly in private some people do still make anti-Semitic comments. The election of Obama should make thinking people everywhere careful to ensure that manifestations of racism, overt or accidental, do not occur. The aim should surely be that in employment and in society we do not discriminate against anyone on grounds of race.

I am more doubtful about the value or wisdom of adopting positive discrimination to promote racially or otherwise disadvantaged people. We should try hard to help them, but to reserve school places or jobs for them leads to discrimination against the more able and is liable to increase rather decrease tension. Society cannot benefit by giving preference to the less able.

Race is not the only issue which can result in discrimination. Religion and sexual orientation can often be contentious. The number of Muslims in Britain has grown significantly and there are now many mosques and Muslim schools. The growth of Muslim fundamentalism has complicated the situation and inevitably given rise to suspicions of Muslims especially over displays of religious intolerance.

Many people in Britain are concerned by the presence of Muslim women, dressed head to foot in black with only their eyes visible through slits, especially as this disguise was used by one of the men accused of terrorist offenses in Britain.

The attitude of some Muslims toward women also conflicts with the emphasis on sexual equality in Britain, and there is justified concern about the practice in Muslim communities of not merely arranged but also of forced marriages. But none of this justifies discrimination against Muslims on religious grounds.

British laws against discrimination on grounds of race, religion and sex have led to more cases before employment tribunals. The decisions of the tribunals are thought to have tended to favor the appellants rather than the employers who have been forced to pay large sums in damages. This has led to an increase in the number of cases and some employers, fearing high legal costs in mounting defenses and adverse publicity, have preferred to agree out of court settlements which some describe as giving in to blackmail.

Britain has also been active in trying to reduce discrimination against disabled people. This has been expensive, especially for local authorities and businesses, which have been forced to ensure wheelchair access and toilet facilities for disabled people. This development will in the long run be beneficial to society, and society should do its best to help the disabled.

However, the euphemisms that are now obligatory when describing disabled people strike many people as political correctness gone mad. It is hard to understand why someone who cannot see should have to be described as sight-impaired rather than blind. Why should a deaf person have to be called someone with impaired hearing?

Political correctness in language is justifiably demanded, if the use of a specific word is liable to cause offense. But it is nonsensical to force people to employ long-winded euphemisms in order to comply with a code of political correctness when is not in accordance with common sense. If I had the misfortune to be injured in an accident, I would not object to being called lame and if I began to need a hearing aid being called deaf.

Japanese suffers from many of the same linguistic absurdities as English. It is time we adopted a common sense approach and as the English saying goes, “called a spade a spade” and not an implement with which to dig a hole in the ground!

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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