Book Review: "Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity"

This book's strident title immediately informs the reader that the editor and the nine writers have an axe to grind. The message that emerges is that the Japanese are (a) not a homogenous group and (b) if they are, then they have no right to remain so.

The didactic tone set out on the cover of "Japan's Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity" is echoed throughout the pages in the unspoken assumptions that underpin many of the arguments and in the choice of vocabulary. For example, individuals and groups favoring globalism, high immigration, and multiculturalism are constantly denoted "progressive," making any opposition seem churlish or misplaced, because, after all, we’re all in favor of "progress," aren't we? By contrast, those supporting a position of ethnic and cultural continuity are presented as being somehow brainwashed by an idealized "paradigm of homogeneity," when, in view of the problems that afflict multiracial states, it would be easier to dismiss the tenets of multiculturalism as being out of touch with reality.

In essence, the starting point of this book, produced under the auspices of the UK’s Sheffield Centre for Japanese Studies, is an attempt to export the multicultural angst, historical obsessions, and racial utopianism of the globalized West into a country that is still remarkably homogenous (98.43% Japanese is one figure mentioned in the book). Despite tenuous similarities between Japan's burakumin (a historical, non-ethnic underclass) and Afro-American slavery, these are still widely different phenomena, as are the so-called Japanese "colonization" of Okinawa in the 19th century and the contemporaneous "Scramble for Africa" by European nations.

The central "paradigm" of the book — the idea that Japan is not a homogenous nation — largely hinges on tiny percentages of the population located on the fringes of the country, like the Ainu and Okinawans. Yet this demographic reality merely serves to emphasize how alike the vast majority of the Japanese are, making the title ring rather hollow.

Despite the sense that most of the authors are fighting the present intellectual war with the academic weapons of the last one — exacerbated by recently exploded economic assumptions of a continuing global boom — the wealth of detail in the ten essays still makes this a fascinating and informative read.

Japan-based academic John G. Russell, for instance, goes out of his way to blame whites for negative Japanese views of blacks, yet his essay "The Other Other" contains much interesting historical data, including the fact that the black slaves of Europeans in 16th-century Japan often kept Japanese slaves themselves. Russell’s detailed footnotes are equally informative, although sometimes they veer into triviality, for example telling us that a 2008 search of the word "kokujin" (black person) in the DVD section of produced 280 items of porn involving black men and Japanese women.

Russell's basic thesis also has all the hallmarks of Marxist historicism, linking Japanese racism to the national attempt to emulate Western states in the 19th century. According to this view, the economic standardization demanded by industrialization led to similar attempts to simplify human identity by "constructing" national identities, along with outsider groups. Needless to say, this view blithely ignores the millennia of ethnic strife that has characterized much of the world’s pre-industrial history.

Another interesting chapter — and a more objectively written one — is Gracia Liu-Farrer's essay on the Chinese in Japan. Despite Japan's post-bubble difficulties and China's booming economy, the numbers of Chinese here has steadily increased.

At the heart of this chapter is the thorny question of assimilation, with Chinese immigrants preferring to define themselves as "new overseas Chinese," robustly maintaining their original identity. As Liu-Farrer points out, the proximity of the country of origin combined with the ease of transnational communication in the internet era makes assimilation of immigrants increasingly less likely, something that also has a bearing on the United States' growing Mexican population. Additional factors for Chinese immigrants are Japanese people's reluctance to accept attempts at full assimilation and the employment benefits that retaining links with their home country brings. Japanese companies are particularly keen to employ workers who can help them expand their business with China.

This chapter goes against the overall grain of the book by refuting the idea that national identity is an artificial construct created by the nation state, instead revealing that it is something quite capable of flourishing by itself beyond national borders, even — or especially — in our transnational globalized world.

Japan Today
24th January, 2009
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