Scan any news headline and you will constantly find issues pertaining to racism and xenophobia. Globalization, being a harbinger of blessings to many countries has also afforded for faster and more inexpensive means of doing business around the world. Due to the increase in travel, state borders are arguably more porous, resulting in significantly more diverse societies. Despite this change, some societies have still remained, to a certain degree, insular. Japan is considered to be one of the most ethnically homogenous countries on earth, composed of over 98% ethnically Japanese citizens. This especially high number is almost unprecedented when considering how migration and travel has rapidly changed the face of economically developed countries. Yet, Japan has mostly avoided this change and has remained virtually the same ethnically. Due to its largely ethnic homogeneity, Japan has been criticized as xenophobic and racist towards the other minority groups in Japan. Although all countries regardless of their standard of living suffer from racial prejudices, Japan represents an often-underreported case in the discussion of human rights.
One of the latest discussions of race in Japan was precipitated by the most recent Miss Universe pageant. The winner of the event went to a Japanese woman named Ariana Miyamoto, who was half Japanese and half African American. Although some welcomed her success, other Japanese citizens were critical questioning whether someone of mixed race could even represent Japan. Despite the fact that Ms. Miyamoto grew up in Japan and speaks Japanese, she is referred to as a hafu or someone who is only half Japanese. Hafu is typically used in a discriminatory way so much so that mixed race Japanese citizens typically prefer the word daburu instead in describing themselves. Although some could argue that this case is merely inseparable from other instances of discrimination in the world, Ms. Miyamoto counters stating, “I don’t think the equivalent word for ‘hafu’ exists overseas, but in Japan you need it to explain who you are”. The Miss Universe winner expresses a sentiment shared by many so-called “hafu” people in Japan, that they are openly questioned when they do not look like a typical Japanese citizen. Some conclude that being called a “hafu” instead of being seen as mixed race implies that they are only half of what they ethnically should be.
Besides the fact that discrimination is an issue in Japan, those who are not purely Japanese face even greater threats. One Japanese political party called Zaitokukai (short for “citizens against special privileges for Zainichi Koreans”) is responsible for propagating hate speech in Japan, mostly directed at ethnically Korean individuals. As recently as a year ago an Internet rumor spread that said ethnic Koreans were eligible for deportation due to a government program. There was such an outcry for deportation that the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau addressed the issue stating that there was no such program. Although the Japanese government acted correctly in that instance, the government does not always attempt to defend minorities. Organizations such as Freedom House state that as recently as a few years ago police were more likely to use the Japanese penal code to prosecute antinuclear demonstrators than groups with slogans that included appeals to kill Koreans. In an even more extreme instance, a former advisor of Shinzo Abe prescribed apartheid to fix Japan’s “race problem”.
Those who are of mixed nationalities also must choose where their dual citizenship lies. For example, someone who is half American and half Japanese must decide by their twenty second birthday whether or not they will keep either their Japanese citizenship or lose it for their American citizenship. As a result, those considered to be “hafku” view this policy as discriminatory and unfair. According to Japan, this is in order to preserve “which side they’re on” in any potential future international conflicts. Instead of viewing citizenship as an identity of a place where an individual was born, Japan is a country that is Jus Sanguinis (choosing blood as opposed to birthplace). Unfortunately, this is very problematic to those of mixed heritage because they are again forced to choose or be deemed an outsider.
Japan is considered to be one of the most ethnically homogenous countries on earth
So where does this prejudice stem from? Well according to some Japanese, there is an idea of racial purity due to a history of the populace originating from the same land. This is actually a myth and an idea of a historically “Japanese race” is much more convoluted. This ideology of an “us versus them” mentality also stems from the historical isolation that Japan has had from the rest of the world since the seventeenth century (up until European imperialism). In fact the Japanese word for foreigner gaijin or “outsider” inherently implies there is no possibility for a foreigner to become part of Japanese society.
Predictably, the international community condemns Japan’s lack of efforts in dealing with racism and prejudice. The UN Human Rights Committee recently released a report identifying hostile discrimination against ethnic groups and called for the Japanese government to play a greater role in addressing these hostilities. Additionally, other organizations have criticized Japan’s lack of laws on hate speech and the entrenched societal discrimination towards those not considered fully Japanese. Even though the Japanese government has made some efforts to combat racism by introducing a nationwide investigation, more action could be done in the form of laws to benefit minorities.
For the time being it seems that Japan’s current issues with addressing race will only increase. Although there is currently a low percentage of Japanese mixed couples, they are steadily rising. According to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare one out of every fifty children in 2012 had at least one non-Japanese parent. This is significantly higher than a 1987 statistic that stated that one out of every hundred and fifty children were biracial. This means that the Japanese government will have to address this issue, regardless of their desire to do so. Japan also faces much more troubling problems on the horizon, an aging population. Based upon the current rate of aging in Japan, by 2050 forty percent of the population will be over sixty-five. This means that the other sixty percent of Japanese will have difficulty in keeping the current order of social welfare programs in check. As a likely response to this problem, Japan has attempted to loosen its restrictions on immigrant workers. Because of this, it is likely that Japan will only see more and more non-ethnic Japanese citizens live in the country. If Japan wants to avoid any major economic hardships they will be forced to expand their citizenry towards those who do not match their more traditional idea of Japanese. Yet, despite the fact that state pragmatism and morality clearly align, racism still remains heavily entrenched in Japanese society. The best possible avenue for a hopeful future in Japan would be the government and its people making steps to emphasize racial inclusivity and celebrate the fact that being Japanese is much more than just blood.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.