Multiethnic Japan and the Monoethnic Myth

Article excerpt

Japan is a society with many ethnic and social minority groups and a large majority population of heterogeneous origins. Anthropological evidence describes a migration from Southeast Asia and later from East Asia, probably over land bridges that once existed. The early settlers in the Jomon era included the Ainu and Ryukyuan peoples, and were followed by immigrants of the Yayoi era. The Ryukyuans lived in Okinawa and the other Ryukyu islands, and had their own distinctive language and culture and strong ties with China before their independent kingdom was forcibly incorporated into the expanding japanese nation. The Ainu maintained their ethnic characteristics by moving north, but the Yayoi-era people either exterminated or absorbed the Jomon people with whom they came into contact. It was these Yayoi people who eventuany formed the Yamato state in the fifth century.

Invasion and migration from China and Korea continued until the ninth century, by which time nearly one-third of the aristocratic clans in the Chinese-style Heian capital (present-day Kyoto) were of Korean or Chinese ethnicity. Immigrants were well received as they were recognized as bearers of a superior cultural tradition, not only as nobility but as craftsmen, priests, and educated professionals. Their traditions in literature, art, and religion were absorbed and became a foundation on which much of Japanese culture was based (Sansom 1958).

The sixteenth-century plunder of Korea by military forces under Hideyoshi included the capture of artisans and scholars who were brought to Japan en masse for their advanced skills in pottery and printing. In more recent times, large numbers of people from Korea and Taiwan, who were at that time colonial subjects and japanese nationals settled in Japan or were pressed into prewar or wartime labor there. Despite efforts to repatriate them after the war, many stayed in Japan but lost their japanese nationality when the postwar San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1952 designated them as foreigners. The Allied Occupation brought hundreds of thousands of people to Japan, mostly American men, and the maintenance of military facilities has led to the continued presence of a significant number of American military personnel. Most of this population has been transient, but some have left behind offspring while others have settled permanently in the country and married Japanese women.

In today's Japan, in addition to at least twenty-four thousand Ainu and a million Okinawans, ethnic minorities holding citizenship include recently naturalized persons from various ethnic backgrounds, particularly Korean. In addition, there are persons of mixed ethnic ancestry, such as the offspring of Korean-Japanese or American-Japanese parentage. There are also nearly a million resident foreigners, the majority of whom are Koreans, with smaller numbers Of Chinese, Filipinos, Americans, and others.

In recent years, the ethnic composition of foreigners in Japan has changed dramatically with a flood of workers and students from around the world seeking opportunity in Japan. Businessmen, laborers, entertainers, and English teachers have flocked to Japan to participate in the economic miracle. Students, mainly from China and other parts of As-',a, are also rushing to Japan in rapidly increasing numbers to fill the government's stated goal of 100,000 by the year 2000, although many use their student status simply to enter the country to work. Some of these newcomers choose to stay in Japan for extended periods L)r permanently. Ironically, these immigrants include former Japanese nationals (and their descendants) who once left Japan to seek their fortune elsewhere. Aided by favorable treatment in the new immigration law of 1990, their U-turn has already reached 150,000 and is growing.

The largest minority in Japan, the burakumin, are physically and linguistically indistinguishable from majority Japanese but exhibit the political and cultural traits of an ethnic group. …