Japanese History: 100 Years of Solitude on Fantasy Island?

by Robert Moorehead

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Audre Lorde

Repeatedly in the past few weeks, some of the worst parts of 20th-century Japanese history have been in the news. Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto has repeated comments he’s made over the years, including denying that women were forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese state during the war. Just yesterday, Lower House representative Nariaki Nakayama joined the party by saying “We need to raise our voices and tell the world that (females) were not forcibly taken away.”

These comments have been widely criticized for their fictional view of Japanese history, but how well do people in Japan understand that history? If there’s hope for the future, then present-day university students would show a deeper, more accurate grasp, right?

One of my classes has been discussing the experiences of refugees, including whether Japan should accept more of them. In recent years, Japan has granted refugee status to only about 0.05% of applicants, for a total of about 10-30 people per year. In contrast, other developed countries have accepted tens of thousand of refugees per year. Japan has ratified the UN Convention on Refugees, and as one of the wealthiest and most populous nations in the world, Japan could be a stronger member of the international community by lending aid to more of the world’s most needy.

However, many students disagreed, and their disagreements show a clear pattern in describing Japan as a special, unique place that cannot be compared with anywhere else. In this version of Japan, there are no foreigners, only Japanese—and all Japanese share the same ethnicity and language. (Well, some say that there are Ainu, but their existence does not refute the dominant narrative.)

How could Japan sustain this monoracial, monoethnic, homogeneous space? Geography. As a series of islands, Japan was inaccessible to the rest of the world. Precisely how the inhabitants of the Japanese islands got here is unclear, because if they used boats, then couldn’t other people have also used boats to travel here? Was there an ancient land bridge that later collapsed, standing the islands in the middle of the ocean? Were the original inhabitants amazing swimmers who made the journey from the Korean peninsula?

The Japanese people have been united through a shared “island mentality” (shimaguni konjō) that instructed them to love each other and to love being Japanese. This mentality prevents Japanese from accepting others into their club. Also, the fact that Japan has always been so homogeneous means that Japanese have no experience living near non-Japanese, and are not familiar with dealing with such people.

I’ve tried to remind my students that in the first half of the 20th century, Japan was the head of a colonial empire that spanned much of Asia and the Pacific Islands. Millions of people from throughout the empire lived on the Japanese mainland, held Japanese citizenship, and voted in Japanese elections. One student later acknowledged that his grandmother told him that as a child many of her friends were Korean.

Notions of Japanese identity in this era justified Japan’s dominance by emphasizing ties between Japan and its Asian neighbors. One government propaganda slogan professed Japanese unity with its Asian brothers and sisters as “do-so, do-shu” (Same origin, same race). The idea of Japan as a homogeneous nation is a postwar idea to reunite a defeated nation after the collapse of its empire.

These facts of Japanese history are absent from students’ narratives. Instead, they act as if nothing happened in Japan between the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s and the Tokyo Olympics in 1964—100 years of solitude on Fantasy Island. It’s as if Gabriel García Márquez and Mr. Roarke were both Japanese and had 127 million love children.

But somehow their fantastical islands have a few million non-fantastical people, and there are other people whose islands became part of the fantasy more recently—and many of whom are unhappy about this. And many people who pass as fantasy people are, in fact, of non-fantastical ancestry. And let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands of fantastical return migrants, who also brought their slightly less fantastical Latin American family members.

Students express concerns over the challenges of integrating immigrants, refugees, and other foreigners into Japanese society. Those are valid concerns, but their solution is to close the door and to isolate Japan from the rest of the world. Is that a solution? Japan does have a neighbor that is much more isolated and that is largely closed to foreigners—North Korea. But is that the model they want to follow?

In an attempt to get students to rethink the issues, I read Dr. Seuss’s classic story Green Eggs and Ham, which challenges readers to get past their dislike of the unfamiliar. Green eggs and ham are delicious, after all.

Japan’s economic success has come from being embedded in the global economy, and continued success in the 21st century requires accepting not only people’s money, but the people themselves. We’re not scary. We’re green eggs and ham. Try us, you might like us.

The Stereotype of Black People in Japan

Some Japanese people have stereotypical images of black Americans, gleaned from American television and press accounts. Black people are often described like with black skins, dangerous, funny, strong or lazy. Most of the black TV celebrities we can see on TV act silly and do not speak Japanese well and people make fun of them. Those black talents have to be silly to show up on TV, otherwise we never see them, because people do not want them to speak Japanese well and want them to be just like their stereotype. Bobby Ologon speaks weird Japanese, Bob Sapp eats raw meat. I do not know how they feel about doing the performances, but it is like watching circus show. People look down on them and it is obviously discrimination.

I think that is based on that a lot of Japanese people believe Japan is a homogeneous nation. They sometimes do not accept foreigners. Unless people admit that the concept of homogeneous is myth, people keep looking at black people “You can never be “Japanese”, because you look totally different from us and don’t speak Japanese well. So you have to be at least just like our stereotype, then you will be all right.

On the other hand, There are quite a few young people who love the black culture, like Hip-Hop, dance or clothe. They go to Hiyake salon to burn their skins, because they want to look like black people. Some people are concerned about those young guys, because they think turning their skins into black aggravates the stereotype. However, I do not think it is negative, because those young guys respect the black culture and they are trying to be who they respect.

I think there are many TV programs which implant bad stereotype of other countries or races. I watched a TV program which investigates the most kind country by observing how many people out of 20 pick up the stuff that someone drops and the program investigated Japan, China, The United State, Italy and Ethiopia. Although I forgot the results of The United State, Italy and Ethiopia, the number of China was 1 out of 20 and that of Japan was 20 out of 20. The results means Japan is full of kind people and China is not, but is that really true? There are so many unkind people in Japan and most of my Chinese friends are nice. The same is about black people.there are many different black people in Japan. He might be a professor, cooker or student. However we do not see and talk them very much and the only chance seeing them is when we turn on the TV and they act like silly as usual. However We have to keep it in mind that the black people on the TV act like our stereotype on purpose to live up to us and do not represent all the black people.

by Yuya Kuori

To Be “Japanese”

I think that many Japanese people tend to distinguish between Japanese and so-called Gaijin. As Japan is consisted by 98% of japanese people and almost all people in Japan speak japanese as a first language. Some people sometimes insist that japan is a racially homogeneous nation, which is not true. And the rest of the people in Japan are mainly from Korea or China, so it’s hard to figure out that they are not Japanese unless they speak. However when we see those who seem to be from Europe or Africa, we say “oh there is a gaijin over there”, even though they have been officially allowed to live in Japan or were born in Japan.

To be recognized as a Japanese, we have to look like Japanese or eastern Asian. For example, Bobby Ologon is one of the most famous gaijin in Japan. He’s lived in Japan for many years, speaks Japanese very well, has a citizenship and his real name is Konda Bobby. However when he show up on the TV, we see him as a gaijin and nobody treats him as a Japanese.

What about Hafu? The most famous Hafu is probably Becky. She is actually from kanagawa and one of her parents is British. she is the same as other japanese people except for having a british parent, however many Japanese would think she is a bit different. Is it because she is a Hafu? That’s not true. Rie Miyazawa, for example, Is also a Hafu of Japanese and Dutch parents, but we would’t think she is different at all. We even think she is an actress who represents Japan. The difference between Becky and Rie Miyazawa is only their looks. Becky doesn’t have Asian tastes, but Rie Miyazawa does.

I do think that many Japanese tend to judge others from how they look. Japanese usually feel relieved by acting just like the same as others, and we tend to dislike those who stand out.  I think this way of thinking is a bad heritage from our ancestors. This idea could lead to bullying or discrimination. We could hurt their identities.We have to get rid of this way of thinking to create a better society.

by Yuya Kuori

Why Does Discrimination Against Ethnic Groups Occur in Japan?

In this class, we learn about the existence of many ethnic groups in Japan. However, they all have common point that they have been discriminated against or experienced bad treatment in Japanese society. I want to look the reasons of the discriminations mainly and consider if it is possible to accept them easily in Japanese society.

I want to classify the reason of discrimination in two categories; psychological perspective and sociological perspective. First of all, psychological perspective is to discover the factor of discrimination in inside of human beings. I think we all have a feeling of wanting to have a higher status than other people. For example, maybe I want to gain more money than other people or I want to get higher score in exam than other people. Also, I think we tend to want to have people who are weaker than us. For example, even though you could not get higher score than your friend, if there are other friends who got lower score than you, then you do not need to suffer a lot from a feeling of inferiority. Also, we may feel proud of ourselves by bulling the weak people. Another aspect of psychological perspective is that it may be difficult for people to accept different way of thinking or sense of values. There is a risk of leading to the thought of “antiforeignism” that people cannot accept the new way of thinking and cling to the traditional thoughts. Therefore, even though ethnic groups increase more in Japan, they may show the reluctance toward them.

Now, I want to see the sociological perspective. Japan is said to be as a “collective society” which means to attach high value to the collectiveness and accommodativeness of people. It is important for us to work or act together so that it can rally the society efficiently. However, because of this characteristic of Japanese people, I think we tend to exclude the eye-grabber things or people. Japan is also a country which is a more ethnically homogeneous nation compared with other nations. When I lived in Paris, I saw many ethnic groups every day and it was a normal sight. However, it is very rare thing in Japan to see that many ethnic groups though they are increasing day by day. Therefore, because of the characteristic and situation in Japan, it may be difficult for them to accept minorities’ way of thinking or sense of values easily and in bad way, it leads to discrimination.

By the advance of globalization, ethnic groups may increase more in Japan and it might be normal to see them. However, I think it takes time to accept them in Japan because our way of thinking may be different fundamentally. Also, if they increase more, there might be the problems of employment, criminals, communication, or many other problems. Therefore, I think discrimination against them cannot be solved easily and there are still many tasks to implement a multicultural state in Japan.

by Mao Shukunobe