Rethinking about Multiculturalism

As the globalization goes on, “multiculturalism” or “multi-ethnic society” gets more and more attention all over the world since the 1970s. Multiculturalism is the political ideology in which every each of ethnic group or culture is expected to have the right recognition and dignity from the others with different cultural backgrounds by mutually being allowed to maintain and promote their own way of living, tradition, custom, language, or a sense of value. When it comes to issues of multiculturalism, Charles Taylor introduced in his work the idea of politics of recognition which he states is vital need for people. According to him, identity is partly shaped through the recognition by other democratic citizens in the modern age and, everybody should be equalized with dignity, based on the respect for the universality and equality. Multiculturalism was first born in the United States in the history of increasing number of coming migration back then.  Gradually, the idea has spread to the other countries like Canada, Australia, Sweden, United Kingdom, and so force. However, I am personally a bit skeptical about this idea. This is because multiculturalism that Taylor says is double-bladed device. We should notice that there are both positive and negative sides in the concept of multiculturalism.

Let us focus on the Japanese case of construction of multi-cultural society to discuss my skepticism about multiculturalism more deeply. In Japan, “multi-cultural society ” (多文化共生) was firstly introduced in the 1970s in the relation to the expanding world trend and remaining problem of Zainichi people. It may supposedly sound like a good idea that the aim to the multicultural society enables minority people to have more political rights or entitlements, accordingly, that discrimination against Zainichi people is supposed to be weakened. Moreover, Zainichi people themselves have long been fighting against and criticizing the harsh discrimination by Japanese people who put a great emphasis on the theory of Japanese ethnically-homogeneous society to exclude outsiders, which here means, Zainichi people. Yet, I just wonder if it is really favorable to pursue multiculturalism for these two reasons.

First politics based on the multiculturalism perhaps has potentially the exclusive force which may divide the different ethnic groups by drawing an unnecessarily strict line between “us” and “them”. In other words, there exists an idea of cultural essentialism in its basic concept which makes people believe that culture or ethnicity is basically built-in and unchangeable, though it actually is not. For example, there is a contradiction that Zainichi people tend to regard their culture as pure, though they, on the other hand, criticize discrimination based on the fixed idea of Japanese homogeneity.   In that sense, we can see that the myth of purity of ethnic group remains even in the resisting movements by Zainichi people.

Second, a seek for the multiculturalism has the possible danger that it enforces people to have a certain identity based on one specific category. For example, Appiah criticizes Taylor’s multiculturalism by arguing that Taylor is too interested in collective identity and identity politics could become a new kind of oppression. To put it differently, multiculturalism is somehow blind to individual identity and diversity in one collective group. When I watched the movie GO, it reminded me of this argument. The same goes in this movie. The main character had great difficulty to know who he was and decide which identity he had to choose, Japanese or Korean. To my eyes, he was struggling to make a choice under the pressure of strictly designed collective identities. Accordingly, in the age of multiculturalism, it might be hard for us to say that “I don’t want to be categorized into one specific cultural group!”

Therefore, I think we should not be too optimistic about multiculturalism. The idea includes downsides too; do we really have to have one specific, pure, solid collective identity? Perhaps, the true freedom is to be free from an enforcement to have “the identity”.


Charles Taylor(1994), Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition,  Princeton Univ Pr

by Wakana Dohtan

One thought on “Rethinking about Multiculturalism

  1. This is such an interesting (and very academic) blog post. I also agree that multiculturalism is given too much credit sometimes, and treated as if it is the ultimate virtue of international society.

    When I went study abroad to the U.S., it was stressful when one of my classes covered multiculturalism, and I had to talk in front of the class how collectivistic Japanese culture is. The teacher was saying how we have to understand how different culture see things, but for me, I felt forcing me to say everything collectivistic about Japan was, in itself, a forced perception. Not everything in Japan is collectivistic.

    I think when we talk about multiculturalism and try to theorize culture, we should acknowledge that culture is always changing, and that certain traits in a culture is not absolute nor viable for all members.

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