Is it more ethnic or more civic?

by Marina Kouyama

“Is asking immigrants to Japan to learn the Japanese language reinforcing an ethnic sense of nationalism? Or is it promoting immigrants’ civic participation in the political process? Is it both?” This question was asked during class. The majority opinion was ‘both’. Then, the class discussed: “even if it is both which is it closer, more ethnic or more civic?” The most common opinion was that it is ‘more ethnic’, claiming that asking migrants to learn Japanese language means that they are forced to follow the proverb “When in Japan, do as Japanese do (When in Rome, do as the Romans do).” However, is it really ‘more ethnic’? Is there no place for the choice ’more civic’? I would like to rethink about that.

First of all, why does immigrants’ learning Japanese language seem like ‘more ethnic’? It related to Japanese history of assimilation. Japan is often called ‘homogeneous country’. However the origin of the concept ‘Japan is homogeneous’ appeared not so long ago. There were some ethnic minority groups in Japanese society, for example, Ainu or Okinawan. They were forced to act like Japanese, and ultimately, become Japanese. The main feature of this assimilation was domination of language, prohibiting their ethnic language and forcing them to speak Japanese. Hence forcing Japanese language to non-Japanese speaker appears to be based on ethnic nationalism.

In this case which questioned in the class, however, asking non-Japanese speaker to learn Japanese language does not seem like assimilate an immigrant into Japanese authorities. It is for immigrants themselves, rather than for Japanese society. Learning Japanese language helps immigrant to live in Japanese society. It is hard for them to lead their lives in Japan without knowing Japanese language, because most Japanese people speak only Japanese language. If they do not understand Japanese language at all, they could not get necessary information, they could not deal with troubles or dangerous situation, or they have less chance to be employed due to lack of the language. Therefore, learning Japanese language is promoting chance of their social participation.

It is not happening only in Japan. Imagine Japanese people immigrate to or study abroad in the United States. They probably feel a strong necessity of English skill. It is better for people to have a skill of the language which is dominantly spoken where they are.

For these reasons, it could be said that asking immigrants to Japan to learn the Japanese language is ‘more civic’, rather than ‘more ethnic’.

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