Structural Denial of Ethnic Diversity in Japan

by Sten Alvarsson

Japan’s ethnic diversity is continuing to be denied at the expense of a more equal and inclusive society. Ironically, equality and inclusivity are both at the heart of mainstream Japan’s perceived identity. This could be described as “ethnicity blindness” and is best described by Professor Kondo (2013) who states that, “Japan is still the only developed industrialised democracy that does not have an anti-discrimination law” (para. 6). This can be seen as a result from the belief that racism and discrimination do not exist in Japan so, therefore, there is no need to have laws targeting such behavior. On the whole, however, ethnicity blindness is not the most accurate depiction of the situation regarding ethnic minorities in Japan. Instead, the inequality and exclusivity regarding the country’s ethnic diversity is what I would describe as being “ethnic denial”.

While Japan’s ethnic diversity is fully comprehended by the country’s ethnic minorities, amongst the Yamato majority, however, the belief in a monolithic and homogeneous national identity persists. This belief is structurally enforced which was highlighted by the country’s 2010 census which failed to provide a measure for ethnicity (Japan Times, 2010). Instead, only nationality was measured without the acknowledgment of the ethnic diversity that exists under the umbrella of Japanese citizenship. This structural denial of the ethnic diversity of minority groups includes the Ainu, Koreans, Ryukyuans, Chinese, naturalized citizens and children from mixed marriages. Ethnic minorities are ignored despite the fact that minority groups such as these make up around 10 percent of the local population in areas such as the Kinki region of central Western Japan (Sugimoto, 2010). This structural denial is one of the keystones in maintaining the myth of a national identity that is both monolithic and homogeneous.

Japan’s structural denial of ethnic diversity within the country in order to enforce the myth of a monolithic and homogeneous national identity is not only a domestic issue but is also of international consequence and concern. Japan uses its perceived ethnic and cultural purity to ignore its international obligations as a signature member of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Instead, Japan maintains a policy of neglecting asylum seekers and rejects the overwhelming majority of their claims (Dean & Nagashima, 2007). In fact, from 1981 to 2007 Japan only accepted 451 refugees (Sugimoto, 2010). Sadako Ogata, a Japanese national who served as the former High Commissioner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 1991 – 2001 stated that one of the fundamental reasons for Japan’s exclusion of asylum seekers is due to, “prejudice and discrimination against foreigners which is based upon the mono-ethnic myth” (as cited in Dean & Nagashima, 2007, p. 497). It must be remembered that this mono-ethnic myth has no historical routes and was brought into popular consciousness after the Second World War.

Ethnic diversity in Japan needs to be acknowledged and accepted. Unlike the country’s last census in 2010, Japan’s next census in 2015 should strive to measure its ethnic diversity. In order to achieve this, such questions as, “Where were you born?”, “Where were your parents born?” and, “What national origin or ethnicity do you consider yourself to be?” should be included in the census. As a multicultural country, Australia recognises 275 different cultural and ethnic groups in its census (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011). For Japan, there is no excuse not to also measure the diversity that exists amongst its citizens.

The structural denial of ethnic diversity in Japan needs to end in order to contribute to a more equal and inclusive society for all its members. After all, in Japan there are over 100 different varieties of the chrysanthemum flower (kiku 菊) with a myriad of different colors, scents, sizes, textures, patterns and durations. Wouldn’t it be a shame if Japan only recognised a single variety of chrysanthemum and denied the existence of the rest?


Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2011). Australian Standard Classification of Cultural and Ethnic Groups. Retrieved from

Dean, M., & Nagashima, M. (2007). Sharing the Burden: The Role of Government and NGOs in Protecting and Providing for Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Japan. Journal of Refugee Studies, 20(3), 481-508.

Japan Times. (2010, October 5). Census blind to Japan’s true diversity. Retrieved from

Kondo, A. (2013, May 6). Can Japan turn to foreign workers. Retrieved from

Sugimoto, Y. (2010). An Introduction to Japanese Society (3rd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


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