Non-nationals in Japan: the Burakumin

English: The_New_fighting_the_Old_in_early_Mei...

English: The_New_fighting_the_Old_in_early_Meiji_Japan circa 1870 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Miyu Fujihara

John Lie (2011) argues that:

“The predicates of peoplehood are categorically asserted rather than inductively proven. Being more prescriptive than descriptive they propose and enforce what it means to be a typical or normal member… In other words, the state and its associated institutions constitute people in their idealized image, exercising biopower that shapers society and citizens… Hence as much as modern peoplehood seeks to an inclusionary identity, it excludes relationally defined minorities of the body and of the mind.”

Simply speaking, he means that creating legislation and norms and its contents decides who’s in and out, or who is ideal, mainstream or a national, and who is an outsider, a minority or a non-national. As the title of his chapter suggests, “the paradoxes of peoplehood” implies this process.

This is greatly applicable to Burakumin in Japan. Lie (2011:179-180) discusses a process that the Burakumin went through. Even though the laws and social consciousness now acknowledge the Burakumin (although not fully), and after the Meiji Restoration gave them rights equal to the mainstream Japanese, this didn’t change much of the situation. Instead it gave the Burakumin a further burden. They were given more equal conditions, meaning they were giving the same expectations they had to meet, but this time without any protections or help from anyone, however with the persistent image that they were still at the bottom of society. They got more pressure from society, earned less money, and were remained just as poor as they had been.

Here is a related example of this paradox that my mother experienced. When my mother was in junior high school, there was a random group of kids who took extra classes. They were always taken from the classroom occasionally and studied in a different classroom. She later found it out that those kids were Burakumin and the reason why they were taking extra classes was for their education, which they had been deprived of historically. I assume that the purpose was to even out the educational opportunities and lessen the gap between the mainstream and the Burakumin. However, because they were treated differently by teachers, my mother thought that the kids were special and different from her and the rest of her classmates. This can mean that they saw the kids as different, abnormal, or a non-national group: outsiders.

Even recently, the Burakimin have been discriminated against, especially when job hunting because they have particular kinds of last names and birth places that imply a Buraku ancestry.

In Japan, who is and is not the mainstream is very explicit. I think this norm is not easy to break down as it has been passed on over generations, together with an essentialist aspect of Japanese people. However, doing nothing never helps people get out of poverty and out of the bottom stratum of the society. In my opinion, with the accelerating globalization, as long as the idea of nation-state exists, there always will be those who are “outsiders”.

Reference

Lie, John. 2011. Modern Peoplehood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Advertisements

Learning to read hiragana, katakana, kanji, and the air

Celebrate Diversity!by Robert Moorehead

With the spring semester now over, I’ve been thinking about the challenges of getting students to think differently about incorporating non-Japanese into Japanese society. The arguments students make and the ones sociologists usually cite in the research literature are like two roads that never meet.

As I’ve written before, students’ view of Japanese history seems to skip the roughly 100-year period between the Meiji Restoration and the Tokyo Olympics—nothing important happened in Japan between the 1860s and the 1960s, did it? Based on this, students often claim that Japanese people have little to no experience interacting with people of different cultural backgrounds. Plus, Japan is an island and thus was inaccessible to other groups. The invention of boats around the world apparently didn’t impact Japan … but I digress.

Students also state that Japan, unlike other countries, is a “high-context culture,” meaning that much communication in Japan is unspoken. Meanings are implied, and understanding those meanings requires reading between the lines and reading the context of the situation. Those who can’t “read the air” (空気を読む or “KY”) are treated as socially inept and may struggle in their social interactions.

This is a fair point, as communication in Japanese proceeds somewhat differently compared to communication in English, Spanish, or other languages. But, can’t people learn to “read the air”? Is Japanese culture so byzantine, so complex and inscrutable that non-Japanese can’t simply figure out how to talk to people?

Students also claim that because Japanese are not used to interacting with “KY” people, they can only accept people who are just like them. Interacting with non-native Japanese speakers and people who can’t “read the air” is too much work, so non-Japanese are just out of luck.

This inherently conservative argument could be extended to justify excluding pretty much anyone. Japanese women want a right to equal opportunities for employment? Too bad. They could never really understand men’s particular communication style, and their presence might make men uncomfortable—no more sex jokes in the workplace—so women will just have to settle for serving tea and lower pay. The disabled want to work? Sorry, accommodating their needs could be inconvenient, so they’ll just have to stay home. Okinawans and the Ainu want to express their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness in mainland Japan? Sorry.

This approach dismisses the rights of the individual in support of the rights of the majority. That is, the majority only has to respect the individual rights that are convenient. This approach fits with the LDP’s planned revisions to the Japanese Constitution. As Lawrence Repeta notes, these revisions would subordinate individual rights, such as free speech and free assembly, to the demands of public interest and public order.

On the one hand, I should be thanking students for their honesty. But do researchers cite any of these ideas when analyzing immigrant incorporation? I just finished teaching a course on international migration, and we spent the semester reviewing the sociological literature, including the main schools of thought, and issues of gender, education, transnationalism, citizenship, among others.

And not once in that literature did anyone talk about “high-context cultures,” or the whether interacting with cultural others might be too inconvenient.

So, have sociologists missed the boat? Are we just talking in circles, clueless as to the real issues?

Or is communicating across cultural and linguistic lines simply a fact of life for many people on the planet? Don’t we have to make all sorts of adjustments every day, even if we don’t have any foreigners in our midst? We communicate across lines of class, gender, age, and sexuality all the time, so why should we treat communicating across cultural lines as some special case?

As famed anthropologist Harumi Befu (2001) has noted, the United States is often held up as the main contrast to Japanese society. The US is multicultural and a nation of immigrants, while Japan is neither of those things. In the US, people complain about the challenges of diversity, like struggling to pronounce new names, understanding various accents, and talking with people who are still learning English. But … so what?

Seriously, so what? Is learning new names and using a modicum of patience to interact with non-Japanese really that difficult? Is “reading the air” really that complicated? Are foreigners really that inept at communicating in Japan?

Is it more difficult than figuring out how to pay for health care and pensions for Japan’s elderly, when Japan’s population is dropping and postwar boomers are retiring?

Since Commodore Perry’s black ships forced open Japan to international trade, Japan has gone through the Meiji Restoration, imperial expansion across much of East Asia and the Pacific, multiple wars, fire bombing, nuclear attacks, defeat, occupation, democratization, reconstruction, development into a global economic power, bubble economies, inflation, deflation, stagnation, population booms and declines, earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear disasters.

Change is the constant. In light of all that, talking to foreigners seems like it should be the least of their worries.

References

Befu, Harumi. 2001. Hegemony and Homogeneity: An Anthropological Analysis of Nihonjinron. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.