What does it mean to be Japanese? The cases of nikkeijin

There is a widespread view that Japan is a homogeneous society. Japan was once considered or, to some extent, is still being considered as a society of harmony, consensus, and absence of conflict, classlessness, and homogeneity.

A number of book focused on the issues regarding Japanese cultural or social identity have been published for decades, and those literatures mostly deal with topics such as ‘What are the Japanese’, ‘What is Japan’, ’What is Japanese style’ and so on. Those types of academic works can be categorised into a genre called ’Nihonjinron’ which literally means ‘theory of Japanese, or Japanese people’, and it ranges over diverse fields including sociology, anthropology, psychology, and so forth. In general, ‘Nihonjinron’ literatures seem to put emphasis on uniqueness and homogeneity of Japanese shared blood, culture and language. These theories can be recognised as one of the various reasons why the Japanese identity and nationalisms have been constructed. (Sugimoto 1997 p2-4) Also, the Nihonjinron writings are under criticisms by both domestic and foreign academics for mystifying Japan and agitating nationalism. (Yoshino 1992) The important thing to recognise here, in short, is that Japan is far from closed or homogeneous society on historical grounds. (Goodman, Peach, Takenaka, and White 2003 p5)

The myth of homogeneity is becoming more and more unreliable source as globalization moves forward, which is epitomized by the influx of foreign migrant workers from 1970s. Japan has accepted or, more accurately, could not help having accepted large number of migrant workers from various regions ranging from neighbouring Korea and China, South East Asia, Middle East, Africa, to South America. There is one migrant group who is fundamentally different from the rest, in terms of their visa preference and the way they are treated by the society at large. The group is, namely, Nikkeijin (in translation; Japanese descendants) migrants mostly from South America. Nikkeijin can be defined as follows.

‘We defined “Nikkei” as a person or persons of Japanese descent, and their descendants, who emigrated from Japan and who created unique communities and lifestyles within the societies in which they now live’   ( R Hirobayashi, Kimura-Yano, A, Hirabayashi, 2002 p19)

In 1990, the Japanese government passed new immigration and Refugee Control Act which prescribed the privilege to Nikkeijin in overseas, on the ground of jus sanguinis or bloodline. What is special about Nikkeijin migrant workers is that, up to the third generation, they had exceptional privilege of being allowed to reside and engage in work without any restrictions. The way they are treated and perceived is also different from the other migrants because they are ethnically Japanese but culturally Latin Americans.

The case of Nikkeijin migrant workers in Japan can tell us the fact that Japanese identity is largely influenced by the ideology of homogeneity which is constructed by putting emphasis of Japanese shared bloodline, language, and culture. By observing how Nikkeijin migrant workers are treated or perceived in the Japanese society, one can tell that the criteria to be ‘Japanese’ can only be fulfilled by someone who has Japanese shared bloodline, culture and language. If one lacks only one of the three elements, he or she will not totally be recognized as‘Japanese’.

Goodman, R, Peach, C, Takenaka, A, White, P, 2003, ‘Nikkei Communities in Japan’ in Global Japan : the experience of Japan’s new immigrant and overseas communities’ RoutledgeCurzon, New York.

Hirabayashi, Lane Ryo ,Kikumura-Yano, Akemi, Hirabayashi, James A., 2002, ‘New worlds, new lives : globalization and people of Japanese descent in the Americas and from Latin America in Japan’, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Sugimoto, Yoshio 1997, ‘An introduction to Japanese society’ Cambridge University press, Hong Kong.

by Yuki Sugiyama