80% of Japanese welcome foreigners of Japanese descent?

by Robert Moorehead

After the posting of signs alerting foreign shoppers that they’re being watched for crimes at Genky markets, the Cabinet Office has announced the results of a poll on Japanese attitudes towards foreign residents of Japanese descent (Nikkei Teijū Gaikokujin). (Here’s a link to English coverage in the Japan Times.) 1,883 Japanese people responded to the survey, out of 3,000 asked, completing short structured interviews. The results of the survey are encouraging, with 80.9 percent of respondents stating that they would accept Nikkei into their communities. However I wonder about social desirability effects, or the extent to which people are saying what they think will make them look good. Is this a case of tatemae over honne?

The survey asked respondents if they knew that there were Nikkei living in Japan, and how they knew this. Nearly 53 percent the respondents either knew that Nikkei were living in Japan, or had heard about it. 46 percent answered that they did not know that this group was living in Japan. The fact that Nikkei are concentrated in industrial regions of the country may account for the high percentage of Japanese who were unaware that this group is here. (At its peak in 2007, nearly 400,000 South Americans were registered residents in Japan. Much of this population is either of Japanese descent, or is a family member of someone of Japanese descent.)

Only 16.7 of respondents who knew of the existence of Nikkei in Japan (that is, about 9 percent of all respondents) knew or had worked with someone who was Nikkei. Nearly 73 percent had heard about this group on TV, and 48 percent had read about them in the newspaper. Having less than one out of 10 respondents actually know someone who is Nikkei means that the Nikkei remain vulnerable to negative depictions in mass media. The National Police Agency fuels this situation by continuing its inaccurate connection of foreigners with crime. Fear sells newspapers and funds budgets.

88 percent of respondents state the Nikkei need to learn the language, and nearly 92 percent state they need to learn Japanese culture and customs. More specifically, when asked how much of the Japanese language and culture Nikkei should know prior to coming to Japan, 46 percent responded that the Nikkei should know enough to be able to live independently (fujiyū shinai). Another 42 percent responded that they should know the bare minimum to get by in their daily living. 41 percent answered that the Nikkei should be familiar with Japanese culture and customs before coming, while another 50 percent think they should at least learn this after they arrive. These points seem fairly obvious. Economic security and social mobility in Japan require learning the Japanese language and culture, and the Nikkei are adapting. Assimilation happens every day, in many little ways, even by those who might be opposed to “turning Japanese.”

The survey then examines respondents’ support for government policies to facilitate this assimilation, including programs for Nikkei kids in school, interpreters at Hello Work employment centers, and skills training for Nikkei workers. The survey did not include any discussion of how much money respondents would want the government to spend on these programs. 87 percent of respondents stated that special policies to facilitate the integration of the Nikkei should be either maintained (nearly 60 percent) or increased (27 percent).

The most surprising result was that nearly 81 percent said that they were open to accepting Nikkei into their local communities. 30 percent said they would accept them, and nearly 51 percent replied that they were somewhat open to accepting them (“Dochirakatoieba, ukeiretai“). Nearly 13 percent said they would prefer not to accept Nikkei into their local communities.

So what does this mean? What does it mean to ‘accept’ Nikkei into your community? Can they rent an apartment in your building? Work in your company as something other than a manual laborer? Can they join your social groups? Can they marry your daughter? And what are the conditions of this acceptance? Are they welcome as long as they act Japanese?

On the one hand, I’m encouraged by the support for Nikkei in Japan. It’s certainly better than if they had said the opposite. But … I’m skeptical. South Americans in Japan, Nikkei and non-Nikkei alike, have told me very clearly that they do not feel included in Japanese society. Instead, borrowing some phrases from Eli Anderson’s The Cosmopolitan Canopy, they’re perpetually ‘on probation.’ In this provisional status, any misstep can be used against you as a sign of the fact that you’ll never fit in. You can enjoy a certain bonhomie with Japanese, but there’s always that chance that you’ll make a mistake with the language or do something else wrong—and those faux pas could out you as a perpetual gaijin (foreigner/outsider). There’s always the risk of the gaijin moment, in which a Japanese person calls you out on your foreign status by calling you gaijin (or the gaijin‘s dressed up cousin, gaijin-san) or posting signs in stores warning all customers that gaijin are being watched as potential criminals.

Scholars have noted that surveys are better at reflecting respondents’ public performance of attitudes about minority groups, than at accurately measuring people’s “real” views. We’ve become really good at hiding what we think, and instead we present a front stage image of ourselves that tries to make us look good. Survey techniques that pursue the issue with flexible follow-up questions reveal more negative views, as do in-depth interviews. In Japanese, these presentations of self are defined as tatemae (your front stage performance) and honne (your true beliefs). So to what extent do these questions reflect respondents’ real views? Ethnographic research on this topic reveals persistent barriers to the fuller integration of non-Japanese into Japanese society. People will often say they’re open to having other groups live in Japan, but when push comes to shove, foreigners remain on probation.

Hopefully government officials will use this survey to promote further initiatives to empower the Nikkei (and hopefully other non-Japanese) in Japan. Publicly conducting the survey, posting it on the Cabinet Office website, and releasing it to the press, may indicate that the government is testing public support for such initiatives.

Hierarchy in Social Minority Groups Vol. 2: Why Do People Separate Themselves?

My last blog post, Hierarchy in Social Minority Groups Vol. 1: The Structure of Separation in Lima and Tokyo, proved that minority groups tend to create hierarchic structure in their community and differentiate people. By showing the examples of Japanese-Peruvian immigrants and Chinese immigrants, this blog post explains the reason why people make hierarchy and separate themselves.

First of all, many Japanese-Peruvians established their community, and there was discrimination against peasants, Okinawans and the poor in the associations. However, they were also inferior to upper-class immigrants and Japanese embassy or mainland Japan. For example, in Peru, “upper-class, high-ranked Japanese Peruvians, such as the owners of major corporations and former President Fujimori, tend to stay away from community activities” (473).

In addition, the Japanese embassy in Peru and mainland Japan were also in superior position to the Nikkei community. Takenaka argues, “Japanese-Peruvians have always kept a subordinate position to Japan since the beginning. The hierarchical relationship reflects the nature of financial assistance that Japan has extended to community associations…” (477). Therefore, the whole picture of hierarchy is divided into three major groups: upper-class immigrants and Japanese embassy on the top, middle-class immigrants, association members, in the middle, and the poor at the bottom.

Next, Chinese immigrants in social dance party labeled themselves by education and region. However, they were also discriminated against by upper-class immigrants. One Northeasterner did not socialize with other Northeasterners in the dance party because he thought “Reberu (level) are different” (663). In the dance party, they were superior to the Fujian people and others, but even the Northeasterners were discriminated by high-class immigrants.

Both Japanese-Peruvians immigrants and Chinese immigrants were subordinated, and therefore, these community members discriminated against people and made hierarchy within the community. In general, all human beings always want to stay in advantageous status. But when they find someone in superior positions, they make hierarchy within their community and discriminate lower-class people for many reasons, such as lack of education, region and socioeconomic status. By creating hierarchic structure, people can stay on the top of social pyramid. This is the reason of hierarchy and separation of social minority groups.

Works Cited

Farrer, G.L. (2004). The Chinese Social Dance Party in Tokyo: Identity and Status in an Immigrant Leisure Subculture. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. 33 (6), 651-674.

Takenaka, A. (2003). The Mechanism of Ethnic Retention: Later-Generation Japanese Immigrants in Lima, Peru. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 29 (3), 467-483.

by Masayuki Tanaka