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Article 7 in 2008
First published in ejcjs on 5 December 2008

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Celebrating 'Multicultural Japan'

Writings on 'Minorities' and the Discourse on 'Difference'


Chris Burgess

Associate Professor
Tsuda College

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This paper critically examines the recent fascination with 'minorities' in writings on Japan. The paper begins by identifying 'multicultural Japan' writings as a particular discourse and traces their development. The paper then highlights some of the problems when this celebration of diversity is taken too far. The body of the paper focuses on the definition of 'minority'. This leads to a discussion of the importance of personal choice and change over time in the construction of identity. Finally, I illustrate how the dominant discourse in the academic literature does not necessarily reflect the notions of 'minority' and 'identity' in their social context in Japan by examining (i) the occurrence of terminology in the Japanese print media and (ii) population statistics. These emic keywords and data on Japanese and non-Japanese populations serve as useful tools for reminding us that the current dominant academic discourse is merely one of many possible narratives on Japan. The conclusion reiterates the main argument, namely that discourse can limit and constrain understanding, before making a plea for a more pluralistic, multi-dimensional view of Japan, one that embraces alternative discourses.

Key Words: Minority/minorities; multicultural Japan; diversity; difference; identity; nihonjinron; discourse; migration (statistics)

[T]he discourse with our research subjects is ultimately subordinated to the discourse (hidden assumptions, language, or intellectual agendas for instance) of the discipline....it is primarily on the basis of our superiors' and peers' reactions that our ideas (and through them ourselves) are evaluated and allowed into the public arenas of disciplinary debate (Ben-Ari 1990: 230).


More than forty years ago, Berger and Luckmann (1966) forecast that a sociology of knowledge approach would become an important aid in the understanding of human societies. For them, the crucial task was to ask what passes for knowledge in a society and also how these realities (and not others) come to be taken for granted over time. In the study of Japan, there has been some discussion on paradigms (Neustupny 1980) and on how knowledge is created by scholars (Mouer and Sugimoto 1986: chapter 7). However, these have not been well developed, particularly the question of how knowledge is (re)created in everyday life in contemporary Japan and how this is related to and influences the creation of academic knowledge. Developing a discursive framework based on Burgess (forthcoming), this paper deconstructs some of the many recent writings on 'minorities' in Japan, as well as the term 'minority' itself. It also offers a practical illustration of how emic keywords and concrete data are indispensable tools of any discursive analysis of knowledge construction. The goal is to encourage reflection on the reasons we study the topics we do (and not others), to highlight the gap between academic and social realities, and to sketch out concrete strategies for future research in the area.

Nihonjinron and 'Multicultural Japan'

Recent years have seen an explosion in writing on minorities, migrants, and marginals in Japan. Much of this can be traced back to a number of critiques of nihonjinron (e.g. Aoki 1990; Befu 1987; Dale 1986; Mouer and Sugimoto 1986; Yoshino 1992), an extremely broad genre of writing discussing Japanese uniqueness. The publication of these critiques was followed by a large number of books placing themselves in direct opposition to – and seeking to refute – the nihonjinron 'discourse'. The first wave of writings in this mould were primarily by Japanese scholars (e.g. Komai 1992; Oguma 1995; Ōnuma 1993) who were almost uniformly concerned with 'overcoming' the 'myth of homogeneity' (tan'itsu minzoku no shinwa). In 1995, two English books, both jointly edited by John Maher (Maher and Macdonald 1995; Maher and Yashiro 1995), focussed on the linguistic and cultural heterogeneity in Japanese society, combined in Japanese as Towards a New Order: Language and Cultural Diversity in Japan (Maher and Honna 1994). Like the first wave of Japanese writings, Maher's project was framed largely as a response to a 'dangerous' nihonjinron:

The purpose of this volume is to accelerate the burial process that will finish off a chronic dependency on the invented tradition of monolingualism and monoculturalism (Maher and Yashiro 1995: 2).

Michael Weiner (1997), in Japan's Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity, continued in this vein, challenging the 'dominant paradigm' of homogeneity by emphasising the diversity that exists in Japanese society. Weiner (1997: inside cover) argued that Japan was home to diverse populations despite 'a master narrative of "racial" and cultural homogeneity which precludes the existence of minorities.' When references are made to who has actually said that Japan is homogenous,[1] they usually consist of pseudo-academic popular paperbacks and 'low grade books by travel writers and journalists' (Gill 2001: 577). Yet, today, writers queue up to debunk the 'myth' of homogeneity, which has come to represent a straw man par-excellence. For example, in his latest, three volume forty-five paper edited collection, Weiner (2004: 3) is still attempting to 'challenge the myth of a mono-cultural Japan.' As Gill (2001) puts it, in a review of Lie's (2001) Multiethnic Japan, the 'bleeding corpse' that is nihonjinron has been trampled on at length 'by a whole generation of scholars'.

The trampling continued in a number of books about migrant settlement in Japan which appeared from the mid-1990s (e.g. Komai 1995; Miyajima and Kajita 1996; Weiner and Hanami 1998). Soon after, the word 'multicultural' became quite common in writings on Japan. In a volume which promised to offer a 'multicultural perspective' on 'Nihonjinron at the end of the Twentieth Century', Mouer and Sugimoto (1995: 242), the first to critically examine the nihonjinron genre systematically, titled a section of their chapter 'Multicultural Japan'. Although they seemed to be pointing to nothing more than the existence of social variation in Japanese society, it marked the start of a 'multicultural Japan' boom. For example, in 1996, Denoon et al published Multicultural Japan, a book which purported to challenge the 'conventional' view of Japanese society as being monocultural and homogenous (McCormack 1996). Like Mouer and Sugimoto, the term 'multicultural' was used in order to stress the variation and diversity present in Japanese society, a diversity which, they were keen to stress, had a long history. Sugimoto (1999: 93) defines the 'multicultural paradigm' as one that:

embraces all ethnic minorities of the underlying Japanese population…Multiculturality here…comprises the so-called subcultural groupings, including for example, female culture, part-time workers' culture, physically handicapped people's culture, youth culture, homosexual culture and so on.

The problem was that while some writers (e.g. Sugimoto 1997: chapter 1) continued to use 'multicultural society' as a simple shorthand for variation in society, which has always existed, others began to use it to describe the emergence of the kind of political ideal in Japan which originated in countries like Australia, Canada, and the United States in the 1970s. In the case of Japan, the emergence of 'multiculturalism' as a political ideal is often traced to the influx of racially distinct – that is, visually foreign – Asian workers in the late 1980s (Lie 2001: 18). Examples of work in this genre include the edited volume by Willis and Murphy-Shigematsu (2008) entitled Transcultural Japan, the collection by Douglass and Roberts (2000a), subtitled 'the advent of a multicultural society', and Graburn et al.'s (2008) Multiculturalism in the New Japan which looks at the 'growing and contested forms of multiculturalism' as newcomers transform Japan at the grassroots level. Here, multiculturalism refers not so much to a state of society but rather to 'the adoption of an ideal form of public policy' in response to increased numbers of foreign workers and other migrants (Graburn and Ertl 2008: 3). Importantly, this discourse is driven not by changes in central government policy or public opinion but by a small group of vocal scholars and other citizen-activists (Graburn and Ertl 2008: 3). Thus, in contrast to the use of 'multicultural Japan' as used to describe social variation, these works have a predictive and prescriptive slant, showing what Japan inevitably will and indeed should become.[2]

Elsewhere (2007) I discuss in detail the validity of the term 'multicultural Japan' as it used in the sense of a new political ideology – and a 'new' Japan. Here, I focus more on 'multicultural Japan' in the sense of variation. The idea that social variation exists in Japanese society is uncontroversial. As Morris-Suzuki (1998: 156/192) notes, if culture is taken to mean the possession of the same knowledge, values, and experiences, then any national society is by definition multicultural: culture is always 'multi' by its very nature. The key question, then, is not difference per se but which groups are framed as 'different' in relation to the mainstream population. In the case of Japan, the 'minority' groups which are framed in this way and receive the most scholarly attention are the indigenous Ainu and Ryūkyūjin, the 'outcast' Burakumin class, 'oldcomer' zai'nichi Koreans and Chinese, and 'newcomer' Nikkeijin and other recent migrant groups.

Problems in the Study of 'Minorities'

The notion of 'difference' is central to any discussion of 'migrants' and 'minorities' in Japan. This focus on 'difference', which has always existed in Japan, can perhaps be taken too far. Ryang (2005: 10/201) calls for caution in what she calls the 'recent and powerful trend of representing Japan from a…pluralistic angle' with its ever-increasing celebration of diversity, marginals, and minorities. In the first place, the overriding concern with ethnic difference tends, as Clammer (2001: 7) points out, to occlude other dimensions of difference such as gender and class. Kim (2008: 872) notes how the multiculturalist approach largely defines inequality as a matter of ethnicity, resulting in a disregard for other dimensions, particularly class dimensions across ethnic boundaries. 'The low status of most of Japan's minority groups', writes Goodman (1990: 9), 'can be more closely related to their class marginality than the cultural or ethnic reasons normally cited.' This is borne out by Kim's data, which suggests that class is now more significant than ethnicity in understanding inequality amongst resident Koreans in Japan. But even the inclusion of multiple forms of difference has its pitfalls. Citing Maher and MacDonald's (1995) Diversity in Japanese Culture and Language as an example, Ryang highlights the danger in conflating (and ignoring internal differences within) highly diverse subcultural groups, such as anorexic women, returnee children, the Ainu, and 'Koreans':

Terms such as 'diversity' and 'marginalization' need to be placed in proper perspective…a mere lumping together of the marginals as an appendix to the mainstream can be counterproductive, as it obscures the historic and social specificity of the discrimination and oppression each group has experienced (Ryang 2005: 202/3).

A further problem is that the 'multicultural Japan' discourse, by framing itself in direct opposition to the nihonjinron 'discourse', to some extent legitimises and reinforces the latter genre and opens itself up to some of the same problems found in the very ideology it seeks to debunk:

[Mouer and Sugimoto] still choose to frame their argument in terms of a debate with the Nihonjinron even though it is the (false) assumptions of this that they are supposed to be attacking…so the Nihonjinron is kept in the foreground of academic debate, especially internationally, by those who deny its legitimacy…Paradoxically the concentration by scholars on the Nihonjinron…has actually succeeded in strengthening rather than undermining the view of Japan as a culturally and sociologically monolithic entity (Clammer 2001: 67)

For example, Gill (2001: 577) sees Lie's lumping together of all minorities as creating a new kind of nihonjinron: 'only this time we have two caricatured groups instead of one.' One can speculate that the recent emphasis on 'diversity' in Japan, because of the way it is framed in contrast to a dominant mainstream 'homogeneity', has merely served to naturalise, reify, and homogenise so-called 'minorities', tacitly reaffirming the monocultural image of Japan and encouraging further stereotypical generalisations (Gladney 1998: 6). For Morris-Suzuki (2002: 171), it is a kind of 'cosmetic multiculturalism' in which diversity is celebrated 'on condition that it remains essentially a form of exterior decoration that does not demand major structural changes.' As Davis (2000: 110), in his discussion of Buraku(min), points out, although well-intentioned, attempts to 'prove' that diversity exists within Japan can sometimes undermine their own purpose by reinforcing boundaries 'which then become the basis for continued exclusion.'

It has frequently been pointed out that the study of minorities (Other) is crucial for understanding the majority (Self), in this case the concept of being Japanese. This is well illustrated by Oguma's (1998) The Boundaries of the Japanese which shows how an examination of changing treatment of ethnic minorities – of the periphery – can shed light on the historical development of Japanese identity (Askew 2001). Moreover, the way a society treats its weaker members and deals with inequality reveals a lot about that society. Nevertheless, as discussed above, there are very real dangers in over-celebrating diversity. First, there is the risk that by focussing too much on 'minorities' we neglect the majority and lose sight of Japan as a unified and coherent imagined community:

[T]he pendulum has now swung too far. Decontructionist literature, while valuable as a counter-balance, has come to occupy a disproportionate role in recent studies in Japan. You cannot properly understand English society by concentrating on French-speakers in the Channel Islands, or on recently arrived Chinese immigrants running fish-and-chip shops in the East End of London. The equivalent is true of Japan and its minorities. This does not mean that such people, minorities, can be ignored….And yet, in any society the vast majority of people generally conform to a range of accepted norms, however much they might differ in gender, age, occupation, and personality profile (Henshall 1999: xix).

Second, we also need to be careful in positing the existence of 'conspiracy theories' where a monolithic and uniform 'state' becomes a single subject-actor consciously persecuting and excluding resisting 'minorities'. Indeed, 'resistance' and 'struggle' have become so 'romanticised' (Abu-Lughod 1990) that everything has come to be interpreted in terms of hegemony and counter-hegemony (Sahlins 1996: 16-18). Marcus (1992: 313/14) points out that the question of identity-formation in particular tends to be framed in a 'slogan-like' analytic formula of 'resistance and accommodation'. Such a formulation tends to limit agency – the capacity to act and instigate change within social/structural constraints – to re-action or response to dominant (state) power structures, something which does not reflect the complex realities of individual everyday life (Burgess 2004b; 2008). Some of these problems are captured in the blurb for Weiner's (1997: inside cover) Japan's Minorities:

In the face of systematic exclusions and marginalization, minority groups have consistently challenged the subordinate identities imposed by the Japanese majority. Japan's Minorities addresses a broad range of issues associated with the six principal minority groups in Japan.

  • Ainu,
  • Burakumin,
  • Chinese,
  • Koreans,
  • Nikkeijin,
  • Okinawans

The contributors to this volume show how an overarching discourse of homogeneity has been deployed to exclude the historical experiences of minority groups in Japan.

Thus, certain 'systematic' actions and motivations are ascribed to a rather vague group of actors, here 'the Japanese majority', but frequently 'the state' or some unspecified subject of a passive-tense sentence. Minority groups 'consistently challenge' these actions which are always 'exclusionary', despite the fact that assimilation (inclusion) has been a key feature of Japan's (and indeed most other country's) nation-building projects. But just as there are differences of opinion within government departments today on the issue of migration, debate in pre-war Japan was equally divided. Oguma identifies two basic camps: assimilationists who argued for integration, intermarriage, and equal rights, and non-assimilationists who wished to maintain the distinctions between Japanese and non-Japanese. In other words, the ideologies of the superiority of 'the Japanese race' ran parallel to and conflicted with practical multi-racial policies of assimilation used to govern Japan's colonies (Morris-Suzuki 1998: 96). Even then, the distinction between 'acceptance' and 'exclusion' did not lend itself to simple value judgements:

One of the ironies of modern Japanese history is that assimilation was advocated by the egalitarian members of the Japanese enlightenment, thus providing a justification for a wholesale assault on local traditions and customs, while it was the racist social evolutionists who argued in favour of a low-cost form of colonial rule which entailed local autonomy and respect for local customs (Askew 2001: 113)

The key point is to recognize the complexities of the discussions and terms involved. In particular, any study of 'minorities' requires careful definition of the terms, labels, and concepts – such as identity – adopted, recognition that such categories are arbitrary and fluid social constructs, and a consideration of differences within groups.

What are 'Minorities' anyway?

Cuthbertson and Leibowitz (1993: 1) point out that we are all members of 'minorities' in the sense that membership of a group – left-handed people, opera-lovers, ballroom dancers, 4WD drivers – makes us in some way different to people who surround us. The key is perception of 'difference'. The 'difference' need not necessarily be visible, though it has to be perceived to exist either by the individual and/or others. What is considered a significant or relevant 'difference' differs from society to society, as well as over time, and is therefore arbitrary and fluid rather than fixed:

all modern national societies are potentially subdividable into an almost endlessly diversity of 'cultural groups'. In practical terms, it is not merely the culture of (say) 'Ainu' and 'majority Japanese' which is likely to differ, but also the 'culture' - that is the way of life and behaviour - of rural people and urban people, teenagers and elderly, car-drivers and non-car drivers. The important question, then, is how certain 'cultural' or 'ethnic' differences have come to be singled out as central to the process of defining the outer boundaries of 'national identity', while others are disregarded as insignificant. In the context of Japanese history, we could ponder why it is that Okinawans and Ainu are commonly defined, both by themselves and others, as distinct 'ethnic groups' [minzoku], while people from the islands of Hachijo jima and Sado, who also have very distinctive histories and traditions, are not (Morris-Suzuki 2000: 38/39).

Once a shared difference has been singled out as significant, if membership of that group causes difficulties i.e. carries penalties or has negative consequences then the group may be classed by themselves and/or by others as a 'minority' (Cuthbertson and Leibowitz 1993: 1). Schaefer (1987: 5-8) defines the basic characteristic of a minority as powerlessness compared to the majority or dominant group. For Schaefer, the question of whether the group is a numerical minority or not is less important than whether they are a subordinate group whose members have significantly less control over their own lives and who experience a narrowing of opportunities (success, education etc.) that leads to reduced status/privilege in society.[3]

However, even though many groups suffer some form of prejudice or discrimination as a result of their membership – left-handers struggling with unsuitable stationery, 4WD drivers who are taxed at a higher rate, or smokers driven outside to smoke – this rarely leads to them asserting and securing recognition of separate identities as a 'minority'. It seems that the perceived difference must be framed as a particular kind of difference, namely racial, ethnic, gender, or religious difference to qualify as a 'minority' (Schaefer 1987: 8-9). Although race is traditionally seen as a biological category which refers to physical criteria and distinctive gene frequencies, today most scholars acknowledge that race, like ethnicity, is not so much a biological as a social construct:

Ethnicity remains a mixed bag of socially defined characteristics such as religion, language and, most importantly, race. A race is defined as a 'group that is socially defined on the basis of physical criteria' as opposed to an ethnic group which 'shares certain cultural characteristics' (van den Berghe, 1967: 9-10). However, the fundamental distinction between race and ethnicity does not hold to the extent that physical criteria are not based upon physiological scientific studies nor upon some objective physical differences between groups. In other words, race is culturally constructed and in that sense synonymous with ethnicity (Sugimoto 2000: 89).

In this sense, ethnicity is very similar to the Japanese minzoku – 'people' and/or 'nation' like the German Volk – a term which, combining cultural and genetic aspects, has become the chief criterion of nationhood (Morris-Suzuki 1998: 32). Glazer and Moynihan (1975) note that the term 'ethnicity' is in fact a new one that reflects new realities. They define it as membership of a group with a common cultural tradition, origin, and sense of identity, whether that group is a minority or majority within a nation (Glazer and Moynihan 1975: 1-4). As Kim (2008: 894) points out, this shared sense of national origin by descent may be (partly) real or imagined.

The problem is that if an ethnic minority is defined as a (subordinate) group which perceives itself (or is perceived) as having a certain degree of culture and/or history in common, then the term becomes rather broad. For example, Creighton (2003: 140), in her paper on Ainu identity, notes that the words ethnic and ethnicity are sometimes considered problematic when used in relation to aboriginal or indigenous peoples because these words have frequently been associated with immigrant groups – i.e. those who share the same national origin by descent – in contrast to those who claim a prior existence in an area. In another example, in Multiethnic Japan Lie (2001: 3-4) argues that identification and discrimination offer good grounds to consider Burakumin an ethnic group, even though the Buraku Liberation League (BLL) do not believe that they constitute an ethnic group. Gill (2001: 576) is critical of Lie's position:

Frankly, this argument simply does not hold. By Lie's definition, gay people, blind people, people from Osaka, women, train-spotters, and just about any other group could be defined as an ethnic minority. Burakumin are not an ethnic minority; they are a cultural or social minority.

Gill is of course implicitly equating ethnicity with biology not culture, even though shared cultural characteristics have been shown to be central to any definition of ethnicity. As Morris-Suzuki (2000: 52) notes in the context of the Ainu, communal identity is 'very often expressed first and foremost in cultural terms.' These disagreements in labelling connect to the problem of identity.


Identity – the issue of how people see themselves and how they are seen by others – is something which, as we have seen, can be a source of conflict. Clearly, (i) individuals within a group, (ii) representatives of that group, and (iii) non-group members may identify with/apply the group label to a lesser or greater extent – or not at all.

First, there are differences between individuals. For example, among zai'nichi Koreans, there are obvious differences between members of the first, second, and third generations, and amongst those affiliated with Mindan and Chongryun. Amongst young zai'nichi Fukuoka (2000) defines five broad types, from nationalist to naturalizing.[4] Morris-Suzuki (2000: 38) gives the example of Korean-Japanese writer Ching Yong Hye, who shuns the clumsy zai'nichi label and implied notion of a 'pure' majority, choosing instead to emphasise hybridity and multiplicity. In the case of the Ainu, Siddle (1997: 44) acknowledges that articulation of Ainu identity varies widely amongst individuals. A number identify strongly as Ainu, some see instrumental benefits in the identity, while others hide, remain ignorant of, or express no interest in their Ainu ancestry. Finally, although the majority of those living in Okinawa Prefecture identify themselves as and are proud of being uchi'naanchu (Okinawan), most embrace a dual – sometimes called a multivocal – Okinawan/Japanese identity (a possibility often ignored in a literature which tends to paint identity as black or white).[5] Similarly, some long-term mainland (hondojin) residents of Okinawa have come to identify themselves as uchi'naanchu (Taira 1997: 166); on the other hand, many of the 300,000 or so Ryūkyūjin living on the mainland who have largely assimilated would reject the ethnic minority label entirely.

Second, organizations and associations that claim to represent 'minorities' also demonstrate differences in identification. For example, it is not only the BLL that rejects the ethnic label; as Kelly (1991: 416) points out the organised associations of Koreans in Japan also consider the categorisation of their members as a racial or ethnic minority (shōsū minzoku) as offensive (albeit for different reasons). Different organisations representing the same group may have different perspectives. Whereas the BLL maintains its campaign for Burakumin rights at home and abroad, the rival Zenkairen announced in 2004 that the Buraku issue has basically been resolved and formally disbanded. Moreover, the BLL estimate of nearly three million Burakumin, which includes all former and current Buraku residents, is much higher than government figures which count only those who claim Buraku ancestry.[6] The question is, as Siddle (1997: 44) notes, whether leaders and activists – who seem to dominate the literature on minority groups[7] – are really representative of the 'silent majority' in whose name they continue to act. On the other hand, organisations do not always represent all those they appear to. The Utari Kyōkai, despite its central role in acknowledging individual Ainu identity (kojin nintei), as well as in distributing financial support, is a local, not a national organisation, and as such does little for those Ainu living outside Hokkaido (Mainichi Shimbun 2008).

Third, non-group members may apply the group label to a lesser or greater extent or not all. For example, the Ainu were first recognised by a Japanese court as an indigenous minority in 1997; Diet recognition came in June 2008. Recognition may bring with it benefits and increasing numbers identifying as Ainu.[8] Member and non-member identification are thus connected: as Gurr (1993: 4) points out, if a group is treated differently, its members become more self-conscious about their common bonds and interests; consequently numbers identifying with that group will rise. 'The key to identifying communal groups is not the presence of a particular trait or combination of traits,' writes Gurr (1993: 4), 'but rather the shared perception that the defining traits, whatever they are, set the group apart.' A prime example is the development of the contemporary mainstream narrative of Buraku history. As Amos (2007) points out, although there was little clear sense of a 'Buraku identity' in the pre-war period, post-war a small number of historians succeeded in establishing a unified discourse on the physical and conceptual continuity of the Burakumin.

Identity and Choice

A key element that has been lacking in much of the discussion on minorities in Japan concerns the role of personal choice in identity construction. Identity, according to Hall (1996), is constructed at the point of intersection ('suture') between external discourses and practices and the internal psychic processes that produce subjectivities. For Hall (1996: 6), identity (or more accurately identities) is/are simply 'points of temporary attachment to the subject positions which discursive practices construct for us.' The subject can choose (within certain parameters) to identify partly, wholly, or not at all with the 'positions to which they are summoned' (Hall 1996: 14). Since the constitution of identity is an act of power, non or misrecognition can induce individuals lacking access to alternative discourses to adopt negative or depreciatory images of themselves (Fanon 1967: 65; Ōba 2000; Taylor 1994: 25-26). Nevertheless, because identity is a fluid and changing process, this is never permanent and there are always opportunities for individuals to 'push' back against conventional representations. However, one of the problems with the 'multicultural Japan' discourse is that personal choice, change over time, and the possibility of holding multiple identities are largely ignored and individuals are locked into a single (ethnic) category – an enclave – of difference, whether they like it or not (Burgess 2004a; 2007). The result is that such individuals are denied access to sites of power and participation in mainstream society.[9]

Perhaps the key issue in discussions of 'minorities' is change. With changes in the balance of power, the extent of discrimination and the perceived significance of differences will also change. As Valentine (1990: 36, 44, 52) notes, marginality is a matter of degree that shifts according to external circumstances and internal coping strategies: 'individuals are not absolutely marginal in Japan, but rather marginal only in particular contexts.'[10] In other words, if we define a 'minority' as a member of a subordinate or powerless group that carries penalties, once equality is attained and discrimination disappears, is the individual still a 'minority'? As Siddle (1997: 44) notes, individuals may feel increasingly wary of organisations which continue to stress discrimination and marginalization and demand special (financial) treatment if they themselves no longer feel subordinate. The irony is that when disadvantage disappears and a group comes to participate in the culture of and enjoy the opportunities offered by the mainstream, the differences that defined their minority status become less significant.[11] Alternatively, new 'minorities' may emerge as those who didn't feel disadvantaged in the past come to feel so due to changing political or economic circumstances.

'Research on Japanese multiculturalism has been dominated by a bias towards investigations of ethnic diversity and minority rights', observes Ertl (2008: 95), '…rather than exploring how individuals distinctly experience and form their identity.' Morris-Suzuki (2000: 38), quoting Ishikawa Jun, notes that cultural identity is not something which people are always conscious of throughout their everyday life. In fact, it is usually only in clearly unequal power relationships that the question of group membership becomes a major issue. When groups begin to achieve equality, group affiliations may become less important and even a burden to them:

Ishikawa goes on to observe that at a certain point, identity politics may go one step beyond this strategy of demanding 'freedom of identity'. Rather than seeking the right to define the symbols of group belonging in their own terms, members of minority groups may start to seek 'freedom from identity': the right to assert the complexity of their selfhood, rather than being eternally burdened with the stereotypes and responsibilities of a particular ethnic belonging

Of course, in order to address issues of inequality and past wrongs, some kind of 'strategic essentialism' – temporary attachment to group identities – may be necessary (Spivak 1988). Nevertheless, as observers of Japanese society, perhaps we should be less prescriptive and more accepting that perceptions of what constitutes difference (and therefore 'minority' groups) are neither fixed nor homogeneous but in a constant state of flux and that different individuals express their identities in different, multiple, and changing ways (Murphy-Shigematsu 2000: 214). It is also important to ensure our work is rooted in the Japanese social context, thereby insulating it against being too ethnocentric, abstract, or insular. Below, I illustrate how the examination of (i) the occurrence of terminology in the Japanese print media and (ii) population statistics can help to keep the notions of 'minority' and 'identity' in their appropriate social context.

Media Keywords

The keywords and phrases used (or not used) in the media give some indication of the kinds of minority/migrant related terms in popular linguistic currency, how they have changed over time, and how they differ to terms commonly used in academic writing. Table 1 uses the Factiva Database to show the number of times a particular keyword was found in Sankei Shimbun articles between 1997 and August 2008. The Sankei Shimbun is a conservative, right-leaning newspaper and was chosen because it offered the widest date range in Factiva. It is important to note that some terms do not exclusively refer to Japan; for example, the term nyūkokusha (entrant) can refer to people moving into any country and tabunka can (and in fact usually does) point to multicultural issues abroad. Other terms possess alternative meanings unrelated to migrants or minorities (such as nyūkamā which can also refer to those moving into the suburbs from the city). Nevertheless, the number of hits gives at least some indication of the (in)attention given to particular terms over time, as well as illustrating how global events can influence coverage of local issues. The commentary below the table illustrates how a careful analysis of keywords, including usage in context, can highlight the discrepancy between popular world-views and the current academic discourse.

Table 1: 'Minority' Keywords Appearing in Sankei Shimbun (Tokyo edition) 1997-2008
Note: This table is too large to include in the main text and will open in a new browser window.

Buraku typically refers to a place where Burakumin live but can (especially in Eastern Japan) refer simply to a small village or hamlet. The number of hits referring to Burakumin was very low. Another term, dōwa (literally social integration), is typically associated with Burakumin discrimination and equality issues; however, it is also commonly used as a company name (in the sense of people in harmony). For this reason, the dōwa search was limited to those terms directly related to the Burakumin and the ending of discrimination against Burakumin, namely: dōwa mondai (issues), dōwa kyōiku (education), dōwa taisaku (policy), and dōwa chiiki (areas). Hits can be seen falling off as related support groups and organisations have been wound up, subsidies and laws terminated, and Buraku related education broadened to a more general human rights education. Issues do occasionally make the news though, such as the 1999 controversy over dōwa kyōiku in Hiroshima and the 2006 scandals linking BLL representatives with organised crime in Osaka.

References to senjūmin (indigenous people), although referring to both Japanese and non-Japanese groups, nevertheless illustrate the relative amount of attention given to issues surrounding native people in the Japanese press. The year with the highest number of hits, 2000, was also the year a UN permanent forum on indigenous issues was established, although the number of hits for this year was also inflated by reporting on the coup in Fiji. References to Ainu also peaked around this period, perhaps reflecting the aftermath of the settlement of the Nibutani Dam case, legal recognition of Ainu indigenous status, and the subsequent Ainu Cultural Promotion Act (1997). The Japanese Diet's official recognition of the Ainu as an indigenous people in June 2008 did not appear to significantly boost the number of articles. References to the Ryūkyūs also peaked around 2000, reflecting attention surrounding the Kyushu-Okinawa G8 Summit of that year, although references to Ryūkyū(jin) or Uchi'nanchu were rare, suggesting lack of recognition by mainland Japanese of this group as a distinct ethnic group.

Zai'nichi kankoku jin (resident South Korean) was far more common than the more accurate expanded term zai'nichi kankoku/chōsenjin (resident Korean). Both terms garnered a number of hits around the start of the century, before trailing off. One reason for this may be that discussions on giving permanent residents local voting rights have largely fallen off the ruling party's political radar in recent years, although the main opposition party did present a policy discussion paper in the first half of 2008. Zai'nichi korian and three hyphenised terms which refer to naturalised resident Koreans (kankoku-kei nihonjin, koria-kei nihonjin, and korian-jyapaniizu) produced few hits, suggesting these progressive terms have yet to enter popular currency. There were no hits at all for the term 'oldcomer', although this is frequently found in the academic literature. 2004/2005 saw a brief resurgence in zai'nichi kankoku (chōsen) jin hits, perhaps reflecting the interest surrounding the supreme court ruling in the Chong Hyang Gyun case; nevertheless, the trend remained downwards, just as the numbers of Special Permanent Residents continued to fall (the number of General Permanent Residents overtook Special Permanent Residents in 2007).

In comparison to the way the term zai'nichi kankoku/chōsen jin tends to be limited to former colonial subjects and their descendants, the term zai'nichi gaikokujin generally refers to all and any foreigners living in Japan (nihon de kurasu gaikokujin), particularly those with legal permission to stay (i.e. holding a valid visa). Thus, the term zai'nichi chūgokujin refers to all Chinese residents in Japan, not just Chinese 'oldcomers' while the term zai'nichi beigun (not in the table) covers the US military presence. This contrasts with the term rai'nichi gaikokujin which describes temporary visitors such as tourists and business travellers. A similar term is nyūkokusha which refers to entrants (though this latter term includes zai'nichi gaikokujin who have re-entered). Nyūkokusha is obviously not limited to Japan and the high number of hits around 2001 reflects migration related issues in the news such as S11, Bird flu, and SARS. Some articles also referred to the term in the context of the introduction of fingerprinting at American airports in 2004. In Japan, the number of nyūkokusha has doubled since 1998 when there were just over 4.5 million entrants. The NPA (National Police Agency) mainly uses the rai'nichi gaikokujin category to present foreign crime data, although its definition of the term excludes permanent residents and the US military.

Hits for gaikokujin hanzai (foreign crime) increased as the number of arrests rose during the period 2001-2004, perhaps fuelled by controversial comments made by Tokyo Mayor Ishihara on illegal foreigners rioting in 2000, but hits have decreased with the decrease in foreign crime in recent years. Phrases associated with illegal aliens – fuhōtaizaisha (illegal residents), fuhōnyūkokusha (illegal entrants), and fuhōzanryūsha (overstayers) – rose for the years following S11, with countries around the world introducing harsher immigration controls, though have fallen off recently. The term fuhōtaizai – the most common term overall – received the most number of hits in 2003, the year the five-year plan to halve the number of illegals (fuhōtaizaisha o 5 nenkan de hangen) was announced and implemented. The term fuhōshūrōgaikokujin (illegal foreign workers) was rare (not in table), garnering only 8 hits between 1997 and 2008.

Turning to newcomers, the term 'newcomer' itself, like the term 'oldcomer', rarely appeared, illustrating again how terms common in the academic literature are often absent in popular discourse. References to (arguably) the first 'newcomers' in Japan – refugees (nanmin) – closely follow global trends. Numbers of refugees worldwide peaked in 2001 and have fallen by one third since. Japan has traditionally been reluctant to grant asylum to refugees, and although conditions for recognition were ostensibly relaxed in April 2004, in 2007 only 41 individuals were awarded refugee status. However, there was a slight increase in permanent immigration on humanitarian grounds to 231 in 2005 (OECD 2008: 258). The increase in hits in 2007 reflects the introduction of the neologism nettokafe nanmin (internet café refugee) rather than any growing awareness of the plight of asylum seekers.

There were few hits for Shutsunyukoku oyobi Nanminnintei Hō (often abbreviated to nyūkanhō), known in English as The Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act. This is surprising given the number of revisions that have been made to the Act over this period, the most recent being the 2006 revisions to fingerprint and photograph all foreign entrants (except Special Permanent Residents). Another key amendment was made in 2005 when stronger measures against human trafficking were introduced following a damning US report the previous year. Many of the criticisms of the Japanese system related to the kōgyō biza (entertainers' visa) which was strongly linked to the sex industry. However, there were only three hits containing this keyword the year the US report was released (2004); references thereafter returned to more or less zero. References to kokusai kekkon fluctuated but remained very low, somewhat surprising considering that 1 in 16 marriages were 'international' marriages in 2006 (MHLW 2006).

The first visible 'newcomers' to Japan were the gaikokujin rōdōsha (foreign workers) from the mid-1980s; thereafter, discussions on the pros and cons of bringing in more foreign labour has continued as Japan's population rapidly ages. References have remained fairly constant during this period, though they did jump slightly in 2000 following publication of a 2000 U.N. report which suggested that a huge increase in migration is the only way for Japan to support a rapidly aging population. One of the largest sources of foreign labour are the nikkeijin, a term which usually refers to Japanese return-migrants and their descendants, particularly from burajiru (Brazil). Strictly speaking the term nikkeijin can refer to Japanese emigrants both inside and outside Japan. For example, the term was in the news in 2004 when then Prime Minister Koizumi visited nikkeijin in Brazil. In recent years, reporting on nikkeijin living in Japan has taken a negative slant, particularly following the murder of an elementary schoolgirl in Hiroshima in 2005. The only other group of legal but unskilled or semi-skilled foreign labourers are kenshūsei (trainees) who have tended to receive sporadic attention in the media, usually when stories of abuse have surfaced.

The lack of the keyword tan'itsu minzoku (homogenous race) is rather surprising given that refuting the 'myth of the homogenous nation' has served as the motivation for much of the academic literature on minorities in Japan in the past ten years or so. Since then Prime Minister Nakasone's infamous use of the term in 1986, a few politicians have indeed used the term, including then Foreign Minister Tanaka in 2001 and then Education Minister Ibuki in 2007. Yet individuals have tended to qualify their announcements after the fact by noting that they only meant that Japan was relatively homogeneous. Among the hits that were found, a number were rebuttals of the tan'itsu minzoku ideology such as Tokyo Mayor Ishihara's series of Nihonyo articles. The Japanese terms most closely associated with the 'multicultural Japan' movement that now dominates the academic literature – tabunka (multicultural) and kyōsei shakai (co-existent society) – are similarly scarce in the press. References to multiculturalism that did occur typically referred to Australia or Canada while kyōsei tended to point not to peaceful co-existence of Japanese and non-Japanese, but to co-existence with other countries, the environment, and even pets. Moreover, the jump in the number of hits in 2007 can be traced to the catchphrase 'autonomy and living together' (jiritsu to kyōsei) which the then Prime Minister Fukuda promoted as a political ideal in a policy speech in September of that year.

One final feature of the labels used to describe 'minorities' in Japan is the lack of the term migrant (imin) in popular and official discourse. As we have seen, there are 'oldcomer' zai'nichi and 'newcomer' refugees (nanmin), 'entertainers', 'brides' (hanayomesan), illegal aliens (fuhōnyūkokusha/fuhōtaizaisha), foreign labourers (gaikokujin rōdōsha), Nikkeijin 'returnees', and trainees (kenshūsei). The lack of vocabulary describing any of these stages as 'migration' illustrates how post-war 'migration' has tended to be seen as a temporary phenomenon in Japan. As the table illustrates, foreigners coming to Japan are rai'nichi (visitors), nyūkokusha (entrants), or zai'nichi (temporary residents) whose presence is regulated by the Nyūkoku Kanri Kyoku (Entry Control Bureau).

The most radical plan to transform the way Japan frames migration came in June 2008 when a group of eighty lawmakers headed by former LDP Secretary General Nakagawa proposed accepting ten million immigrants in the next fifty years and turning Japan into a multicultural nation (taminzoku kyōsei kokka) with an immigration agency (iminchō) and immigration law (iminhō) that provides a pathway to citizenship for migrants and their families. As the Japan Times points out, this might be the first time that the government has used the word 'immigrant' in this context (Japan Times 2008a). However, any kind of paradigm shift is unlikely any time soon. The phrase that one hears most often in response to such proposals is the need for more public/national debate (kokuminteki giron). Given the increasingly negative attitudes towards migration and multiculturalism around the world since S11, prospects for the emergence of a new national[12] discourse on migration in Japan – and for the plans of Nakagawa and similar others[13] – remain slim (Burgess 2007).

Population Statistics

Just as an examination of media keywords highlights how the discourse in the academic literature tends not to reflect the notions of 'minority' and 'identity' in their social context in Japan, an analysis of population data also provides an antidote to a narrow world-view of Japan. Inclusion of international comparative data would, in this respect, make the statistics even more useful (Burgess 2007: Table 1). Because of the difficulties already seen (footnotes 5, 6, and 8) in calculating numbers of indigenous and other minorities in Japan, Table 2 focuses on official government immigration statistics. Nevertheless, even these deserve closer scrutiny than allowed for here: those individuals who are labeled as 'non-permanent' or 'illegal', for example, may actually be circular migrants with strong roots in Japan, including Japanese wives and children (Douglass and Roberts 2000b:4). Nevertheless, the commentary below does highlight some of the pertinent issues relating to the some of the largest 'minorities' in Japan today and illustrate the importance of rooting our work in concrete data.

Table 2: Japanese and non-Japanese Populations in Japan




(unless otherwise specified)




Total Population (October 1st) *





Naturalisations (kikakyokasha)





Of which re-entrants (sai-nyūkokusha):









Foreign Labour Force (OECD est.)** (gaikokujin rōdōshasū)

605,000 (2005)




(gaikokujin tōrokusha)
(Dec. 31st)





Permanent Residents (eijūsha)





Special Permanent Residents (tokubetsu eijūsha)





General Permanent Residents (ippan eijūsha)





Non Permanent Residents (hi'eijūsha)





Of which the 5 largest groups are:        
1. Long-Term Resident (teijūsha)





2. Spouse of Japanese national etc (nihonjin no haigūsha nado)





3. Foreign student (ryūgakusei)





4. Dependent (kazoku taizai)





5. Trainee (kenshūsei)





11. Entertainer (kōgyō)





ILLEGAL FOREIGN RESIDENTS (fuhōtaizaisha) (estimate) ***





Consisting of…        
Visa overstayers (fuhōzanryūsha) (official estimate) (Jan. 1st)




(May 1st)

Total Illegal entrants (fuhōnyūkokusha) + illegal landers (fuhōjōrikusha) (estimate)***





Violations of the Immigration Control Act (nyūkanhō'ihansha) (Jan-Dec.)





Of which: overstay (fuhōzanryū)





illegal entry (fuhōnyūkoku) + illegal landing (fuhōjōriku)





illegal/criminal activity + misc. (shikakugai katsudō, sono ta)





Including illegal foreign workers (fuhōshūrōgaikokujin)





Source: Unless otherwise stated, all data is from the Ministry of Justice and the Immigration Bureau of Japan. Legal foreign resident data for 1992 is from Yamasaki (2006: 24).
* The total population figure includes legal foreign residents and is rounded to the nearest thousand. Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Statistics Bureau, Nihon Tōkei Nenkan 2008 (estimate for 2007).
** The foreign labour force estimate includes student part-time workers and illegal workers but excludes Permanent Residents. Figures (in thousands) are from the annual OECD Trends in International Migration (Sopemi), which became International Migration Outlook (Sopemi) from the 2006 edition.
***Author's calculation. Following Komai (2001: 24), the total number of illegal entrants/landers is calculated by generalising from the ratio of overstay to illegal entry/landing for the relevant year. This author estimate added to the official estimate for visa overstayers gives the total estimate for illegal foreign residents.
: As Komai (2001: 20) points out, alien registration does not apply for diplomats and American military personnel and their families. These groups are therefore not included in the table. Because some municipalities provide registration to 'illegal' foreigners – estimated at 9,297 by Komai (2001: 23) for 1998/1999 – there is the possibility that some individuals are 'double counted'.

The first thing to note about Japanese and non-Japanese populations in general is that while the total population peaked in 2005, and has remained broadly flat since, the non-Japanese population has continued to grow. The percentage of legal foreign residents stood at 1.69% of the total population in 2007, compared to just over 1% in 1992. Although the naturalisation process has reportedly become simpler in recent years, naturalisations are still limited, averaging around 15,000 a year, the majority Korean nationals. The estimate of 605,000 for the foreign labour force – a figure that also includes illegal aliens and part-time workers – shows that, contrary to conventional stereotypes, not all foreigners are gaikokujin rōdōsha who come to Japan to work. Indeed, the role of foreign labour in Japan remains negligible, comprising perhaps less than 1 per cent of the total workforce and falling (OECD 2008: 258). Although there has been an emphasis in recent years on bringing in more skilled workers – IT specialists, engineers, nurses, and caregivers – the dominant discourse has remained one of gaikokujin rōdōsha (foreign workers who will return home) rather than imin (migrants who might settle and stay). As a result, relatively few skilled workers come to Japan and even fewer choose (or are able) to remain.

Legal foreign entrants have continued to grow exponentially, with the government's 'Yōkoso Japan' campaign goal of 10 million visitors by 2010 close to becoming reality. An easing of tourist visa restrictions has seen a rise in Chinese and, particularly, South Korean tourists in recent years. As for legal foreign residents, Chinese and Koreans comprised the top two nationalities here too, although the number of Chinese overtook the numbers of Koreans for the first time in 2007. In terms of visa categories (zairyūshikaku), the key division used by the Ministry of Justice is not between 'oldcomer' and 'newcomer' but between eijūsha (Permanent Residents) and hi'eijūsha (Non-Permanent Residents). The division is between those visa categories which do not require extension and those that are valid for designated time periods. The overall trend has seen Permanent Residents increasing more slowly than Non-Permanent Residents: in 1992, Permanent Residents made up almost 50 per cent of the total number of legal foreign residents compared with 40 per cent in 2007. However, recent years have witnessed a reversal of this trend: between 2001 and 2007 numbers of Permanent Residents grew faster than Non-Permanent Residents, perhaps reflecting the fact that Permanent Residence has become easier to acquire.

Eijūsha consist of both Special (tokubetsu) and General (ippan) Permanent Residents. Special Permanent Residents – a category dominated by 'oldcomer' Korean residents (zai'nichi kankoku/chōsen jin) – have traditionally outnumbered General ones, but numbers of the latter have increased significantly in recent years and made up the majority of eijūsha for the first time in 2007. As older Korean residents die and naturalisations and inter-marriage continue, the political significance and importance of oldcomers is likely to further diminish. For example, discussions on voting rights, which once came very close to becoming law, appear to have fallen off the political agenda. Meanwhile, an increasing number of zai'nichi argue that it is possible to naturalise and maintain pride in their Korean heritage through hyphenated labels such as Kankoku-kei Nihonjin (Korean-Japanese) (Hester 2008).

In 2007, the largest group of hi'eijūsha were Long-Term Residents, a visa category dominated by Nikkeijin, Japanese return migrants and their descendants. Long-term resident visa holders have increased four-fold since 1990 when entry and work restrictions for this group were eased in an amendment to the Nyūkanhō, although numbers fell for the first time in 2007. Indeed, there are signs that the Nikkeijin 'experiment' – opening the door to Japanese blood descendants who, it was thought, would assimilate relatively easily – has been deemed a failure in government circles. In January 2008, Foreign Minister Komura proposed adding a Japanese-language requirement for long-term foreign residents,[14] a requirement which while potentially relaxing conditions of entry and stay for skilled foreign workers has also been interpreted as a tool for repatriating 'non-assimilating' foreigners, particularly Nikkeijin, by blocking visa extensions. Researchers who expressed doubt as to how long the tolerance and veneer of politeness initially shown towards 'the country's newest ethnic minority' could be sustained look like being proved right (Tsuda 1998; 2003; 2008).

The second biggest group of hi'eijūsha were (mostly female) spouses of Japanese, a group who were overtaken by teijūsha in 2005 and whose numbers fell in 2007, perhaps reflecting the fact that increasing numbers of spouses are applying for and receiving General Permanent Residence. Other significant hi'eijūsha categories include foreign students, dependents (spouses or children of foreign residents), and trainees. Foreign students and trainees in particular have risen rapidly in recent years. While numbers of trainees will likely flatten out or even fall off in the future as the government addresses well publicised abuses of the trainee system, numbers of foreign students should continue to increase: in January 2008 a plan was announced to increase the number of foreign students studying in Japan to 300,000 by 2020. Numbers of 'entertainer' visas, which at their peak in 2004 were the 5th most common non-permanent visa, have fallen rapidly since 2005 when the government introduced stronger measures against human trafficking. The fall in 'entertainers', most of whom are female, does not as yet appear to have affected the gender balance: female legal foreign residents still outnumber their male counterparts, as they have done since the mid-1990s, although entrants and overstayers show the opposite pattern.

Estimates for illegal foreign residents have steadily dropped since their peak around 1993. This no doubt in part reflects the economic downturn of the 'lost decade' that was the 1990s. It is also reflects an increasingly tough stance towards overstayers by immigration and police officials starting with the Revised Immigration Control Law of 1990. The last few years in particular have seen further significant decreases, following, for example, 2001 amendments to facilitate deportation, the campaign to halve the number of illegals in Tokyo starting in 2003, the implementation of a pre-clearance system in 2005, and stricter entry procedures at airports from 2007. Although the number of violations of the Immigration Control Act have remained fairly constant over the past ten years, this is unlikely to continue as the targeted population continues to shrink. Indeed, the estimated number of overstayers for January 1st 2008 was 12.5% down on the previous year and half the number of May 1st 1993. In other words, the growing resources used to combat 'irregular' migration, fuelled by fear of 'foreign crime', will likely result in slowly diminishing returns statistically in the coming years.


In their (1986) work, Mouer and Sugimoto identify two competing images of Japanese society: the 'great tradition' of 'homogenous Japan' and the 'little traditions' that might today correspond to the label 'multicultural Japan'. Despite claims that the former 'continues to be both dominant and pervasive' (Sugimoto 1997: ix) in writings on Japan, twenty years on it is not too much to say that the dominant academic discourse on Japan is not of 'homogeneous Japan' but of 'multicultural Japan'. Just as a discourse makes it possible to construct a topic in a certain way, it also limits the other ways in which the topic can be constructed (Hall 1992: 292/3). Moreover, because a discourse comes to comprise the 'common-sense' or 'correct' view of a topic, its basic assumptions are rarely questioned, its terms rarely defined, and alternative discourses rarely considered.

This paper attempted to trace the way a particular system of knowledge – a world-view – has come to dominate academic writings on Japan at the expense of others. It also attempted to define, critically examine, and deconstruct the key terms and concepts – such as 'minority' – which characterise this framework. In the final part of the paper, I offered two practical suggestions of possible ways to treat diversity, multiculturalism, and minorities in Japan. Looking at the way related emic keywords are used in popular media discourse was presented as one concrete strategy that may be used to remind us that the dominant academic discourse is merely one of many possible narratives on Japan. Table 1, together with the accompanying commentary on related keywords used in one popular Japanese newspaper over a period of more than ten years, illustrated this strategy. This was particularly useful in highlighting the contrast between the vocabulary used by academics and those found in everyday currency, in this case by the popular press. These media keywords also served as a reminder of the need to consider Japan in international context. The second suggested strategy or antidote to a narrow world-view of Japan was the use of up-to-date statistical data. Table 2 contained extensive data on numbers of non-Japanese populations in Japan, numbers which reveal, for example, that, contrary to the stance taken by many academics, the role of foreign labour in Japan remains negligible and is unlikely to increase significantly anytime soon.

In identifying competing views of Japanese society, Mouer and Sugimoto originally intended a pluralistic multi-dimensional view of Japan that combined various complimentary models. However, the dichotomising that is a characteristic feature of much contemporary scholarship has seen instead the emergence of one master discourse at the expense of others. A major failing of this discourse is the adoption of a fixed and singular view of identity which locks individuals into particular – and unchanging – (ethnic) categories. If we are to return to the original ideal, it may be useful to spend less time celebrating diversity in Japan and more in celebrating diversity both between individuals and within the academic world itself.

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[1] Tokyo Mayor Ishihara Shintaro tends to be a favourite straw man when it comes to criticising Japanese politicians' right-wing views on Japan. However, even Ishihara has noted on numerous occasions that the tan'itsu minzoku idea represents a mistaken understanding of history and that the roots of the Japanese population are extremely varied (Ishihara 2008).

[2] Graburn and Ertl (2008: 1) make it clear that 'new Japan' in the title of their book is prescriptive as well as descriptive. The first chapter in Japan's Diversity Dilemmas (Lee, Murphy-Shigematsu, and Befu 2006) provides anther good illustration. There, Befu (2006:7), argues that it is the nihonjinron assumption that Japan should (his italics) remain mono-ethnic and culturally homogeneous that lies behind discriminatory practices against foreigners. It is therefore ironic that much of his chapter details an equally prescriptive premise of what he personally thinks Japan should be like. See also Komai (2001: chapter 8).

[3] Examples of mathematical 'minorities' in power include whites in 1980s South Africa and men in most societies. Indeed, ruling elites tend to come from numerically small classes or families. As Barton (1967: 3) notes, statistical minorities can become sociological majorities because of weapons, organizational skill, resources, or literacy. The issue of power, rather than of being a numerical 'minority', is central here. In Japan, Tokyo University graduates, zai'nichi TV celebrities, and French-Brazilian-Lebanese CEOs are all mathematical 'minorities' but they can and often do exert a significant degree of influence on Japanese society. Similarly, the non-Japanese university lecturers in Japan may well be a 'minority', but by writing for national newspapers, doing interviews for radio stations, and making submissions to government panels they contribute to the shaping of the social stock of knowledge. In contrast to the mountain of work on minority (i.e powerless) groups, one wonders why powerful but numerically small groups – such as so-called 'ex-pats' (Hamada 2008) – have received so little attention in the Japanese Studies literature.

[4] Fukuoka (1993: 60) argues that zai'nichi are forever branded as 'marginal' and unable to escape from the 'magnetic field' of minority status even if they wish to. 'As they move through Japanese society', he (1993: 60) states, 'they will always have within them some awareness of being different.' This appears to deny the fact that group affiliation is based on perception and that perceptions can change over time.

[5] The population of Okinawa Prefecture was 1.368 million in 2007; sizable migrant Ryūkyū diasporas can also be found in mainland Japan (300,000) and abroad (300,000) in countries like Hawaii. In a Ryukyu Shimbun (2002) survey, 85 per cent of over 20s said they felt pride at being uchi'naanchu. The term is often contrasted with Yamatunchu (Japanese) suggesting a distinct ethnic and even national identity. However, in a Okinawa Times (2006) survey, around 60 per cent said Okinawa shouldn't become independent, suggesting acceptance of a dual Okinawan/Japanese identity.

[6] Amos (2007: 156) notes that only half of current Buraku residents claim 'buraku ancestral connections'. Since Burakumin identity is tied to place, as people gradually move out of communities (and newcomers move in), identification as Burakumin – and the 'outcaste' status of communities themselves – will inevitably weaken. As Neary (1997: 76-77) notes, discrimination and perceptions of privilege, not to mention financial scandals, will continue to weaken the BLL. This can only increase the distance between the organisation and the individuals it claims to represent.

[7] It is interesting to note that Roberts's (1999: 403) main criticism of Weiner's Japan's Minorities was that it devoted little space to individual voice.

[8] Although official figures put the number of Ainu at around 24,000, this comprises only people in Hokkaido who officially identify themselves as Ainu. Other estimates give figures as high as 200,000, though in reality accurate national figures do not exist. Compiling such figures is complicated by the fact that, despite Diet recognition, the government has avoided a clear definition of 'indigenous' and distanced itself from UN definitions (Fukuda 2008). In Australia, where aboriginality is clearly defined as a combination of self and community identification, numbers of aborigines have increased significantly in recent years. This is not because of a sudden rise in the birth rate. Rather, positive legal and government steps have created a climate that encourages individuals to identify themselves as aboriginal. This has led to controversy at times, as when individuals of non-aboriginal appearance claim aboriginal identity in order to secure certain benefits.

[9] The dangers of limiting individual autonomy and personal choice by dictating what identity people should choose is well illustrated by Hester (2000) (in the case of ethnic Koreans), Davis (2000) (in the case of Burakumin), and Okubo (2008) (in the case of 'newcomer' children).

[10] Valentine (1990: 52) does qualify this by saying this is not true of those marginals 'who are absolutely defined as below the mainstream and excluded from its particular hierarchies'. However, it is not clear what kind of people might constitute 'absolute marginals' and why changes in power relations would have absolutely no effect on their marginality.

[11] This friction can be clearly seen in Australia, when recent comments from the (then) Governor General that the vast majority of Aborigines were 'living integrated normal Australian lives' led to criticism from some Aboriginal leaders that he was denying 'the uniqueness of who the indigenous people are'(The Age 2008).

[12] This is not to deny that the existence of alternative discourses operating at the regional level, where many local governments, NGOs, and citizens work tirelessly to help and support non-Japanese living in Japan (Pak 2000).

[13] Ishihara (2008) is another prominent politician who argues that Japan needs a 'proper' immigration policy that goes beyond seeing migrants as simply a temporary source of labour.

[14] Three months later, the government announced plans for a tenfold increase in Japanese language centers abroad (Japan Times 2008b).

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About the Author

Chris Burgess taught English at Kitakyushu University in Japan for five years before moving to Australia to start a PhD at Monash University, Melbourne, in April 2000. His thesis, entitled '(Re)Constructing Identities: International Marriage Migrants as Potential Agents of Social Change in a Rapidly Globalising Japan', was passed in March 2004. He is currently Associate Professor at Tsuda College, Tokyo, where he teaches Japanese Studies and Australian Studies. His research focuses on migration, globalisation, and identity in contemporary Japan.

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Copyright: Chris Burgess
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