The Advent of Liberal Democratic Multiculturalism?

A Case Study of Multicultural Coexistence Policies in Japan

Stephen Robert Nagy, Department of Japanese Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong [About | Email]

Volume 15, Issue 1 (Article 3 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 19 April 2015.


In March 2006, the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) released a report called the “Research Report on the Promotion of Multicultural Coexistence.” Targeted primarily at newcomers, but also at Japanese citizens, its aim was to implement a series of measures under the rubric of multicultural coexistence that would minimise intercultural friction between the two groups and facilitate the lives of foreign residents living in Japan. Questions remain though as to what exactly multicultural coexistence is, and how it differs from multiculturalism as seen in the countries most experienced in multiculturalism such as Australia, Canada, and the United States. The aim of this paper is to examine Japanese multicultural coexistence by employing liberal democratic multiculturalism as a yardstick. This paper will locate Japan’s multicultural coexistence policy within the liberal democratic multiculturalism debate and examine whether or not Japanese multicultural coexistence adheres to the principles and ideals of the liberal democratic multiculturalism tradition.

Keywords: Japan, multicultural coexistence, multiculturalism, migrants.


Multicultural coexistence (tabunka kyōsei in Japanese) has been interpreted in many different ways in Japan. For instance, Chapman (2006) traces the use of coexistence to the 1970s, when Japan attempted to create a space for different groups, particularly women and the disabled, to live together harmoniously (p. 98). He argues that coexistence became a rubric employed by Zainichi Korean old-comers to advocate the coexistence of various ethnic groups living together. It also served as a catchphrase of sorts, laying the groundwork for the future direction of the Zainichi and other marginal groups in Japan (Chapman 2006, p. 90).

This utilitarian approach asserted by Chapman contrasts with scholars such as Burgess (2004), who argue that multicultural coexistence refers to the “process of othering not by exclusion, but by inclusion” (p. 6). For Burgess, this Japanese-centred view marks the advent of multicultural coexistence as another means of juxtaposing ethnic Japanese and non-ethnic Japanese.

Although not specifically referring to a policy-based approach to “othering by inclusion,” Burgess’ ideas resonate well with Aiden (2011) in his discussions of central and local government ideas about multicultural coexistence. Aiden suggests that the Japanese central and local governments employ a “functional flexible” approach to describe everything the state is doing or intends to do using the rubric of multicultural coexistence, while not clearly addressing the issues of inclusion of migrants (p. 229). In this sense, at the policy level we see collusion of the central and local governments in Japan in terms of using the umbrella term of multicultural coexistence as a policy approach that includes many objectives without clear guidelines, implementation tools, or connections with immigration.

There is no unanimous agreement about what multicultural coexistence is; however, there seems to be a general agreement as to when the momentum for multicultural coexistence began. By way of example, Takezawa (2008) argues that the emergence of multicultural coexistence came hand-in-hand with new concepts of local community and multicultural coexistence in the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake (pp. 32-33). Takezawa’s study on Kobe demonstrates that residents themselves, both ethnic Japanese and non-Japanese, were defining the views of the locality.

While Takezawa pinpoints the emergence of multicultural coexistence to the identity co-creation in the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, Yamawaki (1993a, 1993b) traces the earliest uses of the word tabunka kyōsei to the 12 January 1993 edition of the Mainichi Shimbun and its article entitled “Shimin reberu no kaigai kyōryoku o kangaeru kokusai fōramu” (International forum on examining citizen-level overseas cooperation), and another article in the same year entitled “Ōhin chiku no machizukuri ni jūmin soshiki ga puran sakusei” (Ohin neighbourhood citizen organisation creates neighbourhood improvement plan) that was published on 17 December in the same paper. The forum links coexistence to citizen-level international cooperation in which all residents, regardless of nationality, engage in international cooperation. The latter highlights how all residents are stakeholders in neighbourhood improvement plans. Yamawaki (2002) concludes that multicultural coexistence is “where people of different nationalities or ethnicities mutually accept each other’s culture, creating dialogue and living alongside one another” (p. 8).

In agreement with Takezawa and Yamawaki, many researchers claim that the “catchword” of multicultural coexistence surfaced in the early nineties, particularly in the Kansai area of Japan (Miyajima 2003, pp. 4-5). In the crucible of the Kansai area, multicultural coexistence activities blended the troika of social integration activities, anti-discrimination initiatives, and mutual cultural understanding activities to mitigate the challenges faced by Japanese vis-à-vis foreign residents, decrease intercultural friction, and improve the social integration of foreign residents(Menju 2003; Miyajima 2003, pp. 4-5).

Multicultural coexistence, in contrast to the more widely recognised multiculturalism, has been adopted by numerous local governments in Japan such as Tachikawa City, Adachi Ward, and Shinjuku Ward in Tokyo, and by the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC). It is a pragmatic administrative effort to mitigate the growing real and perceived stresses caused by a growing number of foreign residents choosing to stay in Japan for extended periods of time or obtaining permanent residency. These problems are related to the current lack of immigration discourse, pressure to fulfill international standards to protect human rights, and lastly the tendency in Japan to “exclude” “foreigners.” The March 2006 MIC report entitled “Tabunka kyōsei no suishin ni kansuru kenkyūkai hōkokusho” (Research Report on the Promotion of Multicultural Coexistence) is the incarnation of a series of policy proposals aimed at the integration of foreign residents into Japanese society. Other recent examples include the Cabinet Office’s (2012) “Portal site on policies for foreign residents,” the guidelines on teaching Japanese to foreign residents drafted by the Agency for Cultural Affairs (ACA) (2012), and the Hamamatsu Declaration of October 2001 (Arudou 2001). Their views on multicultural coexistence are not uniform, but they do share similar objectives in terms of finding ways for foreign residents, particularly newcomers, to integrate into and adapt to Japanese society.

Questions remain though as to what exactly multicultural coexistence is, and how it differs from multiculturalism as seen in the countries most experienced in multiculturalism such as Australia, Canada,and the United States. Whereas the aforementioned countries that practice multiculturalism view it as a part of immigration, a point on the road to citizenship, or a mid-point in the integration process (Kymlicka 2003, pp. 202-204), in Japan’s multicultural coexistence discourse, immigration is a peripheral and distant debate at best, being neither a road to citizenship nor a path to naturalisation or immigration.

The aim of this paper is to examine Japanese multicultural coexistence by employing liberal democratic multiculturalism as a yardstick. This paper hopes to locate Japan’s multicultural coexistence policy within the liberal democratic multiculturalism debate. It will employ the March 2006 MIC “Research Report on the Promotion of Multicultural Coexistence” to examine whether or not the policies espoused by this plan adhere to the principles of the liberal democratic multiculturalism tradition.

The author recognises that no liberal democratic country that practices multiculturalism is completely meeting the ideals proposed by liberal democratic multiculturalism. That being said, liberal democratic multiculturalism does provide useful metrics better to understand Japanese multicultural coexistence. Moreover, we need to acknowledge that there has been criticism of the viability of multiculturalism in the U.K., France, and Germany. This criticism needs to be placed in its appropriate social and political context. In each case, criticism of multiculturalism does not necessarily refer to an outright rejection of their particular version of multiculturalism. Rather, it could be argued that multiculturalism as practiced in each of these countries may not be the best model of integration for certain minority groups.

This paper will be divided into three sections. The first section examines the debate that exists between multiculturalism and liberal democratic principles to provide a theoretical background for examining multicultural coexistence. The second section introduces the MIC (2006) “Research Report on the Promotion of Multicultural Coexistence.” Lastly, the third section conducts an analysis of Japanese multicultural coexistence using multiculturalism and liberal democratic principles. The results of this analysis will indicate whether or not Japanese multicultural coexistence is emblematic of liberal democratic principles.

Liberal democratic multiculturalism discourse

Egalitarian interpretations of liberal democratic principles affect how scholars conceptualise ideas like multiculturalism and subsequently our interpretation of multicultural coexistence. This diversity stems from the varying degrees of support for the prioritisation of individual rights in the liberal democratic debate. In this debate, there exists a continuum of interpretations regarding the extremes of liberal democratic principles, which manifest themselves as the two poles of communitarianism and individualism.1

Liberal democratic multiculturalism as equal opportunity

On the one hand, Brian Barry, author of Culture and Equality (2001),exemplifies one end of the spectrum in the liberal democratic multiculturalism debate. He interprets liberalism as having equal treatment or opportunity among its salient features (pp. 32-40, 91-92, 316). The central thrust of his argument interprets liberalism in the classical sense, that is, as the “classical idea of liberal citizenship” and the egalitarian “demands of social and economic citizenship” that define egalitarian liberalism (Freeman 2002, pp. 18-19).In this sense, Barry’s (2001) supposition with regard to a liberal democracy is that a liberal democratic society with liberalism as its founding principle strives to establish judicial equality (pp. 7-8). In other words, liberalism from this point of view is a judicial system that is blind to colour, ethnicity, race, or religious affiliation, a system in which all citizens or residents are treated equally under the law.

Barry’s opposition to a multiculturalism that advocates exceptions for minority groups is based on his interpretation of liberal democratic principles. He argues that multiculturalism can create exceptionalism, and as a result can provide unequal access or privileges to members of the same society with different cultural, ethnic, or religious backgrounds. This inequality of exceptionalism consequently is contrary to Barry’s interpretation of liberalism, which he interprets as judicial equality.  

In Barry’s arguments against multiculturalism, he cites numerous examples in which a minority group has compelled the state/ local government to create “exceptions” to laws grounded in the argument of rights to culture. For example, Sikhs in Canada argued successfully for their religious headdress (turban) to be worn in lieu of the traditional Canadian RCMP Stetton on the grounds of religious expression and cultural protection (Barry 2001, pp. 44-50;Kymlicka 2001, pp. 163-165). This case illustrates how minority cultural groups can turn laws espousing multiculturalism upside-down to create a kind of extraterritorial “exceptionalism,” in which groups of citizens are exempt from laws and obligations based on cultural, ethnic, or religious grounds.

Barry’s view of liberal democratic principles and their complementary nature with multiculturalism is that liberal democratic principles provide all who are subject to them with equal opportunity. Laws do not proactively discriminate, admonish, or prevent opportunity because they are uniform and transparent and all are subject to them. Securing equal opportunity ensures that all adherents to liberal democratic law can, if they choose, receive equal and fair treatment.

Barry’s interpretation of the appropriate balance between liberal democratic principles and multiculturalism is one that emphasises equal opportunity. His argument against multiculturalism policies stresses that current multiculturalism initiatives overenthusiastically promote the “recognition of differences” (Taylor 1994) and, as a result, do not secure equal opportunity. Rather, what develops is an unequal system that gives certain rights and privileges to particular residents based on the premise that their cultural affiliation requires them to be immune or exempt from certain legal obligations.

Liberal democratic multiculturalism as equal outcome

In contrast to Barry’s more pessimistic interpretation with regard to the compatibility of multiculturalism with liberal democratic principles, Kymlicka (2005)sees liberal democratic principles and multiculturalism as mutually compatible (p. 35).

In a similar vein to Christian Joppke (2004), Kymlicka (2005) traces modern liberal multiculturalism’s roots to the nexus of the post-WWII civil rights movements. According to Kymlicka (2005), the realisation of civil rights for all racial groups provides the impetus to extol liberal values in a broader context, and to encompass a reservoir of rights for minority groups, including those for women, homosexuals, and cultural minorities that, in most cases, are the largest contingent of immigrant communities (pp. 31-36).

In this view of liberal democratic multiculturalism, multiculturalism manifests itself as a political ideology chiseled out of the marble of the civil rights movement. Kymlicka espouses a liberalism that ensures the rights of all cultural, ethnic, religious, and racial groups. He argues that a legal framework that is transparent and that guarantees and protects all citizens and residents from discrimination based on the aforementioned categories epitomises an inclusive liberal society.

We also see that Kymlicka’s views contrast with those of scholars such as Barry, who argue that multiculturalism and liberalism are ultimately incompatible; this collision of ideologies reaches a boiling point when the minority groups attempt fully to manifest their cultural, ethnic, religious, and other practices that create obstacles to integration of the minority groups into the majority group of the host society.

Kymlicka stresses that flexibility with regard to legal interpretations of laws that effect newcomers are not representative of exceptionalism, whereas Barry sees exceptions to laws as a fundamental flaw in multiculturalism policy. For Kymlicka (2001), “they are intended to make it easier for members of immigrant groups to participate within mainstream institutions of the existing society” (p. 165) and consequently facilitate the integration process.

This interpretation of multiculturalism policies echoes other scholars such as Kelly (2002, pp. 63-74), Miller (2002) and Young (1990, pp. 15-38), who assert that liberal democratic multiculturalism should not only be manifested as equal opportunity, but also as equal outcome. Where Kelly (2002) differs from Young, however, is in shifting the emphasis of Young’s argument from strict proportionality to an argument favoring “an egalitarian ethnos or broad social morality that combines both outcome and opportunity” (p. 76). Miller (2002), on the other hand, inserts the variables of “responsibility for cultural commitment” and how culture can affect one’s ability to realise equal opportunity by imposing “heavy costs” on the individual (pp. 52-55).

Miller, Kelly, Kymlicka, and Young all have subtle differences in their interpretations of multiculturalism and its place among liberal democratic principles. They do agree that solely relying on judicial equality to ensure equal opportunity does not take into account the essential and integral link between culture and identity. This includes how the relationship affects the ability of minorities to realise equal opportunity, even if it is legally entitled to them. What they argue for is stronger adherence and a balance for not only equal opportunity, but also equal outcome.

Equal outcome takes into account the inevitable influence of cultural roots and identity. It includes their impact on choices available in liberal democracies espousing multiculturalism. In many cases, minority groups, which could include citizens, denizens, or legally residing foreign residents, may have to make the choice of forgoing their cultural identity in order to be allowed to integrate into the mainstream society. If this is indeed the case, then minority groups are not, in fact, enjoying the same freedoms as their majority compatriots or fellow residents; rather, they are being forced to choose between abiding by and maintaining the integrity of their mother cultures, or giving up the fundamental obligations to their mother cultures in order to realise equal opportunity.

Kelly, Miller, and Young all argue that the equal outcome style of liberal democratic multiculturalism creates flexibility in how laws are interpreted to manage the challenges of avoiding marginalization of minority cultures and groups by the mainstream majority. At the same time, these laws ensure that minority cultures and groups are not receiving extraordinary or special treatment compared to other citizens or residents. Liberal democratic multiculturalism policy that is embedded within this balance ensures that all citizens and residents can realise equal opportunity through the support of equal outcome.

Liberal democratic multiculturalism as a blending of equal opportunity and outcome

Kelly, Miller, and Young stress that relying on equal opportunity secured through the judicial system is first, at a legal level, inadequate to deal with the multifarious and complex peculiarities of today’s multicultural societies. Flexibility and some freedom to interpret law to accommodate the plethora of diversity that exists in multicultural societies are logical from the standpoint of ensuring that all residents and citizens can be mobilised for the benefit of the nation as a whole. In this sense, I am echoing the rationale used by the Australian government’s advocacy of multiculturalism in its 1989 National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia. Specifically, the Australian government at the time based their support for multiculturalism on three premises: the right to cultural identity, the right to social justice, and the need for economic efficiency that involved the effective development and utilisation of the talents and skills of all Australians (National Multicultural Advisory Council 1995; Inglis 1996, pp. 44-45). Effectively, the Australian government argued that all Australians would gain economic benefits through recognition of the human capacity of everyone, which included cultural, professional, and skill-based capital. Needless to say, in the Australian case, as in many countries, multiculturalism is not a finished product or a synonym for social harmony, as testified by incidents such as the Cronulla Beach riots of 2005 (Johanson and Glow 2007, pp. 40-42).

In addition to the economic benefits that can be derived from broad-based inclusion of migrants and cultural and skill-based recognition, the adoption of more flexible interpretations of multiculturalism in a liberal democratic environ is also prudent from the standpoint of social integration. It ensures that minority groups are represented at all levels of society and are not, out of choice or necessity, prone to form ethnic ghettos and consequently self-segregate from mainstream society.

The equal outcome perspective advocated by the above authors is also important from the standpoint of creating greater cultural tolerance and awareness nationwide. By emboldening minority groups to participate fully in mainstream society despite cultural differences, equal outcome liberal democratic multiculturalism policies have the effect of encouraging all residents/citizens to contribute to mainstream society because they feel they are a part of it and are recognised by the mainstream for their contributions.

Ideally, liberal democratic multiculturalism should be a balanced mixture of ensuring not only equal opportunity, but also equal outcome. This process of accommodation and recognition ensures that the majority or mainstream cultural norms do not marginalise minority groups; at the same time it should ensure that minority groups do not act in an extraterritorial fashion, avoiding their obligations to the mainstream cultural values.

MIC multicultural coexistence policies

In 2001, several local governments in Japan began to implement multicultural coexistence plans, including Toyoda City (2001), Toba City (2002), Shinjuku Ward (2005), Kawasaki City (2005), Iwata City (2005), Tachikawa City (2005), Adachi Ward (2006) and Hiroshima City (2006) (Yamamoto and Matsumiya 2007, p. 131). In March 2006, the MIC published the “Research Report on the Promotion of Multicultural Coexistence: Towards the Promotion of Multicultural Coexistence at the Local Level.” This report was completed in the following year with the publication of the “2007 Report on the Research Group Concerning the Promotion of Multicultural Coexistence,” meant to further expand the rubric of multicultural coexistence to include emergency and disaster procedures (MIC 2007).

The MIC (2006) defines multicultural coexistence in its “Research Report on the Promotion of Multicultural Coexistence” as follows:

Local multicultural coexistence refers to people of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds living alongside one another as contributors to civil society, and the building of bridges between each other through the acceptance of each other’s culture. (MIC 2006, p. 5).

The overall tone of the MIC statement encourages acceptance of cultural differences and living alongside people of different cultures and ethnicities. This statement can be examined on three levels.

The first level of the MIC multicultural coexistence statement relates to its target audience. Examining the statement, we can see that the Ministry targets all residents of Japan, without prejudice for nationality, ethnicity, or, presumably, other differences such as religion or race. The inclusive nature of the multicultural coexistence statement is significant in that it considers all residents of Japan to be the target of its policy initiative.

Whereas the first level of the MIC multicultural coexistence statement above addresses the target audience, the second level stresses the objective of the statement, in particular, the creation of a “local society” (chiiki shakai) where all residents live together as members of the same community. This position is emphasising oneness, or a shared role in living together as members of the same community. Encompassing all residents regardless of background, this focus on residency resonates with inclusiveness and equality by eliminating hierarchical and role designations. By not stressing particular roles for foreign residents and Japanese residents, the MIC statement overcomes the dichotomisation of Japanese and foreigners and, as a result, embeds inclusiveness in its statement.

The third and final level of the MIC multicultural coexistence statement stresses the means through which the MIC objective will be achieved, namely, through the mutual acceptance of cultural differences. By advocating mutual acceptance of cultural differences, we can conclude that the MIC believes that it is cultural differences and ignorance of those cultural differences that impedes foreign and Japanese residents from feeling as if they form part of the same community.2 This is an interesting standpoint, especially for foreign residents, as it insinuates that cultural savvy is an integral part of good, local citizenship. Where this logic crumbles is when we enquire into the treatment of and feelings toward old-comers, those foreign residents in Japan who are of Korean, Taiwanese, or Chinese ethnic extraction. The report also broaches the manner in which it will achieve its objective. It points out the significance of being Japanese, the need to adhere to international conventions, the economic importance of multicultural coexistence, and the concept of “Universal Design,” which refers to planning and building cities for everyone (see Andrew 2004; Burgstahler 2009). In the Ministry’s view, the most ideal way to preempt intercultural friction between Japanese residents and foreign residents is for them to accept each other’s cultures.

In an effort further to stress the connections among multicultural coexistence, local government, and foreign residents, the MIC circulated the March 27, 2006 Sōgyōkoku (seventy-ninth edition) to local governments entitled, “Information Concerning the Promotion Plan of Multicultural Coexistence in Local Governments.” In this document, the MIC reiterated that multicultural coexistence at the local government level was significant for five reasons. First, it was asserted that local governments are the immediate interface for foreign residents and thus the locus of multicultural coexistence policy implementation. Second, the communiqué stressed the importance of securing the human rights of foreign residents in an effort to abide by all international conventions. Third, the Ministry highlighted the fact that multicultural coexistence can be used as a tool to revitalise local municipalities. Fourth, multicultural coexistence was posited as a good opportunity to raise the overall understanding of other cultures and, lastly, multicultural coexistence was deemed a part of the creation of universally designed municipalities.

Part and parcel of realising the above ideals, four areas were put forth by the Ministry as essential pillars or bedrock for the promotion of multicultural coexistence: (1) communication assistance, (2) lifestyle assistance, (3) the creation of multicultural coexistence in local communities, and (4) the establishment of a multicultural coexistence system. The report also proposed future research on the establishment of an emergency network, the establishment of an information system, and an enquiry into the manner in which a multicultural coexistence promotion system could be implemented at the local government level.

Multicultural coexistence as advocated by the MIC is a social integration system based on the aforementioned pillars. What makes this multicultural coexistence different from other social integration programs is its emphasis on the acquisition of cultural savvy and language proficiency. Moreover, where most social integration programs are equivalent to a step on the road toward permanent residency, multicultural coexistence instead attempts to stave off problems associated with linguistic and cultural gaps (Inglis 1996, pp. 28-29; Kymlicka 2003).

Assessing the MIC’s multicultural coexistence

Examining the policies and practices that fall under the rubric of multicultural coexistence, we can conclude that elements of liberal democratic multiculturalism do exist. These elements become more coherent when we examine them using policy approaches to multiethnic states, namely assimilationism, differentialism, and inclusionism(Inglis 1996, pp. 28-29; Kymlicka 2003). Although these are metrics associated with multiethnic states, they do provide us with a typology to analyse the MIC policy’s suggestions.

Multicultural coexistence in Japan in part embodies each kind of multiethnic state multiculturalism policy. For instance, the continuing vacuum in comprehensive programs for foreign residents and naturalised Japanese epitomise this continuing dilemma and the assimilationist, multiethnic state approach to multiculturalism. For example, in the past, non-Japanese were compelled to use their tsūmei (Japanese name) instead of their honmyō (real name) (Lie 2008, pp. 162-163), and there is discrimination in public-sector employment, offering examples of the assimilatory nature of Japanese society. These practices compel non-Japanese residents and those who have naturalised to assimilate culturally as much as possible to receive similar treatment to their Japanese counterparts.

The MIC multicultural coexistence plan has put forward initiatives to overcome the assimilatory aspect of Japanese society. For instance, the plan advocates workplace assistance and placement, the legal recognition of non-Japanese schools, the recommendation to establish official Japanese as a Second Language (JSL) programs at the state level, international understanding programs, and multicultural coexistence awareness programs. To date, these have yet to be realised. In the case that these recommendations are implemented, they will be interesting initial yardsticks to help us determine whether or not the assimilationism approach to multicultural coexistence is being replaced by an approach that secures both equal opportunity and outcome as advocated in the liberal democratic multiculturalism discussion above.

We can also view multicultural coexistence through the lens of differentialism. In differentialism, conflict is avoided through a process that minimises contact with ethnic minorities. For instance, examining Japan’s attitudes toward immigration reveals quotes by ministries vis-à-vis the apparent challenge of accommodating greater populations of foreign residents and the rhetoric that extols the uniqueness and incompatibility of Japanese with non-Japanese cultures, languages, and ethnic groups. In effect, this tendency to dichotomise Japanese and non-Japanese is widespread (Burgess 2004).

Shipper (2002)illustrates the differentialism perspective in his research demonstrating that different ethnic groups are compartmentalised into disparate segments of the Japanese economy with Zainichi Koreans and Chinese being overly represented in restaurants, pachinko parlors, and self-employment, Nikkeijin (Brazilians and Peruvians) in manufacturing, and Asian (primarily South East Asian) workers in manufacturing and “entertainment” (pp. 43, 45).

Similarly, Kajita Takamichi (1994), found that differentialism exists not only in terms of which segment of the Japanese economy foreign residents work in, but also their population concentrations in the Tokyo Metropolis (pp. 88-92). According to Kajita, foreign residents from North America and Europe were highly concentrated in municipalities found in the core of Tokyo, whereas foreign residents from Asia were found in the peripheral municipalities of the Tokyo Metropolis, reflecting their places of employment. This tendency is also related to pre-existing Chinese and Korean communities that formed ethnic-based integration platforms and the concentration of factories and small- and mid-sized industries in peripheral municipalities of the Tokyo Metropolis.

The MIC has put forth initiatives to deal with these challenges. Proposals such as work assistance programs through collabouration with Hello Work, the provision to foreign residents of assistance to found their own enterprises, measures to help with unemployment and orientation programs for housing and education, multilingual administrative and lifestyle information, and multilingual advisory services are noteworthy examples of measures to combat the differentialism that exists. These programs aim to put foreign residents on an equal footing with their Japanese counterparts in an attempt to break down the differentiation that occurs due to language and cultural differences.

The success of these programs will be gauged by a broader representation of foreign residents across the Japanese labour market, possibly in the public sector in the case of permanent residents, and education programs that reflect the numbers of newcomers that are naturalising and taking up permanent residency. Broader representation across the labour market is indicative not only of equal opportunity, but also equal outcome, and embodies the liberal democratic multiculturalism stance that advocates equal outcome as a key determinant. Importantly, broader representation can take place without citizenship requirements and thus provides a useful metric for countries such as Japan that do not advocate immigration, but do have permanent residents and long-term foreign residents.

Inclusion, the third approach to multi-ethnic states and multiculturalism described by Inglis (1996, p. 9), is also incorporated into the multicultural coexistence plan promulgated by the MIC. Specifically, the MIC attempts to promote inclusion of foreign residents by stressing Japanese language and culture acquisition in local and state-led programs, multilingual information and advisory services, broader penetration into the Japanese labour market through support for enterprises, collabourations with local chambers of commerce, and programs to ensure that foreign residents are enrolled in social welfare programs. These measures again are demonstrative of concrete steps to ensure that foreign residents are being given equal opportunity and access. Through their own initiatives and the tools provided, foreign residents are now able to access the same services as their Japanese counterparts and the opportunities that come with those services, programs, and so forth.

The problem with these initiates is that, although they lay the foundation for equal opportunity, they are noticeably vacuous in terms of securing equal outcome. To elaborate, the MIC multicultural coexistence plan does provide the tools to secure equal opportunity, but it has not addressed problems that hinder equal outcome. For example, will taxpaying foreign residents receive the same assistance as their Japanese counterparts in securing employment, founding enterprises, receiving housing assistance, gaining representation in local resident associations, and being protected against discrimination?

Even today, there are cases in which non-Japanese are refused contracts to rent apartments, are unable to receive medical treatment because of language difficulties, and suffer violence, defamation, and upper limits to corporate or public services positions because of nationality requirements (Arudou 2005; Lie 2008, pp. 73-75). These upper limits to promotions and employment in the public sector are not unique to Japan, as only a few nations allow non-nationals political rights and the ability to represent their host nation. Where Japan differs is with regard to their Special Permanent Residents, who have lived only in Japan, may speak only Japanese and a pidgin version of Korean, and have little if any ties to their ethnic motherlands. With second- and third-generation Special Permanent Residents still being excluded from the upper levels of public services and political offices, we can see that there is still an upper limit of inclusionism in Japanese society that non-Japanese cannot breach (Lie 2008, pp. 73-75). The existence of this limitation is demonstrative of the truncated equal outcome that exists for minority groups such as Zainichi. Until laws are enacted to secure equal outcome to the extent that the current multicultural coexistence plan can foster inclusion and equal outcome, the key characteristics of liberal democratic multiculturalism will be limited at best.

Dimensions of multicultural coexistence

Inglis provides us with useful tools to look at multiculturalism in the liberal democratic context and, in the case of this paper, multicultural coexistence. According to Inglis (1996), public debates centered on multiculturalism can be distinguished into three categories: the demographic-descriptive, ideological-normative, and programmatic-political (pp. 16-18). For Inglis, demographic-descriptive usages of multiculturalism refer to the existence of ethnically or racially diverse segments in the population of a state. This kind of discourse represents a perception that such differences have some social significance primarily because of perceived cultural differences, although these are frequently associated with forms of structural differentiation.

Programmatic-political usages of multiculturalism, on the other hand, refer to specific types of programs and policy initiatives designed to respond to and manage ethnic diversity (Inglis1996, pp. 16-18). These embody the arguments presented above that are related to equal opportunity and/or equal outcome in that they are specific initiatives to mitigate challenges in including minority groups in mainstream society without marginalising them.

Lastly, the ideological-normative usage of multiculturalism is the one that generates the greatest level of debate, since it constitutes a slogan and model for political action based on sociological theorising and ethical-philosophical consideration of the place of those with distinct cultural identities in contemporary society (Inglis 1996, pp. 16-18). This place in society refers to how minority groups, cultural, religious, or otherwise, integrate into mainstream society and whether or not they are able to maintain the practices of their mother cultures without violating the judicial code or being treated differently according to the law.

From the demographic-descriptive viewpoint, multicultural coexistence does give very limited recognition to the existing diversity that can be found in Japanese society. In the case of the MIC report and recommendations, minority groups are not mentioned. The report concentrates its efforts on newcomers who have been settling in Japan from the 1980s to the present (Kibe 2006). There is recognition by the MIC that cultural and linguistic differences existing between foreign residents and Japanese residents are unintentionally marginalising foreign residents in the areas of education and the ability to receive administrative services, housing, and emergency care.

The first two pillars of the Multicultural Coexistence Plan aim to overcome some of this structural differentiation through communication and lifestyle assistance initiatives. These initiatives will have the effect of promoting equal opportunity if they are professionally organised, widespread, easily accessible, and, most crucially, if foreign residents embrace these measures to substantially improve their ability to negotiate their lives while in Japan.

Japan’s interpretation of multicultural coexistence cannot be completely explained using the common referents of “multiculturalism,” namely, public debates that fall into the three categories of demographic-descriptive, programmatic-political, or ideological-normative.

First, in terms of the demographic-descriptive debate, the salient feature of the category is the recognition of ethnically or racially diverse segments of the population. In Japan’s case, a vacuum exists when it comes to discussions of ethnicity or racial diversity. This can be illustrated in several examples. First, the National Census conducted every five years does not ask questions with regard to ethnic or racial background. Naturalised Japanese are not quantified in the census, unintentionally contributing to the paucity of tabulated data that recognises ethnic and racial diversity among Japanese nationals.

Second and more widely spread is the image of Japan as an ethnically and culturally homogeneous society (Ministry of Justice 2000).For example, the “Basic Plan for Immigration Control” (second edition) published by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) in 2000 also illustrates Japan’s concerns with the influx of foreigners and their impact on Japanese society:

If you trace back the history of Japanese society and give thought to the Japanese people’s perception of society, culture and their sensitivity, it would not be realistic suddenly to introduce a large amount of foreign labour. Rather, it is necessary for Japan to aim at maintaining the vitality of the socio-economy and enhancing the tangible and intangible affluence of social life by accepting foreigners in a way that would cause little friction with society. We should solve the problems step by step: the scope of acceptance (In which fields do we like to accept foreigners?), the conditions (What experience or background should foreigners have in order for Japanese people to live together with them in harmony?) and the treatment (What social-life environment can we offer to the foreigners once they are accepted?) (MOJ 2000).

On the other hand, ethnic diversity is recognised when Japan views its foreigner population, especially the categorisation of foreigners into Zainichi Koreans.

Clearly, Japanese multicultural coexistence does not encompass the first category of multiculturalism in that it does not recognise ethnic or racial diversity. It also implies that without the recognition of ethnic and racial diversity, even among its own nationals, structural impediments may exist that do not take into account diversity among the Japanese.

In the case of programmatic-political debates around multiculturalism, here again we see multicultural coexistence manifest itself in two different ways. On the one hand, programs are being instituted at the local government level in various municipalities across Japan, which contributes to more open diversity and recognition of this diversity not only by sponsors of these events, but also by participants. Mutual understanding programs, ethnic festivals, ethnic classes, language classes, annual parades, and so forth are emblematic of initiatives associated with these objectives. These cultural and ethnic initiatives underpin the types of activities that are being proposed and implemented by local governments to mitigate and alleviate some of the real and perceived interethnic and intercultural friction that exists.

From this standpoint, these activities embody the multiculturalism programmatic-political discourse that Inglis asserts. They attempt to stave off both intercultural and interethnic friction through cultural exchange programs intended to promote mutual cultural understanding, language exchanges, community spirit and dialogue.

On the other hand, the programs implemented by local governments are in most cases patchwork, makeshift programs that are staffed by amateur teachers, event managers, and monolingual and mono-cultural representatives that do not have the education, experience, or background to successfully manage ethnic and racial diversity.

For example, Keiko Yamanaka (2006)describes the “prevailing neglect” on the part of the national government and many industries that depend heavily on migrant labour (p. 99). More specifically, Yamanakamakes the case that it is not the local government or national government that create and implement programs to manage ethnic and racial diversity, but rather local citizens, NPOs, and women who are the primary givers of care and supplementary education (pp. 104-105).Having lived and raised children abroad in many cases, these selfless women, according to Yamanaka’sunstructured discussions, expressed dismay and inadequacy with regard to filling the gap created by the negligent government and meeting the needs of migrant children (p. 113).

In a similar vein, the absence of programs by ministries, particularly the Ministry of Education, Sports, Culture, Science and Technology (MEXT), which would officially sponsor JSL programs, reinforces the notion that Japan’s multicultural coexistence lacks a programmatic-political dimension that seriously meets the needs of foreign residents of all categories.3 The absence of specific programs like JSL, which is designed to ensure that foreign residents can have equal opportunity, is indicative of a lack of concrete steps being taking to secure, at minimum, equal opportunity. Without advanced Japanese language skills, foreigners and their progeny are at a distinct disadvantage in terms of finding work, entering higher education institutes, and accessing services provided through the local government office. Based on this discrepancy in education and the lack of support for protection of all residents, it seems that, at the programmatic-political level of multiculturalism policy in a liberal democratic society, the current plan does not completely secure equal opportunity and outcome.

Upon examining the ideological-normative dimension of multicultural coexistence in Japan as represented by the MIC’s Multicultural Coexistence Plan, it is evident that the Ministry does not attempt to engage in a dialogue regarding the appropriate place for foreigners in Japanese society. In fact, the plan does not discuss foreign residents in terms of forming a minority that exists in Japan; rather it inserts foreigners all into one category and consequently marginalises all of their identities and cultures.

This lack of recognition of diversity in mainstream Japanese society, and the absence of initiatives in the MIC’s Multicultural Coexistence Plan to advance the rights and contributions of non-Japanese, precipitates a situation in which foreigners are permanently excluded from society (Chapman 2006, pp. 91-93).

At the ideological-normative level, in both of the above cases, the policies and initiatives advocated by the MIC’s Multicultural Coexistence Plan do not encourage equal opportunity or equal outcome. In contrast, the dearth of diversity-related initiatives that would secure the rights of foreigners to maintain their mother culture and language, while at the same time enjoying the rights and responsibilities of their fellow Japanese residents, leads us to the conclusion that multicultural coexistence is not emblematic of liberal democratic multiculturalism principles.


Assessing multicultural coexistence using liberal democratic multiculturalism as a yardstick has demonstrated that multicultural coexistence as currently conceived is not emblematic of a liberal democratic multicultural society. There are several reasons for this. First, Japan is still not officially a country of immigration, and consequently the multicultural coexistence plan put forth by the MIC does not embed immigration-related objectives into its grander scheme. It does not advocate immigration to or naturalisation in Japan. It also does not recognise that Japan is becoming increasingly and inevitably more ethnically, religiously, racially, linguistically, and culturally diverse. Until there is open and widespread recognition of the current and growing diversity in Japan, it will be difficult to implement equal opportunity and outcome-oriented multicultural coexistence initiatives.

Second, since the multicultural coexistence plan was primarily designed with newcomers in mind, most of its initiatives concentrate on superficial or limited social integration, especially on bridging the linguistic and cultural gap that the Ministry deems to be the most basic component of successful and frictionless integration. As Shipper and Kajita revealed, there is a differentiation or dichotomisation of foreign residents and Japanese, and the same tendency with foreign residents as a whole continues today. As demonstrated in this paper, integration is not conducted equally for all beneficiaries (including foreign residents). Based on this inequality or differentiated status of foreign residents, we can conclude that current multicultural coexistence and its pontification of social integration is truncated, superficially appearing open, integrative, and innovative in terms of embracing newcomers, but flawed as it has yet to implement a strategy that overcomes differentiation, and to lay the foundation for significant and broad integration of old-comers and newcomers alike.

Third, equal opportunity and outcome are not key components of the multicultural coexistence plan, because a large number of foreigners currently living in Japan do not hold permanent resident status or are Special Permanent Residents. This is also an important consideration concerning why equal opportunity and outcome have been unsuccessfully grafted onto the current multicultural coexistence plan. More specifically, only permanent residents, Special Permanent Residents, and Nikkei have complete freedom in choosing their place of employment. The rest have sponsored visas, meaning that they have much less choice in where they can work and, as a consequence, less chance of realising equal opportunity and outcome. To overcome this inflexibility, the MIC would have to work in concert with the MOJ to develop more flexible visa arrangements. This paper suggests that the immigration and naturalisation policy might be combined so that the newly arrived immigrants can have plans with longer perspectives.

Fourth, as stressed throughout this paper, most of the initiatives suggested by the MIC are not officially organised and standardised long-term integration measures. Most, in practice, are ad-hoc, amateur-led initiatives that do provide support, but not the kind that allows beneficiaries to reach the same levels as their Japanese counterparts. Hence, there are continued discrepancies in the areas of equal opportunity and outcome when comparing foreign residents, naturalised Japanese, and Japanese.

Kymlicka (2003)describes “national citizenship” as becoming increasingly obsolete; hence he advocates the development of a new way of assigning rights and responsibilities, perhaps one based on international law and human rights norms, and that does not presuppose that immigrants will or should become “national citizens” (p. 195).Perhaps his suggestion should be heeded by the MIC, in that it proposes more courageous steps not only to mitigate the problems associated with the integration of foreigners in the short run, but also to advocate a multicultural coexistence plan that reflects the strengths of liberal democratic multiculturalism, namely, a sensitive balance between equal opportunity and equal outcome for all residents that has the effect of mobilising all residents of Japan for the economic and social benefit of the country.

This paper offers the suggestion that Japan might borrow some of the successful strategies that have served traditional countries of immigration such as Australia, Canada, and the United States. These include making naturalisation procedures more transparent and less assimilatory. Policies could be adopted for creating public infrastructure for JSL programs that help foreign residents to meet language and cultural requirements in order to have equal access to civil rights (freedom of speech and association), social benefits (such as public health care and unemployment insurance), and the labour market (except for a few civil service positions). It would also be necessary in this regard to adopt strong and enforced antidiscrimination laws regarding housing and employment. By doing so, foreign residents could gain the psychological and “legal security that comes with citizenship, [so that] they will be more likely to put down roots, to contribute to local community initiatives, to care about how well their children are integrating, to invest in the linguistic skills and social capital needed to prosper, and more generally to develop stronger feelings of Japanese identity and loyalty” (Kymlicka 2003, p. 199).


I would like to express my thanks to the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and gratitude to my Research Assistant, Ms. Helen Yim Ting Chan for her contributions in editing this paper.


Agency for Cultural Affairs (ACA), 2012. Seikatsusha toshite no gaikokujin ni taisuru Nihongo kyōiku no hyōjuntekina karikyuramu an, katsuyō no tame no gaidobukku, kyōzaireishū, Nihongo nōryoku hyōka nitsuite [online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 June 2012].

Aiden, H.S., 2011. Creating the ‘multicultural coexistence’ society: central and local government policies towards foreign residents in Japan. Social Science Japan Journal, 14 (2), 213-231.

Andrew, C., ed., 2004. Our diverse cities 1(Ci2-1/1-2004E) [online]. Spring. Ottawa: Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Available from: [Accessed 13 March 2012].

Arudou, D., trans. 2001. The Hamamatsu Sengen[online], 19 October. Available from: [Accessed 13 September 2008].

Arudou, D., 2005. ‘The Community’: issues and proposals concerning non-Japanese in Japan [online]. Available from: [Accessed 29 June 2012].

Barry, B., 2001. Culture and equality: an egalitarian critique of multiculturalism. Cambridge, Mass:Harvard University Press.

Burgess, C., 2004. Maintaining identities: discourses of homogeneity in a rapidly globalizing Japan. Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies [online], Article 1.Available from: [Accessed 12 August 2005].

Burgstahler, S., 2009. Universal design: process, principles, and applications [online]. Washington: University of Washington, Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology Center, 26 February. Available from: [Accessed 13 March 2012].

Cabinet Office, Government of Japan, 2012. Portal site on policies for foreign residents [online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 June 2012].

Chapman, D., 2006. Discourses of multicultural coexistence (tabunka kyōsei) and the ‘old-comer’ Korean residents of Japan. Asian Ethnicity, 7 (1), 91-102.

Freeman, S.,2002. Liberalism and the accommodation of group claims.In: Kelly, P., ed. Multiculturalism reconsidered: ‘culture and equality’ and its critics. Cambridge: Polity Press, 18-30.

Inglis, C., 1996. Multiculturalism: new policy response to diversity. Management of Social Transformations (MOST) - UNESCO Policy Paper - No. 4. Paris: UNESCO.

Johanson, K. and Glow, H., 2007. Re-thinking multiculturalism: performing the Cronulla Beach riot. International Journal of the Humanities, 5 (3), 37-43.

Joppke, C., 2004. Ethnic diversity and the state. The British Journal of Sociology,55 (3), 451-463.

Kajita, T., 1994. Gaikokujin rōdōsha to Nihon. Tokyo: Nihon Hōsō Shuppan Kyōkai.

Kashiwazaki, C., 2009. The foreigner category for Koreans in Japan.In: Ryang, S. and Lie, J., eds. Diaspora without homeland: being Korean in Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press,121-146.

Kelly, P., 2002. Defending some dodos: equality and/or liberty? In: Kelly, P., ed. Multiculturalism reconsidered: culture and equality and its critics. Cambridge: Polity Press, 62-80.

Kibe, T., 2006. Differentiated citizenship and ethnocultural groups: a Japanese case. Citizenship Studies, 10 (4), 413-430.

Kymlicka, W., 2001. Politics in the vernacular: nationalism, multiculturalism, and citizenship. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kymlicka, W., 2003. Immigration, citizenship, multiculturalism: exploring the links. The Political Quarterly, 74 (s1), 195-208.

Kymlicka, W., 2005. Liberal multiculturalism: Western models, global trends, and Asian debates.In: Kylmicka, W. and He, B., eds. Multiculturalism in Asia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 22-55.

Lie, J., 2008. Zainichi (Koreans in Japan): diasporic nationalism and postcolonial identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Menju, T., 2003. Kokusai kōryū/ kokusai kyōryoku katsudō to wa.In: Menju, T. et al, eds. Kokusai kōryū/ kyōryoku katsudō nyūmon kōza I: kusa no ne no kokusai kōryū to kokusai kyōryoku. Tokyo: Akashi Shoten, 37-41.

Miller, D., 2002.Liberalism, equal opportunities and cultural commitments.In: Kelly, P., ed. Multiculturalism reconsidered: culture and equality and its critics. Cambridge: Polity Press,45-61.

Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC), 2006. Tabunka kyōsei no suishin ni kansuru kenkyūkai hōkokusho: chiiki ni okeru tabunka kyōsei no suishin ni mukete. Tokyo: MIC.

MIC, 2007. 2007 tabunka kyōsei no suishin ni kansuru kenkyūkai hōkokusho [online]. Tokyo: MIC. Available from: [Accessed 20 September 2008].

Ministry of Justice (MOJ), 2000. The basic plan for immigration control (the 2nd edition): introduction – social changes and immigration control [online]. Available from: [Accessed 15 June 2006].

Miyajima, T., 2003. Tomo ni ikirareru Nihon e: gaikokujin shisaku to sono kadai. Tokyo: Yuhikaku.

National Multicultural Advisory Council, 1995. Multicultural Australia: the next steps towards and beyond 2000, a report of the National Multicultural Advisory Council. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Services.

Shipper, A. W., 2002. The political construction of foreign workers in Japan. Critical Asian Studies, 34 (1), 41-68.

Sōgyōkoku (International Affairs Office for Local Authorities, MIC), 2006. Chiiki ni okeru tabunka kyōsei suishin puran ni tsuite. 27 March.

Takezawa, Y.,2008. The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and town-making towards multiculturalism.In: Graburn, N. H. H., Ertl, J. and Tierney, R.K., eds. Multiculturalism in the new Japan: crossing the boundaries within. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 32-42.

Taylor, C., 1994. The politics of recognition.In: Gutmann, A., ed. Multiculturalism:examining the politics of recognition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 25-73.

Yamamoto, K. and Matsumiya, A.,2007. Jichitai no gaikokujin shisaku ni kansuru hikaku kenkyū: aichi-ken no jirei o chūshin ni.In: Yamamoto, K., ed.Gaikokuseki jūmin no jōka to chiiki saihen: tōkai chihō o jirei toshite. Japan: Aichi Kokuritsu University.

Yamanaka, K., 2006. Immigrant incorporation and women’s community activities in Japan: local NGOs and public education for immigrant children.In: Tsuda, T., ed. Local citizenship in recent countries of immigration: Japan in comparative perspective. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 97-119.

Yamawaki, K., 1993a. Ōhin chiku no machizukuri ni jūmin soshiki ga puran sakusei. Mainichi Shinbun, 17 December.

Yamawaki, K., 1993b. Shimin reberu no kaigai kyōryoku o kangaeru kokusai fōramu. Mainichi Shinbun, 12 January.

Yamawaki, K., 2002. Tabunka kyōsei shakai no keisei ni mukete. Discussion Paper Series No. J-2002-5. Tokyo: Meiji University, Institute for Social Science.

Young, I. M., 1990. Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.


[1] See Kymlicka (2001, Chapter 1) about communitarianism and individualism in relation to liberal democratic and minority rights.

[2] In the MIC Report, language, culture, and customs are highlighted as the primary hurdles that newcomers face in Japanese society. In particular, the Ministry stresses that such deficiencies prevent foreign residents from being able to receive administrative services, being informed about the local community in which they live, and having a set of knowledge concerning their community in general. See MIC (2006, pp. 4-5).

[3] In many municipalities, groups of volunteers supplement local government International Exchange Sections’ international exchange activities that include volunteer Japanese language classes, municipally sponsored Japanese conversation classes, and other similar classes. The Japanese language classes are rarely geared toward the advanced language acquisition necessary for upward mobility in Japanese society. Although similar to American volunteer language classes, this approach stands in stark contrast to Canadian programs that are public and supported by the Multiculturalism Act and the Constitution. See Kymlicka (2003, pp. 202-203).

About the Author

Stephen Robert Nagy has been Assistant Professor at the Department of Japanese Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong since December 2009. He obtained his PhD from Waseda University, Japan, in International Studies/ Relations in December 2008 and worked as a Research Associate at the Institute of Asia Pacific Studies at Waseda University from October 2007 to November 2009. He is concurrently a Research Fellow at the Japan Immigration Policy Institute (JIPI) and a member of International Affairs Research Centre at CUHK.

Email the author

Back to top