Japan is experiencing a surge in visitor arrivals as the destination is now on the hot list. The vast majority of visitors find it an easy destination, with helpful friendly locals and immaculate facilities. However there has always been an underbelly to this seemingly welcoming nation, an apparent homogenous people that cherish their purest identity.
Japan racism survey reveals one in three foreigners experience discrimination
Japan’s justice ministry recently sent out a questionnaire to thousands of foreign residents to gain an unprecedented glimpse into their experiences of racism in within Japan. The government mailed the survey to 18,500 foreign residents across the country in late 2016, receiving a 23% response rate or 4,252 completed questionnaires.
Of these about 30% of the respondents said they had been on the receiving end of discriminatory remarks “often” or “sometimes”. The Jiji news agency reported that such remarks were most likely made by strangers, but many people also pointed the finger at bosses, colleagues or subordinates in their workplace.
The survey highlighted that problems in workplaces were not confined to verbal remarks. One in four people who had sought a job said they were denied employment because they were a foreigner; and one in five believed they were paid less than their Japanese counterparts for similar work.
For 2,044 respondents who had looked for a place to live in the past five years housing discrimination was seen as a problem. Four in 10 people in this group said they have been stopped from moving into housing because they were foreigners. Some of them had even seen notices saying foreigners were not accepted, the Kyodo news agency reported.
The national Japanese government responded to the results by pledging to increase education for Japanese people about human rights, while informing foreigners of the support services they could access if they faced discrimination.
Racial discrimination is an inconvenient truth in Japan
Most Japanese do not want to believe that racial discrimination exists in their society because they have been told there is only one race in Japan. As long as Japanese perceive racial purity as a societal benefit there will be racism. Such beliefs obviously stem from Japan’s long-term isolation, and thus ignorance and fear. Isolation since the Meiji Restoration is illustrated not by communication with the outside world but by lack of immigration and exposure to Western ideologies.
It is well known that Japan accepts a miniscule number of refugees each year and that the domestic media and the public at large look at the problems that have occurred in Europe and say those problems could never happen here because there are no immigrants. They say Japan is a monoculture where everyone understands each other. This is nationalist claptrap that completely ignores any crimes committed by Japanese, but unfortunately this is how many Japanese think. It’s the narrative they tell themselves to reassure each other. But it’s not an honest narrative.
Japan is a multiethnic society
According to census statistics, 98.5% of the population of Japan are Japanese, with the reminder being foreign nationals residing in Japan. However, these statistics measure citizenship, not ethnicity, with all domestic minorities such as the Ainu (indigenous peoples from Hokkaido), Ryukyuans (from the islands of Okinawa), Burakumin (an outcaste group at the bottom of the Japanese social order) and naturalized immigrants being counted as simply ‘Japanese’. The Japanese government refuses to collect data on its citizen’s ethnic identities, claiming that there are no issues of race among Japanese citizens since they are all of the same race!
In spite of the widespread belief that Japan is ethnically homogeneous, the fact is Japan is a multiethnic society, and this claim is gaining recognition. In the past Japan has placed no importance on assimilating minorities such as the Ainu and laws regarding ethnic matters have received low priority in the legislative process. Japan’s government finally reversed its long-held policy of forced assimilation and recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people. In 2007 it joined the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
A history of racism and xenophobia in Japan
It has been more than 150 years since Japan opened its doors to the Western world after centuries of isolation, however belief systems linger.
Within Meiji Japan racial discrimination against other Asians was habitual, having begun with the start of Japanese colonialism. During this era the Japanese showed contempt for other Asians. This was exemplified in an editorial titled Datsu-A-Ron written in 1885 by Fukuzawa Yukichi, which advocated that Japan treat other Asians as other western empires treat them.
The Showa regime (1926 –1989) preached racial superiority and racialist theories, based on nature of Yamato-damashii, which reached its peak during Word War II. According to historian Kurakichi Shiratori, one of Emperor Hirohito’s teachers: “Therefore nothing in the world compares to the divine nature (Shinsei) of the imperial house and likewise the majesty of our national policy (Kokutai). Here is one great reason for Japan’s superiority.”
The noun ‘racism’ is based on a belief in racial superiority that directs prejudice, discrimination or antagonism against someone of a different race. According to the United Nation’ 2008 Diene Report, communities most affected by racism and xenophobia in Japan include:
- the national minorities of Ainu and people of Okinawa
- people and descendants of people from neighbouring countries (Koreans and Chinese)
- and the new immigrants from other Asian, African, South American and Middle Eastern counties
Article 14 of the Constitution of Japan states that all people or citizens are equal under the law, and they cannot be discriminated against politically, economically or socially on the basis of race, belief, sex or social or other background. However Japan does not have laws banning hate speech or protecting non-Japanese against discrimination, but there have nevertheless been positive outcomes in recent court cases. For example, a court ruled a few years ago that an anti-Korean group that protested outside of a school for ethnic Koreans in Kyoto would have to pay damages, saying the activity ‘constituted a racial discrimination’ under the UN convention.
Where to now?
Most importantly, the average Japanese, concerned about the direction their country is taking, are speaking out. General rallies were held in Tokyo and Osaka recently to protest racism and hate speech.
There is hope that sweeping generalizations made about entire races or nationalities that currently do not draw much comment in Japan will one day be censured as backward and close-minded. This is inevitable as a result of increasing immigration and globalization, however Japan could now be doing a lot more to protect minorities and foster a more friendly environment for foreigners.
The first and most important step for change would be to codify the international commitments that Japan has ratified. There should be a law banning hate speech. There should be a law banning discrimination, particularly in employment and housing, on the basis of race or nationality. There need to be more government engagement with relevant groups and NGOs, particularly in crafting the laws that will affect them.
What will ultimately change attitudes in Japan for the positive is more discussion, particularly in the media and in education. There needs to be more diversity and more recognition of the presence and contributions of foreigners and minorities in Japan. School history classes should cover the darker aspects of Japan’s history so young people will have a more nuanced understanding of lingering conflicts with their neighbours.
There are gigots here, just like in every society, but on the whole, people are friendly and open, just lacking in exposure to diversity.