Race and identity in Japan

I’ve only recently become aware that Japan is racially diverse. Like many outsiders, I initially assumed that because it is a very homogenous society, all Japanese people come from the same stock.

Yet I now realise that there are several distinct identities among the indigenous people of Japan. And although there is one dominant group, sometimes referred to as the Yamato Japanese, other ethnic groups include the Koreans, Ainu, Oroks, Taiwanese, Ryukyuans and Nivkh.
Northern culture

The Ainu, which came originally from the Northern part of Japan, including Hokkaido, have their own language and culture, which some people are trying to save from disappearing.

They have been successful in raising their profile. For example, an image of an Ainu woman was used as the main publicity picture for a recent exhibition about manga at the British Museum.

The Ainu were recognised as indigenous under legislation which went through the parliament in Tokyo last year. Now the government’s official policy is “to make efforts to support the Ainu people and eradicate discrimination against them.”

Racial controversy

The Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso stirred controversy when he mentioned race during a speech this month.
He said: “There is no other nation but (Japan) where a single race has spoken a single language at a single location and maintained a single dynasty with a single emperor for over 2,000 years,” said Mr Aso, who is also the finance minister.

“It is a great nation,” he concluded.

Mr Aso was criticised in the press for apparently ignoring the social contribution of the Ainu and other ethnic groups.

His later said: “If my remarks caused a misunderstanding, I apologise and will correct them. I have no intention of denying the government’s policy.”

Foreign presence

In covering the story, reporters from Associated Press informed their readers that “Japan has 2.7 million foreign residents, more than 2% of its total population of 126 million, according to government statistics.”

Apparently, international couples comprised more than 3% of the marriages in 2017. Last year, Japan relaxed visa requirements to allow more foreign people to work there.

The Chinese perspective

I briefly discussed Mr Aso’s remarks during a meeting I held this week with senior Chinese diplomats. They were careful not to criticise the deputy prime minister. But one of the Chinese officials reminded me that China is also an ethnically diverse country, with widespread regional differences.

“We believe it is common sense that all ethnic groups are equal,” the diplomat asserted. “It is not a matter of so-called political correctness but it is fundamental to China’s identity.”

He went on to explain that the government’s policy is to encourage everyone in China to learn Mandarin, as this helps with their education and prepares them to do business with other parts of China.

I hope that I’ll be able to continue learning about the ethnic mix of both China and Japan. I’d particularly like to hear directly from members of minority groups, so that I gain more insight into a fascinating issue which is often misunderstood by foreigners.