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Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity

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By C.B. Liddell

This book’s strident title immediately informs the reader that the editor and the nine writers have an axe to grind. The message that emerges is that the Japanese are A) not a homogenous group and B) if they are, then they have no right to remain so.

The didactic tone set out on the cover of "Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity" is echoed throughout the pages in the unspoken assumptions that underpin many of the arguments and in the choice of vocabulary. For example, individuals and groups favoring globalism, high immigration, and multiculturalism are constantly denoted “progressive,” making any opposition seem churlish or misplaced, because, after all, we’re all in favor of “progress,” aren’t we? By contrast, those supporting a position of ethnic and cultural continuity are presented as being somehow brainwashed by an idealized “paradigm of homogeneity,” when, in view of the problems that afflict multiracial states, it would be easier to dismiss the tenets of multiculturalism as being out of touch with reality.

In essence, the starting point of this book, produced under the auspices of the UK’s Sheffield Centre for Japanese Studies, is an attempt to export the multicultural angst, historical obsessions, and racial utopianism of the globalized West into a country that is still remarkably homogenous (98.43% Japanese is one figure mentioned in the book). Despite tenuous similarities between Japan’s burakumin (a historical, non-ethnic underclass) and Afro-American slavery, these are still widely different phenomena, as are the so-called Japanese “colonization” of Okinawa in the 19th century and the contemporaneous “Scramble for Africa” by European nations.

The central “paradigm” of the book — the idea that Japan is not a homogenous nation — largely hinges on tiny percentages of the population located on the fringes of the country, like the Ainu and Okinawans. Yet this demographic reality merely serves to emphasize how alike the vast majority of the Japanese are, making the title ring rather hollow.

Despite the sense that most of the authors are fighting the present intellectual war with the academic weapons of the last one — exacerbated by recently exploded economic assumptions of a continuing global boom — the wealth of detail in the ten essays still makes this a fascinating and informative read.

Japan-based academic John G Russell, for instance, goes out of his way to blame whites for negative Japanese views of blacks, yet his essay “The Other Other” contains much interesting historical data, including the fact that the black slaves of Europeans in 16th-century Japan often kept Japanese slaves themselves. Russell’s detailed footnotes are equally informative, although sometimes they veer into triviality, for example telling us that a 2008 search of the word "kokujin" (black person) in the DVD section of Amazon.co.jp produced 280 items of porn involving black men and Japanese women.

Russell’s basic thesis also has all the hallmarks of Marxist historicism, linking Japanese racism to the national attempt to emulate Western states in the 19th century. According to this view, the economic standardization demanded by industrialization led to similar attempts to simplify human identity by “constructing” national identities, along with outsider groups. Needless to say, this view blithely ignores the millennia of ethnic strife that has characterized much of the world’s pre-industrial history.

Another interesting chapter — and a more objectively written one — is Gracia Liu-Farrer’s essay on the Chinese in Japan. Despite Japan’s post-bubble difficulties and China’s booming economy, the numbers of Chinese here has steadily increased.

At the heart of this chapter is the thorny question of assimilation, with Chinese immigrants preferring to define themselves as “new overseas Chinese,” robustly maintaining their original identity. As Liu-Farrer points out, the proximity of the country of origin combined with the ease of transnational communication in the internet era makes assimilation of immigrants increasingly less likely, something that also has a bearing on the United States' growing Mexican population. Additional factors for Chinese immigrants are Japanese people’s reluctance to accept attempts at full assimilation and the employment benefits that retaining links with their home country brings. Japanese companies are particularly keen to employ workers who can help them expand their business with China.

This chapter goes against the overall grain of the book by refuting the idea that national identity is an artificial construct created by the nation state, instead revealing that it is something quite capable of flourishing by itself beyond national borders, even — or especially — in our transnational globalized world.

This review originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

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47 Comments
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Japan is homogeneous. Okinawa and Hokkaido are not originally populated by the Yamato, therefore it should not be taken in account.

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Apparently, franz75's post is a perfect summary for the book review above: Okinawans and Ainu (in Hokkaido) should not be taken into account. Tremendous power of rationalized discrimination. Regardless of their numbers, Ainu and Okinawans are Japanese and are not Yamato. Therefore, Japan does not have an homogeneous population. I suppose that is why the Ainu were target of specific "integration" laws forbidding them from passing down their language and customs to their youth. There's also the Zainichi Koreans and people of Chinese descent - I guess they should not be taken into account, either.

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"it would be easier to dismiss the tenets of multiculturalism as being out of touch with reality." Dude...multiculturalism is an inevitability, get used to it...

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If a white or black or other non-Japanese have a child in Japan, is the child not, "Japanese"?

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If a white or black or other non-Japanese have a child in Japan, is the child not, "Japanese"?

Yamato do not think so.

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If one is born in America, he or she is an American. I do not believe that holds true in many other countries not just Japan. If one is born to non-natives in France for example, I do not believe he or she is "French" however the child is a French citizen. I could be wrong but I will do a little more research. Here in the US once a person becomes a citizen he or she is American.

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Japan is homogeneous. Okinawa and Hokkaido are not originally populated >by the Yamato, therefore it should not be taken in account.

All of Japan was inhabited by the Jomon. The Yamato are Yaoi who came later. Modern Japanee have mostly Yaoi but also Jomon traits. Ainu are genetically closer to pure Jomon.

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there is no such thing as a 'pure race', anyone who believes otherwise or tries to perpetuate such nonsense is (insert bad words here)

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Apparently, franz75's post is a perfect summary for the book review above: Okinawans and Ainu (in Hokkaido) should not be taken into account. Tremendous power of rationalized discrimination. Regardless of their numbers, Ainu and Okinawans are Japanese and are not Yamato. Therefore, Japan does not have an homogeneous population.

Hokkaido, for example, has less than 6 percent of Japanese population and is ethnically homogeneous. Add that to the other 94 percent, and Japan is ethnically homogeneous. This does not mean there are no other ethnicities present. An ethnically homogeneous country is one in which the ethnic minorities make up a small share of the population. Japan is such a country. This is undebatable. Too many people think "ethnically homogeneous" means "monoethnic." These are different things.

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I was lucky enough to have been tutored by most of the authors of this brilliant book when I was an undergrad at Sheffield. Believe me, they know their stuff. This work is insightful and a must-read for anyone interested in racial/cultural identity and/or ethnicity. Japan is far from anything 'homogeneous.'

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Lidell certainly has an axe to grind doesnt he?

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This book’s strident title immediately informs the reader that the editor and the nine writers have an axe to grind.

Strident (from Dictionary.com)- having a shrill, irritating quality or character: a strident tone in his writings. Yep, "Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity" is sure one "strident" title. And isn't saying that something is 98.43% homogeneous the same as saying it is not homogeneous? If it isn't 100% the same then it isn't homogeneous.

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Good review, Liddell hit the nail on the head.This book might be OK from the library so you can skip the more politically correct whiny sections.

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Sorry nessie, but the definition of homogeneous is "ALL PARTS THE SAME" Even 99.9% the same is not homogeneous.

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Too many people think "ethnically homogeneous" means "monoethnic." These are different things.

Try running that past yr average Tanaka & see if they agree, I be they wont

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Sorry nessie, but the definition of homogeneous is "ALL PARTS THE SAME" Even 99.9% the same is not homogeneous.

In the context of a nation that definition is ridiculous. By your definition, if Japan had 1 Ainu and 125,999,999 ethnic Japanese, then the country would not be homogeneous. All parts would not be the same. Now I understand the root of the debate: an absurd criterion for "homogeneity."

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I should make it clear, though, that I certainly agree that Japan is not as homogeneous as the institutions in Japan would have us believe. Even so, by any standard of international comparison, Japan is quite homogeneous.

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its not my definition, but the dictionaries.

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OssanAmerica: people riding the black buses will disagree with you.

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its not my definition, but the dictionaries.

So then you are saying that if Japan had 1 Ainu and 125,999,999 ethnic Japanese, then the country would not be homogeneous. By that definition, has any country in modern times ever been homogeneous? If not, do you think it's a useful definition of homogeneity in the context of social demographics?

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The central “paradigm” of the book — the idea that Japan is not a homogeneous nation — largely hinges on tiny percentages of the population located on the fringes of the country, like the Ainu and Okinawans. Yet this demographic reality merely serves to emphasize how alike the vast majority of the Japanese are, making the title ring rather hollow.

Exactly. Homogeneous has to be like the dictionary says? Nonsense. Let's see how the dictionary describes the color 'black'.

I was lucky enough to have been tutored by most of the authors of this brilliant book when I was an undergrad at Sheffield. Believe me, they know their stuff.

The title is poorly chosen. What's their (the writers') problem? Looks like they definitely needed to prove how clever they are.

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The title of the book uses the word correctly. Japan is not homogeneous. Anyone who says otherwise is misusing the word. Mostly homogeneous, nearly homogeneous.... both might be accurate, but homogeneous has a clear definition.

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If Liddell had said that "Japan is remarkably close to being homogeneous" there would be no problem. But he didn't, he said it was "remarkably homogeneous", which is nonsensical gibberish. Combine that with his questionable understanding and /or use of the words "strident" and "progressive", and it is pretty reasonable to ask just who is grinding the axe. Now maybe his review is spot on. I don't know cause I ain't read the book, but I wouldn't bet on it.

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OssanAmerica: people riding the black buses will disagree with you.

I would hardly consider that bunch a pillar of sound scientific knowlege.

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The title of the book uses the word correctly. Japan is not homogeneous. Anyone who says otherwise is misusing the word. Mostly homogeneous, nearly homogeneous.... both might be accurate, but homogeneous has a clear definition.

I'll repeat my question: "By that definition, has any country in modern times ever been homogeneous?"

If not, is "100 percent the same" a useful defintion?

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Nessie - you can't change the definition of a word just because the definition doesn't fit the way you want to use the word. "Homogeneous" is an absolute state adjective like "dead" or "finished", and you can't use it with words like more or remarkably. Unlike say "big", which has different degrees of "bigness" - ie. "that guy has a remarkably big dog". Using them with homogeneous is like saying "my grandmother is remarkably dead" or "I am more finished than you", and is not English. Claiming that Japan is close enough to being homogeneous to be called "homogeneous" is like leaving work 15 minutes before your shift ends because your shift is "finished".

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Thanks for your comment, GJD. Would you answer the two questions I wrote?

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I really feel sorry for someone who meaning of life is dictated to them by a dictionary ha ha haaaaaaa

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Ok...Question 1, Korea and Greece both seem to have this same idea of themselves as "homogeneous" countries too, and no doubt there are a few other countries that do too. Depends how far back in time you want to go to find where different ethnic groups mixed to make the present "all parts the same" population (and if they really are all parts the same or just saying they are) as to whether they fit the definition of homogeneous or not.

Question 2, you are right, the definition is not useful in the context of social demographics. But that is because people are using a word that doesn't mean what they are using it to mean, not because of the definition. What they are really talking about is a "high degree of homogeneity within a population". Completely different concept from "homogeneous". In other words, people should say what they mean. Mixing the terms up means that people can then make up their own rules about what is "homogeneous", and then use the word incorrectly for their own advantage.

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The writer of this article or author of the book has not understood the word homogeneous.

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there have been biracial children in japan since the end of world war 2 yet, i have yet to see any biracial people working in banks/office buildings. are these people somehow less japanese? the only biracial people i ever see on television are Becky, Wents and Anna Tsuchiya.

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1 Ainu and 125,999,999 ethnic Japanese

Well in that case, statically speaking that's an 100% japanesse..

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i have yet to see any biracial people working in banks/office buildings. are these people somehow less japanese?

Just because you don't 'see' them doesn't mean they aren't there. Some children take after one parent more than the other, with the result that you may not realise they are biracial. My friends' biracial children have good jobs in banks, offices, you name it.

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biracial people

Looks can be deceiving. A really good friend of mine is half German and half Japanese. If he doesn't tell you, you would think he is 100% Japanese.

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As long as you belong to a group then it is Homogeneous otherwise you are an outsider

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Lets face it. Everyone in this country is originally from China or some other east or central country, no? Even many Japanese will say so themselves. For example, one present student of mine, a man in his 60's states even with some kind of pride that many Cambodian words resemble Japanese language etc. as a hint as to how diverse the country of japans roots spread out. I'd never heard of that before.

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isthistheend - yes, and with DNA testing we can prove it. By the way, the guardians of all things royal will not allow testing on the ancestral bones. Maybe there are some inconvenient truths to hide!

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Japan was populated by successive waves of immigrants beginning in prehistoric times. Blood type, fingerprint whorl patterns and cephalic indices suggest a mixture of Ainu, Malay-Polynesian, Central Asian and Manchu-Korean origins. Racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural characteristics aside, I suppose 2,000 years from now, assuming the world holds together, the inhabitants of these islands will look very different from the way they do at present.

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book view from the uk... well one thing for sure if contrastiing uk and japan on class not ethinicity, Japan could be considered to have almost Homogeneity society. ie japanese are mostly all middle class if judging by uk standards. Depend what you think is in important really for a stable bonding society.

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a homogeneous thing is just if most of it is the same, not all of it. we're not living in Plato's ideal world. Not even dymonds are 100% pure, not to mention any thing related to life and people...Japan is socially homogeneous to some extents, being big differences in age, gender, occupation, education, or location. Genetically, I've read it is pretty homogeneous, which is not a contradiction to be a mixture of two main origins, ie, a old jomon substract and a posterior continental influence. And a part from all of this, Japanese have in their minds the idea of being homogeneous, despite the linguistic differences across the country and the obsession for forging specific omiyage at each and every village.

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It is very ironical that Koreans are treated as ethnic minority in Japan. The genetic, linguistic and archeologic studies are all indicative that present majority of Japanese are in deed ancient Manchu (North China) and Koreans. Even the Japanese emperor himself announced that he has Korean blood. So-called homogeneous Japanese people can boast if they want, but not too loudly. Reference: The origins of Japanese people http://www.jref.com/culture/origins_japanese_people.shtml Genetic origins of Japanese http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/japanorigin.htm

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http://www.jref.com/culture/origins_japanese_people.shtml#

It is like the Britsh people living in America. Of course, in this comparison, Koreans are British, and the homogeneous Japaneses are Americans.

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This subject has been done before in a book(if not many books), and the title is not much different either. The issue that the reviewer is grinding his axe on, but atthe wrong angle, is basically this: Japan claimed back in the eighties to the UN that they have no minorities, and to please leave them out of the conversation because 'we are a homoegenous society'. This caused a stir especially from people who know anything about Japan and its undeniable minorities.

Both social and ethnic minorities have existed in Japan from the distant past into the present. That is undeniable, except to the Japanese, hence the occurance of such books as this. It is rare that a Japanese person would investigate this themselves, when it would blow apart the myth they hold onto of purity and homogeneity( are these not the same idea?).

There is no real such thing as homogeneity in a nation these days( If ever), only degrees of it. As other posters have said, homogenous is a definitive term, it needs to be qualified with another word to denote the degree. ie. largely, fairly, almost totally. In reality, I think the best way to put it could be, "Japan is not as homogenous as it claims to be." The denial of minorities is an insult to them because they exist, if Japan could ever admit to any wrong-doing, or even correct its outlandish statements then there would be no place for these books.

Furthermore, the Human race is the only one that is Homogenous, all our other so called races are just cocktails of past pockets of slightly less jumbled genetic material. I think(hope) these books get written by people offended by the seperation of people into categories, who wish to take down the opposers of human unity down a peg or two. BUt it focuses on a small issue instead of the big one.

SOrry Japan, I love you but you are still human like the rest of us, and thats all that matters. Being largely homogenous does not make you any more special than another group of humans. It may make a unique history and culture, but it is your loss to lose the benefits of loving a person for thier humanity, and of the ability to see past our beautiful variations, while you try to stay pure.

Purity is what? there are few examples of real purity in anything, it is also a definitive term, and usually needs to be stated in percentages and parts, or relative amounts. We are not base chemicals, we are living organisms which are inescapably complex and varied. Trying to hold on to ideas of racial/ethnic purity ( homogeneity) does nothing for the development of our race( the Human one,you belong to it too don't you?). Arguing the point of Japan in a book does little good unfortunatley, as it attempts to set Japanese apart from the rest of us likewise. WHy not write a book that focuses on our human race as a whole, and how we are so full of it, because we are. Oh thats right, its better to pick on a point and start a debate over something which skirts the big picture, and sell sell sell copies, than to actually put into words something that might help the human race. I think maybe some people have tried before and failed probably. BUt please dont quote the bible, or any such religeous text, because those books have done more to divide us than any drop of tainted blood... trees for the forest, trees for the forest.

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Shame really... whether Japan qualifies as homogeneous or mostly homogeneous...From a purely biological perspective....purity of line leads to a lot of genetically inherited defects...just ask any veterinarian...mixed breeds make the best pets and usually have the least health or behavorial problems... maybe this may be the reason behind all these recent accounts of senseless violence (this is not to say it doesn't happen elsewhere...) on the part of the Japanese...they are overbred???

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As far as Japan is concerned, homogeneity is not so much a matter of biological, linguistic or ethnic purity as that of how Jomon people (the indigenous tribes such as Kumaso and Hayato tribes in the south and Emishi tribe in the north) forgot being subjugated by Yamato tribe. Perhaps that's why I sometimes feel that the people in the Tohoku region seem to live in their own world having a bit of inscrutable mopes in themselves.

What had actually happened before Emperor came along with its mythology and Shintoism always intrigues our curiosity. Homogeneity in this country does not seem to be something given since the beginning of things. It's if anything has more to do with the process of letting go of grudge and mortification than of anything to be boastful or hypocritical about as being inherent.

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Seiharinokaze http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/03/16/news/manchu. Manchu language has such a similar grammar and pronunciation as Japanese that one can naturally suspect some biological and genetic similarity between the two. In fact there are many genetic similarities between the Manchu and Japanese. However, who can say the Manchu are Japanese? As you mentioned correctly, homogeneity in the Japanese society has nothing to do with the biological or linguistic similarity between races. It can be said that the modern Japanese peoples are the Kuma (Bear)-like hairy tribe and the Hayato(white colored people flown over from distance) assimilated and intermixed with the Yamato (Yemaek tribes flown over from distance) people. They share the common philosophy and culture to be come a homogeneous Japanese people.

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Nevertheless, it is also quite natural for a human tribe that had left their original home for any reason to return home at least spiritually if not physically. It is also ironical of human history to see the manchu people who actually conquered and ruled china for 400 years are struggling to keep their very essense of their culture, the manchu language.

In this article publushed in the International Herald Tribune, we can feel the true homogeneity in the eyes of the ethinic manchu people.

http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/03/16/news/manchu.php

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