Identity in Modern Japan

by Chihiro Isozaki

In a brightly lit meeting room in the National Diet building, the air filled with a sense of waiting. All eyes were on Taro Kono, a member of the House of Representatives as he struggled to form an answer. He opened and closed his mouth, swallowing unspoken words. A man who, in the past hour of interviews and conversation had exhibited such insight, intelligence and expertise on the issue of nuclear energy and policy, was now caught off guard, unable to say a single word about our other topic of research: minority issues in Japan. Granted, we had requested an interview with him about nuclear energy, and the sudden topic change had caught him unawares. But the question we asked had been a simple one, requiring only the most basic and general knowledge—knowledge that our group members had assumed was common sense. At last he spoke.

“…What minorities…?”

He looked around at us searchingly, helplessly.

“I mean, we don’t really have those here…”

We gave quiet hints. Surely there must be some groups of people who feel oppressed or discriminated against in some way? Still nothing. What about ethnic minorities, like the Korean and Brazilian immigrants? Or sexual minorities? The buraku-min caste?  He was thoughtful. He spoke reflectively.

“Ah yes, the buraku-min. That used to be an issue, but it’s more a regional level issue in the Kansai regions that doesn’t really affect national politics. And it’s not a big problem anymore …”

Again, he lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. We shuffled uneasily, looking down at our tea. Finally we gave in. How about the Ainu people? Can you tell us a little bit about them?

He was surprised at the unexpected allusion. Half confused, half amused at this reference to a topic which was so clearly divergent from regular topic of discussion at the Diet, he asked, “Well, what about them?”

I searched for sarcasm in his eyes. But the eyes that met mine were filled only with honest curiosity. It was at this moment that I realised that the fundamental problem that faced the minorities in Japan was not one merely of discrimination, but of complete and utter ignorance.

We saw this trend of general ignorance on minority issues, particularly issues of the Ainu people, throughout our three days in Tokyo as we interviewed various members of office and top-ranking political positions. These men, highly intelligent, well-educated and carrying the weight of Japan on their shoulders, all showed the same response when it came to the Ainu: ignorance, a degree of embarrassment or defensiveness, coupled with surprise and amusement that our group had chosen to study such an “unusual” or “obscure” topic.

When asked about how the Ainu’s political status in Japan, the interviewees often resorted to a fleeting mention of Mr. Shigeru Kayano, an Ainu politician who sat in the Japanese Diet from 1994-1998—the first and only Ainu to ever have a seat to this day.

“I sat with Mr. Kayano in Diet, way back in the day,” one interviewee recalled, as if this answered our question.

While Kayano’s appointment made an immense impact on the empowerment and status of the Ainu people, driving some positive change such as the “Law for the Promotion of Ainu Culture” adopted by the parliament in 1997, there are still a variety of issues that remain for the Ainu today on social, cultural and political levels, including widespread poverty, lack of access to education and high-level jobs, and the difficulties of cultural and language preservation. The name-dropping of a single Ainu politician as a symbol for peaceful coexistence and the resolution of all past problems was emblematic of the highly problematic way of thinking that pervaded the Ainu issue: general disinterest and an unwillingness to delve deeply into it.

As we travelled further up to Hokkaido, this trend seemed to continue: news reporters, shopkeepers and restaurant waiters were all confused as to why a group of foreign students would want to travel all the way to Japan to study about the Ainu. To us, in turn, their confusion was interesting: why was it so strange to them? Was it because they felt the Ainu issue as something insignificant? Was it something that was trivialised and forgotten about in everyday life? When I tried to ask a woman in the market about her thoughts on the issue, she became extremely uncomfortable.

“It’s not really any of my business,” she said. “They do their own thing, and we do ours. There’s nothing to really think about.”

This unwillingness to associate with the Other is something I felt throughout this trip, not just through our research of the Ainu, but through our own interactions. As a Japanese growing up outside of my home country, I had frequently visited Japan with my family during school breaks, experiencing Japan through the eyes of a native Japanese and participating in its daily rhythm. This time, as the only Japanese person on the trip traveling with 6 other Yalies, I was able to see my own country through the lens of the foreigner—or, as my U.S. student visa says, the “non-resident Alien”—and experience what it felt like to be Othered by my own people.

People avoided eye contact. They kept a bigger physical distance on trains than I was used to. Even when people found out some of our group members could speak Japanese, they began every interaction with a nervous or embarrassed laugh. But more disturbingly, while someone would have definitely told me off for accidentally blocking the entrance of the train car with my luggage (a complete social faux pas) had I been travelling alone or in a group of other Japanese people, no one said anything. Perhaps part of it was a language barrier; they assumed that I could not speak Japanese, and was not confident enough in their language ability to talk to me in English. But I believe that it is something more than that. It was as if social norms did not apply to me, because they did not regard me as part of their society. And in a country where social norms regulate a large part of everyday social interaction, excluding me from the applicability of social norms felt, to me, like a rejection of my existence from that train. It was an active choice to ignore the presence of the Outsider.

If American identity is based on the American Dream and the notion of a “melting pot” where anyone can become a “successful” American despite of their backgrounds and ethnicity, then Japanese identity is one based on homogeneity and shared, unspoken understanding. While I am not arguing that one is superior to the other, each cultural set-up faces its own individual challenges that it must learn to overcome. In Japan, one of the major challenges in this increasingly interconnected world is to learn to accept the Other as something that will not necessarily pose a threat to our national identity. Only through a disintegration of such unfounded fear can we really achieve an open environment where people will be more willing to learn about and accept the presence of minorities.



On the Anniversary of 3/11

by Jason Douglass

At a street corner two blocks down from Tokyo’s Yurakucho station, the metal underbellies of the Yamanote line trains – each perfectly divorced by three minutes – grind against their tracks at high speeds, resonating as if an urban metronome. The chill, damp air seems to blur the red, handheld lights of the policemen as they usher protestors into meticulously constructed rows. This night marks the second anniversary of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster; this intersection stands adjacent to the headquarters of TEPCO, the energy company believed by many to be responsible for the seemingly eternal desecration of Fukushima Daiichi. In the eyes of the international community, those gathered on this night stand for a cause currently championed by the Japanese people nationwide. In reality, they number less than seventy.

Clinging to succinct, radical signage, these protestors, though few in number, rewrite what would have otherwise been the orderly soundtrack of a downtown Tokyo district. Into megaphones, they peer upward; toward the offices of those executive few they believe to have endangered the lives of their beloved. Uprooted and outraged, their tears stain the precautionary white paper masks they wear as Tokyo everymen and women. Disappointed by the amount of political and economic power still held by TEPCO despite their vulnerabilities exposed by Mother Nature’s recent wrath, they refuse to accept personal catharsis before industrial accountability. Over the past two years, these protests, which have regularly occurred on Friday evenings outside of the Prime Minister’s residence, have slowly begun to dwindle in attendance. After last year’s election, which allowed anti-nuclear movements to take a backseat to domestic economic issues, the media has only further downplayed this grass-root political activism. But those in attendance did not allow the absence of cameras or TEPCO respondents to silence their grievances. Each possess a story they so desperately want to share.

Mistake not the Japanese as an apolitical man, for tonight he cries out, if only at closed corporate windows and trains which know only how to move forward, unrelentingly. On the same unforgiving timetable as the train, Japan too moves forward, deafened, with no time to stop and think about the future of domestic energy production. At this rate, there is only one certainty: eventually, force without fuel must come to a screeching halt.

Waste matters

by John D’Amico

Before the disaster on March 11, 2011, thirty percent of Japan’s electricity came from nuclear power.  Now, only a few plants remain operational.  The one or two still online will close sometime this September.  Oil and gas bought in bulk from abroad make up for the lost power.  Though the previous administration planned for the deactivation of nuclear power plants by the 2030s, Abe Shinzo and his political allies, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), might go in a different direction.  Future policy will depend on both the new rules instituted by the Nuclear Regulation Authority of Japan and the outcome of an ongoing debate in Japanese politics.

Some, like Mr. Hatakeyama, the head of nuclear policy at METI, argue that the cheap operating costs of nuclear and the risks of a volatile global oil market make the continued use of nuclear power, with the adoption of more stringent safety standards, economically rational. Yet Mr. Kono, a member of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party in the lower house, makes a surprisingly different calculation.  Unlike many others in his party, he opposes the use of nuclear power, and not for the usual reasons of safety or sensitivity to the feelings of the victims of the 2011 disaster.

According to him, the problem is none other than waste.  Within ten years the storage for spent fuel will fill up, and no feasible fast breeder reactors even exist to deal with leftover plutonium.  While Mr. Hatakeyama seemed confident that the planned Rokkasho underground storage and treatment center would take care of at least the spent fuel problems, Mr. Kono rather drily countered that finding an appropriate site for the facility—one with no risk of earthquake, no volcanos, and no groundwater—“would be impossible in Japan.”

Though nuclear plant operation costs are comparatively low, the process of finding an appropriate means of waste disposal, as well as the maintenance of that disposal system, makes nuclear power much more costly when compared to fossil fuels.  According to Mr. Kono, even on a technical level, Japan cannot in the long term continue the reprocessing and storage of spent fuel.  He sees this technical impossibility as the key limitation of any effort to restart nuclear power.

Yet the others we spoke to disagreed, considering technical problems irrelevant.  According to Mr. Hatakeyama, METI deals with policy and therefore does not need scientists directly on staff.  Mr. Kono criticized this tendency to neglect scientific knowledge in the upper echelons of the Japanese political world, laughing about how a past Minister of Science couldn’t answer a simple question about the difference between processing uranium and plutonium.  The other two members of the lower house we interviewed exemplified this tendency, choosing instead to make the case for or against nuclear power for economic or safety reasons.

Part of the problem is misinformation.  TEPCO and other power companies not only sponsor political campaigns, but also provide technical advice and analysis that often ignores unpleasant, un-business-friendly truths.  Before 3/11, it was in no one’s interest to challenge the status quo mentality:  that nuclear power was absolutely safe and  economically sustainable.  After the disaster, everyone knew the former was false.  The latter is still up for debate.

Tomorrow, Japan

We leave tomorrow, for Japan.  We’re going to study one: the role of the indigenous Ainu population in contemporary Japanese culture and society, and two: the role of the Ainu political party in the ongoing struggle against the restart of nuclear power plants and the broader fight for popular involvement in government in Japan.  The trip will offer us the chance to explore in-depth the northern island of Hokkaido, the native land of the Ainu and a place somewhat removed from the rest of Japan in terms of history, landscape, and culture.  Part of the reason for that comes from the influence of two Americans: Horace Capron, who applied American farming techniques to the island in his capacity as foreign adviser to the Meiji leaders behind the development of the then-newly colonized island from 1870-1875, and William S. Clark, third president of UMass Amherst, who then established the Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University) and further developed new crops and methods for farming.  Clark’s parting words to his Japanese students, “Boys, be ambitious!” remains something of a popular slogan both in Hokkaido and in Japan at large

The Ainu did not benefit from this expansion of large-scale agriculture, which indelibly shaped the character of the landscape to this day.  Though land was set aside for them (to farm, not to pursue their traditional life-ways), it was quickly leased out at bargain-basement prices to Japanese farmers, the deals facilitated more so by alcohol than by rational consent.  Since an 1899 act deprived them of their status as an independent ethnic group, the Ainu did not receive formal recognition as an ethnic minority group until 2008, a status denied them probably because of the economic and cultural convenience of forcing assimilation for the sake of harmonious resource exploitation. Regardless, with the 2012 establishment of the first ever Ainu political party, the time looks ripe for an assessment of their role and potential impact in the contemporary Japanese scene.