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.



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