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  • Chaiti Maheshwari


Japan’s peculiar history and the future of multiculturalism

In January 2023, Prime minister Fumio Kishida announced that Japan is on the brink of becoming a dysfunctional society. The country currently has the most rapidly ageing and declining population in the world: In the previous year, it is estimated that less than 800,000 births occurred in the country and that the elderly consisted of 28% of the population. If trends continue, it is estimated that by 2065, the total population will decline by 30%, from 127 million people, as of 2015, to 88 million. With fewer working-age adults, Japan’s workforce will shrink. Furthermore, fewer taxpayers will lead to heavier tax burdens placed on those who do work, decreasing their disposable income and thus, less to spend on consumption. The situation has escalated into a demographic crisis of extraordinary proportions, which will have a detrimental effect on Japan’s future economic growth.

In response to this, Kishida asserted:

“Focusing attention on policies regarding children and child-rearing is an issue that cannot wait and cannot be postponed."

Nowhere did he mention another obvious solution: immigration.

Japan is one of the most industrialised and globalised countries in the world, with a post-industrial society and Western-style democratic institutions. Nonetheless, it is an anomaly in having one of the most homogenous populations in the world. While increasing immigration has been widely discussed as a potential strategy for population decline, a common issue in First World states today, the country has consistently upheld restrictive policies on who and how many people they let in their borders. But why is that?

First and foremost, we must distinguish between ethnonationalism and civic nationalism, how these two different ideas impacted the process of nation-building in different countries, and thus, their divergent effect on the norms, institutions and legal frameworks today. Civic nationalist countries prioritise an individual’s willingness and ability to adapt to the values and institutions of the state, regardless of their ethnic background. Such countries, like the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, were founded and established by settlers who colonised the territory. This set the foundations for the idea that individuals of all ethnicities have equal opportunities to integrate and prosper in society. It was on this basis that the concept of “The American Dream” emerged. While the realities of immigration and the obstacles immigrants face in such nations often diverge from this ideal, these countries' historical background has, at least in theory, shaped their openness to immigration and multiculturalism.

In stark contrast, The Japanese nation was founded on ethnonationalism, an ideology which prioritises an individual’s descent, over their values or institutions. Thus, merely adopting Japanese values is insufficient; one must be ethnically and culturally Japanese to be fully accepted into society. Nonetheless, Japan remains exceptional when compared to other homogenous states, such as Germany and Italy, where, immigration and labour agreements to import foreign workers were eventually undertaken in the 20th century. To get a clearer answer on its unusual stance on immigration, we must go back to how the formation of the ‘Japan’ we know today took place.

The first part of this answer lies in its geography. As a string of islands separated from mainland Asia, Japan was and continues to be geographically isolated from Mainland Asia. Its isolation was strengthened by the ‘Sakoku’ policy, which literally translates to ‘closed country’. The Tokugawa period, from 1630 to 1868, was characterised by policies of seclusion, which prohibited the Japanese people from travelling abroad, and limited foreign trade by setting restrictions on the size of ships to prevent trade beyond the coast of the Archipelago. Foreigners were prohibited from setting foot on Japanese soil, with the exception of the Dutch, who were confined to the small enclave of Dejima island and kept under constant surveillance. While ethnic minorities, most notably the indigenous Ainu people, existed in Japan; centuries of seclusion led to a uniquely largely ethnically homogenous demographic consisting of the Yamato people. Furthermore, isolation had left the Japanese state self-sufficient, and the culture and language to develop internally with little external influence. These characteristics laid the foundations for the birth of the idea of Nihonjiron, an especially strong emphasis on Japanese cultural distinctiveness and superiority from the rest of the world.

The second part can be seen in its distinctly unique pattern of development. During the Tokugawa period, Japan had, uniquely, fulfilled the criteria for nationalism, including general education provided for all people in all parts of the country. As such, by 1850, the Japanese population had achieved a level of literacy almost as high as that in most Industrialised Western countries. The mass production of nationalist literature, books and pamphlets emerged and spread across the country, and communicated the idea of a common culture which transcended its regionally and socially divided pre-modern landscape. Thus, unlike countries like India and China, whose nationalist movements largely arose in an attempt to throw out colonial powers and gain independence, ideas of a Japan based on common ethnic descent had been conceived, developed, disseminated and strengthened long before the Western powers appeared and the formation of the modern nation-state.

Finally, the conditions under which the Japanese state finally formed were, once again, peculiar. In the 1850s, secluded Japan had been forcibly ‘opened up’ by Western powers. Nonetheless, Japan was one of the only Asian states to never be formally colonised. Instead, the country was reduced to a semi-colonial state. A series of “unequal treaties” imposed by the West removed its tariff autonomy and self-granted the right to extraterritoriality, where Westerners could reside and trade under the protection of their own laws. According to Takashi Inoguchi, the Western threat was not strong enough to stifle modernisation, as seen in the cases of neighbouring China and its subsequent ‘century of humiliation’, but the prospect of being colonised was sufficient to incentivise the Japanese. The newly established nation, thus, underwent a modernisation campaign of extraordinary proportions in an attempt to ‘catch up and overtake’ the developed Western countries. What the West took centuries to do, Japan achieved in just under a generation.

Such fast-paced modernisation paved the path for the emergence of the militaristic imperial power Japan was to become, and this, in turn, would further consolidate Japanese ethnonationalism. The advent of the West had introduced a new element which would become integral to Japanese national consciousness: race. Through exposure to the idea of Western socio-Darwinism, Japanese state elites assimilated this concept into a Confucian hierarchy of Asian races. In this system, the purity and supremacy of Japanese genetics and “blood” were used to justify its imperial pursuits. With each successful invasion in Asia – from Korea, Manchuria, Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore – this hubris only increased. By the time Japan had decided to invade China in 1937, it was widely believed that the racial others in Asia could not fit into domestic and international agendas.

Despite Japan’s defeat in World War II, Nihonjiron continues to be accepted by the masses, academics and politicians. To fit its new pacifist standpoint, Nihonjiron transformed its purpose, becoming the foundation for a new “anti-imperialist” post-war society, which should remain ‘inward-oriented’. Japan closed off its borders to immigrants to preserve the country’s ethnic homogeneity, and thus, its national ‘purity’. This influenced policy, as seen in the amendment to the 1990 Immigration Control and the Refugee Recognition act. The amendment introduced renewable three-year visas for descendants of Japanese emigrants in Brazil and Peru, known as the Nikkejin due to their Japanese blood. This seemed like the perfect solution: a way to supply Japan’s labour force, without disrupting its ethnic homogeneity. The reality was quite different. Born and raised in Latin America, most spoke little Japanese or did not speak it at all and were culturally Latin American.

In the context of globalisation and its demographic crisis, can Japan adapt and begin to embrace multiculturalism?

It is true that Japan has gradually begun letting in more immigrants. In 2019, a new Visa scheme was implemented to bring blue-collared workers into the country. Despite this, there remains the question of whether the presence of immigrants would be accepted or even functional in Japan. The state, as of now, is unequipped to deal with what happens when foreigners do come and reside in the country. There is a lack of institutional frameworks and integration programs to support immigrant settlement. Furthermore, the Japanese constitution does not have a precise definition of race and racism, and they do not have any regulations to prevent and punish racism. As a result, increased immigration may increase resentment and xenophobia among the native population. According to a national survey conducted by Japan’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ) in March 2017, an estimated 30% of foreign residents have experienced discriminatory language from Japanese in the past five years. Some nativists have even gone as far as to propose a system of apartheid in Japan if immigration were allowed.

From this, it is clear that despite the globalised world we live in, where nation-state borders and ethnic delineations are blurring, multiculturalism does not work equally well in all societal contexts. It is equally clear that Japan requires large-scale immigration, alongside measures to increase fertility, to combat its demographic crisis. Nonetheless, given the country’s lack of previous experience with large-scale immigration and deep distrust of change, it is not enough to simply implement immigration policies; what is needed is a fundamental change in the idea of Japanese national identity. Whether it is feasible to overthrow an ideology so deeply embedded in Japanese society and the psyche of the Japanese people in the foreseeable future, is another question.

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