Ethnic issues in Japan

From Academic Kids

This article deals with the characteristic ethnic issues in Japan that affect immigrant workers, in particular workers from Korea, China, and other Asian countries, and are caused by the socio-cultural history of the country.


Almost 99.99% of the population of Japan are ethnic Japanese. The majority of foreigners are Korean and Chinese, many of them being second, third, fourth or fifth generation residents of Japan. Often, although most Japanese may "see" foreigners (as in Caucasians and people of other non-Asian ethnic groups), many of them, especially people living in rural areas, would hardly have an opportunity to interact with them.

For Japanese, the issue of racism is something they come across in the mass media, but it might seem to have little relevance to their daily life. Moreover, in the mass media, the current debate on "foreigners" often centres around illegal immigrants and crime which some of these illegal immigrants cause in metropolitan areas. The issue of integration is often ignored and there is a large gap between what Japanese and foreigners in Japan see as relevant matters in this regard.

The issue of racism, although often reported as serious in some media, was not openly discussed in Japanese-language based media, whether televised or written. However, this issue has been widely discussed recently, as Japanese people realize that an open discussion is essential to solving social problems. Japanese rarely discriminate by factors like place of birth, personal wealth and social upbringing, but in some places, deeply rooted prejudice exists, most notably against Ainu, ethnic Korean and Burakumin.

Identity issues

The Japanese language uses the word gaijin (外人 lit., outside person') or gaikokujin (外国人; lit., outside country person) to describe foreigners. Gaijin is considered by some Japanese and non-Japanese as a discriminatory term. The word is applied primarily to caucasians. The use of this word is declining, and it is now more common to say the name of the country where he or she is from and add '-jin'(-person) at the end (e.g. Amerika-jin).

Little known, but repeatedly confirmed by various questionnaires, is that Japanese consider themselves to be "a citizen of a local municipality, a global citizen, a Japanese, an Asian" in that order. While this attitude is in some ways similar to that of British who regard themselves as not quite European, the fact that more Japanese regard themselves as "a global citizen" may have some connections with the experience of ultra-nationalists in the past which made the act of Japanese identity and patriotism an uncomfortable issue for many Japanese.

The fact that being "an Asian" comes in fourth can be explained by the fact that the meaning of the term Asian as cultural identification is generally regarded as meaningless given that it can cover Indians, Jordanians as well as Malaysians and so on. The Japanese term, which is much more close to the American English word "Asian", is toyojin (東洋人; Orientals), though this excludes Filipinos.


The media often portrays foreigners as trouble-makers or so deeply entrenched in their cultural backgrounds that they regard the Japanese culture and its people as curious barbarians. In addition, the Japanese media frequently reports that unidentified and unapprehended criminals are "foreign" or sometimes from a particular country, based on linguistic and methodical clues provided by witnesses or victims supplied from the local police agency.

While the recent rise of the crime committed by foreigners, especially Chinese and South Korean, is reported in Japan in what some describe as a 'racially discriminating way', the fact that thousands of Chinese and Koreans are arrested each year is rarely reported in China and Korea. Until the late 1990s, Japanese media never reported foreigners for committing crimes except for those committed by American military servicemen.

What makes this issue so problematic is that, in principle, Japanese often do not accept non-Japanese as workers unless it can be demonstrated that the person has certain skills which cannot be provided by locals. At the same time, many of the Japanese younger generation are no longer prepared to do harsh manual labour, described in a Japanese acronym as '3K', (kitsui, kitanai and kiken, which mean tiring, dirty and dangerous respectively). This gap provides large economic incentive to enter Japan illegally to gain work. Economically, like in many other developed countries, there is a perceived 'necessity' for cheap labour by businesses, and in cases where these illegal imigrants are caught and prosecuted, it is common for the media to heavily report on them.

The number of foreign criminals convicted in Japan was 12,467 in 1993 but increased to 16,212 in 2002 and is well over 20,000 in 2003. During the same time period, the number of crimes committed by foreign criminals increased from 19,671 to 34,746 and topped 40,000 in 2003. In 10 years, the number of criminals and cases doubled. Thus, some claim that racism is justified by these statistics (even though the number of foreigners in Japan as well as the number of Japanese committing crimes has also risen).

Japanese Government

With a public perception of a dramatic increase in violent crime and organized crime throughout Japan, there has been a new wave of calls to use tougher measures on foreigners who are either in Japan illegally or are committing crimes. Some foreign-rights advocates argue that these efforts are merely turning eyes from deeper problems given that foreigners are estimated to be responsible for only 2% of crime. Moreover, such measures would make it much harder for them to stay in not only illegal but also legitimate employment. Japan does not have laws that specifically deal with discrimination and hate crime and instead existing laws are used to punish when such cases of crime occur.

Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro became infamous amongst the foreign community when, in a speech for the Japan Self-Defence Forces, he referred to Chinese and Korean as 'sangokujin', then went on to describe those illegal immigrants as a potential security risk ('marauding foreigners') in the event of a massive Tokyo earthquake. For his 'get-tough' policies and inflammatory comments, he is seen by the international community as evidence of intolerance of foreigners in local government.

Racism faced by non-Japanese or people of non-Japanese heritage living in Japan

Missing image
Sign barring "Filipinos or people from other countries" at a pub in Tokyo

Japanese children who are not born in Japan, or whose parents are not 100% Japanese, may experience racism from a very young age and can even be subject to beatings by their peers and adults, but mostly they are merely ignored. One recent example is of a 9 year old boy of 1/4 American heritage whose teacher aggressively pulled his nose while yelling "Pinocchio, Pinocchio" until his nose bled. Initially the school refused to confront the issue until the boy's parents became incessantly vocal. The confused child was quoted as asking his parents if he was "dirty" because he was 1/4 American. The teacher, a member of the Japan Teachers Union, was forced to resign.

Recently there had been a series of crimes against North Korean property in Japan in reaction to the abduction issue. Incidents included firing guns on empty buildings and planting of mock bombs.

In 2003, a group of right-wingers were arrested for their suspected involvement in these crimes. However, this group was later discovered to have connections with a representative from the Democratic Party of Japan that preached a softer approach, and the group's leader had an active role in the local branch acting to reclaim abductees. While some believe this was only a part of a larger conspiracy, there is yet no evidence to support this claim.

Many Koreans entered Japan during the Japanese colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula and WWII; they were forced to work in mines and other jobs but never returned to Korea after the war. While state-paid return tickets were issued until around 1958, because of the breakout of the Korean War and subsequent confusion, some simply chose to stay and wait for the eventual unification.

Most of these people originate in what is now North Korea: some openly support North Korea's current government, and have gathered to form a group called commonly called "Soren". This has made them a target for hate-crimes and their businesses have suffered as most Japanese chose to shop elsewhere. There is also a group which supports South Korea, which tends to feud with 'North Koreans' in Japan, but maintains better relations with Japanese than their 'North Korean' counter-parts.

Both groups of Koreans claim that they are the target of discrimination from Japanese and usually adopt Japanese names as pseudonyms in everyday life. Recently, North Koreans in Japan have been using the ambiguous and generic "Korean" (コリアン) to distance themselves from abduction issue. (In Japanese, the terms for North Korea (kitachōsen 北朝鮮) and South Korea (kankoku 韓国) are distinct, while the historic generic term chōsenjin 朝鮮人 has unfavorable associations with both colonialism and North Korea.)

Okinawa was originally the semi-independent kingdom of Ryukyu (琉球) until its annexation by Japan during the Meiji Era. Their local dialect "Okinawa-ben" is hardly recognizable as Japanese. Linguistically, Okinawa-ben is an unintelligible separate language, as distant from Standard Japanese as English is from German. Because of their relatively new status as Japanese, Okinawans do encounter some discrimination; many Okinawans believe they may have been needlessly forced to fight in the last days of WW2. Their islands were occupied by the U.S.A. following the war but were returned to Japan in 1972.

Prime Ministers and high ranking officials have repeatedly visited Yasukuni Shrine, a burial place for Japan's war dead, including many infamous war criminals such as Hideki Tojo. These visits have been considered troubling and provocative by many Asians, especially Chinese and Koreans, and some Japanese, who are concerned that the visits might indicate rising Japanese nationalism and breach of the separation of religion and state. Those who support visits point out that other countries do not separate those believed to be involved in heinous acts, and that countries opposing the visits are forcing their own religious beliefs on Japan.

Racism faced by non-Asians

It is not uncommon to be denied the right to rent housing based on race in parts of Japan and some for-rent notices explicitly state gaijin-dame (外人駄目 lit: Foreigners not acceptable). The most common reason stated for this policy is that foreigners are associated with being overly-loud and more likely to host parties or other disruptive events. Also, most landlords have very limited knowledge of any foreign language and lack the ability to make a contract in one. To aid in finding a place to stay, there are NGOs and NPOs that specializes in offering an assistance. Some local municipalities also offer free consulting services.

Missing image
"Japanese only" sign at Yunohana Onsen

A small minority of onsens, especially in areas of Hokkaido frequented by Russian sailors, may deny access to their facilities because of claims that Russian customers have misbehaved in the past. Also, it is commonly believed that foreigners clean themselves in the communal bath water rather than washing in a shower prior to entering the bath. The traditional bathing custom in 'onsens' is to relax in the bath water only after washing or rinsing. Most foreigners understand this and written instructions in several languages are provided, but some onsens, citing problems in the past, refuse to allow them to prove it.

Arudou Debito, a naturalized Japanese citizen born in the United States, sued an onsen that refused entry to both himself and his daughter: although he won damages from the onsen, the law was not changed and Yunohana continued to deny entry to "foreign" people.

Allegations of Anti-Black Racism

During the 1980s, Takara created and sold a doll called "Dakko-chan" that was sold outside Japan as "Little Black Sambo". This doll was an inflatable black colored plastic doll with a "manganized" face. It also had fat lips and arms that could wrap around human arms or other pole-like objects. The doll was widely popular in Japan due to its "kawaii", or cute look, and more than a million were sold. However, when it began to be exported under the name "Little Black Sambo", Americans unfamiliar with the anime and manga style expression, which had been simplified and exaggerated for easy recognition, made claims that it resembled blackface costumes worn by performers in the minstrel shows popular in early 20th century America. After receiving numerous complaints from Americans, Sanrio stopped selling the doll and stated that it did not intend to offend black people. It was resold in 2003 in colors like bright pink and blue that does not relate to any race.

Almost at the same time, Japanese officials, including Michio Watanabe and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, were criticized for making racially insensitive remarks targeted at blacks and hispanics. Nakasone said that African and Hispanic Americans had been lowering America's intelligence level because of their low literacy rate (he claimed 25%), and praised Japan's "racial homogeneity" and working ethics, claiming that American workers were lazy. Nakasone was forced to make an apology to the people of both the United States and Japan for his comments. Notably, it has been claimed by scholars that "a large number of Japanese actually agreed with [Nakasone's] comments, but were merely angered by the embarrassment that it had caused Japan by him making them." [1] (

Nakasone's defenders claim that left-wing media, already stung by his claim that he would make Japan "an unsinkable aircraft carrier against the communism force", used this private comment to remove him from his position. They also contend that American media and politicians joined in to criticize him because many American steel and car workers were losing jobs to Japanese competition, a fact which was supportive of their claim that Japanese businesses were not competing fairly.

Eventually, there were what can be described as "fevered" efforts to remove books and films that people believed were racist against black people. The book "Little Black Sambo", translated directly from its English edition, was the next target. It also had fat lipped dark brown characters, although they were not drawn in the manga style. Despite the fact that the original story was Indian in its origin and that the "black child" was not an African, the book was removed from all school and libraries and can now be rented only for studies.

The next target was the character "008" from the manga and animated series Cyborg 009. He is an African soldier turned into a cyborg specializing in underwater activities. Despite the fact that Africans were often claimed by racists to "lack the physical build and mental abilities to perform in the water", the creator Shotaro Ishinomori was clearly not aware of this. He had only made his lip fat to be quickly recognizable in the low quality, black and white prints used for manga and when he was drawn smaller. Several of his non-African characters also were fat lipped but this fact was ignored in the fever. The animated version was stopped and books were taken off the shelf. The anime was restarted with his lip made slimmer.

Japan's History of National Isolation

From 1603-1867 Japan enjoyed its Edo Period where its borders were closed to most of the outside world in a bid to prevent external influence, particularly religious, from gaining a foothold. Before closing, there had been many outposts scattered in Southeast Asia called 'Nihonjin-machi' (Japanese town). Japan did not voluntarily end the Sakoku (closure of the country). Japan was forced open by the U.S.A and the Chinese Empire's loss to British made it clear that there had been a dramatic advance in the military hardware. It is often believed that the shogun and daimyos who ruled Japan during that time had been unaware of the expanding Western powers, but they had in fact been receiving yearly and periodical reports from Dutch representatives in Nagasaki, and consulted with them on making treaties with foreign countries.

Today, international travel is within the means of most Japanese, and every year for the past decade, more than 16 million Japanese have gone to foreign countries. Popular destinations are the USA (especially Hawaii and Guam), South Korea, China (including Hong Kong), Taiwan, and various European nations.

Difficulty assimilating into Japanese Society

Although not racist in intention, there are many differences between Japan and other countries that can cause difficulty for non-Japanese not including the difficulty of mastering Japanese.

  • Use of the inkan name seal, instead of a personal signature, for any significant business, like banking or purchasing a car.
  • Lack of entry in Koseki (family registry). Japan does not issue birth certificates to authenticate a person's identity. Each Japanese person has an entry in their family Koseki, but a non-Japanese may not be noted in Koseki even if married to a Japanese, although some municipalities compromise by allowing such marriages to be recorded in the "Notes" section of the Koseki. Many government services may not be rendered without authentication. Foreigners with legal reason for residing in Japan are issued an alien registration card which when presented (sometimes with one's passport, visa attached) can be used to receive such services. By law, foreigners must carry their passport or alien registration card at all times.
  • Kanji (Chinese characters). Not generally an obstacle for Chinese in Japan, kanji are used for all printed materials aimed at adults and are often not accompanied by furigana or romaji. They are also used on road signs and various warning signs. Materials specifically targeting foreigners often include translations in English, but resident foreigners faced with paperwork from their local city wards and places of employment must generally learn more than 1000 kanji before they can function independently in Japan. Much of the paperwork from local city wards may also be available in English. Most of the signs at the train stations now have English and Chinese and in some cases Korean as well.

See also

External links

Articles relating to statements made by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara

See also:


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