Political and Cultural Perspectives on Japan’s Insider Minorities
by Joshua Hotaka Roth
This article introduces the concept of “Insider minorities”, those whose difference is of a sort that currently does not deny their Japanese-ness in the eyes of other Japanese, as opposed to outsider minorities, who are considered foreign despite their long, even multi-generational, residence within Japan. Most surveys of minorities in Japan have focused on ethnic minorities, including Koreans and Chinese, as well as the indigenous Ainu and Okinawans. The Burakumin ends up being the only non-ethnic group to be included (see De Vos and Wagatsuma, 1995; Weiner, 1997; Ohnuki-Tierney, 1998). Such a focus on ethnic and racial minorities, however, fails to recognize the extent of difference that exists in Japan. Indeed, ethnic minorities in Japan, together with the Burakumin, account for only 4 to 6% of the Japanese population (De Vos and Wagatsuma, 1995, p.272), making it easy for many Japanese, most notably former Prime Minister Nakasone, to claim ethnic and racial homogeneity in contrast to other countries such as the U.S. (Creighton, 1997).
Edward Fowler writes that in order to be able to recognize the range of difference that exists in Japan, “we must effect a change in our hermeneutic register.... We cannot think simply in terms of ethnicity as the basis for social heterogeneity.... We must also think in terms of class and even of caste” (1993, p.217; see also Fowler 1996). One might also include gender (Nishikawa, 1997) and sexuality, as well as class, when examining Japan’s social heterogeneity. In order to illustrate other dimensions of heterogeneity, this essay will focus on three non-ethnic minorities—the disabled, and atomic bomb victims (hibakusha), in addition to the Burakumin descendants of former outcaste groups, and three ethnic minorities—the Ainu, Okinawans and Nikkeijin (Japanese immigrants to other countries and their descendants) migrants to Japan.
Shared experiences of stigmatization and discrimination justify considering this diverse set of minorities together. In some cases, discrimination may throw minorities together spatially as they are marginalized in certain urban or rural districts. In a Burakumin neighborhood of Kyoto reside a large number of disabled people who are not Burakumin (Caron, 1999, p.436). Undocumented foreign workers can often be found in neighborhoods populated by Japanese day laborers (Ventura, 1992). In other cases, some Japanese may actually mix up the identities of various minorities, as in the following examples of harassing telephone calls made to a Buraku Liberation League office:
“you people are chonko [a term of abuse derived from Chosen-jin (Korean)—similar to “Jap” for “Japanese”], aren’t you?” or “Aren’t you guys buraku-min?” or “You’re Koreans. Go and check in at the municipal office” or “Do you want me to find you a good mental doctor?” (Mihashi, 1987, p.S23).
Japanese confusion about these various minority groups is not peculiar to the current moment. In the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, some Japanese had speculated that Burakumin had originated from groups of captured Ainu (Ooms, 1996, p.297) or of Chinese refugees “who had lived in the wild and eaten animal and bird meat” (ibid., p.305). Although there is little evidence to support the notion of the Korean or Chinese origins of the Burakumin (Hudson, 1999), Burakumin, Koreans, Chinese, and the mentally ill have sometimes blended together in the popular imagination. At least at one level, this calls for an integrated analysis.
Even as this essay attempts an integrated analysis of ethnic and non-ethnic minorities, it will not include those considered “outsider minorities” such as the Koreans and Chinese, although they too have experienced discrimination and have sometimes been mixed up with other minorities.
In some ways, the existential dilemma facing outsider minorities can be even more pronounced than that facing insider minorities, for the very Japanese-ness of the former is often denied. despite the fact that many among the second, third, and later generations are culturally and linguistically at home in Japan. As in the case of Blacks in the U.S., or Jewish minorities in Europe prior to the Holocaust, the country of residence, and not some historic place of origin, is their home, their only home.
In the European context, Etienne Balibar suggests that we not overstate the distinction between an internally directed anti-Semitism and an externally directed colonial racism. In essence, the distinction has been that while anti-Semitism is a racism of “extermination” which attempts to “purify the social body of the stain or danger the inferior races may represent,” colonial racism is a racism of “oppression or exploitation” which aims “to hierarchize and partition society” (Balibar 1991, p. 39). Balibar argues that neither racism has ever existed in pure form, and that anti-Semitism can take on an exploitative quality and colonial racism an exterminationist one (ibid. p. 40-45). Similarly, in the U.S. context, certain distinctions can be made between the racism directed towards Blacks, who hold a central place within the national culture, and that directed towards more recent immigrant groups such as Asian-Americans or Latinos, whose American-ness is often questioned even after several generations.
By limiting this survey to “insiders,” I do not intend to suggest a radical divide between insiders and outsiders. In fact, it should become clear that the classification as insider or outsider is arbitrary and evanescent, shifting for some groups with changing historical circumstances. For example, Koreans and Chinese within Japan’s multiethnic colonial empire in the first half of the 20th century were not outsiders in quite the same way that they became in the postwar era when the myth of Japanese homogeneity took hold (Oguma 2002). Koreans and Taiwanese were Japanese subjects under colonial rule and were encouraged to assimilate (doka) as Japanese, even if they were not afforded all of the political and economic rights of other Japanese citizens (Ching 2002, p. 1-6). Furthermore, some fought in the Japanese army, and a few were even elected to the Japanese Diet. Following Japan's defeat at the end of World War II all were deprived of Japanese citizenship, including those who continued to live in Japan. Moreover, when we consider the experience of Koreans who may have taken Japanese citizenship, yet who face discrimination if their background is revealed, or contrarily, Nikkeijin who are ethnically Japanese and so are sometimes considered “insiders” even when, as in most cases, they do not have Japanese citizenship, we see that the state-based classification of insiders and outsiders articulates with the cultural categories of insider and outsider without completely determining them.
The categories of insider and outsider are both changeable and permeable, yet they are nevertheless significant in structuring perceptions and social relations. The nation state system continues to be one of the most important axes of identification in the world today, whatever the impact of transnational movements and of economic and cultural globalization. The influx of large numbers of foreign workers to Japan at one level may have the effect of reinforcing notions of Japanese monoethnicity at another level (see Lie 2001, 26). In such a context, “insider minorities” whose difference is recognized without being dismissed as foreign, may be particularly revealing for understanding how normative models of Japanese-ness are constructed.
Two major perspectives are relevant for analyzing Japanese minorities. The cultural perspective posits that the concepts of purity (hare) and pollution (kegare) that derive from Buddhist and Shinto traditions, and the related understanding of strangers (tanin, ijin) that derive from folk traditions, have shaped Japanese understandings of difference. According to this perspective, these comprise a cultural baseline that has been relatively fixed throughout Japanese history. Minority groups, most notably the Burakumin, have been discriminated against because they fall within the culturally defined category of the polluting.
The political perspective excavates a more dynamic politics underlying supposedly fixed cultural principles. This perspective emphasizes the historical and political processes of minority group formation. Thus, proponents of this perspective might emphasize how things considered either polluting or pure in one historical context have lost or gained such associations over time under specific circumstances often involving the workings of state power and other political and economic interests.
This essay examines the Burakumin, hibakusha, the disabled, Nikkeijin, Ainu, and Okinawans from the cultural and political perspectives. Despite significant differences among these groups, this survey suggests that all of them have suffered similar patterns of discrimination based on the cultural frameworks of the majority Japanese. It also indicates that the politicized quality of minority identification in the twentieth century was not a completely new phenomenon that only developed in the context of the modern nation state, but that boundaries between groups were created and negotiated through the political manipulation of cultural frameworks whose roots can be traced to much earlier times.
The Burakumin (literally, hamlet people) minority does not have any racial or linguistic characteristics that mark them off from the “mainstream” Japanese population. Scholars have most often applied the cultural perspective of purity and pollution to explain the Burakumin. The Burakumin historically worked as tanners, butchers, undertakers, cleaners of latrines, caretakers of the sick, and in other occupations which were considered polluting because of their association with death and bodily excretions. Ohnuki-Tierney writes that “Burakumin were specialists in impurity, who spare[d] others from dealing with the inevitable problems of pollution and dirt. In the process, they became identified with impurity itself…” (1984, p.45). During the Tokugawa period Burakumin generally lived at the edges of villages. Ohnuki-Tierney suggests that conceptions of purity and pollution were given spatial coordinates; things located on peripheries correlated with pollution, while things located in centers correlated with purity. Burakumin residence at the margins of towns was just one indication of a wider principle (1984, p.21-27).
The cultural perspective provides a powerful analysis for a range of purity and pollution beliefs and practices. Death was not uniquely polluting, but one instance of a class of things that were so considered because of their position at a threshold, or margin, between realms. Leather workers were situated at the threshold between the living and the dead. Itinerant performers such as monkey trainers (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1987) and ritual puppeteers (Law, 1997) were associated with pollution because they were outsiders, “non-residents” of local villages (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1998, p.37; Law, 1997, p.78-79), who were thought to come from an unknown, dangerous, and polluted external world. Itinerants shared with leather workers and outcaste peoples of diverse occupations a function in mediating between symbolic realms.
As mediators between symbolic realms, outcaste groups included not just undertakers but midwives. They included not just those who cleaned latrines, but those who cleaned temple grounds. Japanese conceptions of pollution (kegare) therefore must be seen in terms quite distinct from modern notions of hygiene (see Douglas, 1966). The term most often translated as purity, hare, literally means bright, clear, or pure, and can be defined more generally as “that which enhances life and is creative” (Law, 1997, p.60). Pollution, or kegare, is “that which undoes life and leads to death and destruction” (ibid., p.61), and yet it also contains within it generative powers (see Yamaguchi, 1977, p.154; Yoshida, 1981, p.44). In the Kojiki and Nihongi, the eighth century chronicles of the gods and early kings (Japan’s creation myths) various bodily excretions and body parts that are considered polluting have powerfully generative powers when handled in ritually proper ways (Law, 1997, p.65).
While the purity/pollution framework provides a powerful analytic tool, scholars writing from the political perspective reject ahistorical notions of a deep structure of Japanese thought. Herman Ooms argues that the idiom of purity and pollution was applied situationally rather than universally, even in premodern Japan (1996, chapter 6). Ooms writes that the application of the pollution concept “could be customary (but custom is flexible), institutional (but institutions change), or situational (and therefore contestable)” (ibid., p.275). He describes a case in which local authorities in one province conveniently ignored the pollution concept, intervening on behalf of Burakumin (then commonly referred to as Kawata, lit. “leather worker”) under their jurisdiction in a conflict with non-Burakumin peasants from a neighboring region (ibid., p.257-261).
Ooms also notes that during the period of internecine warfare in the sixteenth century, Kawata were located in the center of castle towns because of the importance of leather workers for the manufacture of weapons and armor, and that they and their work was not stigmatized as it was later on (ibid., p.279; see also Ninomiya, 1933). Prejudice grew during the Tokugawa period, a time of relative political stability, and was accompanied by the relocation of Burakumin to the peripheries of towns and villages (Ooms, 1996, p.281) and the increasing usage of the disparaging term “eta” (lit. “defilement abundant”) to refer to them (ibid., p.282). Ooms contends that the concept of pollution was open to manipulation by parties interested in enforcing or establishing a social, economic, and political hierarchy.
Ian Neary (1989) presents a picture of the gradual politicization of Burakumin identity in the twentieth century that suggests that the cultural perspective is appropriate for understanding the construction of Burakumin at an earlier time while a political perspective is more appropriate for analyzing the modern situation. But even in the Tokugawa period, Kawata did not necessarily accept the negative labels applied to them (Ooms, 1996, p.248). While nineteenth century nativist scholars concocted theories of eta descent from captured Ainu or from shipwrecked Chinese, Kawata elites kept records of their geneologies suggesting descent from “the Japanese mythical figure Somin-shorai, a poor man who had become wealthy because he had lent his humble abode to a god,” or to divine figures such as Hakusan or Ebisu, or from the Minamoto shogun (ibid., p.307). Clearly, the purity/pollution complex existed in competition or juxtaposition with a variety of other cultural categories that allowed Kawata to construct positive mytho-histories for themselves.
In the late nineteenth century, the Meiji government renamed Burakumin “new commoners” (shin heimin), as opposed to just “commoners,” and in so doing indexed and maintained the stigmatized status to which they had been yoked during the Tokugawa period. The government’s system of household registration (koseki) made it possible to trace individuals to their hometowns and that of their forbears, making it easy to identify Burakumin. Thus, modern government policy has helped shape the category of Burakumin, shackling those who had long since ceased to practice what had been considered polluting occupations to an identity they may not have wanted to retain.
Social conditions and the influence of radical foreign ideas in the early twentieth century stimulated a social movement, centered around the group Suiheisha, that consciously rejected the cultural underpinnings of discrimination (Neary, 1989, p.51). In the postwar period, Burakumin concerned with fighting discrimination formed the Burakumin Liberation League and developed a political strategy of publicly denouncing those who expressed prejudice towards them. Denunciations were effective in extracting apologies and greater care in the use of discriminatory language, and they motivated other minority groups and women to follow their example (Takaki, 1992). Such social movements could help these groups forge positive self-identities. Frank Upham argues, however, that the tactic of denunciation fails to develop an understanding of rights to cultural difference, and assumes only the right to be treated the same as other Japanese. He suggests that formal legislation or litigation could be a more fruitful avenue towards such a goal (Upham, 1987, p.118-123).
Hibakusha (atomic bomb victims) are another minority group, who, like Burakumin, are not distinguishable from other Japanese by racial or linguistic characteristics. The category of hibakusha often refers just to those people who were either killed or suffered medical problems as a result of the atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Early estimates of the numbers killed in these two cities were roughly 70,000 in Hiroshima and 25,000 in Nagasaki. Later calculations placed the numbers who died by the end of 1945 more in the range of 140,000 in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki (see Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1981, p.364; Dower, 1998, p.ix). Most died at the time the bombs were dropped and in the weeks and months following. Thousands more died in the following decades of diseases related to radiation exposure, as well as from burns and other conventional wounds that weakened them and eventually took their lives. Until the 1980s, residents of these cities had a higher rate of leukemia than Japanese of other cities, and women who were pregnant at the time of the bomb have given birth to children who have suffered mental retardation and other disabilities. Others have survived without medical problems but were mentally scarred by the trauma of fleeing through streets filled with burnt corpses, and have lived with the constant fear of disease arising from radiation exposure.
Since 1957, the Japanese government has extended special medical services to hibakusha, defining hibakusha as those who were within four kilometers of ground zero at the time of the explosion, those who came within two kilometers of the center within three days of the explosion, and those who were in utero when their mothers were exposed (Dower, 1998, p.ix). A broader definition of hibakusha would include all of those who have been affected by the bombs in some way. Thus people who have suffered discrimination as a result of their association with Hiroshima could also be considered hibakusha. Women from Hiroshima and Nagasaki have had trouble finding marriage partners because of fears that their children would have birth defects (Chujo, 1986, p.26-46). Some Japanese Americans who were in these two cities when the bombs were dropped later hid their experience when back in the U.S. for fear of being denied health insurance (Sodei 1998, p.91). Koreans who survived Hiroshima and later returned to Korea faced a similar dilemma.
Some hibakusha have taken it upon themselves to be as visible and active as possible. They have done so as participants of various Japanese peace movements that center around the sites of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Such activists hope that by helping educate others about the horrors of atomic war, they may help prevent it from ever occurring again. Some quieter victims of the bomb complain, however, that discrimination against them has been exacerbated by the exaggeration of radiation sickness as a result of the peace movement activities (Chujo, 1986). This difference in stance is reflected in differences between the peace movements in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Hiroshima peace movement has been characterized as vocal and angry in contrast to the more quiet and meditative quality of Nagasaki’s (see Treat, 1995, p.301-307). Hiroshima’s role as THE symbol of the bomb may be related to the more visible and vocal quality of its the peace movement. The characteristics of these two cities may actually represent the two alternative approaches of visibility and invisibility available to all hibakusha. Some who choose invisibility consider the category of “hibakusha” as something created and imposed from the outside. Such people, far from embracing an hibakusha identity, seek to live 'normal' lives with minimal reference to the bomb.
Can cultural perspectives on the stranger and on purity and pollution help explain discrimination that hibakusha have faced in Japan? In what way do hibakusha occupy a threshold? The stigma attached to hibakusha could stem from their contamination by an external agent—bombs produced and dropped by Americans. Such an analysis would overstretch the usefulness of the cultural perspective, however, for we must distinguish strangers, i.e. people from the outside, from objects or ideas. Japanese have always been engaged in the trade of goods and the exchange of ideas. Outside influences have shaped every aspect of Japanese culture. Thus the atomic bomb’s foreign origin cannot explain the stigma attached to hibakusha. Rather, this stigma may derive in part from the position hibakusha occupy on the threshold between life and death, as well as that between health and illness.
The stigma of radiation sickness also taints the descendants of those who survived the bombing. Families frequently use private investigative services to look into the backgrounds of prospective marriage partners to expose hibakusha and other invisible insider minorities (see Hayashida 1975). If a detective working for a prospective groom’s family discovered that a prospective bride’s father or mother was in Hiroshima at the time the bomb dropped, marriage plans might be shelved. The same could happen if the detective discovered that the other family had relatives who lived in Buraku neighborhoods, had a Korean background, or had a history of disabilities and mental illnesses. The transmission of this stigma to second and third generation hibakusha involves the racialization of this category, a process stimulated in part by the import of European and American eugenics discourse since the late nineteenth century (see Weiner, 1994). Eugenics laws in 1940 during World War II, as well as in 1948 in the early postwar era, mandated sterilization for certain hereditary diseases, mental illness or retardation (Matsubara, 1998, p.194-5), and various infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, venereal diseases, and leprosy, which were thought, in Lamarckian fashion, to be hereditable (Otsubo and Bartholemew, 1998, p.547-8).
People with disabilities
People with physical disabilities (shintai shogaisha) and mental illnesses (seishin shogaisha) comprise a very broad category whose members do not necessarily share a sense of common identity. Some groups, such as the deaf or blind, have much stronger identities and insititutions than others (Nakamura 2002). Nevertheless, other Japanese may perceive people with disabilities all to be of a kind, whether they are visually or hearing impaired, have limited physical mobility, are brain damaged, have HIV/Aids, or are prone to epileptic seizures, etc. Such externally imposed categorization may serve as a wellspring of an overarching group identity. In the case of hibakusha, prejudice and discrimination led only some victims to confront such treatment head on by emphasizing the visibility of their condition. Such is also the case among some people with disabilities, but prejudice could also serve to galvanize group identities.
In the past, people with disabilities were often thrown into physical proximity with each other and stigmatized more overtly than they are today, as in this 1893 description of one neighborhood from Matsubara Iwagoro’s In Darkest Tokyo:
Who are these folks who eat and sleep in these lower regions? All of them are invalids, disabled, either deaf and mute, or blind, and most of them are entertainers who cater to those coming [to the hot springs] to wash away their aches and pains, musicians who entertain with flute, shakuhachi, koto and shamisen, while still others provide massage, ... acupuncture, and moxa treatments. Take a look at these misshapen figures and you will find ... a giant of a man with a lump the size of an Irish potato on his forehead and eyes squashed in like oysters, a little monster with a shaved head, a blind itinerant musician with her face disfigured by smallpox, a paralytic who moves by supporting his weight on his knuckles, a sufferer of elephantiasis, and a dwarf, all living anywhere from five to seven or eight to a single unit (Matsubara  1980, p. 25, quoted in Maeda 2004, p. 52)
Maeda Ai notes that Matsubara, who was critical of what he considered the prison-like quality of modernizing urban Japan at the end of the 19th century, tended to romanticize this collection of marginalized figures as embodying an indomitable spirit. At the same time, Matsubara was aware of the darker, non-egalitarian aspects of even this collection of marginal figures, who were led in an apparently tyrannical manner by the giant with the lump on this forehead (Maeda 2004, p. 51-53).
It is worth noting that the disabled people described by Matsubara had specific functions within society. They served as musicians and masseuses. Japanese may have conceived of certain disabled as occupying a threshold between realms, which may have served to both stigmatize them and to confer certain powers. Blindness and other physical and mental conditions were also sometimes associated with special powers of communication with the transcendental realm. Thus, in certain parts of Japan, they were employed as mediums. Itinerant blind shamisen performers of Tsugaru (see De Ferranti, 2000) exemplify the association between disability performance, and itinerancy. Such associations linger on in contemporary Japan (see Ivy, 1995, p. 141-191), but now people with disabilities are able to engage in a politics of visibility or recognition (see Taylor, 1992) rather than having to accept the social place prescribed to them at an earlier time. The strategy of visibility in confronting discrimination is especially effective when discrimination occurs surreptitiously in contradiction to a normative ideology of equality and rights. The disabled have been less visible in Japan, however, than in many other developed countries. The Japanese government in the late 1980s recognized only about 3% of the national population as suffering from any form of disability. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands both recognized roughly 10% of their populations, Belgium 12.5%, Poland 14%, and Sweden as much as 34.8% (Mogi, 1992, p.440). By 1998, the Japanese figure had risen to 4.5% (Ministry of Health and Welfare, 1999), which is comparable to the U.S. figure of 4.9% for the non-institutionalized population (U.S. Census Bureau 2003). The huge differences in national figures suggest very different criteria for evaluating disability much more than any real differences in the conditions of populations in developed countries. Disability in Japan is still somewhat under-recognized.
Greater visibility on the part of the disabled is crucial if they are to gain access to services, as well as to achieve more positive self identities. People with disabilities number in the millions and comprise such a wide range of conditions and degrees of debility that they should be considered as a category more than a group. Those who share a specific type of condition, such as the deaf (Nakamura 2002) or people with cerebral palsey, have formed groups that have pressured the government for greater services, and have made significant strides in improving institutional living conditions for the disabled, as well as in pressuring the government to provide necessary services to allow independent living arrangements for those who wanted it (Hayashi and Okuhira 2001). Some groups such as Osaka Association of Families of the Mentally Disabled have also protested the use of discriminatory language by print and broadcast media (Gottlieb, 1998, p.163, see also Takaki, 1992) and have pushed news agencies to devise lists of words to avoid. In 1995, the Japanese government implemented an action plan with the goal of promoting greater self-sufficiency, quality of life, barrier free access, safe livelihood, and integration of the disabled with the larger community (Ministry of Health and Welfare, 1999).
While increased visibility can potentially foster positive identities for the disabled minority, for some it may just involve a shift from attempts to hide their disabilities to efforts to overcome and erase them. As David Engle has said in relation to special educational programs for the disabled in the U.S., the parents of disabled children often demand such programs in the hope that special treatment could maximize the potential that their children achieve “normalcy” (Engle, 1993, p.140-141). The identity of the disabled minority appears by nature contingent, but it is no more so than that of ethnic minorities, some of whose members have strived for a similar invisibility via passing or assimilation into the “mainstream.”
Nikkeijin (literally, “sun line people”) comprise the only minority discussed thus far whose members do not necessarily hold Japanese citizenship. They are “insiders,” however, in the sense that they share some degree of Japanese ancestry. Migration to Hawai’i and the west coast of the U.S. took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Migration to Brazil started in 1908 when the U.S. made it more difficult to enter the country, and the bulk of prewar migration to Brazil took place after 1924 when the U.S. tightly closed the door to Japanese migrants. Brazil and the U.S. and are homes to the largest numbers of Nikkeijin. The Japanese government has estimated there to be 760,900 Nikkeijin in the U.S., and 620,400 in Brazil. Somewhat smaller populations of Nikkeijin reside in Peru (55,500), Canada (55,100), Argentina (29,300), Mexico (11,900), Bolivia (7,900), and Paraguay (6,100) (Kikumura-Yano, 2002, 29). These figures, however, are the subject of some controversy, especially in the Brazilian case, where a census conducted by a Japanese Brazilian community organization reported them to number over 1.2 million (Centro de Estudos Nipo-Brasileiros, 1990, p. 16; Fujisaki 1991: 45), significantly higher than the figure provided by the Japanese government.
The category of Nikkeijin includes first generation Japanese immigrants to other countries as well as their descendants. While the first generation (issei) are distinguished from second, third, and later generations (nisei, sansei, etc.) by the generational marker, or by the term ijusha (immigrant), the category of Nikkeijin can encompass all of these, and thus overlaps with the category of Japanese (Roth, 2002, p. 23-36). These categories overlap also in the significant number of cases where nisei hold Japanese citizenship. Not all Japanese living abroad count as Nikkeijin, however. Neither Japanese business people who have been stationed abroad temporarily, nor their children, even if they have grown up largely outside of Japan, are considered Nikkeijin. The category is defined by a history of emigration from Japan at some point in the past.
The degree of Japanese ancestry and Japanese cultural and linguistic knowledge necessary for someone to be considered Nikkeijin is subject to negotiation in different contexts. Since 1990, Japanese immigration policy has made preferred visas statuses more readily available to second and third generation Nikkeijin. The goverment limited visas to these generations in order to control the numbers of Nikkeijin eligible to enter Japan. At the same time, however, this policy suggested that the degree of racial mixture and cultural loss among later generations in effect excluded them from the category of Nikkeijin (Roth, 2002, p. 23-36). Some Nikkeijin have objected to such distinctions among generations, and have petitioned the Japanese government to treat all generations equally.
Despite the narrow definition of Nikkeijin built into the new immigration policy, hundreds of thousands of Nikkeijin, mostly second and third generation, have gone to work in Japan since it went into effect. In 2000, more than 250,000 were residing there, concentrated in the industrial belt between Nagoya and Tokyo. More than three quarters of these were from Brazil, and most of the rest from Peru (see recent ethnographies by Linger, 2001; Roth, 2002; Tsuda 2003; the collection of essays by Yamashita, 2001; and the edited volumes by Lesser, 2003 and Watanabe, 1995). Some suggest that Japanese may have viewed second and third generation Nikkeijin from Brazil as having brought with them the pollution they acquired from living outside of Japan for most of their lives (see Tsuda, 1998, p.337-345). The pollution of place sullied the purity of race—even for those Nikkeijin who were not of mixed ancestry. Takeyuki Tsuda notes, however, that Nikkeijin from Brazil and other developing countries were more gravely tainted than were those from the U.S., who, although “outside,” were more positively associated with modernity. In addition, Nikkeijin were tainted by their association with manual labor (ibid., p.323-330). The majority of the over 250,000 Nikkeijin working in Japan in the late 1990s were employed in manufacturing and electronics factories, food processing, and unskilled service work.
In addition apparently to bringing pollution with them to Japan from the outside, Nikkeijin occupied a conceptual threshold in that they were often thought to be racially Japanese and yet culturally very different. Fulfilling only certain of the criteria used to define who was Japanese, Nikkeijin seemed to occupy the margin between Japanese and Other. Moreover, they also had some of the positive generative attributes sometimes associated with outsiders and with polluting substances. Much of the industrial production in central Japan would not have been possible without the presence of Nikkeijin workers. Without them, many small manufacturers would have been forced to close shop.
From the late 1980s through the 1990s, Nikkeijin gradually moved from the status of a preferred group to a stigmatized one, suggesting that the purity/pollution complex could shift or be manipulated with changing contexts. Initially, the Japanese government and businesses welcomed Nikkeijin as a preferred alternative to foreign migrants who were not ethnically Japanese. The onset of recession and decrease in demand for Nikkeijin led some Japanese to label Nikkeijin irresponsible workers, which we may interpret as a variant of the pollution metaphor. If Nikkeijin evinced certain qualities that could be interpreted as irresponsible, however, these were more a result of their status as temporary brokered or contract workers rather than a cultural predisposition (see Roth, 2002, p. 75-91). As brokered workers, Nikkeijin had little incentive to cultivate feelings of loyalty towards the firms to which they happened to be assigned. They were the first to be laid off during downturns, so they tended to look out for themselves and take advantage of opportunities for better working conditions when they arose. This only served, however, to justify their marginal status in the eyes of some Japanese managers and bureaucrats. Some Nikkeijin have reacted to these conditions by embracing a Brazilian identity in the Japanese context. It remains to be seen whether those Nikkeijin who seem to be settling in Japan will over many years become linguistically and culturally assimilated as Japanese – or whether their adaptive strategies within the social contexts of workplaces and neighborhoods will preserve their Brazilian linguistic and cultural forms for much longer than expected. Nor is it certain that the children of Japanese Brazilians who are growing up in Japan will inevitably blend into the larger Japanese population. While children will certainly gain a cultural and linguistic fluency that their parents may not, their affinity and identification towards Brazil and Japan will depend in part on the attitudes of their parents, as well as a larger social climate that may continue to stigmatize them or to value them as embodiments of internationalization much like returnee school children (kikokushijo) (see Goodman 1990).
The Ainu, said to number approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the large northern island of Hokkaido. Unlike most of the other “insider minorities” discussed above, the Ainu had a distinctive language, clothing, material culture, and social organization that set them off from other Japanese. A century of assimilation programs, however, has destroyed much of what made Ainu distinctive. Many Ainu have intermarried with non-Ainu Japanese, and very few speak the language fluently anymore. Nevertheless, in recent decades, Ainu have begun to mobilize around political movements to protect their lands, and have made efforts to revive the language and create a renewed sense of cultural identity.
The ancestors of Ainu are thought to have lived throughout the Japanese archipelago and to have been pushed to the northern extremes by the arrival of waves of settlers who brought rice paddy agriculture from the Asian continent starting in the third century BCE. Although Japanese archaeologists often have depicted Ainu as remnants of the Jomon era (prehistoric period from 10,000 - 300 BC) (see discussion in Howell, 1996, p.174-175; McCormack, 1996, p.277; Hudson, 1999), what has come to be known as Ainu culture developed through complex interactions with “four main archaeological cultures over different periods of time—the Epi-Jomon (250 BCE-700 CE), the Okhotsk (600-1000CE), the Satsumon (700-1200 CE), and the later Japanese” (Walker, 2001, p.20).
The Ainu and Okinawans occupy the northern and southern extremes of the Japanese archipelago. From the perspective of the Japanese metropole in Edo or Kyoto during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), the Ainu and Ryukyuans constituted the “barbarian fringe.” Because they could not be fully controlled, the “barbarians” posed an implicit threat to the center. However, through their payments of tribute, they simultaneously ensured the center’s political prestige and economic status. Japanese leaders had developed this understanding of interstate tribute trade relationships with a civilized center and barbarian fringe (ka’i) from a Chinese model. Despite its Chinese origins, the model resonates at state level political organization with the stranger paradigm discussed above in relation to village level organization. Although Ainu and Ryukyuans were culturally completely different from each other, and had a somewhat different standing in relation to the political center in Edo, both represented a potentially dangerous outside which, when incorporated into the tribute trade system, functioned to symbolically legitimate the center.
As we have seen with other groups, however, the boundaries between the Ainu and the Japanese were far from fixed . Brett Walker writes that some of the Japanese leading families in the contact zone with Ainu may have been descended in part from Ainu (2001, p.26). He also shows that ethnic affiliation did not always determine interactions and alliances. Even Shakushain’s War (1669), which led to much stronger Japanese control over the Ainu and is most often interpreted as having been a conflict along ethnic lines, started out involving fighting between Ainu groups, with some locally residing Japanese supporting one Ainu faction and other Ainu supporting Japanese troops who later moved to establish control over the region (ibid., p.48-72).
David Howell suggests that the ethnic boundaries between Ainu and Japanese became more and more institutionalized during the Tokugawa period. From the Tokugawa Shogunate’s perspective, the legitimacy of the northern Matsumae domain, which bordered on the Ainu lands of Ezochi (currently Hokkaido Prefecture), rested on its function as intermediary with the Ainu. Thus, the Matsumae were scrupulous to maintain, and to some extent create, the Ainu as a distinct group in relation to which the Japanese (Wajin) were defined. As Howell puts it, “the Japanese in Hokkaido could allow neither the assimilation nor the extermination of the Ainu population because, quite simply, if there were no Ainu, the Matsumae house would have no formal reason to exist” (Howell, 1994, p.85). Certain markers of difference such as language, clothing, and hairstyles were prescribed for Ainu. Such markers, however, were carefully chosen so that they did not interfere with the increasing dependency of Ainu on Japanese commodities and their incorporation into commercial fishing enterprises (ibid., p.86- 87).
The outsider minority status of Ainu shifted towards that of insider minorities with the Meiji (1868-1913) establishment of the modern Japanese nation state and the urgency of clearly defining territorial borders in the face of Russian expansion. Tessa Morris-Suzuki argues that the Ainu, who had been conceived as existing spatially on the margins of Japan, were later formally incorporated into the territory of the nation state by the more clearly drawn national borders established by the Meiji government. Even as they were spatially incorporated, however, Ainu were conceived as temporally Other, e.g. as prehistoric Japanese (Morris-Suzuki, 1998, p.3-34). As such, the Ainu became the target of numerous assimilation programs which decimated Ainu culture under the banner of raising their level of civilization. Ironically, while these programs succeeded in destroying Ainu culture, they failed to assimilate Ainu into the Japanese mainstream, creating instead an impoverished and stigmatized minority (Takagi, 1993; Siddle, 1996, p.51-75)., In some sense, the incorporation of the Ainu within the boundaries of the modern nation involved the domestication of Ainu difference from that of an absolute Other to one of regional variant (Howell, 1996, p.178). Many contemporary Ainu, however, provide a multicultural twist to the understanding of “Japanese.” Kayano Shigeru claims the label of Japanese as much for the Ainu as for their Wajin (mainland Japanese) neighbors and objects to the common opposition between “Japanese” and “Ainu.” By using the term “Wajin” he positions mainland Japanese as one ethnicity among various within the Japanese nation (Kayano 1994). It is one part of a larger project to deconstruct the “majority” created during the era of the modern nation state, and which accompanies the Ainu revitalization that has gathered force since the 1970s (Siddle, 1996, p.162-189).
The status of the Ryukyu islands (of which Okinawa is the largest) and their inhabitants shifted in much the same way as did that of Ezochi (Ainu lands) as the Tokugawa Shogunate gave way to the Meiji era of modern state-building. In both cases, what had been categorized as foreign lands on the margins of Japan were formally brought within the boundaries of the Japanese state. Like the Ainu, who fell under the suzerainty of the Matsumae, Ryukyuans were controlled by the lords of the Satsuma domain in Kyushu. The Ryukyu case was somewhat more complicated, however, for it maintained a nominal independence as a kingdom with tribute relations with China as well as with the Tokugawa shogunate. In order to maintain the tribute relationship with China, which made available highly valued goods to Satsuma or Tokugawa authorities, Japanese authorities enforced the pretence of Ryukyuan independence. In fact, Japanese forbade Ryukyu islanders from wearing Japanese hair or clothing styles, and from taking Japanese names. Over time, Chinese cultural influences in the Ryukyuan court life became fairly pronounced (Smits, 1999, p.15-49).
The Ryukyu Kingdom was formally annexed by Japan in 1872, when an Imperial edict proclaimed the creation of the Domain of Ryukyu, and in 1879, it became the prefecture of Okinawa (Smits, 1999, p.145). Despite gaining prefectural status in 1879, it took somewhat longer for Okinawa to obtain many of the most important institutions and prerogatives normally associated with that status. It was not until 1909 that prefectural assembly elections were established, nineteen years after other prefectures of Japan. National assembly elections were established in 1912, 22 years after other prefectures. “Universal” conscription was extended to Okinawa in 1898, 25 years after other parts of Japan. As in the case of the Ainu, the modern Japanese state promoted assimilation programs intended to eliminate Okinawan difference and make them into modern Japanese subjects. Interestingly, such assimilation programs too were implemented some time after Okinawan incorporation into the modern Japanese state. Japanese policies in Okinawa initially mirrored those later adopted in other Japanese colonies, and they were even discouraged from assimilation through the explicit policy of “preserving old customs” (kyukan hozon) (ibid., p.144-149).
Language was the primary focus of Japanese assimilation programs once the state began to aggressively promote them in Okinawa. Initially, the central government made efforts to make Okinawans competent in the use of “standard” Japanese (hyojun-go). Later, it promoted the use of standard Japanese even within Okinawan homes, indicating how the eradication of linguistic and cultural differences came to be seen as an essential part of the assimilation process (Christy, 1993). Japanese schools constructed on Okinawa in the 1880s were the first step. The Japanese victory in the Sino-Japanese War (1895) motivated many Okinawan intellectuals to call for active assimilation to Japanese linguistic and cultural standards. Ota Chofu, known as Okinawa’s Fukuzawa Yukichi, recommended Okinawans mimick the Japanese even in the way they sneezed (Kano, 1997, p.4). Certain intellectuals, such as historian Higashionna Kanjun and linguist/folklorist Iha Fuyu, explained Okinawan difference as the result of unnatural policies of the Tokugawa period designed to disguise Japanese suzerainty in order to maintain the tribute relationship with China (Smits, 1999, p.149-155).
While early twentieth century intellectuals constructed Okinawa as liberated from the effects of Tokugawa era policies and returning to its more natural relationship with Japan, by the 1920s, in the face of an increasingly oppressive assimilationist project, some began to question how liberating Meiji policy was. Okinawan writers such as Kushi Fusako and Yamanokuchi Baku sharply criticized Japanese discrimination against Okinawans and sympathized with the shared plight of Ainu and of Koreans, over whom the Japanese government had imposed Imperial subjecthood (Kano, 1997, p.5). Writing in the 1930s, they moved toward a more positive embrace of Okinawan culture, a direction that was encouraged in the late 1940s and 1950s when Okinawa came under American military rule (ibid., p.7).
American military rule itself soon stimulated the organization of a “return movement” (fukki undo), which once again revived idealistic constructions of Japan as an ancestral land for Okinawans. Okinawans’ embrace of Japan in the 1960s while they were still under U.S. rule, as well as after reversion to Japan in 1972, differed in significance from that of Meiji era intellectuals, however, in that the 1972 return was actively willed and brought about by Okinawans, whereas the positions of earlier writers constituted post facto justifications of forcible annexation and assimilation. The continued presence of American military bases which occupy so much of Okinawan land thirty years after reversion to Japan, however, has made clear Japanese government complicity with American military exigency, and led to Okinawan reevaluation of their relationship with Japan (Hein and Selden, 2003). Since the late 1980s, Okinawans have protested the obligatory display of the Japanese flag at public events (Field, 1993, p.33-106), and have launched a campaign to teach about the mass murders of local residents committed by Japanese soldiers during the battle of Okinawa at the end of World War Two (Figal, 2003). Concurrent with the growing critique of Japan, Okinawans have developed a much more positive appreciation of their own distinctive culture, both within Okinawa and the diaspora spread across Hawai’i, Peru, Brazil and other parts of the Americas (Ota, 1997; Mori, 2003; Nakasone 2001). Despite the fact that Okinawa continues to be by far Japan’s poorest prefecture, even the mainland Japanese islands witnessed a boom in Okinawan culture in the 1990s, with the popularity of Okinawan pop (Roberson, 2003) and the recognition given to Okinawan literature when two Okinawans, Matayoshi Eiki and Medoruma Shun, won the prestigious Akutawaga prize in 1996 and 1997 (Molasky and Rabson, 2000; Molasky, 2003).
The insider minorities treated in this essay vary widely in size, history, consciousness and organization as groups, criteria for membership, and nature and degree of discrimination experiences. Estimates of size range in the tens of thousands for Ainu, hundreds of thousands for Okinawans, Nikkeijin, and hibakusha, and in the millions for the disabled and Burakumin. Some have emerged recently, such as the Nikkeijin, who have migrated to Japan in numbers large enough to constitute a group there only since the late 1980s, or the hibakusha who came into being with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Others, such as the disabled, are only now organizing as groups even if disabled people or subgroups have existed throughout Japanese history. The history of the Burakumin can be traced back much further, as can the ethnic minorities—the Ainu and Okinawans. Some scholars argue that none of these groups, however, can be said to have existed as a “minority” until the development of the modern nation state and creation of a much clearer conception of a “majority” (Gladney 1998). Others, however, have argued that recognizing an Other precedes the definition of the Self (see Ishida, 1998a, 1998b) and that in the case of Japan, this process was already well under way during the Tokugawa period (Toby, 1984, 1986). Of course, an "other" is not the same as a "minority". Before the Ryukyu Kingdom was annexed by Japan, Okinawans were an “other” and not a minority. They were outsiders rather than insiders. Burakumin, however, were a case of an “other” that was a kind of minority in the sense of being insiders.
Despite the diversity of these groups, it would be mistaken to assume rigid boundaries between them. There are Koreans, Chinese, Burakumin, Okinawans, and Nikkeijin among the hibakusha (Yoneyama 1999, Selden 1989, Kogawa 1981, Sodei 1998). There are Okinawans, and Burakumin among the Nikkeijin (Mori 2003; Nakasone, 2002). There are members of all these groups that are disabled. Some groups may reside side by side (Burakumin and disabled), while others are separated by great distance (Ainu and Okinawans). Even in the latter case, however, knowledge of common experiences of discrimination can generate a sense of solidarity. In Okinawa, there is a memorial to Ainu soldiers who, while serving in the Japanese army during the battle of Okinawa, tried to protect Okinawan residents from the violence of other Japanese soldiers (Figal, 2003). The discrimination that all these groups have faced justifies an investigation into the conceptual frameworks that have served to stigmatize them. This essay examined the related frameworks of the stranger and purity/pollution, which are most often discussed in relation to the Burakumin, but which may provide insight into Japanese perceptions of other minority groups as well. Terms such as irresponsibility (applied to Nikkeijin workers), barbarism (applied to the Ainu and to some extent to Okinawans), disease (applied to hibakusha), and deformity or debility (applied to the disabled), may function as transformations of the pollution concept in specific contexts. Like Burakumin, many of the other minority groups can be conceptualized as positioned on thresholds between realms of life and death, health and illness, inside and outside.
Historical accounts reveal the political contingency of systems of classification. What appears to be an immutable status of a given minority at one point in time can shift with changed circumstances. The flexibility in the classification of the Ainu and Okinawans in the modern period casts doubt on the importance of cultural perspectives. Such an objection, however, depends upon the assumption that culture is fully logical, consistent, and integrated.
Concepts do not have to be applied consistently at all times in order to constitute important aspects of a culture. Culture should be seen as loosely interlocking sets of practices and associations, rather than a logical structure implanted in the minds of all of its members. Micaela di Leonardo suggests thinking in terms of a toolbox of cultural resources which can be accessed at opportune moments (di Leonardo, 1984). Although the cultural horizons of certain individuals may be broader than of others (see Hannerz, 1989; Mathews, 2000), no one has complete freedom to interpret as they choose. The stranger and the purity/pollution complex may not be applied consistently at all times, yet we may consider them integral parts of a circumscribed Japanese cultural toolbox.
As with the case of purity/pollution, the racial framework has been subject to politically opportunistic manipulation. The differences in the internal logics of these frameworks may not lead to completely different consequences. For example, the importance of purification rites in Japan suggests that pollution is not a permanent condition, and holds open the possibility that minority individuals or groups can move out of the status of pollution. Nevertheless, many Japanese, long before the advent of modern race thinking, considered Burakumin pollution to pass from one generation to the next. Conversely, race thinking involves the notion that evolutionary development only occurs over very long time spans. Nevertheless, racially minded bureaucrats in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries devised policies to assimilate minority groups within a generation or two when it was convenient to do so (Weiner, 1994, p.31-32). This new framework has not replaced that of purity/pollution, but operates alongside it.
Denunciations, litigation, and international pressure can help combat discrimination in Japan as elsewhere, and transform the frameworks that consign groups to inferior status or dismiss them altogether (Upham, 1987). In 1986, Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro could claim without serious protest that Japan was a "monoracial" society. The Japanese government did not even recognize the Ainu as an indigenous people until 1997. The impetus for recognition came when the head of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, Nomura Giichi, was invited to address the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1993 to celebrate the Year of the World's Indigenous Peoples (Dietz, 1999, p.362-364). Additionally, recognition was spurred on by the decision in a suit by Ainu against the central government over a dam constructed on Ainu lands. In his ruling, the presiding judge wrote that the Ainu fit the internationally accepted definition of an indigenous group and that the Japanese government had acted illegally in constructing a dam that adversely affected Ainu cultural practices (Dietz, 1999, p.362; Kaizawa, 1999, p.355-358). While the legal forum can be manipulated by dominant groups for their own purposes, it has also proven to be available to minority actors to protest injustices committed against them.
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Joshua Hotaku Roth teaches Anthropology and Asian Studies at Mount Holyoke College.
This is an expanded version of a chapter that appears in Companion to the Anthropology of Japan, ed. by Jennifer Robertson, (Blackwell,2005). Posted at Japan Focus April 10, 2005.