Diversity

One of the most common questions I’m asked by Japanese when I’m meeting them for the first time is「日本に来たとき、どう思いましたか?」or, “What was your first impression of Japan?” I quickly settled on the answer「皆は日本人です。」“Everyone is Japanese.”

This chart from Priceonomics helps explain:

From the Priceonomics Blog post “The Most and Least Diverse Cities in AmericA”

From the Priceonomics Blog post “The Most and Least Diverse Cities in AmericA”

(Via Priceonomics )

I grew up in California. I lived out in the Sierra Nevada foothills as a kid, which are still far less diverse[1] than most of California, but I lived near Sacramento from mid-elementary to a couple of years after graduation. My baseline normal is seeing whites, blacks, hispanics, asians, and an assortment of people of less-easily-categorizable ethnic and national backgrounds around me all the time.

When I walked around my hotel the night I first came to Japan, it struck me: everyone was Japanese. And I do mean everyone. Once you get away from Narita airport, non-Japanese faces become vanishingly rare. Once you get out of the Tokyo area, you might be the foreigner in a town. I had suddenly become a very small minority in a very homogeneous society.

This was an extremely odd feeling for me. While I never lived in a place where whites (and other Anglo-American mutts like me who appear ostensibly white) were an actual minority, there was enough mixing that everyone mostly treated each other like individuals instead of representatives of a racial group. I did have a few minor encounters with racial tensions in school[2], but knowing how teenage males are, I probably would have had similar experiences with analogous assholes even if everyone in the school was racially homogenous.

Being in Japan was my first experience being on the receiving end of openly discriminatory attention. Sometimes, the attention was benign to neutral: curious grandmas following me around commenting to themselves on what I was buying at the supermarket; children running after me, yelling “haro!” eager to try out their English on a real-live foreigner; or gaijin-groupies using me for vicarious contact with the outside world.

Sometimes, the attention was not so nice: police following me for several blocks or going out of their way to “talk” to me (and <ahem> incidentally check my identification); bôsôzoku[3] making overtly threatening gestures at me when they rode by; people saying that they couldn’t understand my English even when I was speaking Japanese (with, I’ve been told, a pretty decent accent); countless nasty remarks, jokes, and incidents of minor violence that I would probably never have had to deal with if I were a Japanese person.

Diversity is going to be a major problem for Japan in the not-so-distant future. The birth rate [4] is still steeply negative, and the elderly proportion of the population is growing as longevity remains one of the highest in the entire developed world. Japan has been dealing with labor shortages for a time scale edging into decades now, and their immigration policies and domestic systems are absolutely not designed to deal with an influx of foreigners.

The last time Japan tried to import labor, they tried offering special work visas preferentially to the descendants of Japanese residing abroad. That didn’t work out as they hoped, since nisei or sansei (first and second generation descendants of Japanese) are culturally no more Japanese than “regular” Brazilians or Peruvians. They actually started offering financial incentives for them to go back to their country of origin. And not come back.

I’ve run into discrimination even as one of the more desirable minorities; Caucasian, educated, employed in an area that competes minimally with Japanese. Japanese society is going to have to adjust drastically to survive with anything approaching the current standard of living intact.

Even notoriously egalitarian Sweden has had riots due to inequality — whether perceived or real — between mainstream Swedes and immigrants. If Japan stops being 98–99% Japanese, I feel pretty comfortable in predicting race riots in less than a generation.

The US has had a long history of dealing with different races and cultures, and still fuck it up constantly. Japan has nearly zero experience with integration and peaceful co-existence. Oh sure, there are Koreans and Chinese in Japan, but being Asian they can usually elect to “pass” as Japanese and even so, integration into Japanese society has not been at all smooth. I do not expect that to change with respect to people who are quite different in appearance and therefore more easily “othered” than ethnic Asians.


  1. At the time, there were more poor to lower-middle income whites than anything else. Now, I’ve heard some old familiar areas referred to as “tweeker hills”, with all of the usual associations you’d have with an area where meth labs are prevalent.  ↩

  2. There were a lot of asian and hispanic gangs in my area, with a few smaller black and white gangs to provide some flavor. Nearly every violent encounter I had in school was with kids who were either in a gang, or wanted to be.  ↩

  3. 暴走族, “violent speed tribe”; members of flashy biker gangs. (“Speed Tribes”, whose title was inspired by bôsôzoku, was a pretty good book, by the way. Captured the zeitgeist of the time.)

    They tended to have right-wing politics and prejudices, i.e.: “throw out all the damn foreigners and take back Japan for Japan”, and cause (mostly) low-level trouble. More ambitious members often ended up in a yakuza family if they “graduated” to grown-up violence. Known membership has fallen significantly in recent years.  ↩

  4. Working link to the referenced paper available here  ↩

Japan's Creep toward the Right

The Japanese election results were worrisome. Turnout was poor, which reflected both the apathy of the public, and the short lead-up to the elections. The one bright note was that a few right-wingers like Ishihara lost their seats. However, Abe will be continuing in his position as Prime Minister and because of that, Japan will keep steadily shuffling toward rightist nationalism.

It remains to be seen how successful his economic policies will be, but we already know how Abe’s right-leaning orientation has affected the political sphere in Japan and Japan’s relations with the rest of Asia. In an article from 2012, “Abe sticks to 1995 statement on WWII apologies, may review ‘comfort women’ acknowledgements”, Abe and his cabinet did not go so far as to retract acknowledgement for Japan’s responsibility for all of its wartime acts, but he did say that he doubted some of the claims of Japanese war crimes; specifically the forced abduction of women from invaded territories for military brothels. Since then, he has reiterated that position and provided tacit support for conservative groups who are even more outspoken in their denialist beliefs.

In US-centric terms, having Abe in office as prime minister is like having a president who has expressed Holocaust denial beliefs in public and meets with KKK-friendly politicians. A guy like that wouldn’t come right out and say that the thing with the Jews [1] was just a big misunderstanding, but he just can’t believe that all of the camps were death camps. Some of them were just work camps, and heck, the kapos were even volunteers(!) so how bad could it have been?

This is why, despite multiple apologies over the decades, many Asians from countries that Japan invaded during WWII — particularly Koreans and Chinese — have been consistently critical of Japan. Official acknowledgements of responsibility for Japanese actions during the War have been consistently inconsistent. In contrast to the German approach in educating its youth about the Holocaust and Naziism, Japan wavers between glossing over and completely ignoring its misdeeds. Overall, Japanese education tends to emphasize Japan’s status as the victim of the atomic bombs that led to Japan’s eventual surrender.

I’ve written about some of these issues before, most extensively in a post about “comfort women”, and briefly concering texbook references to one of the disputed island territories about a month before that.

In the Japanese middle school and high school textbooks I’ve seen, the Nanking Massacre (more luridly, The Rape of Nanking) — or as it’s often bloodlessly known in Japanese, 南京事件, the “Nanking Incident” — is relegated to nearly footnote status — if it’s included at all — and the language is riddled with weasel-words. If you read Japanese, you can pick up a handful of history texts from the library or a bookstore to verify this. If you don’t read Japanese, you still don’t have to take just my word for it; the Japanese author of a BBC article talked about her experience of the education system’s lies of omission in “What Japanese history lessons leave out” published last year.

Japanese history texts are shallow on all topics. The layout of the texts that I’ve seen is similar to a magazine, with the exception that there simply are no in-depth multi-page pieces. Everything, everything is broken up into 200–500 word articles organized around a larger topic, covering perhaps a total of one page for each major topic. The whole of WWII — and I’m being generous by including the 1931 invasion of Manchuria as the beginning point — is covered in 14-and-a-half pages of the more extensive of the two texts I have at home. There is no room for analysis in the text, and there is very little (if any) analysis or explanation that takes place in class either. In context with history texts as a whole, the short blurb on Nanking is not atypical, it’s depressingly normal.

Contrast that shallow gloss with the full-chapter excerpt of tear-jerking pathos from “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes” that I have seen in nearly every middle-school English textbook from the major publishers. Sadako’s story is so well-known that folding paper cranes became The Thing to Do when someone is in the hospital (I received a set in my first year in Japan when I was in the hospital due to an injury incurred at a school) and has made it into, of all things, an English-language Bathroom Reader.

In brief, this is how the Japanese education system addresses these three topics:

  • Girl dying of leukemia: a full chapter with 3–5 class hours dedicated to studying it in English over the course of a week or more, plus an extensive treatment of the atom bombings and aftermath in every history book I’ve ever seen.

  • Hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians shot and bayonetted to death, women gang-raped, children butchered: a 250 word blurb with non-committal language buried at the bottom of a page in only some history text books, that might be briefly mentioned in class, if the teacher isn’t too uncomfortable and doesn’t just ignore it.

  • Women from invaded territories captured and forced to whore for the military: whiplash-inducing statements from politicians over the decades, with “more study necessary” being the perennial favorite, as the numbers of the surviving women dwindle from old age and they still wait for unambiguous acknowledgement from Japan of what was done to them when they were still barely older than the girls who doubtlessly shed many tears over the plight of Sadako during their English class studies.

Expect Japan under Abe to move further right, even though some far-right members of minority opposition parties lost their seats. The overall tone of Japanese politics has already been shifting to the right (the increasing number of visits to Yasukuni shrine by politicians are an indication of this) and Abe provides an aegis for more open nationalism. Earlier last year, his cabinet already effectively abrogated the constitutional provision against war, Article 9.

You can expect an official-official, un-retracted acknowledgement of full responsibility for ianfu around the time the last of the grandkids (or maybe the great-grandkids) of the afflicted women’s generation die off. In other words, you’ll probably die of old age yourself before that happens. Assuming there isn’t another war with Japan in the meantime.


  1. … and the homosexuals, and the disabled, and the Roma, and the other estimated 5-million-plus “undesirables” who seem to get left out in the holocaust count.

Most New High School Textbooks Describe Takeshima, Senkaku Islands as Japanese

Most new textbooks approved for use in high schools starting in April 2014 describe the Senkaku Islands and Takeshima as Japanese possessions, the education ministry announced Tuesday.

Yet another example of increasing nationalism in Japan. While the current territorial dispute originally dates back to 1952, a decade ago you wouldn't have heard anything about this on the news. This is also not the first time there has been controversy about Japanese history books.