Panel explores ‘inadequate’ state of multiculturalism in Japan

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CHISE — This Ainu house is located at the Kawamura Ainu Memorial Museum at Ashikawa, in Hokkaido. photo by Mitsuhiro Fujimaki

For centuries, the Japanese government promoted ethnic homogeneity. The Tokugawa Shogunate prohibited foreigners from entering the country for some 200 years, and barriers to immigration remained high even after the isolationist policy ended in 1854. In recent decades, a lagging economy and aging population have compelled Japan’s leaders to reconsider traditional attitudes toward foreign residents. Still, experts have suggested that a long road remains before the country achieves harmonious heterogeneity.

In light of this situation, the Japanese American National Library (JANL), in conjunction with the University of Shizuoka, sponsored a panel called “The New Ethnic Identity for Sustainable Citizenship in Japan: Searching for the Meaning of ‘Belonging.’” Held on March 6 in San Francisco’s Japantown, the event assembled experts on three of Japan’s minorities to discuss varying perspectives on the issue of ethnic integration.

“I think the story of ethnic minorities in Japan is quite complex because each one has a different relationship to Japan, its history and the people,” Ben Kobashigawa, president of the Library, said in an e-mail. While Kobashigawa acknowledged that the panel “could only scratch the surface of the problems of groups ranging from Ainu to Burakumin and Okinawans to Koreans, Chinese, and most recently Vietnamese refugees in Japan,” he said it “made evident how inadequate the current Japanese policy of multiculturalism is.”

Takahito Sawada, a researcher at the University of Shizuoka, discussed one of the country’s most high-profile communities: Latin American immigrants. Although numbering less than other foreign groups, such as Chinese or Koreans, Latin Americans in Japan have been the subject of much media attention.

Japan encouraged Brazilians, Peruvians, and others from neighboring nations in the 1990s to immigrate to the country in response to labor shortages. But recent economic conditions compelled a change of policy. In 2009, the government initiated a controversial program that paid Latin American workers to return to their countries of origin. While not obligated to accept the offer, many immigrants have found themselves short of other options, due to layoffs and other economic woes.

Sawada addressed this dilemma in his presentation, “Economic Participation and Transforming Identity of Japanese Latino Immigrants after the Late-2000s Recession.” Most poignantly, he showed a video of a teenage girl whose parents were considering moving back to Brazil after having lived in Japan as guest workers. “My friends are my life,” she said, crying at the prospect of losing them.

Sawada heard similar accounts as a teacher and researcher in the city of Hamamatsu (in Shizuoka Prefecture), home to 20,000 Japanese Brazilians. Even workers who aren’t immediately facing leaving their homes in Japan reported difficulties, such as language barriers. “It’s hard to get alphabetism,” Sawada explained. And class adjustments weigh heavily. “Many have high education in Brazil,” he said, “but in Japan they live on a small scale.”

For these and other reasons, Japanese Brazilians have not coalesced. “They cannot build a community,” Sawada said.

On the other hand, UC Berkeley lecturer Yuko Okubo discussed an immigrant group that has very much come together: the Vietnamese living in Osaka. Her presentation, titled “Vietnamese Community in Osaka: From Human Rights to Cultural Heritage” traced this group’s evolution through an annual Têt festival commemorating the Lunar New Year.

The first such event occurred in 1998, after a tragedy galvanized the community. In December of the previous year, a 2-year-old Vietnamese girl died during a stay in the hospital. Linguistic impediments prevented her family from understanding the staff’s explanations, highlighting the need for a community organization.

“The parents and their friends thought they should be aware of their own situation,” said Okubo, “understand how the system works in Japan, and also have some legal assistance.”

To that end, these individuals founded the Betonamujinkai, or Vietnamese Association. Shortly thereafter, the group held its first event: the Têt festival.

Strong political overtones defined the inaugural celebration. “The purpose was to get the community together so they could organize,” explained Okubo. At its end, Association members read an original Declaration of Human Rights for Vietnamese Residents in Japan. “It was very political that they used the words ‘human rights,’” she added.

But within two years, the festival changed direction. Pressure from other ethnic groups to make joint demands on the city prompted the Vietnamese community to step away from politics. “The Vietnamese did not want to be a part of anything political,” said Okubo. “So the original agenda, protecting human rights, disappeared from the third festival on.”

When she visited in 2009, Okubo found that the festival’s focus had indeed evolved. “The festival has become more cultural and less political,” she explained.

Far from disbanding, however, the Vietnamese Association in Osaka has adapted to the community’s changing needs. One of the group’s leaders told Okubo that its present aim is to “teach the value of Vietnamese culture to the next generation.”

That mission has become increasingly pertinent, as the children of Vietnamese immigrants grow more removed from their parents’ culture and language. “Children born in Japan cannot communicate in the Vietnamese language,” said Okubo. “They like to use Japanese names; they’re culturally Japanese.” These trends have created concern for the future identity of the Vietnamese community among some of its older members.

The Vietnamese are not the only ethnic group in Japan to experience a changing identity. The Ainu, an indigenous people who live in Hokkaido, have straddled an ambiguous intersection between Japanese and non-Japanese classification since the end of the 19th century.

“Are Ainu Japanese?” asked presenter Mitsuhiro Fujimaki, a professor at the University of Shizuoka. “Maybe yes, and maybe no.”

The Japanese government answered this question affirmatively in 1899, when it passed the “Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act.” The legislation conferred citizenship on the Ainu, but implicitly demanded their assimilation. Then in 2008, the government changed course, and recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people with a separate language and culture.

But that admission has meant little practically. “It was really cosmetic,” said Fujimaki. “Ainu are still kept off their land.”

A more fruitful battle for cultural preservation took place in Asahikawa, Hokkaido’s second-largest city. In 2008, the Asahikawa City Museum inaugurated an exhibit including items made by Ainu — a departure from the institution’s earlier policies.

The museum opened in 1993 with a commemorative exhibit about the city’s founding. “It was a typical story of colonial settlement,” explained Fujimaki, via e-mail.

But a new curator of Ainu ancestry advocated a more inclusive approach, made opportune by a 2007 remodel.

The result had positive effects on the city’s Ainu community. “It’s a place where they can access their culture,” said Fujimaki.

Despite this optimistic inroad, the Ainu still face hurdles before achieving mainstream acceptance in Japanese society. And the same applies to all of Japan’s ethnic groups. As panel moderator and organizer, UC Berkeley Professor and JANL advisory board member Keiko Yamanaka, put it, “multicultural coexistence doesn’t mean integration at this point.”

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