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Immigration: Still a way to go for Japanese minorities

Monday, 11 May 2015

In August 2014 Yasuyuki Kaneko, a city councillor for Sapporo, sparked intense controversy by tweeting ‘there are no such people as the Ainu any more, are there? [But] they constantly demand rights they don’t deserve. How can this be reasonable?’

Ainu drummers hammer out the sounds of their musical tradition. The Ainu were not officially recognised as an indigenous people until 2008. (Photo by:  Gianfranco Chicco).

The comments evoked an outpouring of criticism from Ainu  —  the indigenous people of northern Japan  —  and their supporters. But the blogosphere was also quickly filled with comments supporting Kaneko’s views.

Kaneko was subsequently removed from the local Liberal Democratic Party caucus, of which he had been a member, but he remains on the city council and has refused to withdraw his comments.

This controversy recalls a notorious incident in 1986, when then prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone stated in parliament that there were no minority racial groups in Japan and that Japan therefore had no racial discrimination. Those comments too provoked an angry response from many people, including prominent figures in Ainu and resident Korean communities. A comparison of the two statements, and of the reactions they produced, shows both how much and how little has changed in Japan over recent decades.

Although a city councillor can still make a statement like Kaneko’s with scant damage to his career, it is hard to imagine a Japanese prime minister publicly denying the existence of Ainu or insisting on Japan’s racial purity today. In 1986 the government had not yet officially recognised the Ainu as an ethnic minority. Large numbers of people in Japan still accepted that Japan was an ethnically homogeneous nation  —  despite the presence of not only the indigenous Ainu, but also of around one million Okinawans and hundreds of thousands of descendants of colonial-era migrants from Korea, not to mention numerous other smaller migrant communities.

Since then, rising levels of immigration, cultural globalisation and the rise of minority rights movements at home and abroad have helped to change those perceptions and have resulted in some improvements for minority groups in Japan.

In 1986, the Ainu people were still subject to the antiquated and discriminatory Former Natives Protection Law, which aimed to eradicate their distinctive traditions, but (after lengthy protest campaigns) this was replaced in 1997 by an Ainu Cultural Promotion Law. In 2008, the Diet officially recognised the Ainu as an indigenous people.

In 2005 the number of foreign residents in Japan exceeded two million for the first time. Many political leaders, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have acknowledged that Japan needs to further open its borders to inflows of foreign workers as the population ages and declines. Public recognition of Japan’s ethnic diversity has been expanding, and many local governments now have active policies to promote ‘multicultural coexistence’ (tabunka kyōsei).

The ‘Korean wave’ of the early 2000s created a new sense of cultural confidence amongst Koreans in Japan. Urban areas like the Tsuruhashi district of Osaka, with its large Korean community, began enthusiastically displaying and advertising their distinct cultural identity. In addition to the ethnic Korean population, whose origins go back to the colonial period, Japan now has substantial communities of more recent immigrants from Korea, China, South Asia and Southeast Asia, as well as ethnic Japanese Brazilians and Peruvians  —  descendants of prewar waves of Japanese emigration to Latin America.

But the wide online support for councillor Kaneko’s statements on the Ainu is just one symptom of continuing deep-seated problems. Legal protections for many ethnic minorities have certainly been strengthened since the early 1980s, but more comprehensive proposals for change  —  such as a radical revision of the immigration control system, recognition of dual nationality, or local voting rights for foreign permanent residents  —  have failed to get off the ground. The Ainu Cultural Promotion Law has also disappointed many within the Ainu community because it fails to recognise indigenous land or resource rights.

Okinawa, which was the independent Ryūkyū Kingdom until the 1870s, when it was absorbed into the Japanese state, is still Japan’s poorest prefecture and is the site of large numbers of controversial US military bases. The expansion of these bases despite impassioned local opposition has left many Okinawans feeling that their interests are being sacrificed to the US-Japan alliance. An Okinawan independence movement, though still very small, has been gaining strength in recent years.

Meanwhile rising nationalist tensions between Japan and its neighbours have spilled over into troubling incidents of racial vilification by far-right groups. Drawing on the frustrations of Japanese whose living standards have suffered during decades of economic stagnation and channelling public anger towards minority scapegoats, these groups use street demonstrations and the internet to direct messages of hate and violence against Ainu, Koreans and Chinese in Japan, and others.

As it prepares for the 2020 Olympics the Japanese government has been highlighting Japan’s multicultural credentials. The government has promised a new national Ainu cultural centre in time for the Olympics and is seeking to double the number of foreign visitors to the country. But its efforts to tackle issues of discrimination and racial vilification have been less impressive. Japan still has no national human rights commission and the government has rejected UN pressure to enact specific laws against racism and racial vilification.

In 2014 the ruling Liberal Democratic Party established a committee to examine the problem of hate speech, but the committee chair is a politician who has been an active campaigner against voting rights for foreign residents. So far the committee has debated limiting noisy political demonstrations outside government buildings and launched an investigation into ‘anti-Japanese’ rhetoric in Korea  —  two moves that suggest little commitment to the task of eradicating hate speech in Japan.

Prime Minister Abe has publicly stated that ‘it is totally wrong to slander and defame people of other nations and hold the feeling that we are somehow superior. That would only lead to dishonouring ourselves’. But to give life to such statements, Japan needs much stronger and more effective strategies to celebrate ethnic and cultural diversity, and protect social justice.

Source: East Asia Forum

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