Ethnicity in Japan

By: Kristin Ronzi

November 6, 2014

Japan is known for having one of the most homogeneous ethnicities in the world. Though there are changing demographics due to immigration and interracial marriages, minority groups in Japan are considered to be social fringe groups. With the changing population, however, Japan is bound to need to address the complexities and challenges that have been created from a homogenous society.

Despite the international hub that Tokyo has become, Japan still retains some of the xenophobia that marked nineteenth century politics. Having had limited relations, mostly with Pacific Rim countries, Japan was relatively isolated until the appearance of Commodore Matthew Perry in the mid-1800s, after which some ports were opened for trade.

Predating opening ports to foreigners, Japan was mostly secluded. Only during the Meiji Restoration did Japan begin to warm to the Western Hemisphere. Since then, Japan has continued to open up to and welcome foreigners, but the impacts of the long-standing xenophobic policies still exist. Unlike Western European nations and the United States, the little immigration to Japan has limited changes to Japanese demographics. Since then, Japan still has one of the most uniform ethnicities.

The effects of having a homogeneous society implicate many half-Japanese and foreigners alike. Though becoming more discussed, half-Japanese children often grow up between cultures. If they can pass as Japanese, often their educational and social experiences are much more similar. Many biracial children, however, are still impacted in both cultures based on their different phenotype. The expectations for these half-Japanese, many of whom travel to Japan from another home country, are stringently harsh. Many people assume that they will be familiar with both the Japanese language and the Japanese culture despite the fact that many are raised abroad.

Though everyday life in Japan is complex for biracial Japanese, the media has largely embraced them. Some of the most popular models and actors in Japan are half-Japanese. Due to a mix of curiosity and the unique phenotypic features, biracial people are becoming more prominent in the media. Talents like Becky and Rola have gained attention because of their ethnicity. While exposure is imperative in combating ignorance, biracial talents are also being exploited for their appearance because it’s something rather new in Japan.

Just as complex as the relationship between Japan and biracial Japanese is the relations between Japan and foreigners. There are still practices in Japan that continue to target foreigners. Stereotypes remain in the legislation that discriminate against foreigners. For example, stemming from an older belief that foreigners were more likely to engage in illicit behavior, foreigners are still banned from purchasing a cell phone without a cellular plan. It is not uncommon to hear stories of foreigners who were denied housing based on the fact that they are foreigners. In addition, foreigners are also referred to differently in the Japanese language. Most people will use the politically-correct term gaikokujin which translates to “foreign country person.” Gaikokujin is the preferred term to the more controversial term gaijin. While the term gaijin has largely been reclaimed by foreigners, the term remains controversial among the Japanese. The English translation is literally “outside person.” One of the problems of the homogeneous society is the non-ethnically Japanese people are still considered outsiders. The intent behind gaijin is still debatable, but there is a distinction that the language reflects.

With more trade and travel occurring, the number of non-ethnic Japanese is rising. In addition, it is estimated that there are over 20,000 half-Japanese children born around the world annually. More and more people in Japan, particularly in urban and suburban area, are encountering people of different ethnicities, and with this experience, the stereotypes are slowly being challenged. As Japan encourages foreigners to come, the demographics are expected to continue to change, even at a higher rate than ever before.

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