I started learning Japanese for several reasons but one of my biggest motivations was a desire to learn more about a people that I had few interactions with. Language facilitates cultural exchange, especially in using it to communicate nuances that are otherwise lost in translation. You can learn a lot through language, but there are many things that can only be learned by actually being among its people.
There are several phases in accustoming to new surroundings while studying abroad. The society also has layers that slowly peel away for you the longer you are there. You may have also subconsciously created some of these layers before even getting there, and this all helps fuel the “honeymoon” phase. I got to Japan with as few expectations as possible but everything still seemed so flashy, different and awesome. As I settled in and my norm readjusted, I realized that I had been distracted from the realities of life in Japan.
Commuting home from Kyoto and into more rural Shiga, I started noticing how the number of people who looked different slowly dwindled. By the time I arrived in Moriyama, I looked around to find that I was the only non-Japanese person. I thought, “Wait a second…” before realizing that any foreigner I did encounter in Kyoto was either a tourist or an exchange student. I compared this to life in the states, particularly as a minority, and decided to find out more about Japan as a multiethnic nation.
Towards the end of last semester, I started a project looking into the sorts of lives led by 1.5% of Japan’s population: “foreigners”. My study abroad program provides research grants which I’ve been using to travel around the country in search of these communities. I’ve learned a lot of surprising and even sometimes provoking things so far. The following is a brief summary of what I’ve been working on.
Japan was an imperial nation up until WWII, colonizing much of East Asia and the Korean peninsula in particular. Japan claimed these subjects as the emperor’s children and took assimilatory measures to make them “Japanese”, adopting a registry system that changed their names and also banning Korean language and culture. Many of these “New Japanese” migrated to the mainland and as the war raged on, thousands were coerced into working in factories or even as comfort women. When Japan was defeated at the end of the war, these people were stripped of their Japanese nationalities and effectively left nationless as the Korea that they had originated from no longer existed. Although many repatriated (sometimes forcibly to N. Korea) a good number remained in Japan, becoming the Zainichi Korean population.
Zainichi Koreans make up an imagined community of Koreans residing in Japan who have never left the country and speak more Japanese than Korean yet reject a Japanese identity. They can phenotypically blend in with the majority but face employment and marriage discrimination if their Korean names/backgrounds are discovered. Oddly enough, Zainichi Koreans are not treated the same as the S. Korean tourists who frequent cities such as Fukuoka.
Next, the aboriginal Ainu people of Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido, can also be considered as having been colonized. They were thought of as a lesser people and prohibited from using their language and culture for a long time. Today, they struggle to salvage remnants of their past and their plight is comparable to Native American groups in the states.
Okinawa is Japan’s southernmost prefecture (not too far from Taiwan) but it was actually known as the Ryukyu Kingdom until its people were colonized and forced to assimilate. They also were denied their culture and if you visit today you’ll immediately get a sense that it is not like the rest of the country. The prefecture is said to be at least 10 years behind the mainland in terms of technology and its citizens bear the burden of hosting over 20,000 U.S. troops.
In the late 20th century, some Japanese had started immigrating to South American countries in search of economic prosperity. By the end of WWII, many Japanese who had been living in the Asian colonies had to return to Japan. This created a labor surplus and more of an incentive to immigrate, especially to places like Brazil which now has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. One of my biggest surprises was in finding that there was even a ship of immigrants in 1956 that went to the Dominican Republic, my mom’s country.
Japanese immigration policy is known for its strictness and general polls, as well as current Prime Minister Abe, indicate a desire to keep it this way. However, Japan has created loopholes in order to deal with its labor shortages in 3K jobs (the dirty, dangerous, and difficult) that the Japanese do not want to do. 1990s policy changes relaxed entry for Nikkeijin, or non-Japanese people of Japanese descent, with an underlying expectation that these newcomers would not only take up these jobs but also easily integrate because of their lineage. This was not the case and even if they look Japanese, their cultures, languages and mannerisms have already become far removed. Policy backfired and resulted in concentrated communities of Nikkeijin Brazilians, Peruvians, Bolivians etc in cities where work is most available.
Trainee Programs, meant to equip foreign workers from less developed Asian countries with skills that they can take back to their country with them, creates opportunities for abuse under philanthropic pretenses. It also brings in those who are more easily identifiable as outsiders. These ordeals end up seeing visa overstayers from countries such as China, Nepal, Vietnam and the Philippines. Many of them are subjected to work that they are overqualified for, or even find immoral in the case of the sex industry, but they do it because they can earn more than in their home countries.
There are also other groups such as the Burakumin: the lower tier of an obsolete caste system discriminated against since the Tokugawa period for doing “unclean work” such as handling corpses. International marriages also result in foreign spouses and their offspring, hafu children.
At times it can feel like there is a clear dichotomy here. You are either Japanese or Gaijin, literally meaning an outside person. A Zainichi Korean or a child of a Brazilian immigrant can blatantly be called a foreigner even if they were born here. Admittedly, this creates a more encompassing sense of community and solidarity among all foreigners. You hear of some restaurants with signs that read “No Foreigners Allowed” and of ultra-nationalist right wing groups protesting our presence, but the truth is that there is also a sort of hierarchy within the foreigner category. Where you are from does matter, and your appearance will do the talking.
You become overly excited whenever you see someone who is like you, and I’ve even been mistaken as Middle Eastern by a Tunisian who nostalgically just wanted to speak some Arabic. I had a similar freak out one day when I overheard a conversation in Spanish on my train, so I totally understood where he was coming from.
Being a foreigner here means that you may be the first one a Japanese kid meets. Although it can cause discrimination, I honestly can’t say that I have ever been treated in a way that I wouldn’t be back home. In fact, I feel as I have been better off in those regards and that being a foreigner here can also have benefits such as a freedom from certain social expectations.
I didn’t expect to develop these interests in coming here but it’s all captivated me enough that I am now considering writing a thesis on the topic. Growing aware of social issues here has changed my impression of Japan, but it has ultimately worked towards helping me create a more genuine and dynamic relationship with my host country.