Tokyo Report | Society | East Asia

Can Japan Become a Multicultural Country?

Multiculturalism is not incompatible with Japan – rather, it is only at the beginning of its trajectory.

Can Japan Become a Multicultural Country?
Credit: Depositphotos

Japan’s national borders have acquired an infamous reputation for being seemingly impenetrable. During the first months of the pandemic, the rule of who belongs and should be granted access to Japanese territory became painfully clear for many long-term foreign residents as they were not allowed to reenter the country after traveling abroad – a privilege that Japanese nationals enjoyed.

Japan has frequently been criticized for its lack of multiculturalist policies due to ethno-nationalist imaginings of the nation and an emphasis on jus sanguinis (inherited nationality from one’s parents) as a prerequisite for national citizenship. In some extreme cases, this has compromised human rights. Japan’s refugee recognition rate is noticeably low, with a mere 47 asylum seekers recognized in 2020. Last year, the death of a Sri Lankan woman in a Japanese immigration detention facility drew attention to institutionalized racial discrimination and sparked controversy over Japan’s immigration policies, as the woman was denied urgently needed medical care while being mocked by the staff.

Yet there is a pressing demand for the accommodation of foreigners in Japan. A rapidly shrinking and aging population due to low birth rates has pushed the government to relax certain border regulations to let in more foreign workers. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has predicted Japan will need to quadruple the number of foreign workers to more than 6 million by 2040. As foreigners keep flowing in, calls for providing equitable opportunities and living conditions for foreigners and minorities will become all the more frequent.

Multiculturalism might be just the thing that could even out such inequalities. Although nowadays the concept has become the scapegoat for integration problems in many Western countries, the fundamental principles of multiculturalism – addressing inequalities through fair and differential treatment without having cultural homogeneity as a prerequisite for political inclusion – have become the foundation of the extension of civil rights to the diverse populations of the West. Yet these principles have not had the same impact in Japan.

Japanese multiculturalism, often referred to by the term tabunka kyosei (“multicultural coexistence”), has been criticized for ostensibly celebrating cultural diversity, while doing so only under tightly circumscribed conditions; for being limited to the regional (and not national) level; and for one-sidedly focusing on intercultural exchange and language acquisition for foreigners rather than civil rights. Much research has mapped out these and other shortcomings of Japanese multiculturalist policies, but the question of why multiculturalism has not become a norm in Japan is mostly overlooked. It has been pointed out that multiculturalist policies often have been driven by external pressure and future multiculturalist policies would require an embrace of multiculturalism as a norm.

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Theories on international norm formation can provide a bird’s eye view on the normative trajectory of multiculturalism in Japan.

Finnemore and Sikkink’s life-cycle model of norm development has formed the standard for understanding international norms and can provide a rudimentary illustration of the normative development of multiculturalism in Japan. It is divided into three stages: norm emergence; norm cascade; and internalization. In the norm emergence stage, so-called norm entrepreneurs persuade norm leaders, e.g., the local or other governments, to implement the new norm. This is done by framing that calls attention to and dramatizes the relevant issues, and the frames later form the public understanding of the norm. A tipping point is reached when a certain number of norm leaders adhere to the norm, which leads to the norm cascade stage, where the norm is widely diffused, and is lastly internalized as it becomes taken for granted.

Because of the physical similarity of the so-called “oldcomers” – i.e., East Asians who immigrated to Japan or were forced there during the Pacific War – the emergence of the multiculturalist norm was delayed in Japan as their presence went largely unnoticed. But in the 1980s and ‘90s, a new wave of labor immigrants from Southeast Asia – the “newcomers” – made diversity visible and sparked multicultural debates.

The Japanese term for multiculturalism that emerged in the 1990s, tabunka kyosei, derived from an expression used in Zainichi (“residing in Japan”) Koreans’ social movements of the 1970s, which protested the inequalities that arose from their lack of Japanese citizenship. The term was used in Kawasaki City to even out inequalities between the majority population and the large Korean population. It was thus an apt framing of the norm in line with the Western form of multiculturalism. But as the concept became implemented in various tabunka kyosei centers it assumed a new meaning. The tabunka kyosei centers were established after the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake, where the need for language provisions to Japan-residing foreigners became evident. Thus, the term came to signify information provision and was effectively depoliticized, except for vague references to “mutual respect.”

Tabunka kyosei can be said to have reached the norm cascade stage, as it reached a “tipping point” in 2005 when the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication (MIC) established the Committee for the Promotion of Multicultural Co-living that published a policy plan for the concept the following year to be implemented on the municipal level. By then, however, it came as a response to the cultural challenges of “newcomers” rather than the “oldcomers’” demands for civil rights. Pressure on the national government from a group of municipalities with many newcomers is said to have partly pivoted the national policies. The diffused concept thus served to promote intercultural communication rather than the extension of rights that the Western form of multiculturalism is known for.

It has not seen much progression since either – the sociologist Shiobara finds that tabunka kyosei policies are “becoming increasingly informed by the blunt logics of paternalism, assimilationism, control and security.” Thus, an internalization of the multiculturalist norm is still far off.

References are often made to Japan’s self-imposed isolation from most of the world’s countries during the Edo period to describe its current inaccessibility for foreigners and ethnic minorities as a deep-rooted cultural problem. But multiculturalism is not incompatible with Japan – rather, it is only at the beginning of its trajectory. Something similar to the demographic evolution of big-scale labor immigration that many Western countries went through to rebuild their countries after World War II and pivoted multiculturalism is now taking place in Japan, albeit on a smaller scale.

Foreigners, minorities, and multiracial people are becoming increasingly more prominent in the Japanese media. The designation of half-Haitian tennis player Naomi Osaka as the torch lighter at the Tokyo Olympics epitomized the change that Japanese society is undergoing as it forms a new vision of who belongs to the nation. The increased visibility and everyday interaction with cultural diversity will most likely have an impact on the advancement of the multiculturalist norm in Japan, but the country’s restrictive border policies will make sure that this remains a drawn-out process.

This piece was originally published by the Institute for Asian Crime and Security (IACS).