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The Forgotten Japanese

Japan is for the Japanese, no?

When I interviewed Donald Richie for my fourth episode, he described Tokyo as being one of the world’s most diverse cities. Clearly, the capital of Japan is one of the world’s largest, bringing business, political, entertainment and social group members together from around the world. But, what about the country as a whole?

According to CIA statistics, Japanese territory is peopled by a population of 127 million, 99 percent of whom are ethnically Japanese. Is there diversity in that?

Well, there are certainly subsets of that group with personal distinctions.

The AINU – Though since the modern Ainu movement began, Japan’s indigenous people have preferred to be called the Utari (“comrade” in their native language), they are widely known, almost exclusively, as the Ainu. Anthropologists largely suggest that the Ainu are of Siberian or even Polynesian descent, though these original inhabitants of Honshu, the main Japanese island, are known to be light-skinned with wavy hair covering much of their body, like Caucasians the world over. Archeological digs have shown Ainu communities with roots 20,000 years ago in Tohoku, northern Honshu. Excluding modern intermarriage, the Ainu are entirely unrelated to the Japanese people, who drove the Ainu northward in the early portion of modern history, relegating the Ainu almost exclusively to Hokkaido, a large northern Japanese island, by the ninth century. In the way that much of the American West is still considered wild, perhaps tied to the American Indian populations pushed there, so, too, Hokkaido is today considered Japan’s untamed frontier, an island that boasts a full quarter of Japanese territory but only four percent of the Japanese population. The Ainu culture is synonymous with carving and woodcraft and respected for vivid textiles and epic songs with no near relative. According to the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu culture, or FRPAC, today the Ainu are thought to number roughly 24,000, a statistically meaningless portion of the Japanese population. Even more troubling is that, with generations of intermarriage between the Ainu and the Japanese, recent surveys have suggested that perhaps only 200 purely Ainu people are alive today.

The BURAKUMAN – If the Ainu are the American Indians of Japanese society, than the Burakuman might be an even more struggling form of black America in Japan. Legally liberated in 1871 with the abolition of Japan’s millennia old feudal caste system, the Burakuman, Japanese people socially segregated for even more arbitrary reasons than race, are still fighting social discrimination and poor living standards, despite active governmental action in the past 20 years. The Shinto and Japanese Buddhism that took hold into even secular society dictated that many necessary tasks were unfit for citizens, from manual labor and cleaning services to some food preparation and even leather-tending. The result was a segment of society that filled these roles, but, as having entered an unclean world, was considered outside normal Japanese culture. There was no escape, as with its successive generation came a mandate to remain a Burakuman, “hamlet people,” as they lived outside of towns. While other names like binin, “nonhuman,” and the once popular eta, “much filth,” have been banished from everyday discourse since the 1960s, which was a decade that began social change in Japan as it did in the United States, even today equality hasn’t been met. Nineteenth century family registers, which allowed for people to be labeled as ancestral Burakuman, were closed to the public and nearly two-thirds of self-labeled Burakumin say in opinion polls that they have never encountered discrimination, it remains insidious undergrowth in some Japanese minds and a troubled truth in other uncomfortable hearts. A professor of mine told me he was helping with interviews for a Japanese business and watched a well-spoken, experienced candidate meet rejection. After a great deal of insistence, he was told that, as could be seen by the candidate’s family name, he was a Burakumin and would become a distraction to the business’s social dynamic. Similar opinion polls suggest that nearly 75 percent of Burakumin marry into mainstream Japanese society, but the injustice lingers. According to the last widespread study by the Japanese government, finished in 1993, there were nearly 900,000 residents living in 4,500 “assimilation districts,” subsidized living for Burakumin, nearly three-quarter of which are in rural communities, none recognized in Tokyo. Some sources have put the total as high as 2 million, but whatever the number, the reality is that names and homes are startlingly harmful for future success in too many cases.

The ZAINICHI – The Zainichi Koreans are the largest ethnic minority group in Japan, with numbers well over 500,000, according to the CIA World Factbook. Barely half a percent of the population, but because of the group’s relative size and the impact it has had on Japanese society, the term Zainichi, literally “staying in Japan,” has come to refer to these permanent Japanese residents who have retained their Korean ethnicity. The harsh Japanese colonialism of the Korean peninsula and Japanese economic prosperity post-Pacific War have caused a great deal of cultural and population transferal, and the Zainichi are perhaps the clearest example of this. Some Zainichi have quietly taken Japanese names and been entirely absorbed into the culture through the generations, while many others proudly retain their Korean names, practices and define themselves through being non-Japanese.

OTHER – Japan has had a thirty year reign as Asia’s most powerful economic center and so, by virtue of its close proximity to many countries with populations in search of opportunity, it has developed vibrant communities of different ethnic groups, from the 250,000 Chinese to the nearly 90,000 Filipinos. Perhaps less readily sensible is the population of 180,000 Brazilians. Interestingly, the Japanese government recognized a problem of filling holes in lesser skilled positions of the economy, so during the 1990s, they invited nearly a quarter of a million Brazilians of Japanese origin to work in Japanese industries. While some have since returned to Brazil, many remain.

Any questions? Ask them!

Jaa ne,

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