The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Belly of the Beast

No not the very unbeastly girls above who were disarmingly confident at a belly dance show I went to last night in a Persian restaurant. And not the amazing photo story on Islam in Japan by my good friend, Adrian Storey, that beautifully avoids the harsher reporting the media usually reserves for the “dangerous” attractions of Islam on the young.

Isn’t it wonderful, as these two small examples here show, that in this supposedly culturally homogenous land, so beloved of rabid nationalists, it is becoming increasingly possible to encounter examples of cultural transfer and diaspora usurping and complimenting the very idea of what it is to be a Japanese citizen.

According to K.B. Pyle in The Making of Modern Japan, “The Japanese have long been unusually concerned with their uniqueness and special character” and without a doubt Japan has been late in opening up to visitors and welcoming the influences they may have on the native population. For the longest time Japan was closed to such influences completely and then even as technology and ideology crept in the spread was controlled and limited by those in power lest it should unduly corrupt the people. Not until the 1980 when the economy ballooned and more workers than Japan itself possessed were needed did immigration on any significant scale occur.

These day Japan is home to a diverse mix of races and ethnicities including Chinese, Koreans, Europeans and Brazilians, many of which have long and relatively unknown historical roots. There are also its own homegrown ethnically unique groups like the Ainu in Hokkaido and the Burakumin or untouchable class but many Japanese people still believe that they are of one blood and it would be much better to remain that way. Culture and race are hard to separate in Japanese minds yet Japan’s own not insignificant diaspora (1.28 million ethnic Japanese in Brazil alone) is also finding its own reasons to return to these shores, bringing with it the need to accept and accommodate new ideas of what being Japanese means. Because though these immigrants and visitors are ethnically Japanese, and thus outwardly the same as the native population, they are so very different in almost every other way.

Then again why shouldn’t  Japan hold on to some ideal of cultural homogeneity? There is valid need to bow to external, melting pot pressures, surely it is possible to accept the inevitability of globalization on you own terms; it is not perhaps necessary to be multi-cultural to be a part of the wider world. The problem is however that by 2050 it is estimated that 40% of the population in Japan will be over 65 and even as early as 2020 a mere 20 workers will be supporting each and every retiree here. To keep the working age population at 1995 levels, and thus keep the social welfare system working well enough to support its greying citizens, Japan needs to import around 609,000 people a year until at least 2050. This would, in turn, lead to around 30% of the population being foreign born.

This means different ethnicities are an unavoidable necessity of Japan’s future whether it likes it or not.  (It needs to import 381,000 migrants a year just to stop population decline.) Yet as academic Chris Burgess, in a powerful paper published in 2004, observed “Those investing their future in [Japan] will find it hard to tolerate a national identity based on ethnic homogeneity”. Indeed it is hard to see the wisdom of keeping the people you rely on for your continuing existence at arm’s length because of their outward differences to a diminishing you.

Government policy is reticent on fixing this dilemma though: avoiding the issue at best or creating exploitative immigration policies and exclusionist social policies at worst. Richard Samuels in Newsweek in 2009 said. “Japan is getting older and losing population faster than any other country in the world, yet immigration policy has remained less than an after thought.”

The greatest fear as far as the government is concerned of course is that the Japanese people (as defined by ethnicity) are not ready to confront the unfamiliar and unpredictable world of a multi-ethnic Japan. To this end local government and even policy at the national level has been drawn to the promotion, albeit reluctantly sometimes, of the ideas and benefits of different cultures living and working in Japan. But a quick survey of the programs available reveals more a “cosmetic multi-culturalism” where diversity is celebrated as long as it remains essentially decorative and outside of the core ideas of Japanese self-identity and thus does not require the country and its people to make any major concessions or changes to these values in order to ease foreigner integration.

The old and bigoted the world over have always decried the mongrelization of nations yet the Japanese have a unique advantage which may just allow them to pass though this understandably troubling time with some dignity. Globalization, though often seen to have missed Japan on any meaningful level is something that the young in Japan, who are increasingly looking for influences and ideas outside of the systems and structures of their own country, find attractive. There are many reasons to look outwards when you live here, aside from the stagnation of the economy gnawing at ambitions that can be thwarted in a myriad unfair ways beyond the basic lack of money. There is a vapid, mercenary feel to the popular culture and even the stalwarts of higher heritage offer little to sooth and encourage . Perhaps that is why some find spiritual meaning in Islam as in Adrian’s photo essay or indeed in any other religions that the empty local faiths cannot provide. Or perhaps there is a chance of enjoying a less expedient love affair by marrying a foreigner, as an increasing number of Japanese are doing, with the promises of different models of behavior, and expectation of duty in domestic life and career that go with it. Many people now work with foreigners daily; travel independently and meet foreigners as friends and equals and are a lot more ready for the future to be all mixed-up than the government gives them credit for. The influences they can readily access now allow them to see other options to the restrictive, inflexible parameters of ethnic social norms that have been dictated by the same kinds of people for hundreds of years. They imagine further and more fantastical than the old can and become interested in foreign cultures and arts, be it a pop group or language study; or even belly-dancing for that matter as they entertain ideas of changing the life of their nation to suit these needs. Even the notion of emigrating themselves is now not so unusual. Because of this they are more open to a true understanding of cultural diversity and more willing to help it, I believe.

Even the Japanese Cabinet Office’s own research recently suggested that “conditions for an honest debate [on immigration] are favourable with over 58% of Japanese young people agreeing with the need for an increase in immigration, despite fearing a rise in crime as a unwelcome but unavoidable side effect. Even this duplicitous attitude is more likely the knee-jerk result of the sensational reporting of the foreigner-related crimes in the Japanese media and general class snobbery to the less-welcomed unskilled immigrant than any inherent racism however. Interestingly issues of preserving racial purity and homogeneity are now seen as less important by Japanese young people.

This fact alone gives me hope that at some point this country might just become a truely cosmopolitan place to live, where belly dancing Japanese girls can look and be Arabic as well as ethnically Japanese or Islamic preachers can find peace and fulfillment in the religion they chose without stares and censor from those around them. It will not happen over night, while Tokyo may be a place it is easy to feel at home, where ever you come from, the attitude is colder and less welcoming in rural areas. It is also less open than it needs to be towards other Asian nationals even in the young where there is a feeling of almost acceptable and mutually-understandable animosity to Chinese and Koreans. This  needs to disappear before these two close neighbours can feel comfortable living in Japan as an adopted home.

One thing for sure as we look around though, is the right to hate or mistreat immigrants for differences is slowly becoming less usual and tenable. As more businesses rely on foreign labour and more and more people too, including the often reactionary older population whose care nurse is now most likely to be from The Philippines or Indonesia, the foreign population of Japan will increasingly demand equality and respect. And though those in suits (that most English of imports by the way that the very word “Sebillo” is a mispronunciation of the tailor street Saville Row in London) my drag their feet to provide it the young of this country, similarly ignored and blamed for the problems that are not of their making, will perhaps be the first Japanese people to truly accept someone is also Japanese even though they do not look like, feel, think and act  like them.

That will be a good day.




One response

  1. itllallendintears

    My views on mass / economic immigration are coloured by reading Engels’ Conditions of the English Working Class. During the industrial revolution immigration was a means of increasing the competition for labour. Irish immigration (during the potato famine, largely turned into a famine by the english aristocracy) was used to drive down wages in the mill towns of the north. You can see the same phenomenon in the US labour market, where workers are in competition for manual labour with the chineses (plus whatever it costs to transport the finished product).

    This is, in effect, a race to the bottom, with everyone competing for the last crumbs from the tables of the rich.

    Japan is still a relatively cohesive society (yes, i know, we all love diversity…) but cheap labour would probably make it more competitive in international markets. That being said, Japan still runs a sizeable trade surplus, which probably means that it has a better competitive balance than many western economies. The question that needs to be asked is what price do you put on the cohesiveness? And by price i mean, what profit can be extracted from it’s destruction?

    It is easy to get caught up in the idea of a world people all living in harmony, but in reality there is cold, hard, money driving these changes (whether they come or not) and ignoring them is folly.

    [apologies if this is ill reasoned / explained but this was a written after ~10 shots of gin…]

    February 6, 2011 at 9:08 pm

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