Japan’s Hidden Apartheid- A Closer Look

I was very inspired by the previous post about discrimination in Japan…having done a little bit of exploring into this issue, and also having lived in Japan for two years and facing firsthand discrimination as a child of Chinese parents who immigrated for work, I had a lot to say about the issue. I was originally going to post this as a comment, but it got extremely long and detailed so I thought it would be better as a post.

First, the issue of ethnic discrimination is extremely wide spread in Japan; this doesn’t just include Koreans (26.6% of all foreigners in Japan) , but also Chinese (29.9%), and Japanese minorities. Truth is, Japan has a lot of minority groups… the Buraku, Ainu, and Okinawans, but the reason most people don’t know about anything is because the government is too-faced about the issue, calling these groups “citizen” by name but excluded by “standing”.

This deep-rooted racism is culturally imbued. Japan has always been a homogenous nation and they pride themselves on that. Their traditional religion focuses on the Japanese being a “chosen” race; for instance, there is even a cultural concept of “kotodama”, the idea that the Japanese language is perfect, and has a spirit that only true Japanese people can fully understand. So basically, their culture grew in isolationism, and they used to think it was impossible for non-Japanese people to ever become “truly Japanese”. We see historical examples of exclusion: for example, Ainu in northern Japan used to be punished by death if they learned to speak Japanese. But when Russia threatened to take the land, Japan threw the title of “citizens” on the Ainu but never tried to assimilate them into their society.

There are huge socioeconomic discrepancies between foreigners/minorities and Japanese citizens…There are daycares, housing facilities, etc. that are specialized for foreigners, who tend to be of low socioeconomic standing. There are still some places (albeit, decreasing in number) that don’t allow foreigners to enter without the accompaniment of another Japanese person, or services that exclude minorities and foreigners. For example, when I lived in Japan, I was rejected from enrollment in Japanese Language and writing classes despite speaking perfect Japanese because enrollment was limited to children of Japanese descent.  In marriage, relatives will pore over records to ensure that the future spouse comes from “good blood”. In the hiring process, there are company “lists” that detail the lineages of employees, so that if it is discovered you are of minority or foreign dissent, you and your progeny could be automatically excluded from the job search process.

Even today, the Japanese government finds it in their interest to focus on Japanese national pride and leave most questions about minorities and discrimination in Japan unaddressed. In 2005, the United Nations expressed deep concerned about the deeply rooted racism and xenophobia in Japan that has gone largely ignored by the government. For example, there are no civil rights legislation which enforces or penalizes discriminatory activities committed by citizens, businesses, or non-governmental organizations. Also, statistics show that 94% foreigners who try to find a place to live in Japan are denied residency at least once.

Because of this hidden exclusion of foreigners from the workplace, it suffices to say that ethnic groups are trapped in a cycle of exclusion (to be honest, the reason my parents booked it to America after they saved up enough money was probably to make sure I wouldn’t grow up trapped in that cycle). Because minority and foreign groups are prevented from working, they are also prohibited from earning; thus by Shklar’s definition, they will never fully achieving standing as Japanese citizens, even though they have the vote. But let’s look at a scenario where a Japanese citizen with Korean descent manages to earn by participating in the Japanese workforce, and as a citizen, has the right to vote. They can manage to do both, but still faces discriminatory treatment and censure by others at work or in their personal lives (marriage, friendship, etc.) because of their race. In this case, we see hints at a concept that Shklar perhaps fails to address: that sometimes there can still be irrational, longstanding biases that block people from fully being included.

Voting and Earning are things that the excluded can actively influence externally. But can there also be unspoken, internalized concepts about discrimination and exclusion that nurture inculcates in us since we were born? And if so, even after the excluded does all they can to become included, do they have the power to change minds? Can exclusion happen irrationally, and if it does, then will we ever be able to eliminate it?

Another way of putting it is, even when voting and earning has been achieved, is there still an invisible border- an obstacle- that maintains the separation between inclusion and exclusion? And if that’s the case, does citizenship have to be defined as inclusion in Shklar’s sense? Or are citizenship and inclusion separate?


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4 Responses to Japan’s Hidden Apartheid- A Closer Look

  1. jdadamo says:

    I think the example of Japan in relation to the concepts of inclusion/exclusion of citizenship is one of the most spot-on you could possibly come up with. Japan has a history of deep nationalism, which unfortunately causes a very racist bias against anyone not born in the country. This is something that they’ve been working on but is still an ongoing problem. Time will tell if the Japanese government will stand up and take notice of this discrimination and wage disparity issue, as it really does cause those who aren’t native-born Japanese asians to feel like second class citizens. And that’s not only bad for their country, but for a world attempting to become more diverse and accepting.

  2. hengk says:

    “Another way of putting it is, even when voting and earning has been achieved, is there still an invisible border- an obstacle- that maintains the separation between inclusion and exclusion?” – Your blog post brings up a great extension of Shklar’s argument, and definitely applies to America too. Mexican-American citizenship immediately comes to mind for me, but there are other groups as well. Even Mexican-American citizens who are officially American can technically vote and earn but still aren’t always accepted by society. Many may still look as these citizens as un-American, according to cultural biases. I think this is particularly true when Mexican-Americans (or any group) still hold accents from another language. How can they become included? I’m not sure, but American better get used to it, because the minority-majority is knocking on our doorstep.

  3. paranpi says:

    In the case xenophobia and discrimination, I feel like what Shklar saw as essential elements of “citizenship”, voting and earning, are also felt by the Japanese government and people, because they continue the tradition of legal discrimination–not just towards foreigners/immigrants who may also have lower socio-economic standing due to this continued tradition of legal discrimination, but also the recent immigrants who went to Japan for education and training. These recent immigrants are usually those who go to Japan for education in various degree and training as engineers, nurses, etc. Japan faces a huge dilemma with it’s work force, because of its low birthrate and high percentage of elderly, which dwindles human resources greatly. However, in face of such dilemma, the Japanese government still refuses to let many of such educated immigrants with education and great potential stay and contribute to Japanese society. Since the government seems to be acting rather unreasonably about the situation, I feel like Shklar is perhaps overlooking a whole another component of how cultural bias and a more psychological and emotional factor may cause the current citizens may resist expanding its circle of citizenship to others, despite the negative effects.

  4. eakunne5 says:

    I think your explanation on Japan’s minority excllusion and its connection with skhlar leads to a very important point. Shklar emphasizes the ability to vote and earn as marks of citizenship. But as you have provided, there is more to being a full citizen than that. There also can be and alot of times is a huge sociological problem with how the “the included” are looking at the “excluded”. Bringing up the points about their ideology with religion and language gives great insight into how these exclusions are made by people treating others harshly, and how hard it is to fight for a change when it is woven into the fabric of a country’s ideal functions of societal life.

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