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Friday, July 13, 2012

Asian Ethnicities (2c)—Japan ("Yamato")

A year ago on Round and Square (13 July 2011)—Seinfeld Ethnography: High Stakes Betting
Click here for other posts dealing with East Asian ethnic majorities:  
China 1       China 2       China 3       Japan 1       Japan 2       Japan 3       Korea 1       Korea 2       Korea 3
[a] Expression RF
The first three entries (each in several segments) for the Round and Square series "Asian Ethnicities" deal with the majority ethnic groups in China, Japan, and Korea. We are starting with these groups precisely because they permeate all of the nooks and crannies of their respective histories. Indeed, the history of China is often taught (and this is especially true in Chinese schools) as the history of the Han ethnicity. As we shall see, this is particularly problematic in China, since the history of China can better—this is my opinion—be taught as a constant set of interactions with ethnic groups to the west, south, and especially north. It is no less important in Japan and Korea, however. The relative homgeneity of those populations exacerbate the problems, and engagement with various ethnic groups tends to be even further marginalized. I hope to give, in these introductory posts, a way of thinking about majority ethnicity in China, Japan, and Korea. These are by no means my last word on the subject(s). As you can see from the introduction to this series, these are works in process and are meant to be essays in every sense of the term. 
[b] Marked RF
Cultural Life
Social life has changed markedly in Japan since the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and the end of World War II (1945), and Japan has long been considered one of the world’s most productive societies. Even with a falling birth rate and an economy that has not recovered from its peaks in the 1970s and 1980s, Japan remains a central player on the world stage. Japan’s ethnic homogeneity has figured in international politics during this time, and it is not infrequently heard in private conversations that Japan’s “strengths” is due in large part to that very homogeneity. Such a view is troubling to many in Japan, but it remains a significant theme in Japanese expressions of national identity. This is by no means an historical issue, either.

In 1986, Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone made a statement that received world-wide attention.

       So high is the level of education in our country that Japan is an intelligent 
       society. Our average score is much higher than those of countries like the U.S. 
       There are many [minorities] in America. In consequence the average score 
       over there is exceedingly low.

Attempting to clarify these remarks when the situation proved challenging diplomatically, Nakasone continued:

       But there are things the Americans have not been able to do because of 
       multiple nationalities there…On the contrary, things are easier in Japan 
       because we are a monoracial society.

[c] Pedigree RF
This view, while certainly not universal, is common in Japan, and is clearly an outgrowth of the dominance of “Yamato” ethnicity on the main island of Honshu and throughout Japanese history. Yet only the Japanese royal family could make anything resembling a coherent argument for a kind of Yamato pedigree. Royal alliances have been so carefully negotiated for the past 1,500 years that such a notion might be considered plausible. Its weakness is that of all arguments for ethnic authenticity. The notion of a “pure” line is flawed from its start, because it assumes an impossible fiction—the fiction of a primal ethnic grouping.

Beyond the imperial line, the history of Japan–much like that of Korea or China—shows an interplay between and among groups. That such assimilation or intermarriage is less common than in, say, China, is indisputable. On the other hand, intermarriage with Chinese and Koreans was so common during the period in which the Japanese state was solidified that, by the early Heian period (c.1000), it was said that a third of all aristocratic families had foreign ancestors. As we have seen, it is far easier to define an ongoing and resilient Yamato culture that has spanned the centuries than to pinpoint anything resembling a pure Yamato ethnicity.

[d] Ongoing RF
Despite expressions of ethnic superiority in some circles, such attitudes are by no means universal, and intermarriage is more common today than at any time in the documented past. This is especially relevant to the two largest indigenous ethnic groups in Japanese society—the Ainu to the north, on the island of Hokkaido, and the Ryukyuan people in Okinawa prefecture. In both cases, assimilation and intermarriage has led to remarkable changes in the cultural makeup of the groups. These have not by any means been seamless or without conflict, and anti-Japanese resentment has been common among both groups.

Perhaps the most difficult ongoing situation of this nature in Japan today has occurred with a group that is not, strictly speaking, ethnically distinct. The Buraku people (Burakumin) have been stigmatized for centuries. They were originally perceived as an employment group that was considered to be outcaste because members worked in ritually “impure” occupations ranging from tanners and butchers to undertakers. Although the caste system was abolished in the early years of the Meiji era, discrimination has remained in employment, marriage, and even—although far less commonly today—real estate purchases.

All of these groups have higher profiles within and beyond Japan than they have had in the past. Each one has also been defined to a very large extent by its interactions over the decades and even centuries with Japan’s “Yamato” culture. This is equally true of other groups in Japan today, many of which are larger. These include significant numbers from China (including the Republic of China on Taiwan), Korea (mostly South Korea), Brazil, and the Philippines. Even so, the total foreign population does not exceed two percent, and all ethnic politics takes place under assumptions of overwhelmingly numerical superiority.
[e] Overwhelming RF
Click here for other posts dealing with East Asian ethnic majorities:  
China 1       China 2       China 3       Japan 1       Japan 2       Japan 3       Korea 1       Korea 2       Korea 3

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