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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Asian Ethnicities (11)—Dynamics of Ethnicity (g)

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series Asian Ethnicities
A year ago on Round and Square (25 July 2012)—The Cortex Chronicles: Introduction
Two years ago on Round and Square (25 July 2011)—Longevity Mountain: Mao and Then
[a] Distinctive RF
In the next dozen entries, I will be posting an initial draft of a book introduction on Asian ethnic groups. It is meant for the blog, and does not represent anything like what will eventually be published. I do so especially because this represents a compilation of my thoughts after a full year of intensive teaching and research on Asian ethnicity. The introduction to this series shows some of my thoughts from last year—before I taught my advanced seminar by the same title as this series. This is something of a culmination of the process, even though I will be now moving in many new directions in the teaching and study of Asian ethnic groups.

Click below for other items in this essay:
Dynamics 1          Dynamics 2          Dynamics 3          Dynamics 4          Dynamics 5 
Dynamics 6          Dynamics 7          Dynamics 8          Dynamics 9          Dynamics 10
East Asia (c)
 “Yamato” Japan
Although many ethnic groups have strong senses of identity that often contrast the in-group quite markedly with outer groups, there are historical and cultural reasons why the dominant Japanese ethnic group has prevailed. Japan’s distinctive island setting and consistent interpretations of its cultural history have provided some of the background for these perceptions.
[b] Shared RF

The chief reason for the distinctive role of Japan in early East Asian history is its location—an island complex distant from Korea by over one hundred miles, and with even exploration of adjoining islands and ethnic groups occurring only quite recently in Japanese history. Unlike its East Asian neighbors, Korea and Vietnam, Japan was not occupied by foreign armies until the twentieth century. “Foreign” influences penetrated Japan more conspicuously than they did in Korea. They did not seep across a shared border but came, rather, by ship.

Through it all, one powerful force of ethnic and national identity flowed as a cultural constant—the imperial family that was linked to the Sun Goddess since the earliest decades of the Yamato state. To this day, the Japanese imperial line is spoken of as an unbroken succession of 125 emperors, all of whom—in a secret ritual last carried out in 1989—”merged” with the Sun Goddess to achieve a kind of imperial immortality that has been used for purposes both peaceful and profoundly warlike over the centuries. Although the Showa Emperor renounced the divinity of the emperorship in 1945, it is significant that the ceremony was still carried out for the succession of his son in 1989. It is another small glimpse into early Yamato images of legitimacy and centrality in the political life of a formidable modern political system.
[c] Okinawa RF

Today, even with a falling birth rate and an economy that has not recovered to 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” are 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 a hidden issue, either. In 1986, Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone made a statement that received worldwide 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.[1]
[d] Hokkaido 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 (yet still flawed) argument for a kind of Yamato ethnic pedigree. The history of Japan–much like that of Korea or China—shows an interplay between and among groups. Despite expressions of ethnic superiority in some circles, patterns are changing, 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.
[e] Difference RF

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. Yet 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 even 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.

Click below for other items in this essay:
Dynamics 1          Dynamics 2          Dynamics 3          Dynamics 4          Dynamics 5 
Dynamics 6          Dynamics 7          Dynamics 8          Dynamics 9          Dynamics 10
[f] Blur RF

[1] Chicago Tribune 28 September 1986. Clarence Page.

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