Will there ever be a rainbow Japan?

Will there ever be a rainbow Japan?

Government statistics suggest multiculturalism is on the rise, but social organizations for mixed-race Japanese say 'hafus' still face challenges
mixed race rainbow japan
A Mixed Roots Expression Workshop at Takatori Community Centre in Kaiun-cho, Nagata-ku.

Japan, which closed its borders from 1639 to 1854 and later colonized its neighbors, has an uneasy history with foreigners, national identity, and multiculturalism.

Yet government statistics and grassroots organizations say multiculturalism in the famously insular country is now on the rise.

mixed race rainbow japanTeamwork at the Mixed Roots Expression Workshop at Takatori Community Centre in Kaiun-cho, Nagata-ku.

Japan: The new melting pot?

Japan's national government recently announced it is turning to travelers in a foreigner-friendly mission to boost diversity -- at least in tourist spots -- by paying them to provide feedback on how to increase accessibility for non-Japanese speakers.

David Askew, associate professor of law at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University, identifies more profound changes.

In 1965, a mere 1 in 250 of all marriages in Japan were international, he notes. By 2004, the number had climbed to 1 in 15 across the nation and 1 in 10 in Tokyo. 

According to Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government, by 2005, foreign residents in the city numbered 248,363, up from 159,073 in 1990.

According to Askew, the upswing in diverse residents and mixed marriages has led to another phenomenon: between 1987 and 2004, more than 500,000 children were born in Japan with at least one foreign parent.

mixed race rainbow japanA young participant shares her perspective at the 2009 Shakeforward concert in Kobe.

Celebrating diversity

A handful of new organizations are tied, at least in part, to the increase in multicultural marriages.

Groups such as Mixed Roots Japan and Hapa Japan, founded by children of mixed-Japanese couples, aim to celebrate the broadening scope of Japanese identity, both nationally and globally.

“There is a real need now to recognize that Japan is getting more multiracial," says Mixed Roots founder Edward Sumoto, a self-described "hafu" of Japanese/Venezuelan ethnicity. "The Japanese citizen is not simply a traditional Japanese person with Japanese nationality anymore.”

The issue of the identity of hafu is also being explored in a new film titled "Hafu," currently under production by the Hafu Project.

In support of multiracial families, Mixed Roots holds Halloween and Christmas parties, picnics and beach days.

The organization also sponsors a monthly radio show on station FMYY, and “Shakeforward” concerts in Tokyo and Kansai, accompanied by youth workshops and symposia.

“These events feature mixed-roots artists who promote social dialogue with their songs,” says Sumoto.

The next “Shakeforward” concert will be held on November 27 in Kobe. 

One of Sumoto’s primary goals is to “enable mixed-race kids to meet and talk, so they know there are other people like them.”

Despite the statistics, achieving widespread recognition for Japanese diversity has been a struggle for Sumoto and other grassroots organizers.

“Mentally, do the Japanese think the country is becoming more multicultural?” asks Sumoto. “Possibly more than 20 years ago, because you see more foreigners, but people are still not sure what to do with it.”

mixed race rainbow japanMixed Roots Radio during a discussion with Mixed Roots youth from different backgrounds.

Multiculturalism on the margins

Like Sumoto, Erin Aeran Chung, assistant professor of East Asian politics at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, sees the issue of Japanese multiculturalism as multifaceted.

Chung has written extensively on Japan, ethnicity and citizenship, especially as relates to Zainichi Koreans, descendents of pre-war immigrants, many of whom were brought to Japan as slave labor.

Zainichi literally means “staying in Japan temporarily.”

“The concepts of 'multicultural coexistence' (tabunka kyōsei) and 'living in harmony with foreigners' (gaikokujin to no kyōsei)" -- catchwords for multiculturalism used by local government officials and NGOs -- “are based on the idea that Japanese nationals, assumed to be culturally homogenous, can live together peacefully with foreign nationals, assumed to be culturally different from the Japanese,” Chung said in a series of interviews.

“Rather than expand the definition of Japanese national identity to include those who are not Japanese by blood or nationality,” Chung argues, “the concept of kyōsei suggests that Japanese nationals must rise to the challenge of living with diversity,” instead of as part of a group of diverse citizens belonging to a truly multicultural nation.

A recent move by the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) suggests not even citizenship guarantees acceptance as “truly” Japanese.

At a meeting last February, the JSA administrative board mandated limiting foreign-born wrestlers to one per stable. The upshot: even if a competitor born abroad becomes a Japanese citizen, he’s still considered the stable’s token foreigner.

The myth of mono-ethnicity

Underneath the debate over Japan’s willingness to embrace multiculturalism lies the question of how mono-ethnic the nation ever really was.

According to Ritsumeikan’s David Askew, “The idea of Japan as mono-ethnic is actually a postwar belief.” 

The Ainu and Ryukyuan ethnic groups, engulfed by Japan during its prewar colonial movement, are examples.

As for Taiwan and Korea, they “were part of Japan until 1945, so you could hardly talk about a homogeneous population before then.” 

“The conversation about multiculturalism today is one that focuses on accepting ‘foreign’ cultures, ignoring the broad range of cultural practices within Japan itself,” says Askew.

“Unless the Okinawas and Osakas of Japan are accepted as different cultures, the discourse will continue to promote the idea of a homogeneous Japan,” says Askew.