Jolyon B. Thomas

““Japanese People Don’t See Race”: Linguistic Tics, Ambient Norms, and the Constructed Qualities of Race and Religion in Japan”

Thomas 200 x 277While the concepts of “race” (jinshu) and “racial discrimination” (jinshu sabetsu) exist in contemporary Japanese, these terms feature as loan words that fit imperfectly with the English terms that they translate. Japanese perceptions of race are no less real for that fact, but Japanese sensitivities about race manifest themselves somewhat differently than, say, American perceptions of the same. For example, references to Japaneseness pervade daily conversation, from overheard conversations in coffeeshops to nighttime news broadcasts. The idea of Japaneseness cloaks personal opinion with the mantle of common sense, renders specific dispositions aspects of a timeless culture, and censures undesirable behavior while establishing social norms. Little of this discussion is about race as such, but the language of Japaneseness creates a social center that tolerates, but does not fully include, marginal communities (Brown 2006). Insensitivity to racial discrimination appears in the continued Japanese use of blackface in comedic situations, the ubiquity of minstrel kitsch in Japanese bars and cafes, nostalgia for Nazi paraphernalia in Japanese sub-communities, and casual indifference to the continuing marginal status of Japanese-born Koreans (now fourth-generation, but technically not fully “Japanese,” immigrants; Chung 2010) and traditional outcaste communities (burakumin; see Bondy 2014).

Building on the constructivist insight that both race and religion are invented categories that exist as socially dependent facts but not as ahistorical essences, in this presentation I look at some ways that religion and race intertwine in Japanese public life. Critically examining language that appears in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s draft constitution of 2012 and the revised Fundamental Law on Education (FLE) of 2006, I show that majoritarian approaches to constitutional revision and national legislation would render some aspects of religion as facets of a timeless Japanese culture. Specifically, by making Shinto essentially Japanese (it is not), conservative lawmakers can make public sponsorship of shrine rites immune from allegations of violating the constitutional principle of religion-state separation. Furthermore, by defining Japaneseness quite narrowly, lawmakers can restrict political participation to people bearing linguistic fluency (a high exclusionary hurdle given that Japanese is among the most difficult foreign languages to master), a narrow phenotype (e.g., black hair), and set of fetishized cultural dispositions (e.g., “harmony,” wa) that may include ritual practices. Not all of these ideals appear explicitly in the draft charter or the FLE, but by tying these legal issues to recent debates over the role of morality and patriotism in public schools, I show that children learn a type of racist thinking that refuses the language of race and a type of religious thinking that eschews explicit mention of religion.

FURTHER READINGS- Annotated Bibliography
  • Amos, Timothy. Embodying Difference: The Making of Burakumin in Modern Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011.
  • Amos questions what he calls the “master narrative” of burakumin status in modern Japan.

  • Bondy, Christopher. Voice, Silence, and Self: Negotiations of Buraku Identity in Contemporary Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2015.
  • Bondy shows that treatment of Japan’s traditional outcaste communities are generally rendered through silence rather than speech: allusive language, subtle cues, and tacit understandings mark specific geographic areas and their populations as “not really Japanese.”

  • Chung, Erin Aeran.Immigration and Citizenship in Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Japan is unusual in that it hosts a fourth-generation immigrant population that is not fully naturalized. Chung shows that this (mostly) invisible minority is still subject to discriminatory treatment and that members are caught between the high politics of Korean-Japanese international relations and the mundane politics of microaggressions and exclusionary policies.

  • Watt, Lori. When Empire Comes Home. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2010.
  • Watt shows that post-defeat Allied policies assumed that ethnicities matched national geographies, an assumption that did not match the realities of the multiethnic Japanese empire. Japanese repatriates to the metropole were often treated as outsiders by their own country, and occupation authorities expropriated significant wealth generated through generations of colonial endeavor. Both pitiable and threatening, the repatriates were quintessentially “Japanese” and not quite Japanese enough.

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