Thursday 26 October 2017

Confronting the Label "Gaikokujin": Japanese Multiculturalism as an Oxymoron

A few weeks ago I was asked to speak at a meeting of FEW (For Empowering Women in Japan), a Tokyo-based non-profit business and social networking organisation whose mission is to “enable internationally-minded women in Japan to achieve their full professional and personal potential.” The topic was Japanese multiculturalism and the speakers (pictured) made up quite an eclectic group: there was an international coordinator from the Peace Boat, a New-Zealand writer/cross-cultural trainer, and a Japanese project manager from CLAIR (Council of Local Authorities for International Relations), a national government affiliated agency aimed at supporting the multicultural efforts of local governments. Two things came out of the meeting: (1) the national government is doing next to nothing to support foreign residents (in tandem with its non-existent immigration policy) and (2) there is a lack of knowledge and understanding about what multiculturalism and/or globalisation actually means in Japan which is illustrated by the difficulties many Japanese have dealing with non-Japanese as equals rather than exotic visitors.

I have written at length elsewhere, both in English and Japanese, about Japanese-style multiculturalism (known as tabunka kyōsei =多文化共生) so here I will just pick up one key point from the meeting: the use of the category/label gaikokujin (foreigner).  This term forms a pair with nihonjin (Japanese): the gaikokujin vs nihonjin fixed binary is fundamental to maintaining and reinforcing difference in Japan. As I mentioned in a previous post, Japanese identity is exclusive and tightly defined - anyone who is not legally, racially, and culturally Japanese is often considered non-Japanese - that is a gaikokujin (and this can even include so-called hāfu, those with one Japanese and one non-Japanese parent). Because Japan, in principle, doesn't accept migrants or use the word migrant (imin), all "newcomers" (another nifty katakana label) to Japan are forever gaikokujin - whether they have been here a few days or many years.

The key take-home message for me was the need to confront Japanese who use gaikokujin without thinking and who also (unconsciously) engage in various other exclusionary behaviour - sometimes termed "micro-aggressions." One panelist said she always confronts the (rather common and unpleasant) abbreviated form gaijin - literally "outside person" - as well as challenging "special" treatment in situations such as Japanese business meetings, where, in contrast to the other participants, she is sometimes referred to by her first name or without the honorific san after her name. This got me thinking how inappropriate it was to refer to someone who has been in Japan twenty-five years by the same label as someone who has been visiting for twenty-five days. So the next time someone calls me gaikokujin I'm going to reject the label and instead say I am a migrant (imin). Actually, I would prefer to claim the nihonjin label for my own but not having Japanese nationality - something I would grab immediately if Japan recognised dual nationality - weakens my case. Either way, I suspect the recipient will be completely non-plussed: nevertheless, the FEW meeting made me realise how important confrontation can be in raising awareness of how Japan needs to change if it really wants to open up and enjoy true multiculturalism.

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