Sunday 28 April 2024

More Japanese than the Japanese? Talking Japanese Identity on Tokyo J-Wave Radio

Last time, I wrote how the cool weather had delayed the cherry blossoms, but since then the weather has really warmed up and Japan is well and truly in full bloom. A particular nice feature of spring in Japan is the song of the uguisu (鶯) or Japanese bush warbler/nightingale which is said to mark the start of spring proper. It is so revered by the Japanese that uguisu is also used to refer to a woman with a beautiful voice!

Speaking of beautiful voices, I was recently interviewed by Sara Ogawa, a presenter (known as a "navigator") on Tokyo's J-Wave radio (81.3 FM) for the "World Connection" segment of her Sunday morning "Across the Sky" show (averaging 200,000 listeners!). J-Wave is located on the 33rd floor of the famous Mori Tower, the centrepiece of the mega integrated property complex known as Roppongi Hills. The Mori Art Museum is located 20 floors further up and the first director was British-born David Elliott (famous for his 2011 exhibition, "Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art" - video here). The museum is a popular tourist spot; apparently, it is one of the only venues in Tokyo with a percentage of foreign visitors comparable to the Tokyo National Museum. The Mori Art Center itself center occupies the tower's top six floors, with the top (54th) floor offering spectacular views of Tokyo!

Since art is a key feature of Mori Tower it is no surprise to see various sculptures in the vicinity. I was particularly struck by the statue of a giant spider (pictured) and a closer look revealed it was created by French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. The nine-metre-high steel and marble sculpture is titled "Maman" (mum) and apparently alludes to "spinning, weaving, nurture, and protection." This is not the only "Maman" statue - others are dotted around the world, including one at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.


The interview itself was a 20-minute segment entitled "Who are the Japanese?" (日本人とは誰なのか?). The trigger was the selection of Ukrainian-born Karolina Shiino (椎野カロリーナ) as Miss Japan (ミス日本) 2024. Shiino moved to Japan at the age of five after her mother re-married a Japanese; she became a naturalised Japanese citizen in 2022, but was criticised on social media by some for ‘not [being] Japanese enough’ (see here for a brief video summary and here for some street views). In response, the organisers stressed her Japanese-ness, saying she was a "hard-working but humble Japanese woman with deep compassion for others." In a moving acceptance speech, she spoke about how grateful she was for finally being recognised as Japanese after facing many racial barriers and non-acceptance. She also spoke of her hope to build a society that respects diversity. However, the organisers "more Japanese than the Japanese" justification could actually be said to undermine this hope; I have heard this kind of "praise" many times and for me its underlying assimilatory message raises serious questions about Japan's readiness to change and to recognise difference and diversity.

The furor over "Japanese-ness" is inextricably linked to the growing demographic crisis in Japan. The debate over Shiino's selection undoubtedly reflects a deeper anxiety in society around the falling number of children (少子化) and declining population. Indeed, the latest forecasts point to the population plummeting to under half (62.77 million) by 2100. As a measure to counter this - specifically to deal with growing labour shortages - the Japanese government is ratcheting up migration. In a recent article (PDF here pp.23-26), I argue that Japan's multiculturalism - the support infrastructure for newcomers - is failing to keep pace with rising migration. The reasons for this disconnect between wanting migrants but being reluctant to integrate them into society is closely connected to ideas of who is - and, more importantly, who is not - Japanese. Any thoughts? In the COMMENTS I would love to hear your ideas on national identity, whether it be Japanese-ness, British-ness, or something else!


ggoto said...

This is a really touchy subject.

I emigrated from Japan to Canada almost 60 years ago. When I came to Canada, the society was rather monolithic other than some small groups of different ethnic origins. Then, the government adopted what they called Multiculturalism. They allowed a large number of immigrants from all over the world. What they failed in my mind is that they allowed them to live like when they were in the old country. What followed is various ethnic groups stuck to each other creating their own society rather than integrating into the new society. What made it even worse is that they brought their old problems with them causing numerous social frictions in Canada.

I see bringing in immigrants could be a solution but the last thing they should do is to repeat the same mistake. Instead, maybe they should find ways to encourage people to have more babies by providing incentives like China did a while ago and addressing the reasons why young people don't want to get married or have babies.

Chris Burgess said...

Thanks for your comments and for sharing your own experience. Fascinating! There's certainly been a backlash against multiculturalism in recent years in the West. Japan is just starting the multiculturalism journey so can perhaps learn lessons from the experiences of other countries. Nevertheless, it does need to realise that it can't have it's cake and eat it: it can't bring in migrant workers but at the same time maintain a narrow view of Japanese identity that excludes them from society. I like to think that a more flexible more of Japanese identity will strengthen Japan and it's culture rather than weaken it!