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.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

In Harmony with Nature? Gloomy Nihonbashi and the Construction State

The zero milestone plaque (Nihon Kokudo Genpyo) at Nihonbashi
All roads lead to Nihonbashi
Nihonbashi (日本橋 literally "Japan Bridge") is both the name of a bridge and also a specific business district (as well as home to the original Tsukiji fish market) located right in the heart of Tokyo. Indeed, distances to Tokyo are calculated from the bridge - see the zero milestone plaque pictured right known in Japanese as Nihon Kokudō Genpyō (日本国道元標). Today the bridge is designated an important cultural property (jūyō-bunkazai =重要文化財). The original wooden bridge dates back to 1603 but was replaced by a larger stone bridge (with a steel frame) in 1911. A full size replica of the original wooden bridge can be enjoyed at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Unfortunately the museum is now closed for renovation until the end of March 2018, though don't despair - you can also walk over (and under) a rather lovely half-scale replica of the bridge at Haneda Airport (pictured below).
At both the airport and the museum, the roof may detract from the illusion of walking across a real bridge but the actual bridge itself is not much better - it is dark and gloomy with sunlight (and views of Mount Fuji) blocked by a massive highway running right over the top of the bridge (pictured below)! The highway was built in the rush to get ready for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and very much reflects the priority put on infrastructure over environment during the sixties and seventies, the years of Japan's rapid economic development (kōdo keizai seichō  =高度経済成長). 

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Fortunately, moves are afoot to undo the damage, with the national and metropolitan governments recently agreeing to move the highway underground after the Tokyo Olympics. Nevertheless, contrary to stereotypes of Japanese being "in harmony with nature," much of Japan is like this, as epitomised by the unsightly yet ubiquitous utility polls and wires running above ground and the presence of concrete all over the coasts and countryside. Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan (right) starts with a chapter on Japan's "construction state" and the author argues that Japan "has become arguably the world's ugliest country."

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Japanese Politics in Flux (Part 2): Hoping for a Viable Opposition

On September 25th, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike sent shock waves through the political establishment - and totally dominated the media - by announcing the formation of a new political party, Kibō no Tō (希望の党) or "Party of Hope" in English. Triggered by Abe's decision to hold a snap election slated for October 22nd, her announcement completely overshadowed the Prime Minister's moves to secure a political mandate for his pet-project of constitutional reform. It also prompted the main (but already disintegrating) opposition party - the Democratic Party - to effectively abolish itself, with its leader announcing that it would not field candidates in the upcoming election; members were urged to run as candidates for the new party instead. Koike made clear though that she would select only "suitable" candidates for her new conservative party - what the media has dubbed a "Death Note" playing on the popular Japanese manga of the same name. Before being given the chop by Koike, a number of centre-left members from the defunct Democratic Party formed a new party on October 2nd, the CDP or Constitutional Party of Japan (Rikken Minshutō=立憲民主党). The party is fielding 78 candidates for the election, far less than the 235 put forward by the Party of Hope. 
Election board with four election posters stuck on
Election poster in Kodaira, showing only 4 candidates (LDP, JCP, CDP, and "The Party of Hope"
 Considering Koike's landslide victory in the Tokyo Metropolitan elections in July, some commentators initially saw her as a genuine threat to the ruling LDP. The "hope" was that at long last Japan could have a viable opposition. Indeed, the slogan for the new party is "Hope for Japan" (Nihon ni Kibō =日本に希望) together with "citizens' first" and "a reset for Japan." On the other hand, many observers remain sceptical whether Koike can take on the dual roles of regional governor and leader of a national political party. Moreover, there has been little time to organise candidates and put together a manifesto before the election. Indeed, in my own constituency the Hope candidate doesn't  actually seem very hopeful or experienced: her poster (right) focuses on her experience as a victim of crime. After all the hype, I get the feeling that Abe will win with a slightly reduced majority and it will be back to one-party politics as usual.

[UPDATE] Final results saw the LDP retain their two-thirds super-majority with 313 seats, down five seats - as predicted above!]

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Japanese Politics in Flux (Part 1): The Communist Party as the Conscience of the Nation

Walking around the neighbourhood it is common to see political parties' posters (left) stuck to the walls of local houses, even during non-election times. With campaigning now under way for the October 22nd general election, such posters have become even more visible. Some of the most noticeable posters are from the JCP or Japanese Communist Party (Kyōsantō=共産党), the most successful non-ruling Communist Party in the world. Indeed, in recent years it has enjoyed something of a resurgence, with a sharp increase in young members  in particular. For example, in a 2015 article entitled "Red Revival", the Economist described how the party had become the strongest political opposition at the local level; a 2016 Japan Times article described the party as "riding high" as it became the second-largest opposition party in the Diet. In the upcoming election only the ruling LDP boasts more candidates. Its power stems from a solid grassroots support base and a remarkably high and steady income (see graph).
Changes in Income of Major Political Parties (2008-2013)

Soviet-art style JCP "Protect Article 9" poster
Recently, the Abe administration has come under heavy fire thanks to various scandals centering on the abuse of power together with accusations of arrogance and high-handedness; July's Tokyo Assembly Election results marked a historic defeat for the LDP. The Communist Party has emerged as the only viable opposition, mostly due to the fact that it actually stands for something: it steadfastly sticks to its opposition to the security treaty between Japan and the US (AMPO) and its support for the pacifist Article 9 in Japan's constitution (see poster right). This also makes it unelectable, of course, but it revels in its under-dog role in checking excessive government power. Peter Berton in The Japanese Communist Party: Permanent Opposition but Moral Compass calls it "the conscience of the nation."

What of the other opposition parties? The Socialist Party (now Social Democratic Party), which was previously the largest opposition party, fell apart after entering government in the mid-1990s and being forced to renounce its core principle of opposition to AMPO/Article 9 (like the JCP); the DPJ=Democratic Party of Japan (later just Democratic Party) became the main opposition thereafter but lost any credibility after a disastrous period of government from 2009 to 2012 (it finally imploded altogether a few weeks ago). In sum, the fact that today in Japan there is no opposition that could viably form a government is rather worrying and raises serious questions about the nature of democracy in the country. Of course, this may all change with Tokyo Governor Koike's recently announced new party - the subject of the next post.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Nobel Prize Winner Kazuo Ishiguro: Japanese or not Japanese?

Various articles from the Yomiuri Shimbun about Ishiguro's Nobel Prize - plus the cover of his most famous book, The Remains of the Day, in Japanese
Media reports on Ishiguro's Nobel Prize (©Yomiuri Shimbun)
The awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Kazuo Ishiguro is making big headlines over here at the moment (right). Ishiguro is a Japan-born novelist who moved to Britain when he was five-years old. Interestingly, although he is typically described as a "British" novelist, he didn't get British citizenship until he was in his late twenties. "I couldn't speak Japanese very well, passport regulations were changing, I felt British and my future was in Britain," he explains in a 2005 interview in the Guardian, "...but I still think I'm regarded as one of their own in Japan." Certainly, there is a genuine fondness for the author and even a self-celebratory element to the reporting. Yet I wonder if there is not also a sense of loss and something else - regret, frustration - when his success is reported? He's clearly classified as non-Japanese: in the media he is usually described as a Japan-born British writer (nihon-shusshin ei-sakka =日本出身・英作家)or an English-man of Japanese descent (nikkei eikokujin =日系英国人). Moreover, the use of katakana (カズオ・イシグロ) to write his name rather than kanji (石黒 一雄) in Western first name/last name order highlights his foreignness, his Otherness.

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Ishiguro's treatment reveals a number of interesting points about the construction of Japanese identity. In the first place, because Japan does not recognise dual nationality (nijū-kokuseki =二重国籍) claiming non-Japanese citizenship demands the loss of one's Japanese nationality (by the letter of the law at least). Labels that reflect dual identities, such as Korean-Japanese for example, are not in common use - one is either 100% Japanese or one is not Japanese at all. Yasunori Fukuoka, in a discussion of the ethnic identity of Korean residents in Japan (left), identified three elements which he suggested together define "Japanese-ness": (1) Nationality, (2) blood (race/Ethnicity), and (3) Culture/language. In this model, described by Sugimoto as the N=E=C equation, race is equated with language and culture and the three dimensions are synonymous and form a "set." I use the analogy of a clover-leaf with the three leaves being an integral part of the whole leaf: lack of any one of these individual leaves implies one is not "properly" Japanese. For example, Ishiguro lacks citizenship, but has Japanese "blood," and partial cultural literacy;  Masayoshi Son, in contrast, has full Japanese citizenship and total lingua-cultural competence, but is of Korean descent. Both are "incomplete" Japanese in this model and as such can be a source of discomfort (iwakan =違和感) for some people here. Of course, Fukuoka/Sugimoto's model is rather old and there are many signs in contemporary Japan that this model is breaking down - something I discuss at length in chapter 3 of Language and Citizenship in Japan. See also this recent post on another famous figure re-defining notions of "Japaneseness", US Open winner Naomi Osaka.

In some ways, I am almost a mirror-image of Ishiguro: I have lived longer in Japan than Britain and in many ways feel more comfortable and at home here than I do in the country where I was born. But on the other hand, to paraphrase Ishiguro upon winning the prize, Britain always exists in my mind and a large part of my way of looking at the world, my approach, is British. It is too bad I will never be accepted as a "full" Japanese simply because of the way I look (the lack of Japanese blood); identities are never single things and Japanese identity - in contrast to British identity - remains rather inflexible and inclusive.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Oldest Fast-Food in Japan: Keeping Warm with Oden

Oden on sale in a local Family Mart costing from ¥70-¥100
Yet another post on food, reflecting the fact that in Japan autumn means eating: you will hear the phrase shokuyoku no aki (食欲の秋) - "autumn is about appetite" - a lot this time of year! This time round I'm focusing on oden, various ingredients soaked in a hot soy-flavoured dashi broth. This has become a common sight in convenience stores (combini) now the hot weather has finished. Oden has been called the oldest fast food in Japan and apparently goes back hundreds of years. Usually, you ask the clerk for the specific ingredients you want and he or she then picks these out of the hot metal case and puts them into a polystyrene bowl for you to take away. This savoury "pick-n-mix" hot-pot is usually eaten with mustard (karashi) or other more exotic condiments (such as yuzu-koshō =pepper) which are free.

So what are the ingredients? Although they vary by region (as does the colour and taste of the broth), most of the classic ingredients can be seen in the Family Mart convenience store selection pictured right. These are separated into eight compartments, numbered in the picture. ❶ is white radish (daikon), ❷ deep-fried tofu with vegetables (ganmo), ❸ is the ever favourite boiled egg (yude-tamago), and ❹ contains tube-shaped fish-paste cakes (known as chikuwa - the white one is called chikuwa-bu which is actually made from rice). Note the tied kelp bundle (kombu) lurking on top of the chikuwa too. Moving on to the bottom half of the picture, ❺ is a devil's tongue jelly (konnyaku) block plus some konnyaku noodles (ito-konnyaku) which is called shirataki on the menu and ❻ features burdock (gobō) and sausages wrapped in more deep-fried tofu. ❼ features tsukune (a kind of minced chicken) on a skewer with some sausages floating around (another common meat on a stick is gyūsuji or beef tendon/sinew which is ridiculously good). Finally, ❽ contains a "pouch" or "purse" made of deep-fried tofu probably with rice-cake (mochi) inside known as kinchaku together with some chunks of deep-fried tofu (atsu-age) and (maybe) a triangle-shape fish cake known as hanpen (sometimes it's difficult to see exactly what's swimming in the broth!). A full menu in Japanese is given below (from a 7-11); for an English description of the some of the various delicacies see here.

On the down side, there has recently been some discussion on social media (for example, here) about how hygienic convenience store oden actually is, with talk of insects and dust and even stories of customers and staff coughing into the stuff! While this may be something of an over-reaction in cleanliness-obsessed Japan, the fact is that oden isn't always covered with a lid in these stores (as the top picture showed). If you are concerned about hygiene, maybe the safest bet would be to buy in a supermarket or, even better, a proper oden restaurant - here is a list of ten of the best oden-dokoro (おでん処) in Tokyo - prices generally begin at around ¥3,000.