- Bringing Class and Indigeneity In, but Leaving Japaneseness Out
Buoyed by waves of labor migration into Japan from Asia and Latin America, the field of Japan studies has seen a renewed interest in Japan’s minority groups. Much of the new scholarship has focused on debunking notions of Japanese uniqueness found in political discourse about the nation, known as Nihonjinron. In particular, this work has focused on Japan’s supposed ethnic, racial, and class homogeneity, examining the experiences of newcomers, oldcomers, and native others in Japan. From this academic work, two key analytical foci—social class and indigeneity—have tended to be missing. On the Margins of Empire: Buraku and Korean Identity in Prewar and Wartime Japan, by Jeffrey Paul Bayliss, and Japan’s Ainu Minority in Tokyo: Diasporic Indigeneity and Urban Politics, by Mark K. Watson, address this shortcoming in their respective analyses of Burakumin and Koreans from the Meiji Restoration to the end of World War II, and of present-day Ainu residing in Tokyo. All three of these groups have faced a similar dilemma—as Bayliss puts it, “how to restore and maintain a sense of pride and self-worth within a [End Page 619] society that denied human dignity to those it imagined as irredeemably different” (111). The two texts offer important insights into these groups’ battles for self-definition and recognition, highlighting issues that fall outside the monoor multi-ethnic Japan paradigm that has dominated recent research. However, their focus on the three minority groups’ identity issues tends to exclude the dialectic relationship between these groups’ identities and the ethnic identity of majority Japanese.
Bayliss reveals in great detail the prevailing Japanese views of Burakumin and Koreans in the late nineteenthto mid-twentieth century, showing how both groups were defined as “debaucherous, violent, and lacking the will for self-improvement—in other words, the antithesis of the ideal Japanese imperial citizen/subject” (383). The parallels between these cases and more recent debates over integrating immigrant or minority populations are striking. The Japanese state’s depictions of life in Buraku and Korean communities read like the 1965 Moynihan Report, which claimed that a “tangle of pathologies” existed in African American families. Bayliss highlights the point that majority Japanese society saw the problems facing Burakumin and Koreans as coming from defects within the groups themselves, and not from prejudice and discrimination. This view informed Japanese state policy, which turned its efforts to “correcting” the deficiencies in the Burakumin population and assimilating the Korean minority. From this perspective, the burden was on the Burakumin and Koreans to make themselves acceptable to majority society; if they did not, the logic went, they were themselves to blame for their marginalized status.
Similarly, the public reaction to the Meiji emperor’s official granting of commoner status to the Burakumin in 1871 foreshadows the demands placed on present-day immigrants in Japan. One town council declared at the time that the Burakumin could gradually gain the acceptance of majority society only by not becoming “self-important and impudent” (34). Rather, the Burakumin were encouraged to be thankful for the gift that Japanese society was giving them. Along these lines, daily encounters with majority Japanese remind current immigrants in Japan that their cultural and linguistic differences are welcome only to the extent that they do not inconvenience any majority Japanese, and that they should express gratitude for being allowed to be in Japan. But, as Bayliss notes of the quandary the Burakumin faced nearly 150 years ago, these groups are in an unwinnable situation, as it is [End Page 620] unclear how to appropriately express gratitude. If they are unable to raise their economic status, are they failing to appreciate the opportunities majority Japanese have given to them? If they become successful, are they acting too uppity?
Moreover, no matter what the Burakumin or Koreans did, their actions would inevitably reinforce some...