3 minute read

Race and Racism in Asia

Race And Racism In Japan

The linguistic connections between Japanese and the Ural-Altaic language family have led many to suggest that the Japanese migrated from North Asia, though others have argued the possibility of migrations from Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. In any case, migrations of what constitute the majority of Japanese today over the centuries brought them into conflict with other ethnic groups already inhabiting the archipelago. For example, there is record of conflict against the Emishi of northeastern Honshu in the ninth century. Better known are the Ainu—a people ethnically distinct from the majority Japanese—whose culture had grown in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Japanese gradually pushed the Ainu north so that by the early Tokugawa period (early seventeenth century) they had either been eliminated or pushed to northern Hokkaido.

The existence of such ethnic groups and the history of their gradual territorial marginalization suggest the existence of racial identities, but they do not seem dominant among commoners. Lacking a strong central government for much of its medieval period, and probably because such contact existed mostly on the periphery, most of the commoner population were more concerned with the associations that governed daily life—relationships with kin, village, temple, and the regional lord. Indeed, there is some evidence of fluidity between ethnic groups where there was such contact: Under certain circumstances, some Japanese in Hokkaido identified themselves with "barbarians," and some "barbarians" blended into mainstream society by becoming loyal imperial subjects.

During the Tokugawa period (1600–1868), however, there are indications that racial identities were recognized and nurtured at least among ruling elites and perhaps those living and working in close proximity to such ethnic groups. At least in Hokkaido, distinctly "Japanese" and "Ainu" identities formed during this period with clear discriminatory intentions. This was true also with the Ryukyuans down south. Many in Tokugawa society also differentiated themselves from those classified as eta (outcaste) and hinin (nonpersons) who, though phenotypically no different from the majority population, were ostracized by society and forced to do menial or dirty work. Intermarriage was avoided, and the children born into these groups were marked for life. Despite little "biological" difference, Tokugawa society perceived here a problem of ancestry and discriminated against them.

Japan's modern era began with foreigners helping to open the country to a world dominated by Western influence. Western notions of race including Social Darwinism would deeply impact Japanese racial thought. The Meiji Constitutional order established the state based upon the notion that the Emperor was a direct descendant of the original Yamato clan, and that the Japanese people were in some way "organically" related to the emperor, thus creating the notion of a single, homogeneous racial identity. These ideas would provide a powerful foundation for nurturing an intense nationalism.

The speed of Japan's development led leaders to envision an empire that would prove notions of Western superiority wrong. At the same time, many viewed Japanese civilization and race as having something to offer to the "less developed" peoples of Asia. This would lead to imperial expansion abroad and oppression at home. After the Meiji Restoration (1868), the government incorporated Ainu land and implemented assimilation policies. The Ryukyuans, now Okinawans, were also expected to assimilate into mainstream culture. The term burakumin (hamlet people) replaced the terms eta and hinin, but such semantic changes did little to stop discriminatory practices. Japan's extended empire also gave rise to a domestic Korean population who also experienced severe discrimination.

Prewar conceptions regarding the peculiar uniqueness of the Japanese race continued in postwar Japan. Likewise, racial discrimination continues to exist in the postwar era. Although the post–World War II constitution has granted equal rights, and Japan has participated in international agreements to respect minority rights, it was only in 1991 that the Ainu were recognized as a minority people with individual rights and 1997 that the government recognized them corporately as an indigenous group with rights to defend their distinctive culture. Laws have not addressed the history of discrimination, nor those living outside of Hokkaido. Discrimination against Koreans residing in Japan and against the Okinawans since the modern period as a result of Japan's expansionism earlier in the century has also remained an issue throughout the twentieth century.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Quantum electronics to ReasoningRace and Racism in Asia - Race And Racism In China, Race And Racism In Japan, Race And Racism In India