What Constitutes "Ethnicity" in Japan?

This summer I traveled to Japan as a World Fellow in order to study issues of Japanese ethnic identity first-hand. I was interested in the concept of Japanese ethnic homogeneity and wanted to gain a better understanding of the challenges to this concept that the Ainu and Okinawan peoples in Japan represent. In order to do this, I spent a total of two and a half weeks based in Tokyo, staying with a Japanese family and visiting important “majority” Japanese tourist destinations as well as museums that dealt with both majority Japanese culture and Japan’s ethnic minorities. In the middle of this homestay, I spent two weeks traveling through Hokkaido (where most Ainu live) and Okinawa in order to examine the way that the Ainu and Okinawans present themselves to the outside world and assert their separate identities.

The question of ethnicity in Japan turned out to be much harder to address than I had imagined. I planned to look at tourism as a means of cultural exchange between different groups in Japan, and I wanted to understand the way majority Japanese sites are experienced by tourists (who are mainly majority Japanese) in order to understand what a Japanese tourist might expect or be surprised by at a minority Japanese site. I visited popular tourist destinations that are important historically or culturally to the Japanese, such as Nikko, a famous temple complex that is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan; Hiraizumi, home to another famous temple complex; the Tokyo National Museum; the Asakusa Kannon temple which is the oldest temple in Tokyo; and the Imperial Palace where the emperor and his family still reside….

My host family also constantly reminded me that “ethnicity” is not just the symbols or places that express “Japanese-ness”; to be Japanese is also to live the daily life of a Japanese person. This trip was my first attempt at studying an intellectual construct (ethnicity) by looking for it in the everyday lives of real people and by asking them to help me find it there. During the homestay portion of my trip, I realized that scholarship on Japanese ethnicity paints an incomplete picture. Scholarship focuses on revivals of nationalist fervor or on contrasting pairs of stereotypes (geishas vs. salarymen, calligraphy v. technology, etc.). However, there is more to Japanese ethnicity than revering the emperor or being an expert at flower arranging.

For instance, when I asked for suggestions of where to visit, my host mother urged me to visit my host sister’s middle school, and the afternoon I spent there including ceremonial tea with the principal, dropping in on six, seventh, and eighth grade classes in all subjects for several hours, participating in English lessons, and finally having coffee in the principal’s office again was one of the most memorable of my time in Japan, and not only because of the myths it shattered about the Japanese educational system. My host mother’s suggestion reminded me that although “ethnicity” might not be formally recorded or presented as daily life for majority Japanese, it is still thought of as being important in defining “being Japanese”. This was reinforced by an afternoon I spent with a Japanese woman and her two children, who are half Australian. To the oldest child, being Japanese included celebrating birthdays and Christmas in a Western style (as these holidays are not really “every day” events), but also required using his mother¹s Japanese maiden name in school. His younger brother, less conscious of fitting in and being Japanese, was perfectly happy to use his English first and last names in school. Thus the homestay portion of my trip revealed that while tourist destinations on Honshu might focus mainly on a “high culture,” the “daily life” portrayed in Ainu museums is also a recognized part of Japanese ethnicity.

SOURCE: The Myth of Japanese Ethnic Homogeneity, by Catherine Williams, September 1999

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