日本語   JCIE Japanese Language Site

Issue 21
April 9, 2004

The Challenge of International Exchange in an Ethnically Diverse Japan

by Tadashi Ogawa, Planning Division Chief, Japan Foundation


As of 2002, there were a total of 1.85 million registered foreign residents in Japan, accounting for about 1.45% of the country's total population. We have entered an age in which one in 20 marriages is between a Japanese person and a person of foreign citizenship. Whether we like it or not, Tokyo and other major Japanese cities have become ethnically diverse. In light of the economic and social trends in today's world, where great quantities of goods, capital, and people are flowing across borders, it has become impossible to accept only goods and information but not people. The trend of diversification is sure to continue. The popularity of ethnic cuisine, the fact that you will see a contractor use foreign workers for a housing construction job, and the rise in crimes by foreigners in Japan are all one aspect of the phenomenon of ethnic diversification. If Japan is to adapt to this increasingly globalized world, it inevitably has to face its fate as a diversified society.

Given this fact, the groups from different cultural backgrounds will need to put their heads together to come up with a way of coexisting within Japanese society. It is time that Japan think seriously about the concept of multiculturalism, which has been implemented in countries such as Canada and Australia. The term "multicultural coexistence" certainly sounds nice, but the reality of it is fraught with difficulties. The question is to what extent Japanese society is aware of this imminent reality.

Urban Environments that Encourage Ethnic Violence

In ethnically and religiously diverse India, where I used to live, profound bloodshed occurred due to ethnic and communal conflict prior to its independence. As such, the concept of multiethnic coexistence is viewed in India not simply as a nice-sounding phrase but as an issue closely tied to their personal existence and the subsistence of the state. Many political leaders and intellectuals have attempted to address this issue. The father of India's independence, Mahatma Gandhi, dedicated the last years of his life to finding a solution to the issue but ultimately lost his life to the cause. Even now, many researchers are attempting to identify the causes of ethnic and communal conflicts and create theories concerning the key to coexistence, and NGOs around the country are attempting to put those theories into practice. Japan can learn many lessons from India about cultural coexistence among ethnic and communal groups, as it continues its vigorous efforts to find a solution.

Despite Gandhi's efforts to promote coexistence between Hinduism and Islam in India, a rising trend toward violence among communal groups is apparent. The number of conflicts has risen steadily throughout the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. The casualty rate has risen correspondingly, and in 1985, the number of deaths had increased to ten times the number in 1954. As violent uprisings have continued, a substantial amount of research has been conducted on the mechanisms that give rise to such conflicts. These research efforts, as a whole, have found that religious conflicts are more likely to occur in the following types of environments:

Interestingly enough, many of these factors apply to Japan.

Hostile Attitudes and the Emergence of Collective Violence

Sudhir Kakar, a psychoanalyst who conducts research on religious uprisings, has analyzed the many such uprisings that have taken place in India and has discerned a basic cycle of events that characterize the development of uprisings from start to finish:

  1. Two contentious communal groups emerge.
  2. The contentious groups continuously harbor longstanding tensions. (Hostile energy builds up within the groups.)
  3. A specific incident directly sparks the onset of the uprising (e.g., in a festival procession, Hindus and Muslims begin to quarrel). Extreme circumstances such as the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 can also serve as a trigger.
  4. Distorted information about the incident circulates as the respective groups recount from their own perspective how injury was done to their own group. (rumor circulation)
  5. A riot erupts. (release of hostile energy)
  6. The uprising subsides. A new tense relationship begins, and hostile energy starts building up again within the groups.

Ethnic groups do not become contentious because of differences in culture. Rather, rising hostilities stem from the awareness that a certain group harbors ill will and animosity toward oneself and one's family. During the period between points 2 and 5 above, individuals gradually develop a stronger identification with the group to which they feel they belong and consequently begin to follow the fundamental mindset of that group. People may have multifaceted identities, but once they become conscious of a group that is hostile to their own, they start to associate themselves more strongly with their particular group and begin to display group behavior. This phenomenon explains why, in India, Hindus will feel a greater affinity toward fellow Hindus with whom they have never met than with Muslim acquaintances who live in their own neighborhood. And it helps to explain why, when an uprising erupts, people who are strangers to each other will band together and inflict violence and destructive behavior on people and things associated with the opposing group.

In the past, Japanese society was often criticized as being closed toward foreigners and discriminatory toward other Asians, but any hostile sentiments harbored by Japanese people toward foreign residents were weak at best. During the 1980s, the concepts of "internationalizing Japan" and "internationalizing one's heart" became prevailing mottos of Japanese society, and active efforts were made to welcome foreigners into society. In recent years, however, there is a growing sense that these principles are beginning to fade and signs of animosity toward foreign residents are beginning to emerge.

False Rumors as Triggers of Violence

As a result of rapid economic growth and land speculation during the economic bubble, the traditional regional communities that once defined Japan's urban centers have disintegrated and become communities filled with residents who are strangers to one another. There are virtually no connections between foreign residents and the original residents of these cities. In this setting, it is easy to form misconstrued images. For example, a local government leader may comment to the media, "If you visit the shopping district after midnight, it is hard to tell what country you are in. Even the yakuza (Japanese mob) are afraid to enter." The media may then connect these comments to an atrocious crime involving foreigners that is being reported in the local news section, thus leading to an image of a particular group of foreigners as "scary."

Kakar's book, The Colors of Violence, contains a memorable quote by Nietzsche: "Convictions are more damaging to truth than lies." Kakar relates his own experience of forming images about Muslims, where his current perception of Muslims around him as being regular people just like himself stands in stark contrast to his childhood image of Muslims as a brutal and inhuman group, which derived from rumors and a lack of interaction with them.

In the absence of personal contact, there is a tendency for images about foreign cultural groups to be conveyed in an exaggerated manner. When there actually is frequent personal interaction, however, distorted images conveyed from outside are subsequently corrected. Even in urban areas, there is a lower tendency for uprisings to occur when Hindus and Muslims have lived as a mixed community for a long time. The fact that uprisings are more likely to occur in newer cities where traditional regional networks are weak is tied to fundamental mentalities toward foreign cultures.

As an example, the violence that occurred toward Korean communities at the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake was not a factor in the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Kobe's Nagata and Suma wards are areas in which Japanese and Korean residents have long lived together in a casual, neighborly fashion. These neighborhoods lacked the foundation for the emergence of false rumors.

Civic Networks as Suppressors of Violence

According to Ashutosh Varshney, an Indian political scientist at the University of Michigan, statistics on religious riots in India show a regional pattern. This point aroused his interest and inspired him to investigate the connection between communal conflict and civil society.

A statistical analysis of fatalities caused by religious uprisings throughout India shows that the majority come from urban areas and, even more interestingly, that half of the fatalities are concentrated in eight cities that account for a mere 5.5 percent of the country's population. Using these types of surveys, Varshney asserts that contemporary India's religious violence is city-specific, although some cities experience less religious strife than others do.

In areas where civic ties between Hindus and Muslims are strong, conflicts tend to be contained, while in areas where those ties are weak, uprisings tend to erupt. In other words, civic ties between people of different communal groups can operate as a controlling mechanism, whereas civic ties among people within the same communal group can exacerbate conflicts.

Why do conflicts tend to occur in cities as opposed to rural areas? For two people to be connected, you only need one tie, but for three people, you need three, and for four people, you need six, and so on and so forth. The larger a city becomes, the number of ties needed for the citizens of that community to know one another grows exponentially.

Varshney's cases of analysis in India offer a theoretical basis for the need to promote citizen-driven international exchange at the local level in Japan. As Japanese society becomes increasingly diverse, it is important that citizens prevent the formation of hostile group mentalities that create divisions within society, by creating widespread networks that foster mutual understanding between the traditional set of Japanese residents and the newer set of foreign residents. Furthermore, it is vital that the government actively support citizen initiatives toward that end.

Local-level international exchange programs should not be limited to lighthearted, feel-good functions but rather should strive to accomplish substantive goals based on the understanding that Japan has become an ethnically diverse society.

Please send comments/inquiries to grassnet@jcie.or.jp.