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The Myth of Monoethnicity in Multiethnic Japan

As John Lie's "Multiethnic Japan" explores the pervasiveness of Japan's perceived monoethnicity, he reminds us of the urgent need to shed this bias from our vocabulary and amplify minority voices.
The Myth of Monoethnicity in Multiethnic Japan

John Lie’s Multiethnic Japan doesn’t set out to exhibit every instance of migration that took place in the Japanese archipelago to discredit the myth of its monoethnicity. As he constantly reminds us, multiethnicity in Japan is a given, just like it is anywhere else in the world. So instead, Lie traces how and why, despite this reality, the concept of Japan’s monoethnicity has become so ingrained into our consciousness in and outside Japan.

Before moving to Tokyo, some well-intentioned friends had expressed concern that I’d have difficulty adjusting to life here as a foreigner. Of course, racism against brown people exists everywhere, although the root of their concern was peculiar to Japan as a country that is “so homogenous.” Lie points out how the myth of monoethnicity is mutually created—foreign (especially white, Western) authors have always been guilty of attributing banal differences between themselves and the Japanese people they encounter to some nebulous concept of Japaneseness, not unlike how Nihonjinron celebrates any pattern of behavior observed within a subset of the population as quintessentially Japanese.

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My friends weren’t wrong, of course, to point out the challenges of being a foreigner here. We need only look as far as the discrimination that foreign residents have faced as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, from being turned away from stores and losing shifts without pay, to being denied reentry into the country while Japanese counterparts need only agree to a PCR test and two weeks of isolation. However, subsuming these experiences as a rite of passage—ascribing racism to some intrinsic property of Japan rather than to the institutions that promulgate it—also contributes to the erasure of Japan’s ethnic minorities and undermines their struggle for rights and representation. As long as we normalize discrimination as the cause and consequence of Japanese homogeneity, we are also complicit in erecting the imagined Japanese ethnostate, where non-Japanese minorities must either hide their heritage and assimilate, or accept that no matter how long they live in Japan, they will always be an outsider.

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Lie’s book is a wake-up call from our sanitized dream of Japan. His uncovering of the surprisingly brief history of so-called monoethnic Japan reminds us that history is frequently retrofitted to help sustain the fable of a nation’s founding, and that such revisionism is often at the expense of colonized peoples.

At the end of his book, Lie wonders if his work might eventually become obsolete as the notion of a monoethnic Japan becomes unfathomable. Unfortunately, sixteen years later, it's clear that we still have a long way to go. Nevertheless, critics are unwavering in their appeals for legal and educational reform, and activist groups and organizations advocating for the rights of minorities in Japan seem to grow every day. As more Japanese people take on the responsibility to teach themselves and one another about their country's injustices, those of us who can admire Japan from a distance should follow their example, and learn how we can fight against this inequality as well.