Truth isn't everything

Multiethnic Japan

May 10, 2002

No modern nation-state has held on to the myth of racial and cultural homogeneity longer than Japan. While the rest of the post-capitalist, postmodernist and/or post-colonial nations have had to admit to class differences, ethnic plurality and religious diversity, Japan has publicly called itself more homogeneous than almost anywhere else: in fact, it claims to being uniquely homogeneous.

Few academics have challenged this view of Japan, although any scholar of Japanese society who knows the history of the country could easily make a variety of points: before the Meiji Restoration (1868), Japan was deeply divided in terms of caste, region and even dialect. More to the point, a variety of ethnic minorities existed: Korean, Ainu and Okinawan.

What has fascinated scholars of modern Japanese history is how this highly stratified society was moulded into such a uniform one in a relatively short time. While all nation-states have this aim, few have achieved their ends so well as the Japanese. It is this modern construction of sameness that John Lie wants to challenge in his book - and challenge it he does.

In a passionately argued text, Lie examines the many sources of difference in Japanese society: from pre-Meiji outcasts and Korean artisans (as well as aristocracy) to postwar Chinese immigrants and the hafu (children of mixed descent): Japan is a society as diverse as any other.

The passion in Lie's rhetoric comes from growing up Korean in Japanese society and then moving to the US, where the discourse of multi-ethnicity is rife, although he does not admit this. Unspoken is the plea: if the US can function as a nation-state and admit to plurality, why can't Japan? The answer might well have to do with the precariousness of Japanese economics. In order to say that "we are all one and must work together for the good of the state", this belief must be fostered in schools and the mass media. One has only to look at any nation-state in which ethnic or religious conflict masks unequal economic relationships to understand how this discourse breaks down: plurality exists best when everyone feels more or less equal in their ability to achieve a middle-class lifestyle. In Japan, the possibility of a shared middle-class lifestyle masks many inequalities. Yet, for all his careful researching, and the use of a variety of sources to make the point about Japan's heterogeneity, Lie appears to miss this point. He says little about the needs that drive a society to impose an ideology of sameness on its citizens and does not even grasp Peter Dale's point in The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness that all nations do this, while he shares Dale's irritation with Japan's seeming to do it so much more than anywhere else.

It is this sort of not looking for causes that ultimately makes this a flawed work: too much on one note, repeating that Japan is multi-ethnic and has always been. It is almost as if the book had been written for a Japanese audience, asking them to tell the truth, whatever that might be.

Having said this, it is a valuable book for teaching, since many students begin their study of Japan with the firm and orientalist image that Japan is an ant-like society, where everyone is the same. Admittedly, this image can be fostered by the Japanese themselves who experience the West as a bewildering place where everyone is different. The reality, of course, is somewhere in the middle for both places; and books such as these are necessary for bringing the point home.

Dolores Martinez is lecturer in the anthropology of Japan, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Multiethnic Japan

Author - John Lie
ISBN - 0 674 00299 7
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £25.50
Pages - 248

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