Like it or not, Japan’s internationalization is happening. There are fewer Japanese and more foreigners than ever. In 2022, the population of Japanese citizens dropped below the 125 million mark for the first time in Japan’s modern era, while the registered Non-Japanese (NJ) population reached a record high at over 3 million, or 2.4% of the total population.
That can only grow. Even if the NJ population numerically stayed the same as it is now, its percentage of the total population will still rise due to Japan’s below-replacement birthrates. But the NJ population will not stay the same — the economics of Japan’s aging labor force is reaching the point where officials see the writing on the wall. According to a recent Kyodo News survey, a whopping 86% of Japan’s municipalities want more NJ workers to do the jobs and save their senescent cities from extinction. All of these figures do not, of course, include all the multicultural and multiethnic children already in Japan with diverse identities and backgrounds — routinely ignored because Japan’s Census does not measure for ethnicity. So if anything, Japan’s internationalization is grossly underestimated.
TEACH THE CHILDREN WELL
The front line of this trend is Japan’s education system, where the children of immigrants make an immediate and urgent impact on society. This is not news. For more than a quarter century, local governments have begged for enhanced services to help their residents with language and acculturation barriers assimilate into their schools and communities. The national government has basically ignored them. But we are seeing some progress. Multilingual manuals about local customs and rules have long been issued by governments and civil society, including some helpful training videos to help explain elementary school rules and cultural practices in simpler Japanese. A good example was produced by students at Wakayama University and featured in the Mainichi last year.
This is highly laudable. But a point of caution: This isn’t just a matter of telling all Newcomers to “Do as the Romans do.” Without mindful production of teaching materials grounded in solid social science, cultural education could have the opposite effect: Solidifying stereotypes, entrenching prejudice, and making the perceived newcomer feel like a perpetually subordinated outsider. Consider some bad habits that are the default mode:
One is systemic — the tendency towards stereotyping within language teaching itself. I recall my French language textbooks introducing “French things” (petit pan, grande pan, etc.) as something all French people ate. No mention, say, of couscous, or other ethnic but Francophone cuisines. Or for that matter of other Francophone people. All French people in my textbooks were white, which simply didn’t reflect reality. To the untrained eye, that meant that whatever doesn’t fit a textbook image of “Frenchness” wasn’t seen as “French.” It put up artificial walls between peoples simply out of habit or convenience. That’s because basic language training necessarily tends to overgeneralize about societies and boil them down to foundational language. But resorting to prototype omits developments in society, such as cultural diversity from international migration. That’s why we need trained eyes to avoids stereotyping. Let social scientists, not just linguists or untrained do-gooders, also have input into the learning process.
But there are also some bad habits that are intrinsic to Japan, easily seen when even the most educated people teach Japanese culture…