Scholar Tessa Morris-Suzuki reviews book “Embedded Racism” in journal Japanese Studies, calls it “important, courageous and challenging”


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Japanese Studies
ISSN: 1037-1397 (Print) 1469-9338 (Online)

Journal homepage:

Debito Arudou, Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination
By Tessa Morris-Suzuki.  Reproduced with kind permission of the author.
To cite this article: Tessa Morris-Suzuki (2016) Debito Arudou, Embedded Racism:
Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination, Japanese Studies, 36:2, 277-279,

To link to this article:
Published online: 04 Oct 2016.

Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination

Debito Arudou, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015, xxvi, 323 pp. + notes, bibliography, index, ISBN 978-1-4985-1390-6

Japan is somewhat usual amongst developed countries in not having a law prohibiting racial discrimination. The postwar constitution states that ‘all of the people are equal under the law’, but, as Debito Arudou points out in this book, in the Japanese-language version of the text, ‘people’ is rendered as kokumin (nationals), thus excluding foreign residents. It is also true that in May 2016 the Japanese parliament passed a ‘Law on Measures against Hate Speech’ (Hētosupīchi Taisaku Hō) to combat the inflammatory expressions of hostility towards ethnic minorities: a hostility which has become an all-too-familiar feature of far right political discourse in recent years. But this law makes no provision for legal sanctions against perpetrators of ‘hate speech’, instead merely encouraging educational measures by the government and other public bodies; and since the law focuses on overt expressions of ‘hate’, it will presumably be powerless to discourage quieter forms of discrimination, such as the continuing practice by some landlords of refusing to rent properties to foreigners.

Embedded Racism confronts these ongoing issues of racial prejudice in Japanese society, focusing particularly on discrimination against people assumed to be foreign because they are visibly different from the standard phenotypical image of ‘Japanese’. The author, a naturalised Japanese citizen of American origin, has been engaged for years in campaigns to combat these forms of discrimination, and draws on his experience as a campaigner and as a long-term resident in Japan to create a persuasive and alarming dossier on the widespread existence of racial discrimination in Japanese society. A central issue which recurs throughout the book is the deep-seated assumption that race, ethnicity and nationality must coincide, and therefore that those who do not ‘look Japanese’ must therefore be foreign nationals. Particularly telling anecdotes include an instance where the author and one of his children (who is of relatively ‘Caucasian’ appearance) were refused entry to a hot spring bath while his wife and another child (who happens to be of more ‘Japanese’ appearance) were accepted, despite all being equally Japanese citizens.

This book, though, is more than a narrative of instances of discrimination and campaigns for redress. The author also seeks to explore the roots of the problem, which he locates in the legal apparatus of nationality, the workings of the court system, the lack of serious official mechanisms to combat discrimination, and stereotypes perpetuated by the mass media. Like other scholars of discrimination in Japanese society, Arudou identifies key problems as arising from Japan’s ius sanguinis (bloodline) nationality laws, which bestow Japanese nationality only on those descended from Japanese citizens. He also highlights the impact of the koseki (family registration) system, which relegates foreigners who marry into Japanese families to a marginal and subordinate status. These problems were compounded by the jūminhyō (resident registration) system, which excluded foreigners and rendered them statistically invisible, and by the alien registration system, under which foreign residents in Japan are required to carry their registration cards at all times and show them to the police on request. As Arudou notes, important changes to these systems were introduced in 2012, with foreigners being incorporated into the jūminhyō system, and visa and registration processes being overhauled. Yet these reforms have gone only a small way towards addressing the complex systems of exclusion affecting members of Japan’s ‘visible minorities’, while rising fears of crime and terrorism have if anything increased official scrutiny and suspicion of foreign residents and border-crossers.

Particularly powerful sections of the book detail the way in which racial profiling by the police, embodied in repeated reports on the problems of ‘foreigner crime’, have helped to embed exclusionary attitudes in Japanese society. Such reports, which often convey a misleading impression of trends in crime rates and of the proportion of offences committed by ‘foreigners’, feed into sensationalised media headlines and into the rhetoric of far right politicians. Though victims of discrimination theoretically have avenues of redress both through the courts and through the Ministry of Justice’s Bureau of Human Rights (BOHR), Arudou argues persuasively that neither has proved an effective source of protection for the rights of visible minorities. The courts have a very mixed record of upholding claims for equal treatment, while the BOHR has only very limited advisory powers, and often seems extremely cautious in exercising such powers as it does possess.

The picture is not wholly negative. Arudou notes the good work performed by Japanese NGOs and legal networks, and by some trade unions and local governments, which have made efforts to reduce barriers to the inclusion of foreign residents and have worked to combat prejudice and discrimination. All the same, he concludes that Japan remains a complex patchwork of overlapping categories of exclusion, where formal nationality and visible difference combine to create multiple dimensions of embedded racism.

This book is an important addition to the literature on problems of citizenship and minorities in Japan, particularly because it highlights the distinctive problems of visible minorities, rather than focusing on the large ‘invisible minorities’ (Zainichi Koreans and Chinese, etc.) who have been the subject of much existing research; but this focus does open up some problems which could be explored further. A particularly complex set of issues surround the marginalisation of Ainu and Okinawans – indigenous minority groups who exist on the borderline between visibility and invisibility. Most Ainu and Okinawans are not identifiable as ‘different’ in terms of physical appearance, and yet stereotypical images of the physical difference of these groups survive and sometimes play into the language of prejudice and the practice of discrimination. Although these issues are alluded to in Embedded Racism, they are not drawn out in any detail. Further discussion of the problem of these invisible/visible indigenous minorities might help give further depth to the notion of ‘visibility’: a phenomenon which is constantly created and re-created, not just by external realities, but also by images in the eye of the beholder.

Another area where there is scope for further discussion is the relationship between Japan’s embedded racism and that of other countries. As Arudou points out, for example, Japan’s former colonies Korea and Taiwan have inherited family registration and nationality systems that in part resemble Japan’s (though with some significant variations). Korea too, like Japan, has long-cherished myths of ethnic homogeneity. How are countries like South Korea and Taiwan dealing with the challenges of dis-embedding racism from their twenty-first century societies? Answers to this question might help to clarify the peculiarities of the problems faced by Japan, and open up ways for East Asian countries to share proposals for undoing the legal and conceptual barriers to the creation of more ethnically and racially inclusive societies.

In the final sections of Embedded Racism, the author looks to the future, without great optimism, but with some clear and cogent suggestions for steps that the Japanese government should take if it truly wishes to make Japan a more open society. These include passing strong and effective laws against discrimination, strengthening the powers of the Bureau of Human Rights, reforming the citizenship and family registration systems, and legalising dual nationality. Arudou also argues for the involvement of non-citizens in the processes of creating new policies affecting foreign residents. He expresses little confidence that the Japanese authorities will respond to such ideas, but his critique of Japan’s embedded racism and his proposals for change certainly deserve to be read by policy makers, as well as by scholars of Japan. This is an important, courageous and challenging book, and it casts a sharp light on problems which are often ignored or veiled, but which have profound consequences for the present and future of Japanese society.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki
Australian National University
© 2016 Tessa Morris-Suzuki, reproduced with permission of the author


Embedded Racism” has been discounted 30% for a limited time to $34.99 in paperback and Kindle if bought through publisher Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefield directly.

Go to’s-Visible-Minorities-and-Racial-Discrimination and use promo code LEX30AUTH16.

More information and reviews on the book at

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Nearly 100 of the world’s major research libraries (including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Cornell, Columbia…) have made “Embedded Racism” part of their collections (according to WorldCat).


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4 comments on “Scholar Tessa Morris-Suzuki reviews book “Embedded Racism” in journal Japanese Studies, calls it “important, courageous and challenging”

  • Great review from Dr. Morris-Suzuki. Nice to see a counterpoint to the empty, ad hominem hogwash we had from Sheila a while back. I looked at her profile on ANU, it looks like she has some considerable work herself.

  • Congratulations on the review Dr.!
    It’s certainly very nice to have such a glowing review by one of the most internationally respected scholars in the field of Japanese studies!

    And in the ‘red corner’ we have the online whining and moaning of Eido and Ken, a pair of wannabe ‘famous ‘gaijin’ in Japan’ (oh, you wacky gaijin, you’re almost more Japanese than us ‘real Japanese’) schtick clowns.

    I know whose review I’ll heed.


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