Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column Nov 2, 2010: ‘Homogeneous,’ ‘unique’ myths stunt discourse in Japan Studies


Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan\Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association forming NGO\「ジャパニーズ・オンリー 小樽入浴拒否問題と人種差別」(明石書店)JAPANESE ONLY:  The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japansourstrawberriesavatardebitopodcastthumb
UPDATES ON TWITTER: arudoudebito
DEBITO.ORG PODCASTS on iTunes, subscribe free


‘Homogeneous,’ ‘unique’ myths stunt discourse
The Japan Times: Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010

Courtesy http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20101102ad.html

Last month I attended an international lecture by one of Japanology’s senior scholars. I’ll call him Dr. Frink. Decorated by the Japanese government for his contributions to the field, he talked about Japan as a “unique” state that never really changes, even as it slips to third place behind China’s economy.

One reason he gave for this was that “Japan is still the most homogeneous society in the world.” He defined homogeneity by citing Japan’s tiny percentage of resident foreigners.

That was easily disputed after a quick Google search (the lecture hall had Internet; welcome to the 21st century). I raised my hand afterwards and pointed out that some 60 countries were technically “more homogeneous” than Japan, as they have smaller percentages of foreigners, foreign-born residents and immigrants.


According to the United Nations, as of 2005, Japan’s percentage (listed at 1.6 percent, which means that the zainichi, or Japan-born foreigners, are also included) was still larger than Kenya’s (1 percent), Nigeria’s (0.7 percent), India’s (0.5 percent) and China’s (excluding Hong Kong and Macau, 0.3 percent). Of course, given the boom in international migration this decade, many countries are net exporters of immigrants. But herein lies the flaw in linking monoculturality to an absence of foreigners: Don’t all these allegedly “homogeneous” countries (including Japan) also acknowledge ethnic minorities within their borders?

However, this column will focus on a much deeper problem in Dr. Frink’s school of scholarly discourse: The fixation on Japan’s “uniqueness,” and how a cult of Japanese homogeneity interferes with good social science.

Search academic databases for publications in Japan Studies. Quite a few of them (some with Japanese authors espousing their own uniqueness) toe the line of “Japan behaves this way because it is homogeneous, etc.” Scholar Harumi Befu has written books on how this has crystallized into a pseudoscience called Nihonjinron, affecting debate worldwide.


There is a political dimension to all this: the politics of maintaining the status quo.

The Japanese government funds chairs and departments (especially in Japan) to influence the direction of Japan Studies, and is nowadays attracting students to focus on “soft power,” “cool Japan” cultural exotica.





The point is, ruling elites in Japan are perfectly happy with Japan being portrayed as preternaturally intransigent — due to historical, cultural, geographical or whatever reasons — because they like Japan as it is.

However, for the rest of the people living in Japan, this status quo is sending us down a road of obsolescence.

It is clear that Japan is in a deflationary spiral with a crushing national debt and an aging workforce. Paradigm shifts are necessary, and ideas should also be welcome from knowledgeable people overseas. But some advice, bound or blinded by the cult of uniqueness, becomes muted, veers off-target or is never even offered in the first place.

This doesn’t happen everywhere. Boffins have little reservation in telling, for example, Russia what to do about its economy. Why not Japan? Because of ingrained fears about being insensitive or culturally imperialistic towards this modern-day Galapagos.

It hardly bears saying, but societies of living beings are not preserved in amber. There are constant economic, political and demographic pressures requiring changes in thought and direction. In Japan’s case, the aging society will probably lead to increased immigration and a niche-market economy, where certain things are done well, but no longer on the scale of a world power. People both inside and outside Japan will have to come to terms with that.

Yet some data sets relevant to this transition are not open to scholarship. I mentioned here last year (JBC, Nov. 3, 2009) how Japan’s demographic scientists are not including a fundamental numerator in their equations (i.e., inflows) by refusing to even discuss immigration. I also argued last month (JBC, Oct. 5) that Japan’s census, which only surveys for nationality, not ethnicity, is ignoring the possibility that there might be multiethnic Japanese here already. This is despite all the racial intermarriage, multiethnic Japanese children, naturalized citizens, and the fact there are more permanent-resident foreigners here than ever before.

Scholars should be demanding more official data on this. Instead, we are getting the Dr. Frinks of the world spouting spurious claims based on the false premise that the absence of information indicates homogeneity.

Let’s have more sophistication in the discourse. Japanology now offers the world an excellent opportunity to study how a modern, developed and educated society learns to cope with a fluctuating place in the world. Nihonjinron should be seen and dismissed for what it is: a static ideology, existing for a nostalgic public looking for a comfortable self-identity, a ruling elite unwilling to face a fundamentally different future, or an overseas audience craving exotica over science.

This means we should have a moratorium on superlatives, such as linking the “U-word” with Japan. All societies have their singular aspects, to be sure, but we should never lose sight of the fact that we’re all one big human family with more communalities than differences. To belabor the obvious, no society is “uniquely unique.”

Fixating on Japan’s illusory “uniqueness and homogeneity” takes energies away from studying the very real problems that Japan, like any other country, will be facing this century. Let’s demand better scholarship and help Japan cope with — if not get out of — this mess.

Debito Arudou coauthored the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants.” Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments on this issue to community@japantimes.co.jp

14 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column Nov 2, 2010: ‘Homogeneous,’ ‘unique’ myths stunt discourse in Japan Studies

  • Congratulations Arudou, an interesting read as always, though I partly disagree. When Americans claim they are the land of the free, would they appreciate it is the rest of the world pointed out that based on this and that objective criterium countries a, b, c, etc… are more free than the USA? This uniqueness discourses should be seen for what they are, namely fantasies that provide the group with an identity. It does become more problematic though when people start mistaking the fantasy for real social-scientific scholarship. Then again, there is just as much of a political project behind the urge to deconstruct these myths, to explain all cultural differences away as differences causes by variations in the influencing factors of a small number of universal social-scientific processes.

    And in the end it`s not like whatever Japanese studies types do actually matters, right? To me it mostly seems to be about blowing some tidbit of Japanese cultural trivia out of proportion, in response to a western demand for some magical thingamajig that it`s Other has and the west wants to coopt as a panacea for it`s own social unease (the “budo spirit”, Japanese management philosophy, zen, pop culture stuf nowadays,…)

  • Another well-written article, Debito. Although you didn’t mention it, I’d be interested to know what ‘Dr. Frink’s’ response was when you challenged his position.

    — Well, actually, in my first draft of this article, I included more about that. It didn’t make the final cut. Here:


    Last month, I attended a lecture by one of Japanology’s most senior scholars (decorated by the Japanese government). I mention this in this column is because the social science behind the cultural analysis was flawed, even at this high level of scholarship.

    The scholar, I’ll call him Dr. Frink, spent most of his lecture talking about how Japan is a basically static society that will never really change (and he should know, since in his decades of study, it never really has), even as it slips from second to third place in the world’s economic rankings of GDP.

    One of the reasons has offered was, “Japan is the most homogeneous society in the world.” As proof of that, he mentioned that Japan has one of the smallest percentages of foreigners living in its society.

    When he had essentially given a lecture that was fit for an undergraduate audience (i.e. one which rarely argues back because the students are scribbling away this knowledge as writ, memorizing it for the final exam), I raised my hand and questioned his “most homogeneous” claim.

    For if measuring the homogeneity of a society was just by looking at the percentage of resident foreigners, there were other countries with fewer. Japan, at 1.6%, is still larger than, say, China, at 0.000%. Or Nigeria, at 0.000%. Or XXXXXX. Even though these countries (even Japan) acknowledge ethnic minorities within their borders.

    I found this out quickly because our lecture hall was connected to the Internet. A few Googles later, presto; welcome to the 21st Century, Dr. Frink.

    I concluded by calling for more sophistication in our socio-political analysis. We’ve got enough racial intermarriage, naturalization, and contact with the outside world in Japan to moot the concept of “homogeneity” however defined. Perpetuating a questionable superlative in the name of a bon mot was just bad science.

    Naturally, Dr. Frink was not pleased, and cited some examples of how exclusionary Japanese society had been to him personally during all his decades living there. Since he never felt all that accepted as a colleague and a researcher, no matter how culturally literate and fluent in Japanese he became. Besides. Japan requires all applicants for Japanese citizenship to take Japanese names. What other country forces people like this to subsume themselves to homogeneity like Japan does?

    Oh oh. He was tiptoeing towards the “U” word (as in “Unique”), something that keeps on popping up in most overseas discourse on Japan; it’s the red flag for all intellectual exceptionalists (like me) to charge. I mentioned that Iceland does the same thing. And that Japan has relaxed its rules on name changing in recent years.

    Our intellectual sparring was soon brought to a close, and we didn’t make much eye contact after that. Pity…

  • I see this occurring on a much smaller scale around the people in my age group. Many don’t think about Japan as a real country with real problems just like any other country and only views Japan as the place with the “omg kawaii anime/manga desu ne” crap. So, whenever I try to bring up political issues or social issues in Japan, many are confused or downright accuse me of lying because “Japan could NEVER be like that!”. The soft power of Japan among this age group has caused a major drop in serious Japanese studies.

  • What’s the problem with identifying “Dr. Frink’? You aren’t slandering him and if you gave his real name then we’d have an opportunity to assess him based on all his contributions rather than one comment.

    I agree that it’s worth questioning concepts like homogeneity. More important than Befu in academia is Eiji Oguma’s 1995 work “The Origin of the Myth of Ethnic Homogeneity”. The translator David Askew has written about it in English. For instance here:


    The most important discussions of Oguma are obviously in Japanese but there are plenty of English submissions. On the same site, you can find Chris Burgess’ contribution to the debate:


    One conclusion from the discussion is that homogeneity is part of the national narrative, albeit a recent one. The concept therefore can be helpful in understanding Japan even though it may be divorced from reality.

    If you give us Dr Frink’s name, we can look at his work to see how it informs his analysis, if at all.

    — “Dr. Frink” is a senior scholar in the twilight of his career and soon on his way out. Name unnecessary, as I’m not critiquing him, but his opinion — as an example of a larger issue across the discipline.

  • “What’s the problem with identifying “Dr. Frink’? You aren’t slandering him and if you gave his real name then we’d have an opportunity to assess him based on all his contributions rather than one comment.”

    I agree. I also agree with your opinion on nihonjinron but don’t believe that your column is the most appropriate venue for this discussion.

    Also, you should further develop this work, removed phrases like “welcome to the 21st century” (because this does indeed imply that you are critiquing “Dr. Fink”), and submit it to an appropriate academic journal, as opposed to the Japan Times.

  • “..during all his decades living [in Japan] he never felt all that accepted as a colleague and a researcher, no matter how culturally literate and fluent in Japanese he became…”

    …That doesn’t make Japanese society homogenous AT ALL.
    But it sure as hell sounds (whether deliberately intended to be or programmed to be) exclusionary and/or racist.

    If he played OK by a plethora of formal and informal rules (as we can assume, I suppose that he did as much as anyone) and his academic work was up to snuff, his non acceptance would speak to prejudice. Is prejudice- because of his non-Japanese status- as he thinks, and I think we can trust him to be speaking the truth- racism?

    Yes? No?

    Why do we still have to let things like this off the hook?
    If he faced non-acceptance, he was discriminated against.

    If it was because he was not Japanese, and as we all know (oh, sure) Japanese are a race (gumpf) then that makes it racism.

    Or am I missing something here?

    Maybe I should learn some counter-arguments, you know, put the zori on my other foot, which is no doubt too hairy and big for Japanese zori…

    Maybe somehow this isn’t racism because the Japanese are “different” and “unique” from everyone else?
    Maybe If only I understood, I could accept being not accepted.

    My question is…
    so will this apply to my child, who is only “half-Japanese.” ?

    Can he expect to be “half” accepted, despite half of him being heterogeneous?

    Or does this mean that because he’s only half Japanese, the other half is polluted?
    Those horrible heterogeneous substances in him.

    Yikes… foreign substances introduced…into their precious bodily fluids….that’s the way your hard-core gaijin works.
    Circle the lexus wagons!

    Joking aside-

    Or does that mean until he’s aged 20 and he chooses to be Japanese, that he’s heterogeneous until aged 19 years, 364 days, 59 minutes and 59 seconds before he becomes Japanese?

    This racism stuff is very peculiar and stupid.

  • Nihonjinron is obtuse, reactionary and risible. Western exoticism of Japan is generally ignorant and toxic, especially when mixed with the social sciences. However, I am not sure about this:

    “This doesn’t happen everywhere. Boffins have little reservation in telling, for example, Russia what to do about its economy. Why not Japan? Because of ingrained fears about being insensitive or culturally imperialistic towards this modern-day Galapagos.”

    There has been no end of western discourse saying exactly what Japan should do or think about, not least during and after the cold war. This has included turning Japan into a ‘unique’ anomaly (as ‘the West’s special friend in East Asia’) when it suited various geopolitical interests to do so. It’s not political correctness alone, or academic liberal guilt, that sustains a discourse of exceptionalism; it involves power. If there could possibly be some more context to the debate and about the speaker’s argument, the topic might be easier to discuss.

    — There has been some discourse, yes, but plenty of apologists (some call them Chrysanthemum-Sniffers) rise up and blunt it, cooperating in the coda that Japan Is Special therefore commonsensical advice doesn’t apply.

  • Legal Eagle says:

    I agree with Sorge. Economics is the wrong example to make your point, especially when compared with Russia. There are more professional overseas economists covering Japan than Russia and there’s considerably more academic work and research focused on the former.

    Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman has certainly lamented his colleagues’ lack of interest in Japan but he believes this is because they have failed to realize how exceptional the problems are. Ben Bernanke has argued that severe deflation in a major economy in the postwar period should have had economists rethinking their policy toolkit.

    Both men made these points when the West suffered economic catastrophe reminiscent of the bursting of Japan’s bubble. Both emphasize the point that Japan’s plight was unique. Getting too hung up on that word runs the risk of failing to recognize when it might be warranted. Krugman happens to believe that traditional models provide the policy answers to Japan’s problems. He wouldn’t call those solutions “commonsensical”, however, because he acknowledges that they fly in the face of what policymakers anywhere would find acceptable.

    If you are going to suggest that there are “apologists” who have blunted economic debate on Japan then I think you really ought to name them and show how they did so.

  • I remember seeing on the UK Japanese tourist office website, the following ” the Japanese are uniquely honest…”

    erm no

    — Link please.

  • @Gary,

    there is a (false) belief among some British landlords and owners of small hotels in the cliche that Japanese guests or tenants are uncomplaining and thus, pliant.

    This is sometimes an excuse to charge higher rents, have somewhat ridiculous house rules that other tenants would not accept (e.g no guests in your room without permission or without paying an additional fee on the monthly rent you are paying) or to specifically advertise for Japanese tenants.

    Said Japanese tenants tend to just move out,or ignore the rules. They complain about things to the other room mates who may or may not then articulate it more directly to the landlord. The cliche gets perpetuated, with just a few exceptions showing the other side.
    I m speaking from experience, but won’t name the hotels and properties in London, Oxford and Cornwall.

  • Nice article as usual.

    May I suggest people read “Nationalisms of Japan” and other books by Brian McVeigh ?

    He makes very clear arguments about how this myth of “we are unique” is permeated throughout a
    series of systems and strategies.

  • The “homogeneous” thing has always been questionable. In the earliest eras of Japanese history, not only was the state confined to a relatively small portion of what is now modern Japan, there were immigrants from Korea and China as well. Even if we look at modern history starting with the Meiji era, Japan didn’t really have a national dialect, Hokkaido was just barely integrated into Japan and still heavily Ainu, and Okinawa as well was (still is, to an extent) culturally and lingustically distinct and not fully integrated into Japan. The Ainu in the north didn’t disappear any more than Pacific Northwest Natives in the US – a portion integrated (willingly or unwillingly) and to some extent bred into the modern Japanese. Not to mention Koreans, both Zainichi and those that have taken Japanese citizenship. If Japan is so homogeneous, how come they had to promote a national dialect?

    As for “unique” – I’ll echo earlier comments and the article itself and just say that Japan is no more or less unique than any other culture.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>