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“Contested” Multiculturalism to “Localized” Multiculturalism: Chinese and Vietnamese Youth in Osaka, Japan

“Contested” Multiculturalism to “Localized” Multiculturalism: Chinese and Vietnamese Youth in Osaka, Japan

Martin Lavicka12 Nov 2014Leave a comment

Written by Martin Šturdík

Okubo, Yuko. “From “Contested” Multiculturalism to “Localized” Multiculturalism: Chinese and Vietnamese Youth in Osaka, Japan.” Anthropological Quarterly 68.4 (2013): 995-1030. Print.

In her article published in 2013 in the Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 4, p. 995–1030, Yuko Okubo draws on her long-term research in which she has been concerned with, the still highly relevant and somewhat controversial issue of multiculturalism in Japan. To be precise, Okubo offers her views on the ground level situation of how the official or widely accepted Japanese version of multiculturalism, the so called tabunka kyōsei or “multiculturalism and coexistence”, is reflected in the daily lives of people with foreign roots.

The author carried out an ethnographic study of persons with Vietnamese and Chinese roots (including people who immigrated to Japan in their childhood, as well as those born in Japan) who at the time of the study lived in Aoyama city, Osaka prefecture. This city is characterized by a relatively high concentration of people with foreign roots living in this city, especially Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese. Many of the Chinese are Japanese return migrants, so called chūgoku zanryū hōjin (中国残留邦人). Besides dozens of interviews with people with foreign roots, the author also obtained valuable information from discussions with activists and educators who are engaged in the education of ethnic minorities.  Okubo contrasts these views on tabunka kyōsei, i.e. the views of people with non-Japanese roots and those of the Japanese teachers and activists.

In the opening section the author introduces one of her research participants, a Japanese citizen of Vietnamese ethnic background. As some time had passed after the interview, he sent an email to the author in which he confided to her that he was “not ashamed of…being Vietnamese or for holding the Japanese citizenship”. Okubo mentions the case of this young man in order to demonstrate how the beliefs and wishes of Japanese educators and activists, of what the ethnic minorities should be like, permeate their work.  Hence, they actually indirectly ignore what the minorities are really like. The teachers encourage young people to be proud of and not hide their ethnic background ignoring the fact that they also may have a new, Japanese identity. The activists, in turn, promote “contested” multiculturalism which means they refuse multiculturalism that focuses only on culture and ignores issues of social exclusion and injustice.

In the introduction the author explains the history of the term tabunka kyōsei at the background of the myth of Japanese ethnic homogeneity. The author proposes the term “localized multiculturalism” that she contrasts with the official multiculturalism of tabunka kyōsei. According to Okubo, the official multiculturalism, just like the “contested multiculturalism” (emphasizing the unequal position of ethnic minorities in Japan) only strengthen the borders between “the foreign” and “the Japanese”. Her localized multiculturalism captures “the ambivalence experienced by the immigrant youth”. Learning about the daily experiences of these individuals, rather than the wishes and beliefs of members of the dominant culture, is crucial for the understanding of the practical aspects of multiculturalism in Japan.

In the next section, Okubo provides a detailed overview of the theoretical framework and definitions of multiculturalism. She explains that the main purpose of her research paper is to describe everyday experiences of marginalized persons and, based on those, to illustrate the gap between the official discourses and their unofficial daily representations. The article tries to explore how Japanese multiculturalism is manifested in reality.

The state is nowadays a significant proponent of the concept of multiculturalism in Japan. Especially the local governments of Osaka and Kanagawa prefectures have introduced policies with the aim of integrating foreigners. The original concept of tabunka kyōsei first appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and addressed primarily zainichi Koreans and other traditional minorities. Following an influx of immigrants who were linguistically and culturally different from the Japanese, the meaning of the term tabunka kyōsei has expanded in the 1990s to include these newcomers as well.  According to Okubo, it is ironic, however, that nowadays the concept of tabunka kyōsei is not perceived broadly enough to also cover Buraku communities, which used to be recipients of multicultural educational programs within tabunka kyōsei.

Okubo further discusses the way neoliberalism infuences the policies of multiculturalism in Japan.  Citing Song (2007), she testifies that the Japanese state’s intention is to weaken ethnic groups by “individualizing” them (kojinka). This concerns especially the ethnic Koreans living in Japan who, by “becoming” individuals, might lose their collective bargaining power and, hence, their collective rights to social welfare. One of the crucial state’s policies to achieve this goal is to enable zainichi Koreans to acquire Japanese citizenship with less restrictions than in the past. In a similar fashion, the state managed to individualize the Burakumin by abolishing the special measures designed to integrate this community into the Japanese society. Looking at specific Japanese policies, Okubo concludes that “neoliberalism and multiculturalism in Japan are being manifested in a different manner than exhibited in other nation-states”.

Okubo also provides a well-researched critique of tabunka kyōsei. On one hand, she does not forget to mention that the state’s promotion of multiculturalism is a recent phenomenon and, therefore, it is difficult to thoroughly evaluate it. On the other hand, Okubo’s argumentation supports the view that the Japanese version of multiculturalism creates a hierarchy (with the Japanese on top) and she calls that “difference multiculturalism”, in which culture does not change. This timeless aspect of culture fortifies ethnic and national identities, i.e. the differences between them. The author also cites official Japanese publications that, in effect, reduce the issue of tabunka kyōsei to dealing with foreigners with poor command of the Japanese language and thus “conceptualizing foreign residents primarily as those who have difficulties with communicating in the Japanese language”. These official publications ignore the existence of historical minorities such as the Burakumin and zainichi Koreans, and do not clarify who the Japanese nationals are.

Okubo attempts to find out how the official interpretation of multiculturalism is “challenged or contested in everyday life”. Firstly, Okubo sounded the opinions of three activists, two of whom were associated with the Buraku communities and one who was a zainichi Korean activist. Both Buraku activists excluded Burakumin from tabunka kyōsei and the Korean activist expressed concern that the Japanese practice of multiculturalism “substituted minority issues with cultural issues”. Secondly, besides these activists, Okubo lets teachers voice their opinions regarding how education should address the philosophy of multiculturalism. Okubo concludes that there is a disparity between teachers’ beliefs and the expectations of students with foreign roots (namely Vietnamese and Chinese). The educators mostly echo the (rather limited) official policy encouraging children to accept and be proud of their ethnic identity and use their ethnic names. With this focus, multiculturalism then becomes an issue concerning only foreigners and not the Japanese.

In the last part of the paper, Okubo shares views of two youths she selected from her interviewees and analyzes their views on their encounters with multiculturalism in Japan. The first one is a 17-year-old Chinese female with Japanese roots who came to Japan when she was four. She uses her Japanese name and speaks Japanese fluently. She identifies strongly with both the Chinese and Japanese identities, though she chooses either of the two depending on the context. As a result of attending the ethnic club (chōbunken) at junior high school and her neighborhood’s education center, she shows a high degree of pride in her non-Japanese ethnic background. In her own words: “I do not think I should hide my Chinese background. I do not want to hide it either. I want to voluntarily (mizukara) introduce myself as Chinese.”

The other young person Okubo introduces is a Japan-born Vietnamese female. She uses her Japanese name and she is considering to apply for naturalization so at the time of the interview she was a foreign national with permanent residency in Japan (just like the Chinese female mentioned above). During the first interview in 2009 she called herself Vietnamese Japanese and showed no particular interest in the Vietnamese language and the country. She even felt ashamed of her Vietnamese roots when she was a child. In the more recent interview, she admitted she has a Vietnamese friend with a strong Vietnamese identity and this influenced her and reinforced her Vietnamese identity.

Okubo points out that youth with foreign roots can be divided into two groups – those with a stronger ethnic (i.e. non-Japanese) identity and those with a weaker ethnic identity. The identity attachment largely depends on the age of arrival in Japan. At the same time the author introduces two persons who do not comply with this tentative division. The Chinese female arrived in Japan at an early age, though she still feels strongly toward her Chinese background. The Vietnamese female was born in Japan and “re-discovered herself as Vietnamese later on”.

The message of Okubo’s localized multiculturalism is that letting people with ethnic roots speak out, sheds light on their changing and multiple identities that do not only include their original ethnic identity but also the Japanese identity. The official and contested multiculturalisms seem to ignore the fact that these youths also identify with their Japanese ethnicity.  Therefore, the effort of the educators to encourage children “to identify with their ethnic (non-Japanese) background as a solution for all the difficulties in their lives…reinforces the boundary constructed between the ‘foreign’ and Japan in the official representation of multiculturalism…”.

Okubo has provided a very insightful analysis of how foreign and Japanese ethnicities are lived, accepted, refused and develop in the lives of people who are not ethnic Japanese. At first sight, the idea of ethnic pride sounds very noble and creates an image of a tolerant society. Though, in reality, this approach may reinforce divisions in the Japanese society as it ignores the multiple identities of “foreigners”. Mentioning the case of Buraku communities and their relation with tabunka kyōsei was useful, though it is questionable to what extent the tabunka kyōsei policies should or should not include these communities. It might also be interesting to learn more in detail about the rich material she gathered during her research. It is certainly an attractive topic for future research to see how the idea of multiculturalism continues to evolve and materialize in Japan, including in areas other than Osaka.

Note: The Japanese transcription was kept as in the original article.

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