How often do you interact with foreigners? In your community, can you regularly visit foreign restaurants and speak to immigrants? Do international expatriates work at local businesses? In Japan, less than 10% of people say they have opportunities to interact with foreigners.
Japan is well known for its isolationism and unified culture. Its current state is just one part of Japan’s continuously evolving relationship with the outside world, though. From geography to modern immigration laws, there have been a number of factors leading to the present and plenty of speed bumps along the way. Is a multicultural society in the country’s future?
Understanding all the aspects of Japan’s isolationism is fundamental to understanding the culture in general. Only then can you enjoy its special place in the global community.
A history of isolation
Japan is an island nation. Like many other island nations around the world, this has laid the foundation for a very closed-off and homogenous culture. However, Japan takes its isolation to an extreme, and while its geography may have been a catalyst, its political history has played the largest role in its isolation.
During Japan’s classical period, it was a major player on the world stage. Buddhism reached the island from the Korean peninsula, and the Silk Road connected the country economically to wealthy empires like ancient Persia. In fact, scholars believe ancient Persians and Scythians may have settled in Japan.
In the early 17th Century, though, Japan’s relationship with the rest of the world changed dramatically. By that time, Western imperial powers had begun influencing the nation, especially Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands. Christianity was spreading, and there was considerable interest in Western scholarship and medicine.
These outside influences along with the opportunity to limit the economic power of domestic rivals who’d made fortunes in international trade inspired the Tokugawa Shogunate to enact sakoku, a policy of near-complete isolation. Japanese natives attempting to leave the country were put to death, and the government offered rewards for turning in Catholic priests.
The shogunate wanted to maintain trade and keep up with technological advancements, so they created an intricate system. They allowed trade with China through Nagasaki and gave the Dutch, who they believed were capable of separating business from religion, permission to trade on the island of Dejima outside of Nagasaki. Ordinary Japanese citizens could not travel to the island, and foreigners could not travel to the mainland.
The sakoku period of isolation lasted over 200 years, during which many of today’s recognizable aspects of Japanese culture developed. In 1853, an American military expedition called the Black Ships forced the opening of Japan and arranged several treaties that led to more extensive trade between Japan and the West. Although this has led to Japan’s place as one of the world’s largest economies and global traders, the influence of sakoku continues to affect Japan and its isolationist culture.
Westerners often have trouble understanding since multiculturalism is a major part of our culture and at least debated in the public square. For the Japanese, this isn’t the case. The Japanese are very hospitable and friendly to foreign visitors, but when it comes to outsiders living in their country, they aren’t as enthusiastic.
The majority of Japanese people see immigration as a threat to their country, culture, and way of life. In 2006, nearly 85% of people thought Japan had become more dangerous over the prior 10 years, and over half of them blamed this on the criminal activity of foreigners.
Unlike the endless debate of many other countries, there’s limited Japanese discourse on global migration, which is portrayed in the media as chaotic and violent. Most Japanese people see their country as a homogenous, monocultural place, and there doesn’t seem to be many problems with that. In 2000, 40% of people said they hardly ever even saw foreigners.
The laws and policies of the Japanese government reflect the general attitudes of the population. Immigration is very limited. Consider that in 2016, Germany accepted over 250,000 refugees, France nearly 25,000, and the US 20,000, a number for which it was extensively criticized as being low. That same year Japan accepted 28 refugees.
While there is some talk of increasing the amount of skilled foreign workers in the country, talk of allowing unskilled workers is pretty much nonexistent. Plus, even the limited immigration discourse there is usually pretty pessimistic. The government doesn’t feel that the nation has the infrastructure ready for large influxes of immigration. They’ve also estimated the costs at trillions of yen, money the government just doesn’t have.
The rhetoric of government officials might be the greatest evidence of Japan’s tendency to isolationism. Ministers in the national government have called the country “homogenous” and described it as “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, and one race.” These weren’t shocking comments. There was no controversy or mention in the press.
Pressures and trends
Although the immediate attitudes are completely content with Japan’s lack of multiculturalism, there are some underlying social problems and trends that put a lot of pressure on Japan to open up.
For starters, Western influence on Japan is extensive. Even during sakoku, Japan recognized the value of Western technology and scholarship. Throughout the Edo period and even more after the opening of Japan to the American navy, Japan industrialized and used Western scientific ideals to advance significantly.
Japan’s loss and disarmament in World War II accelerated its relationship with the West. These days, American military bases dot the country, providing them with protection from other Pacific powers in exchange for a close economic relationship that involves a lot of cultural exchange between the two nations.
Despite historical hostilities, Japan has a cordial relationship with the West these days. For example, Western international schools are accredited and accepted institutions of education. Korean schools, on the other hand, are not.
When it comes to Japan’s road to multiculturalism, depopulation is the current mile marker. Japan has an incredibly low birth rate, and the government estimates that by 2065, Japan will have 88 million people, a 30% decline from today’s 125 million.
Along with depopulation comes social problems. The population is aging, and the country has fewer young workers to support them. It’s estimated that Japan has 125 jobs for every 100 people. In important industries like agriculture and construction, a shrinking workforce threatens production.
Japan’s government has desperately been trying to jumpstart the birth rate, but so far, nothing has stuck. Even though it’s not a permanent solution, migrant laborers may end up being one way Japan can fill positions in essential sectors and support the aging population.
So is Japan destined to become a bubbling melting pot of multiculturalism? Probably not any time soon. It’s likely that Japan may relax a little on immigration in the next few years in response to trends like population decline, but open borders and international settlements are a long way off.
For those interested in visiting or living in Japan, it’s easy to think negatively about this. You should look on the brightside, though. Japan’s isolationism can be a beautiful thing and provides a great opportunity to those interested in foreign cultures.
These days, there’s not a lot of cultural identity left in the world. Through globalization, all the cultures of the world have begun to blend into one. You can travel from New York to Dubai to Shanghai and visit the same restaurants, listen to the same music and watch the same movies.
Japan is a lone island of uniqueness in a sea of ever-increasing monotony. For the world traveler, this may be intimidating, and the country and culture can seem more difficult to access. It’s worth it.