Can immigrants to Japan ever be accepted as Japanese? If you read the English-language internet on the topic, you will find a lot of people saying that it is impossible. That’s not what I’ve found.
A few weeks ago, I was at a rare in-office meeting at one of the groups I work with. The office was open-plan, so when I was introduced to a new member of the department at the end, she had been able to hear the entire meeting.
“Nice to meet you,” she said. “Your Japanese is very good.”
My colleague broke in.
“We’re well past that point. He is Japanese!”
Other things that people have asked me, or said to me, include:
“Have you naturalised?”
“Were you born here?”
“He looks foreign on the outside, but his heart is Japanese!”
“Your spirit appeared to me in a dream and told me that you are a reincarnation of Chikamatsu Monzaemon.”
…OK, maybe that last one is a bit odd.
So, why is my experience so different? I don’t really know — or, perhaps better, I really don’t know — but I can speculate.
Is it them? That is, do I associate with Japanese who are particularly likely to accept immigrants as Japanese? This is possible. The workplace mentioned in the first story is Jinja Honchō, the largest Shinto organisation, which is generally regarded as extremely conservative, right-wing, and nationalist. This is, of course, a simplification, but it is certainly not groundless. The other encounters all took place in rural Tōhoku, and none of those comments were made by people who know me well. So, do people just need to hang around more rural Japanese and conservative nationalists to get accepted?
That is actually a possibility. I remember reading somewhere that right-wing Japanese tend to see Japanese identity as a matter of legal citizenship, while the left wing are more likely to focus on heritage and culture. This does, of course, seem counter-intuitive from a western (particularly a US) perspective, but racial and immigration issues are one of the areas in which Japan is very different from the west. The lines do not fall in the same places at all.
Is it me? Well, I certainly don’t look “Japanese”, nor do I have any Japanese heritage. It is true that I have Japanese citizenship, speak, read, and write Japanese fluently, and have lived here for nearly twenty years, fully integrated into Japanese society. However, I am hardly the only immigrant who ticks all of those boxes. It is, I suppose, possible that none of the people who complain about never being accepted do have all those characteristics, in which case one or more of them might make the difference, but I have no evidence on that question.
Is it the standard? That is, does Japanese people chiding other Japanese people for complimenting you on your Japanese because you are Japanese not count as accepting you as Japanese? This is definitely a possibility. There’s all that tatemae stuff, after all. However, in that case I’m not sure what would count. I mean, accepting me as Japanese is one thing, but accepting me as a close friend, or as a member of a village community, is another. I think it would be difficult for an immigrant to be accepted as a full member of a village community, but that also applies to immigrants from other parts of Japan — it has nothing to do with whether you are seen as Japanese. I can’t really see how you can fail to accept “introduces them to other Japanese as Japanese” as proof that someone accepts a person as Japanese.
My experience, then, is that the Japanese, in general, are willing to accept immigrants as Japanese at some point, and I am not sure why other people seem to have a different experience. However, people with more complex Japanese identities do have a very wide range of experiences. Greg Lam has produced a very good documentary on this topic, which is now available on YouTube, and if you are interested in a wide range of experiences of being Japanese, I highly recommend it. (Full disclosure: I am one of the interviewees, introduced him to another of the interviewees, and also worked on the subtitles. I have also worked with Greg on a few other videos.)
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