Nationality Is Not Ethnicity


Japan is not homogeneous. Nationality is not ethnicity. These two facts are obvious, if you stop and think about them, but many people assume the opposite so often that it is worth going into detail about where intuition diverges from fact.


Japan Is Not Homogeneous

No country anywhere is homogeneous. If you get a large group of people, you get a lot of different traits, hobbies, and behaviors.

By definition, a country is homogeneous if it is "uniform in structure or composition throughout". So, let us ask if Japan is uniform. What about Okinawa? It was part of the U.S. from 1945 to 1972. Does that mean the people of Okinawa don't count? I don't suggest choosing one way or the other, but if you're making a claim of homogeneity, you would need to.

There are many minority groups in the country, too.

The nine largest minority groups residing in Japan are: North and South Korean, Chinese, Brazilian (many Brazilians in Japan have some Japanese ancestors), Filipinos (most Filipinos in Japan have Japanese ancestry), Taiwanese, the Ainu indigenous to Hokkaido, and the Ryukyuans indigenous to Okinawa and other islands between Kyushu and Taiwan. The Burakumin, an outcast group at the bottom of Japan's feudal order, are sometimes included. There are also a number of smaller ethnic communities in Japan with a much shorter history.

— Wikipedia: Ethnic issues in Japan, 2016-02-06.

The presence of indigenous Japanese minorities should be sufficient to show that Japan is multicultural.

If Japan is homogeneous, then people should have a lot in common. As a thought exercise, let's stereotype for a bit and think of some "very Japanese" things. Eat rice and miso soup with every meal. Live with parents and grandparents. Do karate. Do judo. Know a lot about green tea. Like green tea. Like eating natto because it's healthy. Play baseball. Know how to wield a sword. Have a fancy cell phone. Enjoy watching variety TV shows. Sing karaoke. Drink sake. Drink Asahi beer. Eat tofu on a regular basis. Practice Buddhism. Practice Shintoism. Mispronounce the letters L and R. Go to Hawaii on vacation. Love Disneyland. Love Hello Kitty. Flash the peace sign when being photographed. Do all Japanese people do all of these things? Of course they don't. Although there are trends, and certain behaviors and habits are more or less common, there's no chance that everyone thinks or feels the same way about everything.

It may seem pedantic, but sometimes seemingly-small changes in wording affect the accuracy of statements in a strong way. For example, I can accurately say, "Rice is a popular food in Japan." But if I say, "Japanese people eat rice.", then it's just wrong, because some Japanese people don't eat rice, and some people eat it irregularly. Similarly, I can accurately say, "Many boys in Japan play baseball." But it would be inaccurate to say, "Japanese boys play baseball." After all, some boys don't play baseball — and then, what, are they not Japanese? But that is absurd. If we want to make observations about societal tendencies, we should try to note them using phrases like "... is common." or " ... is popular." It is generally incorrect to open a claim with "Japanese people do ..." or "Japanese people like ...", because invariably some people don't do or like the thing, and you've just ignored their presence. Speaking accurately is important, and it also helps us recognize minority populations.


Nationality Data

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs & Communications, in 2014 the foreign resident population comprised 1.64% of the total population. In other words, Japanese citizens comprise 98.36% of the country's population. For the 1.64% of residents who don't have Japanese citizenship, we know what countries they are from. Japan does not allow adults to hold two passports — at least, not legally — so there is no data on dual citizenship.

Nationality.Pie.svg Nationality.Bar.svg

There are large numbers of people from China and South Korea. If you're trying to guess someone's ethnic background based on their skin color, you might see these people on the street and assume they're ethnically Japanese. Simultaneously, you might see someone who's born and raised in Japan but for whatever reason has light brown hair or blue eyes and assume they're non-Japanese. This goes to show that guessing someone's nationality based on their skin color is error-prone.

Getting the Facts Wrong

It is written in the CIA World Factbook that the population is 98.5% ethnic Japanese. The same claim shows up on various websites.

Ethnic groups:
Japanese 98.5%, Koreans 0.5%, Chinese 0.4%, other 0.6%

CIA World Factbook: Japan. 2016.
Though America is made up of people from many different countries, Japan is overwhelmingly Japanese. The population of Japan is about 98% ethnic Japanese, and the biggest minority groups are Korean and Chinese people.

— HubPages: Cultural Differences Between the USA and Japan, 2013-09-28.
The Japanese people (日本人) are an ethnic group native to Japan. Japanese make up 98.5% of the total population.

— Quora: Japanese Ethnicity and People, 2016-02-06.

We can find more such claims without searching hard, and even when people don't use the exact number, they may be inclined to assert without evidence that Japan is almost entirely "pure Japanese". I've asked what exactly people mean by "pure" before, but nobody really seems to know. Anyway, the 98.5% claim is easily refutable.


The last census in Japan was in 2015. I filled it out for my apartment. The census is conducted every five years by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. The form that each household completes is about two pages long and asks a variety of questions. One question it does not ask is, "What is your ethnicity?" No questions or check boxes on the form have anything to do with ethnicity. The census doesn't measure it.

However, one thing is still unfortunately being overlooked in the census: Japan’s ethnic diversity... Japan’s census does not measure for ethnicity (minzoku). It still measures only for nationality (kokuseki). In other words, on the form you indicate that you are Japanese or that you are miscellaneous (indicate nationality)... Then how about naturalized citizens? I of course wrote down “Japanese” for my nationality on the census. But I would also have liked to indicate that I am a hyphenated Japanese — a Japanese with American roots, an Amerika-kei Nihonjin. But it’s not just about me. How about children of international marriages? My kids are just as American as they are Japanese, so why not have it formally acknowledged?

— Debito Arudou, Japan Times: Census blind to Japan’s true diversity, 2010-10-05.

This is not just one columnist's opinion. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications states clearly that the census doesn't measure ethnicity.

Japanese refer to those who have Japanese citizenship. Therefore, those who reported both Japanese and foreign nationalities are regarded as Japanese.

— 2010 Population Census: Explanation of Terms.
The 2010 Population Census covered the following topics.
For household members:
(1) Name
(2) Sex
(3) Year and month of birth
(4) Relationship to the household head
(5) Marital status
(6) Nationality
(7) Duration of residency at the current domicile
(8) Place of 5 years previous residence
(9) Education
(10) Type of activity
(11) Name of establishment and kind of business (Industry)
(12) Kind of work (Occupation)
(13) Employments status
(14) Place of work or location of school
(15) Transportation to the place of work or the location of school
For households:
(1) Type of household
(2) Number of household members
(3) Type and tenure of dwelling
(4) Area of floor space of dwelling
(5) Type of building and number of stories

— 2010 Population Census: Outline of the 2010 Population Census of Japan.

As we can see, the Japanese census measures nationality but not ethnicity, and it considers people of mixed nationality to be 100% Japanese. Since there is no official data on ethnicity in the country, some people just use nationality data instead.

If one wanted to get actual data on ethnicity, the ideal way would be to revise the census and start collecting it in 2020. Another option is to extrapolate based on the numbers of international marriages and children born each year. If they were inclined, perhaps professional demographers could do a decent job of tallying up the numbers of first- second- and third-generation people in the country. Although, if the goal is to identify "pure" Japanese, you'd also need a standard for that. If your grandfather was born in Austria, are you disqualified from being "pure Japanese"? What if it were your great great great grandfather? I don't know. And you'd also have to address Japanese minority groups. It sounds like a lot of work. Whatever your approach, probably whatever number you'd produce would be far lower than the 98.5% figure we see floating around today.


It Matters

Why should you care? If you live in Japan, you should care because the police like to harass "foreign-looking" people, and that might include you. If you're concerned about discrimination in Japan, you should care because people use claims of homogeneity as an excuse for racism. If Japan is almost all "pure Japanese", then you can't fault people much for mistreating minorities, right? It's not their fault the country has so few minorities, and it takes time for people to adjust, or so the apologists would argue.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

— Martin Luther King, Letter From a Birmingham Jail. April 16, 1963.

Making change on issues of race and discrimination takes a long time, but you don't get anywhere without the facts. So the next time someone says Japan is homogeneous, let them know that reality disagrees, that the country is and has always been a diverse, multicultural place, and that we should be recognizing and embracing these differences.