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Japanese claims of homogeneity backfire. Politicians' remarks anger minorities, as well as other nations

Continuing fallout from Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's remarks about multiracial America and single-race Japan is causing the Japanese to discover that they are not as homogeneous a people as they think. The Japanese are also finding that relations with close neighbors, such as South Korea and China, are still ruffled by what they perceive as Japanese racial arrogance and insensitivity to the feelings of others.

The Ainu, the original inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago who are quite distinct from the Japanese in language and in physical characteristics, are up in arms over the prime minister's remark a couple of months ago that Japan is a single-race nation.

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Nakasone made the remark while trying to explain another faux pas over the literacy level of Hispanics and blacks in the United States.

Japan, he said by way of apology, was a single-race nation that found it difficult to understand the problems of a multiracial society like the United States.

Ainu individuals and organizations complained that their people had repeatedly suffered discrimination because they were different from the Japanese. Nakasone's remark that he himself probably had some Ainu blood did not mollify them.

The South Koreans, meanwhile, took offense over a remark by a Japanese legislator to the effect that war between Japan and Korea was still a possibility so long as the Koreans insisted on their version of history. The legislator, Shizuka Kamei, represented the viewpoint of certain right-wing politicians who say that Koreans - as well as Chinese - have no business trying to dictate their version of past actions by Japan, such as the annexation of Korea or aggression against China.

Discrimination against minorities at home and a refusal to recognize the feelings of close neighbors are the issues raised by Nakasone's remarks, by those of former Education Minister Masayuki Fujio, and most recently by those of Mr. Kamei. Mr. Fujio was dismissed by Nakasone for saying that Koreans were as much to blame for the Japanese conquest as were the Japanese. (Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and ruled it as a colony until 1945.)

Nakasone then made his comment about American Hispanics and blacks and compounded the problem by boasting of the homogeneity of the Japanese, this despite the fact that the Japanese are known to have had diverse origins: tall tribes from North Asia mingling with shorter, darker peoples from South China and Southeast Asia.

For the Ainu, this claim of homogeneity is particularly galling. Pure-blooded Ainu are rare these days - perhaps several thousand people on the northern island of Hokkaido. But a couple of thousand years ago, they roamed across all the Japanese islands as hirsute hunters who worshipped the bear.

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The rice-cultivating ancestors of today's Japanese gradually drove the Ainu north, although, as Nakasone suggested, there was considerable intermarriage with the sisam, as the Ainu called the Japanese.

To this day, Japanese tend to see the Ainu as lazy, shiftless, with little education, and far hairier than the Japanese. The Ainu say the sisam discriminate against them in schools, public baths, and jobs.

``There was never a day my child did not cry because of discrimination by his schoolmates,'' an Ainu woman wrote in a public protest addressed to Nakasone.

Nor are the targets of discrimination in Japan restricted to the Ainu.

Okinawans, whose dialect is unmistakably Japanese and yet totally unintelligible to most other Japanese, speak bitterly of discrimination in jobs and in marriages.

A Tokyoite transferred to Okinawa with his family was advised by friends that, since he had daughters who would soon reach marriageable age, he should avoid registering his legal domicile as being in Okinawa. His daughters might have problems finding suitable partners once they returned to Tokyo, he was told.

Japan's Burakumin, whose ancestors in feudal times were engaged in ``unclean'' occupations such as leatherworking, animal slaughtering, and disposing of the dead, are another reminder of continuing discrimination.

The Burakumin number several million and are represented by militant organizations. Unlike India's ``untouchables,'' they are indistinguishable from the majority community by surname, by speech, or by any other external signs. Yet, when seeking jobs or marriage partners, they are often subtly rejected by company personnel departments or by families who routinely hire private detectives to make sure of the marriage partner's background.

The homogeneity of the Japanese is a view held by many members of the community.

But even setting aside non-Japanese such as the Ainu or the Korean and Chinese communities in Japan, a close look shows that the appearance of homogeneity is achieved only because minorities consciously conform to the mores and prejudices of the majority.

Indeed, the Japanese mentality is often compared to that of a village with long-established traditions and protocols of behavior.

From the outside, the village looks homogeneous. Inside, it may appear so to most of the inhabitants, with the exception of a minority that for all sorts of historical or personal reasons feels different from the others. This minority, found in clumps here and there among members of the majority, knows that if it wants to continue to live in the village, it must conform.

In short, Japanese society is indisputably more homogeneous than American society, but it is not as homogeneous as it might seem from the outside, or even as much as the majority of Japanese themselves might think. Recognizing this fact within their own society may be a first step on the way to greater sensitivity to the feelings of neighbors and of other members of the world community.

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