Seven Wonders of Japan

Minority Wonders

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 2 February 1992, page 9

Other "Wonders" articles:
Japan Wonders 1
Japan Wonders 2
Suicide Wonders


1. Tadashii
2. Ainu minzoku
3. Okinawajin
4. Zainichi Kankoku/Chosenjin
5. Hisabetsu (mikaiho) buraku
6. & 7. Kokujin and Nipponjin

1. Tadashii

The boundary between concern about "correctness" and political" interest is rarely clear. But most ethnic and other social labels have become popular through promotion by organizations (and endorsement by individuals) that are driven by dogmas of correctness.

Tadashii, the most common "correct" word in Yamato speech, is involved in contexts like Nihon ga sent tadashiku rikai sarete inai (Japan is not correctly understood by the world). Such claims are based on the premise that: "Japan" is an object that can be understood; it is mutually understood by "the Japanese"; and if only it/they were given an opportunity to explain itself/themselves to "the world" (that alien realm of foreigners beyond Japan) then suddenly there would be "mutual understanding" and everlasting harmony. All kinds of romantic nativists assume such a collective voice when expressing rescue fantasies that involve a magical intervention of epistemological powers.

2. Ainu minzoku

Ainu minzoku is the politically correct term for one of Japan's indigenous peoples. It is variously translated "the" Ainu race, Ainu nation, Ainu people, or just Ainu. Sometimes it means all people of Ainu descent regardless of their citizenship, but it can also refer to what I prefer to call Ainu Japanese--though some officials of the Utari Association of Hokkaido, the largest organization representing the interests of Ainu in Japan, once objected to my using this term. Perhaps Utari wordsmiths dislike my usage because they wish to weigh race or ethnicity more than citizenship. A number of Ainu Japanese regard Shamo (neighbor) or Wajin (Yamato person) officials, dispatched from the Ministry of Construction to negotiate the building of the disputed dam on sacred Ainu lands in Nibutani, as "visitors who have come from Japan." As members of a nation within a Yamato-dominated state, some Ainu citizens also claim historical rights to the Southern Kuriles that Japan wants Russia to return.

3. Okinawajin

Okinawajin refers to Okinawan Japanese, especially those who call themselves Uchinanchu (Okinawa no hito / person of Okinawa) as distinct from Yamatunchu (Yamato no hito / person in Yamato). Ryukyujin is now limited to historical and physical anthropological contexts. At least one Okinawan scholar uses the expression Okinawakei Nihonjin as the Yamato equivalent of "Okinawan Japanese". Okinawan speech used to be called a "language", but the forces of orthodoxy have reduced it to a "dialect" of Japanese. The most provocative expression of Okinawan identity that I have seen is an Okinawa-centered map of the world.

4. Zainichi Kankoku / Chonsenjin

Zainichi Kankoku/Chosenjin is the full-blown "politically correct" term for "Japan-resident Koreans"-at least if you happen to believe that citizens of the Republic of Korea (Kankokujin) ought to come first. Though some Chosenjin have pledged their allegiance to the "other" Korea, none are actually citizens of the Democratic People's Republic, but are "stateless" former colonial-period subjects or their offspring who, for a variety of reasons, have chosen not to affiliate with ROK.

"Ethnic" is often attached to "nationality" labels to imply racial commonality even where there is little or none. Consider, for example, this short list of "ethnic Koreans":

All generations of Koreans and Korean Japanese in Japan
ROK Koreans
DPRK Koreans
PROC Chinese Koreans
Korean Americans

Where is the alleged "Koreanness?" In language? In family or community experience? In religion or politics, or in food, clothing, art, or music? How can the illusion of racial affinity survive when even "Korean" names are lost in the crossing of borders and breeds, and when putatively pure "Korean" genes are diluted beyond even chemical recognition?

5. Hisabetsu (mikaiho) buraku

Hisabetsu (mikaiho) buraku (Discriminated-against (unliberated) community) is the label favored by the Buraku Liberation League, which claims to represent three times the government's head count of former outcast community residents who identify as lineal descendants of the outcasts emancipated when the caste system was abolished in 1871. Only the government is more committed to political correctness than BLL. This has been most apparent in the effort to maintain the myth of tan'itsu minzoku kokka (monoracial state). The only concession has been to prefix this expression with hobo (practically, virtually).

Residents of what the government calls only dowa (integration) communities are not, of course, ethnic minorities. But to stress this, BLL endorses the government's statement that "the residents of dowa areas are neither a different race (jinshu) nor a different ethnic group (minzoku), but are doubtlessly the Japanese race (Nippon minzoku), the Japanese people (Nippon kokumin)." Most minority organizations use conventional labels in ways that thus equate being Japanese with race.

6. & 7. Kokujin and Nipponjin

Kokujin (black person) and Nipponjin (Japan person) are generally contrasted in contexts that imply the exclusion of one from the other, as in "Japanese and blacks." Some "African Americans" in Japan, while trying to assess the damage of racial stereotypes that they believe dehumanize black people, have echoed this common use of "Japanese" as a tag for race rather than citizenship. In following such linguistic customs, they have joined the multitudes who wittingly or otherwise deprive Japanese who happen to be black, or part black and anything else, of their membership in civil Japanese society.

The term "African American" has yet to gain currency in Yamato media, though one liberal weekly magazine has observed: "Recently in America, 'African American' rather than 'black' has been deemed a more correct (tadashii) expression."

A more correct expression of what? Is Africa black? Is black African? Are many if not most "black" African Americans not partly "white" racially--and are most culturally almost anything but "African"?

Is it honest to call Joe Yamanaka, a citizen of Japan and no other country, "half-Japanese" and "half-black American"?