Questions of identity

Some reference points
for conversations about
Ainu, Shinto, and Koreans

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 11 November 1992, page 11 (Waiwai Waido)

Indigenous people?

Most anthropologists and others who have studied the peopling of the changing political territory called "Japan" agree that genetically, Ainu Japanese, Okinawan Japanese, and the populations of certain very remote, peripheral communities, represent vestiges of early migrants of Southeast Asian and Pacific origin.

In contrast, Japanese of putative Yamato ancestry, whose family roots are mainly in the central provinces, tend to have more physical traits that come from, or result from mixing with, those of later migrants of North and Central Asian origin. This amalgamation of "old mongoloids" and "new mongoloids" is far from complete. But even if the gene pool of a geographically defined Mendelian "Yamato race" were homogeneous, it would nonetheless be as indigenous as its oldest hybridized traits, rather than exogenous.

So if Ainu Japanese cannot be truthfully called "the indigenous minority people of Japan," what are they? Perhaps they are best described as "people who consider themselves descended at least partly from a local race that for the past few millennia has been indigenous to what is today part of northern Japan and eastern Russia." Or "members of a minority race indigenous to parts of present-day Japan and Russia."

Indigenous religion?

The indigenous plot thickens. "Japan's indigenous religion is Shinto," claims The Japan Of Today, a booklet intended to promote a better "understanding" of Japan. Several editions have been published by the International Society for Educational Information, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs-affiliated foundation that finds "errors" about Japan in foreign textbooks and requests "corrections". A more presumptuous ISEI booklet, A Teachers' & Textbook Writers' Handbook On Japan, states that "Shintoism is the earliest and the only native religion of Japan."

Such descriptions of Shinto directly contradict the government's own admissions to the U.N. that there is at least one other "indigenous" or "native " religion in Japan, as practiced by some Ainu Japanese. And they overlook similarly old and local religions in places like Okinawa.

But the people who manage Japan's official image seem to want the rest of the world to believe that Shinto is "the" only truly Japanese religion. And they are aided and abetted by the numerous tour guides, journalists, and educators who parrot the romantic indigenous cliches.

Collaborating with them are "neo-animist" nativist intellectuals, like Umehara Takeshi, who deconstruct Shinto into a mere ethnic custom, and who claim that Shinto's "harmony with nature" was practiced in its most pristine form by the pre-Yamato indigens of the Jomon stone age.

Voluntary or involuntary?

"Japan's Subtle Apartheid: The Korean Minority Now", a pamphlet published by Research/Action Institute for Koreans in Japan in March 1990, describes the "one million Koreans in Japan" as follows:

There are one million Koreans in Japan if the roughly 300,000 who have naturalized since 1952 are added to 680,000 registered as Korean nationals. The existence of a large Korean population here [in Japan] is a legacy of Japanese imperialism and wartime aggression. Most were forced, or are the descendants of those who were forced, to leave their homeland as displaced farmers or conscripted laborers to fuel Japan's military and industrial expansion during its 35-year colonization of Korea.

Though this description is more sophisticated than those found in most newspaper and magazine articles in English or Japanese, it strips Korean Japanese of their citizenship in order to increase the number of people that RAIK claims to speak for. And it plays tricks with the word "force" in order to deepen the impression that "most" of these people are passive victims of historical imperatives beyond their control.

In fact, between 1910, when the Japanese government annexed Korea, and 1939, about one million Korean colonial subjects freely settled in Japan. And economic conditions on the peninsula wrought by Japan's colonization were not the only "forces" that compelled people to book passage across the Korean Straits in quest of the Japanese dream.

From 1939 and until 1945, during World War II, about the same number of Korean subjects were brought to Japan as conscript laborers. As a result of both this free and involuntary migration, over two million Korean subjects were in Japan at the end of the war in 1945.

Changsoo Lee and George De Vos, in their study of this experience (Koreans in Japan, University of California Press, 1981), cite copious statistics, and restate the observation, made by most researchers since the late 1940s, that "During the early period of postwar repatriation most . . . conscriptees returned to Korea as soon as they were free to leave. A high proportion of the present Korean inhabitants of Japan came in the early period on a voluntary basis with their families."

Osaka-born activist Yang Tae Ho also endorses this informed view, though in a decidedly proletarian tone, in his 1991 Q&A guide to Japan-resident Korean problems, Shitte imasu ka? Zainichi Kankoku/Chosenjin Mondai: Ichimon Ichito, published by Kaiho Shuppan Sha.