No ethnic subnations in Japan

Equality of status without race boxes

By William Wetherall

First posted 3 April 2006
Last updated 1 March 2007

Racioethnic subnationality

In international law, states are raceless entities. As a legal term designating affiliation with a state, "nationality" has no racioethnic significance.

Some states, though, define subnations within their nationality and accord the subnations semi-sovereign status within the state's sovereign polity. A subnation, as a polity, will be governed by laws, including laws that determine who qualifies for status as a member of the subnation.

When membership in a subnation is based on racioethnic criteria, the subnation is a racioethnic subnation. The People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) in East Asia, and Canada and the United States (US) in North America, legally exceptionalize a number of ethnic subnational entities within their civil nationality. PRC and ROC govern their ethnic subnations largely through laws based on political ideology and ideals of racioethnic equality. Canada and the US govern their indigenous subnations mainly through historical treaties and related bodies of law that now incorporate ideals of racioethnic equality.

Here we will look at subnationality in Japan, which does not define any ethnic subnations, and no longer has territorial subnations like Taiwan, Karafuto, or Korea.

Racioethnic and territorial subnationality

Subnationality can be racioethnic or territorial.

A racioethnic subnation is a population of people defined by their biological, linguistic, cultural, and/or religious traits. The people can be concentrated in a territory they dominate, or be scattered among territories they do not dominate.

A territorial subnation is a population of people affiliated with a territory. Their subnationality is defined by legal status as domiciled inhabitants of the territory, without regard to personal or collective racioethnic traits.

Taiwanese and Korean territorial subnationality

Being of Taiwanese or Korean subnationality, when Taiwan and Korea were parts of Japan, was a matter of being a member of a family register affiliated with Taiwan or Korea as territorial, not racioethnic, polities. As inhabitants of polities that were parts of Japan, Taiwanese and Koreans were Japanese nationals. They were Taiwanese and Koreans only in terms of their subnationality within Japanese nationality.

Taiwanese and Korean status was strictly based on membership in a population register affiliated with a village, town, or other such territorial polity in Taiwan or Korea. Membership in a Taiwanese or Korean population register was determined not by an assessment of racioethnic traits, such as biological descent from a putatively Taiwanese or Korean gene pool, but by affiliation with a domiciled family -- lineal descent within the family, or marriage or adoption into the family.

In sharp contrast with such territorial affiliation, legal status as a member of a federally recognized Cherokee band in the United States, say, requires evidence that one has a specified percent of indigenous blood by descent. Japan has never based the legal status of its nationals -- or, in the past, the legal status of its territorial subnationals -- on racioethnic descent. Nor does it today classify its nationals by racioethnic affiliation, such as Ainu or Okinawan, or Korean or Chinese, or Yamato or whatever. In so far as Japan's nationality and family registration laws are concerned. racioethnicity is a purely private matter.

Ainu people not a racial subnation

Some Japanese of putative Okinawan and Ainu ancestry have expressed a desire for their own semi-sovereign polity within Japan, if not for an independent state. Some special status Koreans in Japan have also felt they deserve to be collectively recognized as a subnational entity.

Only Ainu have made any serious headway toward establishing a semi-autonomous racial nation within a civil nation. However, since incorporating Ainu lands and peoples into its expanding nation, Japan has never recognized an Ainu subnation within its state polity and is highly unlikely to do so.

Individually, or as members of an advocacy organization, some Ainu consider themselves members of a racial nation. Legally, though, they are no different than other members of the purely civil Japanese nation. Japan categorically recognizes "Ainu people" [Ainu no hitobito] as a racial minority, but this recognition does not extend to individuals. Nor does it recognize a collective Ainu polity within the civil nation or, say, a local polity like Hokkaido.

Japan has no legal means of determining who is an Ainu. It is not empowered by any law or policy to recognize race as an individual attribute of its nationals, or to treat any national or non-national on the basis of his or her putative race. There are no race boxes in Japan.

Hokkaido Utari Kyokai

The Hokkaido Utari Kyokai is an Ainu-only membership group. The Japanese government is no way involved in helping it determine its membership. HUK members are descendants of Ainu people and their families, which may include members who are not Ainu by lineal descent but feel they are Ainu. Most members also seem to members of local Ainu communities.

HUK's definition of Ainu is anthropological rather than biological. It allows for both genetic and social mixture, the best survival strategy given the high rate of intermarriage. Using a fixed blood quantum would be suicidal. Some American Indian groups have charged that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has used blood quanta to hasten the termination of a rapidly mixing tribe's federal recognition.

Embracing mixture

Most ethnic subnations that begin with fairly homogeneous first and second generation members, who pride themselves on their putative racial purity, have to learn how to embrace mixture or cease to exist. The Japanese American Citizens League is a good example of such a group in the United States, where people are apt to racialize "national origin" within the framework of civil "US citizenship". Some Koreans in Japan, where "nationality" is likely to be racialized as a synonym of "ethnicity", have also had to soften their strongly racialist notions of being "Korean" and being "Japanese" in order to tolerate the biological and social (legal, familial, cultural, political) consequences of extremely high rates of intermarriage.

No race boxes

Whereas the United States has "race boxes" and routinely solicits personal racial information on all manner of public documents, Japan does not. Americans who care to acknowledge their "ethnicity" on a national census form, for example, can check as many categories as they want. In Japan, at most one is asked to disclose one's nationality, which is raceless -- unless someone is inclined to racialize civil nationality.

So long as Japan considers race a strictly private matter, and stays out of the race-box business, its ambilineal nationality law will function as a "terminator" of special status Koreans in Japan. Within the next few decades, special status Koreans, as a demographic category, will wither to practically nothing. If their Japanese descendants are to exist as a racial nationality within the framework of Japanese nationality, they will have to adopt a strategy of anthropological self-definition like HUK. But this probably won't happen to any significant degree. By the end of the 21st century, even the illusion of a "Korean minority nation" in Japan will have disappeared.

Okinawans could, if something were to provoke them to unify them as a relatively undivided political block with an uncompromising minority national platform, force Japan to recognition them as an ethnic minority, an indigenous minority, and a minority nation. At the moment, though, Ainu are in the best position to be not just an ethnic minority, but also an indigenous people, and even a minority nation within Japan. This probably won't happen, though.

New Ainu Law of 1997

HUK originated as a prefectural organ to facilitate welfare and other programs for Ainu people. While formally no longer a governmental group, it continues to agency prefectural programs for Ainu. It was closely involved with the drafting and promulgation of the New Ainu Law of 1997, which promotes Ainu culture. And it is involved with prefectural and national agencies that have anything to do with "Ainu affairs" or "Ainu policy". This makes HUK a sort of clearing house for government policy. It also means that HUK is vulnerable to co-option.

Neither Japan nor Hokkaido recognize the existence of a sovereign "Ainu nation" within their jurisdictions. Efforts to establish "Ainu seats" in the Hokkaido legislature, for example, have failed, because the Constitution does not provide for racial nationality. Legally, there is only one nation in Japan, and it is based on civil, not racial, nationality.

As of this writing, Japan has also refused to recognize Ainu as an "indigenous people". To do so would imply that other Japanese are somehow not, or less, indigenous. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reports and comments to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, concerning Ainu and Okinawans among others, are ludicrously ingenuous. They betray the government's utter lack of truthfulness about Japan's racially complex population. Yet the reports accurately reflect the political reality of race relations in Japan: even Ainu lack the critical mass of determination to be recognized for what they want to be -- and so end up being recognized only for what they are.

To be continued.