Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Japanese, Ryūkyūan, Korean, Chinese, Ainu
Main religions: Shintoism and Buddhism, also Protestantism and Roman Catholicism
Minority communities include Burakumin (estimates range widely between 1-3 million people), Chinese (more than 650,000) and Koreans (around 1 million in total, out of which 430,000 are foreign nationals holding permanent residency).
Indigenous peoples include Ryūkyūans (including Okinawans; around 1,400,000) and Ainu (estimated at 24,000 people).
Updated June 2019
One of the most salient issues facing minorities and indigenous peoples in Japan is hate speech and hate crime. Persistent xenophobic sentiment is widely embedded in societal attitudes, and reflected, for instance, in ‘Japanese only’ signs still posted by some hotels and restaurants. In recent years right-wing nationalists have used Nazi imagery as well as various racist slurs during anti-Chinese and anti-Korean demonstrations in Tokyo. There have also been incidents concerning other minorities in Japan such as Ainu, Ryūkyūans and Burakumin, including hate speech by public figures. In May 2016, however, the Diet finally passed the first anti-hate speech law, but there have been several criticisms including that the law is only intended to cover people of overseas origin and their descendants ‘who live legally in Japan,’ which excludes several marginalized groups including indigenous peoples. Its lack of clarity has reportedly prevented local authorities from effectively implementing its provisions, though some municipalities have also developed ordinances to prevent discriminatory practices.
Japan’s indigenous Ainu continue to face discrimination, limited access to basic services and low levels of political participation. Even in Hokkaido, where the majority are based, most Ainu have lower economic status than non-Ainu Hokkaido residents. Nonetheless, while they may be largely symbolic, gestures towards protecting Ainu culture have occurred. The government has sought to establish a Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, which is scheduled to be completed in 2020 when the Tokyo Olympic Games are held. A bill passed in April 2019 for the first time formally acknowledged their status as an indigenous people, while also requiring the government to adopt measures to support and protect their cultural identity.
The struggle for recognition is even more acute for indigenous Ryūkyūans (including Okinawans) who, unlike Ainu, have yet to receive official indigenous status, despite previous UN recommendations. Their culture and traditional lands are threatened by the denial of their right to free and informed participation in policy-making, especially concerning the expansion of US military bases in Okinawa – an issue that continues to be perceived as a form of discrimination against the indigenous population. Ongoing construction of a new US base in Henoko, situated in a bay rich in biodiversity including the critically endangered Okinawan dugong, is a particularly contentious issue in Okinawan politics today and has pitted local authorities against the central government. Though a referendum in February 2019 found that over 70 per cent of Okinawans who voted opposed the construction of the base, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has insisted that the plans will go ahead.
Japan has not created a specific government agency to deal with Burakumin issues. Although they are not subject to official discrimination, Burakumin still face deep-seated prejudice, especially in marriage and employment, with some companies referring to lists of family names and neighbourhoods to discriminate against Burakumin. There exist persistent socioeconomic gaps between the Burakumin and the rest of the population and also a lack of information and indicators to assess the impact of the measures implemented by Japan upon the termination of the Dowa Special Measures in 2002, including measures to counter discrimination against the Burakumin.
Japan is an island-state located in the Pacific Ocean to the east of China, Korea and Russia. With some 127 million people, it has the world’s tenth largest population. Its geographic isolation explains the country’s relative – though not complete – ethnic homogeneity, with its northern (Hokkaido) and southern (Ryūkyū Islands, including Okinawa) extremities the home of Japan’s own distinctive indigenous peoples.
For Japan’s minorities, the period of reform and modernization that occurred during the Meiji era (1868-1912) also saw some of the most consequential developments for their status. For the Ainu, it meant the formal incorporation of their land which was formally renamed Hokkaido, and the eradication of traditional Ainu ownership of land, which was offered to Japanese settlers who colonized the Ainu Mosir (Land of the Ainu), marginalising the indigenous Ainu. Japan’s subsequent wars and conquests during this era brought it to control Korea, Taiwan and the southern half of Sakhalin, events which to this day explain the origins of some of the country’s other minorities. It is also during this period that the Ryūkyū Kingdom was formally annexed to Japan.
Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II saw its emergence as a democracy with a liberal Constitution in 1947 which, while containing a number of rights and guarantees, has no specific provision in relation to the rights of its minorities and indigenous peoples. Article 14 of the Constitution does prohibit discrimination, although its wording and scope appear somewhat limited as it is not a general prohibition of discrimination, but one which only applies ‘in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin’.
Japan is to all appearances a highly developed democracy with the world’s third largest economy. But despite its liberal Constitution, minorities and indigenous peoples are for the most part ignored in Japan’s constitutional and legislative framework, a reflection of the long-standing popular perception of Japan as a mono-ethnic state. That Japan is only made up of ‘ethnic Japanese’ (the Yamato people) has been until recently the prominent view within much of Japanese society, sometimes leaning dangerously towards a belief that this is part of the country’s key to stability and economic success. This informed the infamous 1986 statement by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone attributing the success of Japan’s education system to the country’s ethno-racial homogeneity. Such an attitude also accounts for the historical pattern of authorities going further than they otherwise may have to address disadvantages facing the Burakumin – a caste- or descent-based rather than an ethnic minority, and thus considered to be ‘Japanese’.
The absence of comprehensive human rights legislation, including against discrimination by public and private parties in particular is a problem for many minorities and indigenous peoples, as such legislation is quite often one of the few effective ways to assert and protect their rights and interests. International criticism of this lacuna and increasing efforts and pressure from minority groups and civil society have contributed to a number of attempts after 2002 to have the Diet enact greater human rights legislation. Such efforts have received inadequate support among legislators, including within the Liberal Democratic Party which has been in power except for brief periods in 1993-1994 and 2009-2012.
The position of more recent migrants in society is a contested issue in Japan as the country faces an ageing and even declining population, but legislation in areas such as the right to vote for permanent residents and the acquisition of citizenship remain restrictive. Japan continues to have no civil or criminal law against racial discrimination, a key issue for minorities. Such an absence has the effect of enabling discriminatory practices towards migrants as well, particularly migrant women in Japan who are more vulnerable to discrimination and violence.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center (HURIGHTS OSAKA)
Centre for Human Rights Affairs (Jinken Kyoiku Keihatu Suisin Centre)
International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism
Japan Civil Liberties Union
Kyoto Human Rights Research Institute (Sekai Jinken Mondai Kenkyu Sentaa)
Research Center for Human Rights (RCHR)
Ainu Association of Hokkaido
The Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture
Buraku Liberation League
Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute
North Korean Residents Union in Japan (Chongryon)
Research Action Institute for Koreans in Japan
South Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan)
Lawyers Association of Zainichi Koreans (LAZAK)
Human Rights Association for Korean Residents in Japan (HURAK)
All Okinawa Council for Human Rights
Association of the Indigenous Peoples in the Ryukyus (Okinawa People)
Okinawa Peace Network of Los Angeles
Shimin Gaikou Centre (Citizens Diplomatic Centre for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples)
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in