Q&A with Professor Michael Sharpe on racism and immigration in Japan

July 06, 2020

Q: First, could you introduce yourself and your research background?

I am an associate professor of Political Science at York College of the City University of New York as well as an adjunct research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University. My areas of expertise are comparative politics and international relations and my research involves examining from a comparative perspective the politics of migration and immigrant political incorporation, and political transnationalism in the Netherlands, Japan, and around the world. My first book, Postcolonial Citizens and Ethnic Migration: The Netherlands and Japan in the Age of Globalization (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), is a cross-regional investigation of the role of citizenship and ethnicity in migration and immigrant political incorporation, exploring the political realities of Dutch Antilleans in the Netherlands and Latin American Nikkeijin (Japanese descendants) in Japan. I have a special interest in remigration policies or paid voluntary return for immigrants and their descendants to return to their countries of origin and what this means for liberal democracies. Other current projects include research on Japan as an “emerging migration state,” the role of the Japanese government in Japanese diaspora politics, as well as the questions of sovereignty, autonomy, and freedom of movement in the non-sovereign Dutch Caribbean and other parts of the European Union’s Overseas Countries and Territories.

Q: What brought you to study Japanese politics, and, more specifically, to focus on immigration and discrimination in Japan?

Well, this is a long story full of serendipity. I was the first child born in the United States to immigrant parents from the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba (formerly a part of Netherlands Antilles) and the Dominican Republic. Hence, I am a dual citizen of the US and the Netherlands. My immediate and extended family have been immigrants across generations, moving to parts of the Dutch, French, and British Caribbean; the Netherlands; Belgium; Germany; Hungary; and the US. Having lived with multiple identities and citizenships, I have always had an interest in the politics of membership, inclusion, and exclusion.

During my studies as a master’s student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, I learned I had to move to a country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands or the European Union to keep my Dutch citizenship (lost and restored) and so I relocated to the Hague and continued my studies at the Institute of Social Studies. I happened to be there during a mass migration of Dutch Antilleans/Arubans, who are legal Dutch citizens. I was intrigued by some of the dilemmas of language, culture, and discrimination impacting the Dutch Antillean/Aruban postcolonial citizen as well other ethnic minority communities in the Netherlands: a self-described liberal, multicultural, tolerant, and open country. While researching for my graduate diploma thesis on international legal resources to combat racial and ethnic conflict, I frequently came across references to the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR). IMADR, the brainchild of the Buraku Liberation League, a Tokyo-based international nongovernmental human rights organization with United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) consultative status that networks and advocates for minorities and marginalized groups at the level of the United Nations. I was moved to learn about the Buraku, a group of people in Japan who are ethnically and culturally Japanese and hold Japanese citizenship, but face multigenerational systemic discrimination in self-described conservative, monoethnic, homogenous, and closed Japan.

It was also during this period in my graduate studies that I met my future wife, Miho, who was born in Osaka and raised in Tokyo. I followed Miho from the Netherlands to Japan, got married, obtained a spousal visa, and started taking a Japanese course. At the time of my arrival in Japan in the late ‘90s there were very few visible foreigners. I had doubts as to whether I would be able to get a good job in a society often labeled as closed and xenophobic. Much to my surprise, I found employment as an English editor at a cable television station backed by the famous Japanese author Nobuhiko Ochiai, a person you might call a kind of Geraldo Rivera of Japan. Later, I worked for the aforementioned IMADR in Tokyo as a project coordinator for the Asia campaign of the 2001 World Conference on Racism in South Africa. IMADR was at that time led in part by Professor Kinhide Mushakoji, the former rector of the United Nations University in Shibuya. It was there that I was exposed more thoroughly to the struggles of Japan’s historically marginalized minorities: the Burakumin, indigenous Ainu, Zainichi Koreans, Chinese, and other more recent foreigners in Japan. As in the Netherlands, I happened to be in living in Japan at a time of Nikkeijin (Japanese descendant) mass migration from Latin America (made possible by an ethnic visa on their presumed assimilability) and became familiar with some of the barriers to their inclusion including language, culture, discrimination, and minority status. I began to think about the similarities and differences between these two mass migrations, the politics behind them, questions of membership and minority status.

My own immigrant family background, immigrant experience in Japan, and work in antiracism and social justice there as well as my later work as a political analyst at the Japanese Consulate General in New York made me fascinated with Japanese politics and the prospect of Japan as a new or latecomer country of immigration. Japan is a very well organized and disciplined society that has reinvented itself multiple times and been at the forefront of several important postwar innovations. With an ageing population and demographic decline, Japan has a de facto immigration policy that is inevitably expanding, even as it refuses to call itself a country of immigration. Depending on how immigration is framed, managed, and rights are realized in Japan, the country could become a model of acceptance and democratic inclusion or an exemplar of illiberal intolerance and exclusion for the region and the world.

Q: There is a narrative that Japan and other East Asian countries are largely homogenous, and therefore racism is not as pronounced in the region as it is in the West. What is your response to that suggestion?

Japan is not homogenous and racism there and in other East Asian countries is just as pronounced as in the West. It simply manifests itself a bit differently. Japan has just about always had indigenous Ainu and Okinawans, and the Burakumin minority traces its origin to well before the 17th century early Edo era. Like Germany, Japan is a “late developer,” meaning it formed its modern state with the late 19th century Meiji Restoration from a disparate populace and used a common narrative of ethnically homogenous nationalism as a kind of glue. With the promotion of Japanese empire, there was expansion via colonialism into Asia, where racism and ethnic hierarchy were readily established and weaponized. This was in fact a multiethnic empire that strived to create a colonial structure with the Japanese at the top of the hierarchy and other Asian peoples denigrated as backwards and inferior.

Many colonial subjects moved into Japan and some of their descendants are now known as Zainichi Koreans and Chinese foreign residents. In the pandemonium around the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, hundreds of thousands of Japanese perished and some six thousand Koreans were killed by vigilantes because of groundless rumors that they poisoned the water supply to murder Japanese and commit crimes. It is worth noting that with Japan’s defeat of WWII and end of empire and the signing of the 1954 San Francisco Peace Treaty, former colonial subjects lost Japanese nationality in a so-called “unmixing of Japan.” The concept of Japanese homogeneity was once again embraced, with strict border controls promoted by both Japanese and US authorities as a way to control the perceived communist threat from nearby Korea and China and their foreign residents in Japan.

Racism against visible foreigners in contemporary Japan often takes the form of country of origin and level of development. Ancient Japanese art reveals a preference for pale skin, as darker skin was more than likely associated with field labor. The more recent doctrine of white supremacy converges with this and—by virtue of Japanese colonialism—development, and later pop culture and soft power influence, resulted in the proliferation of skin lightening and whitening beauty products all over East Asia. In an effort to “claim” the brown skinned Japanese-Haitian-American tennis star Naomi Osaka, Nissin Foods distributed a cartoon of her with white skin and light brown hair. The advertisement was widely described as white-washed, and Nissin ultimately apologized. Other examples of this infatuation with white skin are visible with the popularity of J-pop and K-pop idols, many of whom have whitened skin, dyed blonde or brown hair, and undergo cosmetic surgery to likely appeal to a Caucasian standard of beauty. For these reasons, some argue that white Americans and white Europeans are at the top of the food chain of visible foreigners within East Asia, with Africans and South Asians towards the bottom.

There is an interesting fascination with African Americans renowned for cultural, athletic, and musical innovation in popular culture. For a variety of reasons, some African Americans living in Japan feel much freer and empowered there than in the United States. I think my status as a Black male from the West, my Columbia education, and marriage to a Japanese woman opened doors for me. In a very gender-stratified country like Japan, there are times when I experience degrees of freedom and privilege that I do not have in the United States or Europe. However, sadly, I often witness Africans perform what seem to be hip-hop inspired, stereotypical caricatures of African Americans in the trendy Tokyo neighborhoods of Roppongi and Harajuku, likely because of their perception that it is more appealing. I have heard of South Asians and Africans and other Black and brown people being stopped and harassed by police, denied housing, relegated to certain types of employment, and exploited. In 2017, the government released the results of its first national survey on racial and ethnic discrimination, featuring reports of employment discrimination, racist taunts, discriminatory speech, Japanese-only recruitment, and denial of rental applications.

However, racial hierarchy can be relational and perspectival based on context. When I moved to Japan, I had fairly low expectations. Yet I found exceptionally good employment while my wife had difficulties. When we moved to the United States, our circumstances were reversed. At the same time however, even if you have lived in Japan for decades and speak the language fluently, visible foreigners may still be offered forks instead of chopsticks in restaurants and treated like permanent guests. The number of mixed or “hafu” people in Japan has steadily increased, including such famous examples as Naomi Osaka, sprinter Asuka Cambridge, baseball player Yu Darvish, and judo master Mashu Baker. These accomplished individuals are celebrated but still face discrimination. Although the recent crownings of a biracial Miss Universe Japan Ariana Miyamoto, who is of Japanese and African American descent, and Miss Japan Priyanka Yoshikawa, who is of Japanese and Indian, descent provoked backlash, it does speak to a changing self-perception of Japan.

Q: Japan’s public broadcaster NHK recently came under fire for releasing an animated video which attempted to explain the Black Lives Matter protests. The video was decried internationally and domestically for its stereotypical and racist depictions of Black Americans as well as for failing to mention police brutality or the killings of unarmed Black Americans such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. How could such a gaffe have been made?

The NHK video speaks again to the denial and consequential reinforcement of racism in Japanese society. Naiveté is an argument often made by some in Japan and European countries to disavow Anti-Black racism with the claim that they never had slaves on their territory or a significant Black population. Remember, Africans have been in Japan since the 16th century (see Yasuke who achieved samurai status) having been brought as servants by the Europeans. Despite Japan’s fascination with contemporary African American pop culture, it is important to recall that the US brought the minstrel show to Japan in the late 19th century with whites in blackface performing demeaning caricatures of Blacks that sought to justify their subordination. The doctrine of white supremacy, although with nuances, exists in Japan as it does all around the world. Similarly, the NHK video portrayed stereotypical caricatures of Africans Americans looting, an African American man in a sleeveless purple suit and fedora playing guitar while sitting on a fire hydrant in sandals and a single overly muscular African American narrator in a tank top speaking in crude and vulgar Japanese language about the impact of inequality and COVID-19 as the source of the protests. NHK’s attempt was superficial at best and did not address the roots of systemic racism in the US—namely 400 years of enslavement of Black people, Jim Crow, and racial segregation. The video failed to address the issues that Black Lives Matter has brought to light, i.e. the systemic killings by the police of unarmed Black people, racial profiling, police brutality, and racism against African Americans in the US justice system. The US Embassy in Tokyo condemned the video. NHK apologized and now says it is retraining its staff on human rights. Why did NHK do this? One speculation is that NHK, as Japan’s only public broadcaster, bowed to government pressure as it wanted to turn attention away from the police brutality that occurred against a Kurdish man in Tokyo days earlier and incidents of discrimination against foreigners more generally.

Racism is all its forms is a system of power, history, and institutions that promote one group and demeans or undervalues another. Recalling the minstrel show, there is a longstanding phenomenon in Japanese media of Japanese actors, comedians, and musicians appearing in blackface that has drawn the criticism of racial insensitivity and the defense of paying homage. For example, a few years ago the popular comic Hamada appeared in blackface to impersonate Eddie Murphy in the movie Beverly Hills Cop. And although the historical context is not nearly as loaded, sometimes Caucasians are also impersonated by Japanese actors wearing blonde wigs and exaggerated long plastic noses. Both ANA and Toshiba had to pull ads that did this in stereotypical ways. Though a bit different, some white Westerners living in Japan experience discrimination and challenges to their white privilege for the first times in their lives and become sensitized. One way for Japan to understand racism in media is to recall the racist stereotypical images of Japanese in US wartime media that were deployed to help justify internment and in postwar US films. More recently there was a very derogatory depiction of a Japanese woman and a Dutch Antillean woman in the Dutch television comedy Ushi and Dushi where a white Dutch female host appears respectively in yellowface and blackface. The use of racism in media can be systematically denounced and potentially dismantled with reflection, self-education and organization, something that has been made not only possible, but necessary in our globally interconnected societies. White supremacy and systemic racism have to be addressed in every part of the world, including Japan.

Q: How are issues related to racism addressed in Japan through the media and education? Politically?

The Japanese media as an institution does little to address or educate the public about racism. It often presents racism as a problem emblematic of heterogenous Western societies. Ironically, Japan has become the darling of the white supremacist US Alt-Right, who admire what they perceive to be an ethnically homogenous country. As previously explained, this perception is flawed. However, at an institutional level, Japan has avoided implementation of a national law against racial, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination on the basis that discrimination itself is not a serious enough problem. Following the US’s lead, in 1995 Japan became a signatory with reservation to the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). The UN Special Rapporteur Doudou Diene’s scathing 2006 special report on racism and discrimination in Japan was largely ignored by the Japanese media and faced harsh criticism from Japan’s right wing. The UN Human Rights Commission recommended that Japan prohibit hate speech, regarding racial discrimination, citing increasingly serious vitriol particularly against ethnic Koreans. There is significant anti-Korean and anti-Chinese sentiment on Japanese social media and anti-Korean demonstrations have been held in cities like Tokyo and Osaka, led by right wing extremist groups such as Zaitokukai who call Koreans “criminals” and “cockroaches,” and even suggest they be killed. Japan’s Diet passed anti-hate speech legislation in 2016 but the law does not include penalties and is thus viewed by many as ineffectual.

Education is not compulsory for foreign national children so schools can refuse foreign children if proven to not have resources or if it is seen as too difficult to teach them. This has created many problems with Brazilian and Peruvian children and school non-attendance, labor exploitation, and juvenile criminality. Japanese textbooks have also been the subject of controversy, with many criticizing the curriculum for teaching a revisionist history that downplays Japan’s wartime aggression. There is little in these books about Korean forced labor or atrocities against Chinese and others. Since the 1960s, there has been Dowa and human rights education. The Dowa education focuses on Buraku issues and is taught in elementary school and some years of high school. Dowa education has been the prioritized by particular municipalities rather than by the national government, which has sought to reduce emphasis on the Dowa curriculum. It is therefore not evenly taught across regions and has survived where the Buraku liberation movement remains strongest. However, it is unclear to me whether the human rights education incorporates sufficient anti-racism elements to address all newer and older marginalized groups. It seems that local teachers and administrators have had to innovate to accommodate children of migrants and avoid hate-based harassment and receive little guidance from the national government. My understanding is there is a part of the educational curriculum called “moral education” which are general classes on civic morality but not focused on antiracism.

Racism and xenophobia have appeared in contemporary Japanese politics. In 2000, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said in a speech that illegal foreigners were committing atrocious crimes and that foreigners would cause civil disorder in a national disaster. Ishihara never apologized and won reelection three times before stepping down in 2012. In 2015, Ayako Sono, the ageing famous author, commentator, and a former member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s education reform panel argued in an opinion piece published in the conservative Sankei Shimbun that an apartheid South Africa system where foreigners are kept in separate living quarters from Japanese would be the best way to solve the labor shortage problem. Makoto Sakurai, the former head of Zaitokukai won 110,000 votes in in the 2016 Tokyo election for governor advocating no public assistance be given to non-Japanese residents of Japan. In February 2018, Prime Minister Abe said, “my government has no intention of adopting a so-called immigration policy,” but at the same time announced a proposed expansion to accept some 500,000 unskilled foreign workers by 2025. This aversion to declaring a formal immigration policy seems intended to avoid negative backlash from the voting public.

However, there have been some encouraging developments over the last two decades. The first foreign-born politician of European origin, Finland-born Marutei Tsurunen of the Democratic Party of Japan, was elected to the Japanese Diet in 2001 and served until 2013. Two well-known former dual national “hafu” politicians were elected to the Japanese Diet: Shinkun Haku a Japanese-Korean who was elected in 2004 from what is now known as the Constitutional Democratic Party and Renho Murata, a Japanese-Taiwanese woman who was also elected in 2004 from the same party. In April 2019, two politicians: Puranik Yogendra, born in India, and Noemi Inoue, from Bolivia, won seats in Tokyo’s local assembly elections. There are also active civil society groups such as IMADR, Solidarity with Migrants Japan (SMJ), and several others that are trying to fight discrimination and help foreigners. Policy advocates such as Hidenori Sakanaka, founder of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, are advising the formalization and expansion of Japan’s immigration system and foresee Japan as a future immigration nation. And in recent weeks, Black Lives Matter held demonstrations in Tokyo and Osaka facilitated by social media that were well attended by young people in solidarity with those in the US and internationally, using the opportunity to raise the issue of racism and discrimination in Japan.

Q: Can you speak about your experience as a Black scholar in the field of East Asian studies? How do the challenges you face working in Asia compare with the challenges you face in the US?

My experience as a Black scholar studying the politics of immigration in Japan is, at times, puzzling. The first time I presented at the Annual Graduate Student Conference on East Asia here at Columbia, I must say I felt like I did not belong. There is a funny thing that happens in East Asian studies where white scholars speak with a sense of entitlement, as if they know this experience better than anyone else. Sometimes it seems like they are unconsciously suggesting that I should be at a Black Studies conference. They forget that Japan, as a non-white and non-Western power, was an inspiration for some Black intellectuals such as Du Bois and Garvey, and that Japanese intellectuals and politicians like Nobuaki Makino used Jim Crow and lynching as a wedge issue to embarrass the United States and proposed a “racial equality bill” at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. At the beginning of my research career, scholars in Japan, particularly political scientists, did not really take seriously the issue of immigration in Japan. As time went on and I became an established scholar it has become easier as immigration has become a reality and a critically important economic, political, and social issue. But there are still awkward moments that occur. When I make an appointment in Japan and they see my name without checking my website, they generally expect to see an older white or Anglo man. I think being black has sometimes helped me as I think it may surprise and pique some people’s curiosity making them more intrigued. The challenges I face in Japan tend to do with language and access, whereas the challenges I face in the US are more so around inclusion, but things have improved over the years. We all must self-educate and confront racism in our societies.