Mar 26, 2011

Multiculturalism and Nationalism

I talked with an Australian and a Chinese about multiculturalism and nationalism on lang-8.

The Australian wrote as follows.

Don't call us "foreigners".

Since they are in Australia, maybe you think it would be a perfectly appropriate occasion for Australians to call them "foreigners". But we don't. We give them the dignity of referring to them using the name of their place of origin- Japanese. Also, we go one step further, we welcome them to Australia by calling them Japanese Australians, which means, we recognize where you are from, but you are one of us now - the ultimate welcome.

I've heard that Australia has aimed to be a multicultural country conceptually, but I could understand what multiculturalism means in the context of a daily life at that time.

I thought that Japanese people including me didn't understand multiculturalism and they called "foreigners" "foreigners" innocently. And one of the reasons why Japanese people don't understand multiculturalism might be the concept of nationalism of Japan.

So I made a comment as follows.

I understood the reason why you refuse to be called a "foreigner".

But the concept of nationality is different between countries.

I guess that immigrants to Australia or people born in Australia are thought to be Australian. Is it right?

But basically children of Japanese people are thought to be Japanese. So most Japanese can’t imagine that there are "foreigners" who want to be called Japanese. And even if I have been staying in Australia for long period of time, I wonder if I want to be called Japanese-Australians. I may want to be called Japanese.

Some Koreans living in Japan, who are called “Zainichi (在日)”, might want to be called Korean-Japanese, but most of them might refuse to be called Korean-Japanese because of the forced assimilation by Japanese government before World War 2.

I'd like to know if Chinese living in Japan wants to be called Chinese-Japanese. I guess that they don’t want to be called Chinese-Japanese.

From the Australian stand point of view I can understand how you feel when you are called foreigner. But please understand that there is the reason why most Japanese call "foreigners” “foreigners” from Japanese stand point of view.

I guess that it related to the history of formation of the concept "nation", "nationality" and “nationalism" in Japan.

If you are interested in this topic, I suggest you reading Benedict Anderson's book "Imagined Communities" .

The concept of "nation of Japan" (日本国民) in the modern sense was created by the threat of Western imperialism about 160 years ago when American fleet, which Japanese call Kurofune "黒船", came to Tokyo bay. At that time Japanese people thought that they should unite "the nation of Japan" in order to defend themselves against the invasion by Western countries. So the concept of "the nation of Japan" emphasizes the difference between Japanese and Western people. Of course Japanese have a complicated feeling for Western people, which I might call love and hate feeling.

On the other hand Japan invaded Korea, China and other Asian countries. Korea and China created their own nation and nationalism in order to defend themselves from Western countries and "Japan". Their nationalism was based on the anti-Western and anti-Japanese feeling.

In fact Korean people were used to have a strong anti-Japanese feeling. Recently a feeling for Japanese in South Korea is getting better dramatically, but North Korea is the anti -Japanese country now. South Korean people and Japanese-Korean have a good feeling for Japanese now, but they are very proud of their Korean origin and they might not thought to be called Japanese.

Taiwanese are pro-Japanese, but the Chinese Communist Party is basically anti-Japanese. China is a multiethnic nation. The origin of the concept of "Chinese nation" and "Chinese nationalism" in the modern sense might not be based on the ethnicity or language but anti-imperialism from Western countries and Japan.

It's important for us to know the history, but we should be free from prejudice at the same time.

I guess Australian people decided to overcome the history of White Australia policy by multiculturalism.

I'm not sure Japanese people can really overcome the dark history of its "nationalism".

The Chinese replied my comment as follows.

Interesting point, I should say that "nationalism" won't cause any problem to "multiculturalism".

Let's take the USA as an example and you will understand what I mean.

I wrote about multiculturalism and nationalism as follows.

The words "nation" and "state" are often used confusingly.

If you are interested in "nation" and "state", please refer this page of Wikipedia. But it might be too long article to read.

To explain briefly, a "nation" is a group of people, who share the same identity and have formed or should form a country by their own will. A "state" is a political organization of a country. When a country is formed by a nation, it's called a "nation state".

Nationalism is based on a sense of sharing a symbol of its nation.

In USA the symbol of its nation is the constitution or the ideal of American democracy. Conceptually people, who believe in the ideal of American democracy and pledge their loyalty to its constitution, could be members of the American nation.

In Japan the symbol of its nation is the tradition and descent. Of course they are not real tradition and descent but "invented tradition", which Eric Hobsbawm means. ( Anyway, conceptually Japanese people share their descent with the Emperor of Japan, Tenno "天皇", so he is the symbol of Japan as Japanese constitution says.

In USA nationalism and multiculturalism don't have a conflict conceptually. In reality they have a conflict. USA doesn't have an official language. I guess it's based on multiculturalism. But English is the de-fact official language in USA and some people insist that every US citizen should learn English.

Russia is a nation state, but the Soviet Union was used to be a state, but not a nation. While the communist party was ruling the Soviet Union, it constituted a state. But after the communist party lost its power, the Soviet Union was broken up, because there were no reason to make one nation state.

In Japan the core of nationalism is based on the tradition and descent, so I think nationalism and multiculturalism will have a conflict conceptually and actually.


  1. I think you make some good points here but at the same time you make a small mistake: I don't think we should compare Japan with the USA or Australia. These countries have built their history on multiculturalism, as the natives, the Indians, had their communities destroyed. Indeed, who is an american today? The Mexicans? The Brittish? The Africans, Italians or Polish? They were all just immigrants in the beggining! Japan is a totally different story however. The majority of the Japanese indeed share the same descent (not with the Emperor as you say, the descent from the Jomon and Yamato people).

    I would say that, as USA and Australia were the "Lands of Opportunity" for the Europians, Japan is just...the home of the Japanese. Don't you agree?

  2. Thank you very much for your comment. I'm very glad to get a response.

    I agree with you. The styles of nationalism of USA or Australia and Japan are quite different.

    My Australian friend complained that Japanese people were close to other people, and he said that Australian people were open and they believed in multiculturism.

    So I explained why multiculturism was difficult in Japan.

    It's a kind of cultural conflict.

    Anyway, thank you.

  3. This article was a great read. As an Australian student of Japanese, I had similar feelings with what your Australian friend had said, but thanks for explaining more from your point of view.

    Now when you say Foreigner, are you talking about 外人(gaijin) or 外国人(gaikokujin)?, because while I hear lots of older people in Japan say Gaijin, younger people tell me not to use Gaijin because it is offensive, and I should always say Gaikokujin. I wonder is this sense of nationalism changing in younger Japanese people?

  4. Thank you for your comment.

    It's a really difficult question. On the surface their sense of nationalism looks different from one of older Japanese people, but I don't know if it's actually different.