Japan from the inside out

The American disease

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 28, 2008

IT’S ALMOST A RITUAL: Newly appointed Cabinet ministers hold press conferences or give interviews after their appointment, one of them says someting impolitic, and the ensuing uproar over the gotcha forces their resignation.

It happened again with the new Cabinet of Prime Minister Aso Taro. The new Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Nakayama Nariaki is now history after criticizing the lack of a sense of public service in the nation and using as a specific example the difficulties in getting a second runway at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture. He also slammed the behavior of the Japanese Teachers’ Union. (That criticism was not unfounded, but politicians do need to know the time and place for keeping their mouths shut.)

Finally, Mr. Nakayama caught flak for an old chestnut that one seldom hears any more–he referred to Japan as a tan’itsu minzoku, i.e., a single ethnic group or homogenous people. According to this report from AFP:

Transport Minister Nariaki Nakayama apologised after saying in his first interview that Japan was a “homogenous” country. Similar remarks by lawmakers in the past have upset the Ainu, northern Japan’s indigenous people.
“I hear the Ainu people expressed displeasure and that’s not what I intended,” Nakayama said. “I decided to retract my remarks.”

In the not-so-distant past, when Japanese would more frequently talk about being a tan’itsu minzoku, they also used to complain about having become Americanized. That’s another line seldom heard any more, but it if it were, the need to apologize to the Ainu and retract that remark would be Exhibit A in the case for the plaintiff.

There are an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 people of either Ainu descent or half-Ainu now living in Japan. The largest Ainu settlement in Japan has just 130 people in 36 households. In fact, it’s an artificial community; the Ainu never used to live on that site, and the people there now earn a living primarily by being professional Ainu. Meanwhile, there are 127 million people in Japan.

Therefore, taking the high end of the estimate for those of Ainu descent and including those who are only half-Ainu, and performing a simple calculation, we find that they account for all of 0.23% of the country’s population.

If it were a question only of the Ainu, that would make Japan more homogenized than milk.

It looks as if Japan has caught a mild strain of the identity politics disease: Amplify an ill-advised comment into an ethnic insult and pretend that it’s offensive. There’s little difference between that and feigning serious injury after a minor traffic accident to get some free money from the insurance companies.

Thanks for nothing, America.

Note: For more on Japan’s professional Ainuism, try this post.

15 Responses to “The American disease”

  1. nate said

    1. Check your math. You’re off by a factor of 100

    2. I don’t see this as a horrible insult to the Ainu or whatever “native” populations exist down Okinawa way. It does seem increasingly hare-brained to work that meaningless saw in light of the dramatic increase of foreign/mixed ancestry permanent residents. Not unlike the habit of some Americans to describe the country as a christian nation.

  2. ampontan said

    Thanks for the math lesson!

  3. toranosuke said

    Excellent comparison, Nate. Granted, our nation isn’t founded on the same principles as Japan’s – we’re not a nation-state in the traditional sense of the word, in that unlike the Japanese, the French, the English, we don’t have a single “American” racial ethnicity that we therefore hold to be our state’s identity.

    Still, the notion of the US being a Christian nation is precisely the kind of narrow-minded “ignore the minorities” sort of attitude that comes as close as the US ever will to a fantasy idea of us being a homogeneous nation.

  4. Princess Leia said

    Mr Sakovich, what is it that you call your own children? Are they contributing to the homogeneity of Japan?

    BTW, to your readers like Nate, I have found quite a few interesting math mistakes in this blog (some have been corrected without notation). All appear to derive from a mistranslation of large numbers. This is an odd thing for a long-time translator of Japanese to English. These mistakes, it has been my experience, are generally those made by people whose native language is Japanese, not English.

    And no, I will not go back into my notes and waste my time identifying all the math mistakes. You have plenty of other readers who can do that.

  5. ampontan said

    Mr Sakovich, what is it that you call your own children?

    I call the boy Ponta.

  6. TokyoVP said

    Mr. Nakayama’s biggest axe to grind is Post-War education. He referenced that in both of his gaffes on Nikkyoso and Narita. Post-War education is the cause of the ills in Japanese society, according to Mr. Nakayama, not the niggardly funding of education in Japan by successive LDP administrations. Japan is dead last in the OECD when it comes to funding per student, yet revisionists like Nakayama blame everything on the policies of GHQ. Do LDP revisionist politicians really believe the Meiji Imperial Rescript on education is the final solution to societal problem in Japan today? As the public official responsible for Tourism, Nakayama’s comment that Japanese dislike “foreigners” is more than impolite, it shows a very low level of common sense shaded by sordid ideology.

  7. ampontan said

    Japan is dead last in the OECD when it comes to funding per student, yet revisionists like Nakayama blame everything on the policies of GHQ. Do LDP revisionist politicians really believe the Meiji Imperial Rescript on education is the final solution to societal problem in Japan today?

    Do you really believe that funding per student is the final solution to educational problems?

    Studies as far back as the 1960s conclusively demonstrated that there is a limit to the value of financial inputs into education. Money helps only to a certain point. After that point is reached (which Japan reached long ago) the money spent has no impact at all.

    Zero. Nada.

    After that, it’s all student effort. And student effort is largely determined by the attitude toward education in the home.

    Take the time to think about it, and it’s obvious that money would have a limited effect. Perhaps money could be spent to hire more teachers, resulting in smaller class sizes. But that would be pointless if the teachers are incompetent to begin with–which is one of Mr. Nakayama’s points.

  8. Aki said

    The following page in the website of Japanese Teachers’ Union (Nikkyoso) shows how they educate children. ミニ知識 1 & 2 in Chapter 2 is especially intriguing.

  9. camphortree said

    This Japanese, shall I say anti-Japanese and anti-American textbook reminds me of juche textbooks that North Korean pupils are subjected to by their benevolent leader.
    Like the Japanese Teachers Union (Nikkyouso)indoctrinates pupils to hate Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, showing the example in Okinawa by using this type of math textbook that Aki disclosed above, North Korean pupils are also bombarded with messages like this: An American soldier stole XXXXXX candies out of a South Korean girl’s pocket at gun point. She now has mere XX candies left. How many numbers of candies did she have in all?

  10. Aki said


    DPRK’s textbook was exactly what I was reminded of when I first read the Nikkyoso’s webpage. Actually the former chief secretary of Nikkyoso, Motofumi Makieda, praized the education system of DPRK in his book “Visiting Chosun, the country of Juche (チュチェの国朝鮮を訪ねて)”. He received a decoration medal from DPRK in 1991.

    For those who don’t read Japanese, I’d summarize the Nikkyoso’s webpage that I linked. In the first chapter, it tells children that the population density of Kadena in Okinawa is 918 per square km. In the second chapter, it tells the children that 83% of the area of Kadena is occupied by American forces. If you subtract the area of the American base, you can calculate the actual population density to be as high as 5398 per square km.

    In a boxed note (ミニ知識 2), the webpage tells the children why the population density of Kadena is so high. According to the note, American forces invaded Okinawa and occupied Kadena at the end of WWII. After the WWII, they shut the residents in a concentration camp and they made a huge millitary base without permission, surrounding the area with a fence. In the conclusion section, the webpage tells the children that it is important for studying mathematics to consider something further from the results of the calculation.

    The following cartoon is also in the website of Nikkyoso.
    Shield of the Bush’s crusade.
    The Bush’s shield is drawn as the Japanese archipelago. Many of the people who protested against the arrival of the USS George Washington in Yokosuka the other day were those who support the ideology of Nikkyoso teachers, who never criticize against the nuclear arms of communist countries.

    I wonder whether Japanese people have to support these teachers in order not to be called ‘revisionists’ by the ‘progressive’ people in the West and East Asian communists.

  11. ampontan said

    Aki: I was going to turn that into a post in the next day or two. Thanks for doing most of the work for me!

  12. RMilner said

    I’ve got a few loosely connected points to make here.

    One reason there are so few Ainu left is because in centuries past the Japanese government of the time had a repressive attitude towards them, in the same way that western powers had repressive attitudes to indigenous populations in Australia, North and South America and other places.

    The 127 million population of Japan includes millions of Chinese and Korean residents and nearly 1,000,000 immigrants from other nations including the Phillipines, the USA, Europe and the Middle East.

    When a Japanese minister makes such a remark there is a danger it will be mistaken for a typical right-wing statement meaning that all foreigners (including Chinese and Koreans with long-term residency) are second class and should properly be sent back where they came from.

    How well integrated into mainstream Japanese society are the Burakumin?

    Most western European nations, not just the USA, have become “racially” and culturally mixed since WW2. Naturally this can cause problems because of human psychology, changing economic conditions and other factors. It does not mean that immigration and mixing is a bad thing, or that it inevitably causes social unrest.

    Thanks to the low birth rate and demographic time bomb, Japan needs immigration the same as many western countries. This has the potential to cause social division, and it is much more likely to do so if the Japanese government adopts an attitude that the outside world should be kept at arms’ length.

    Many Japanese emigrated to South America in the early 20th century. Now that a lot of their descendants are coming back to Japan, it is being found that they do not have standard Japanese social mores, and their presence is often complained about by local native Japanese. This argues against the Japanese and German concept of nationality by blood descent.

    Anyway, I don’t have an overarching argument to make here. I just want to point out that issues around “race,” ethnicity and social identity are complex, and have a lot of historical and psychological baggage attached. A responsible politician really needs to tread around these issues carefully.

  13. Ken said

    Almost all of companies in Japan used to require every applicant to submit each record of body even after WW2.
    Most of Korean-Japanese are the children of illegal immigrants and using temporary Japanese names.
    Naturally, illegal immigrants’ kids are not hired and submitting false becomes the reason to fire.
    In addition to it, Japanese companies did not want anti-Japan recruits so that relatively more Korean-Japanese entered such hipocritically liberal organization as teaching job.
    While the organizing rate of teacher’s union was exceeding 80%, non-member teacher of the union is not recommended to higher post by other teachers.
    Now the rate is under 30% but the influence of anti-Japan tendency seems still remaining.

  14. genie said




  15. Ken said


    You mentioned you would post about the documents of the Japanese Teachers’ Union, didn’t you?

    If not yet, how about including the caricatures of following site.

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