Japan is not habitually known as an immigrant-friendly society. It’s a very conservative place and the traditional ideological message has been One Homogenous Nation, People, Language and Culture. It has never, ever actually been factually true, of course. Japan has a long heterodox history and a measurably diverse contemporary population. But in the past it was n easy conclusion to reach - easier for Japanese describing themselves than for foreigners observing them. These days I am increasingly impressed by the diversity I see in my classrooms. I work in public high schools. There are always bicultural young people in my classes, and in recent years it seems there are more of them than ever, although statistically ‘international’ marriages are a small minority of marriages (but a significantly larger proportion of divorces). Currently I have a large number of dual-nationality, bicultural children with one parent hailing from Korea, China, the Philippines, Australia, Africa, Russia and Iran. Chinese and Koreans are especially numerous. It’s kind of strange to walk around school and see black African students, or Caucasian Russians chattering away in Japanese with their friends. But remember, they are also Japanese, and from a legal perspective no less Japanese than people who are not bicultural or dual-national.
The Japanese expression for bi-cultural children is “hafu,” or “half.” It’s sad because Japanese law does not recognize anyone as being only half Japanese, and many foreigners take it as an insult, like calling someone a “half breed.” (In fact, a well-meaning English-speaking middle aged Japanese woman actually asked me to my face if my children were ‘half breed’? I was bothered partly by the phrase itself, but also partly because I thought she ought to have known better. She could see by my face that her question was not well received.) Many foreigners, including myself, prefer the moniker “double,” largely on the grounds that legally speaking there is no such thing as a “half” citizen. Our children are simultaneously 100% Japanese and 100% other. But Japanese still openly equate nationality with race. I’m afraid that is an association that will never be broken despite the arguments or the evidence. They aren’t the only ones, however. Even today Germany defines citizenship by blood line, not by place of birth. I’m not happy about it, just like I’m less than satisfied by the popular Japanese description of double children, but there you have it.
Becoming a naturalized Japanese is not necessary for a long and successful life here. But it is certainly a feature in the lives of some of the most famous and successfully integrated foreign-born Japanese. Asian or Pacific foreigners are less visually noticeable than Europeans or Americans. People like Takamiyama, Konishiki, Akebono and Musashimaru, all Polynesian or Hawaiian Americans, and the Mongolian wrestler Asashoryu reached the highest ranks in the strict and tradition-bound world of sumo. Their ethnicity helps them visually blend in more than naturalized Caucasians, one of the most famous of whom is Marutei Tsurunen. B,orn in Finland in 1940 he is particularly famous here as the first foreign-born Japanese of European origin to serve as a member of the National Diet, or Parliament - first by appointment to a vacant proportional representation seat and then later by direct majority election. As a member of the liberal Democratic Party of Japan he served in the House of Councillors (the upper house) from 2001 to 2013. There were some naturalized Korean and Chinese elected politicians before him, but Tsurunen’s Caucasian face made him unique and garnered even more resistance from conservative traditionalists than naturalized Asians met. His supporters are head-over-heels enthusiastic about him but his detractors are usually overly quick to resort to a race-loyalty-tradition argument.
In 1967, at the age of 27, Tsurunen traveled to Japan as a lay missionary of the Lutheran Church, accompanied by his first wife, who was also a Finn (they later divorced). Having decided to become Japanese, he gained his citizenship in 1979 and Japanized his Finnish name Martti Turunen. When he decided to run for public office conservative traditionalists opposed him on the grounds of the presumed compromised reliability of his loyalties - the standard argument against foreign suffrage. Of course it is a ridiculous argument, which never stops certain people from using it. He proved to be a hardworking, honest Diet member who avoided the scandals that so often cling to his native born peers like flies to a cow pie.
More recently is the case of former U.S. Columbia University Japanologist Donald Keene who was rather quickly granted Japanese citizenship after announcing that, following the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power disaster here he wanted to retire and live permanently in Japan. Partly it was a show of support for the country, and partly it was just that he loved Japan so much and wants to spend his final years here, his spiritual home. Keene is part of that World War II generation of U.S. Naval Intelligence officers trained in Japanese language and culture for use in the American war effort and, later, the Occupation. He is one of the foremost Japan experts of the last sixty years, very recognizable and admired. Japanese don’t like to admit that any foreigner can understand Japan. They like to cling to an atavistic racial nativism. But scholars like Keene and his contemporary, Donald Richie, a Japanese literature scholar and another Columbia University and U.S. Naval Intelligence man put such notions to rest.
Japan will never declare itself a multicultural society. But it effectively is - albeit at a low level - and has been for a long time.