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from the December 2018 issue

Beyond the Circle: Minority Voices of Japan

Sam Bett deconstructs the myth of an ethnically homogenous Japan and illuminates its rich, if underrepresented, diversity.

An image has been circulating of a bold red circle paired with a dizzying caption: “Did You Know? Japan's flag is also a pie chart of how much Japan is Japan.” This incidental graph has one value, comprising 100% of its total, as indicated by the redundant data caption: “Japan is Japan.” While humorous for its discovery of an infographic in the obtuse realm of vexillology, and printed on coffee mugs available for purchase, it points squarely, through its red circle, at the tenacious and harmful myth of a monoethnic Japanese society. For much of the world, and indeed much of Japan, Japan is Japan. But how does this jibe with reality?

According to the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, as of May 2018, the population of “Japanese people” was 124,354,000. In contrast, according to the Japanese Ministry of Justice, as of the end of June 2018, there were 2,637,251 “mid- to long-term residents” living in Japan. These statistics are further broken down by nationality into 28.1% Chinese, 17.2% Korean, 11.1% Vietnamese, 10.1% Filipino, 7.5% Brazilian, and 3.2% Nepalese. The most telling aspect of this second data set is that it describes foreign nationals, not Japanese citizens. Rather than picking apart the pie chart, we are looking at another graph entirely. Comparable demographics on the ethnic breakdown of Japanese citizens, if kept at all, are certainly not circulated, and impossible to find when researching in English. This obscures the identities of people with multiple heritages, including Okinawans, many of whom do not identify foremost as Japanese due to their Ryukyuan ancestry. In this sense, Japan, by its own definition, continues to be a red disc.

This feature offers a limited sampling of writing from the underrepresented minorities of Japan: authors who write in Japanese but whose heritage classifies them outside of Japanese ethnicity. Shirin Nezammafi, an Iranian writer who writes in Japanese, was born in 1979 in Tehran, Iran, where she grew up speaking Farsi, before moving to Japan as a young adult. Yu Miri, a Zainichi Korean writer, was born in Yokohama in 1968, and is one of only a handful of writers who are not ethnically Japanese to have received the prestigious Akutagawa prize. Shun Medoruma, born in Okinawa in 1960, is a writer and activist whose work focuses on memory and trauma, and often confronts the US military presence in Okinawa. What these authors share, as insiders to the Japanese language, is a firsthand perspective on a culture whose monoethnic self-image often excludes them by default but to which they nevertheless assert their membership, while deftly prodding at its morals, folkways, and assumptions.

In an excerpt from Shirin Nezammafi’s novel Salam, translated here by Aoi Matsushima, an Iranian student studying in Japan is enlisted to interpret for the immigration attorney Tanaka and his client Leila, a teenage Hazara refugee in Japan applying for asylum. We visit Leila in an immigrant detention center, essentially a prison, where the narrator encounters a guard “almost too well built" to come across as Japanese, and describes Leila as the type of person "you only see in films these days.” Doing her best to interpret between two foreign cultures, she thumbs her Dari dictionary and relays to Tanaka what details she can glean of Leila’s family: a brother killed by shrapnel, another living with their father, about whom she is unwilling to speak. The narrator fixates on Leila’s “khaki” eyes, “reflecting the scarf around her hair,” and marvels at the cracked skin of her hands: “She had never even used hand cream.” All of this is happening, originally, in Japanese, but neither the seer nor the seen is explicitly a part of Japanese society. 

The excerpt from Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles, delves into the day-to-day of the homeless population around Ueno Station, among whom the narrator is living. The focus is community and family: in the first few lines, the narrator, the eldest child in his family, lists the names of all seven of his siblings, and notes how the age difference between him and the youngest makes the latter feel, to him, “more like my child than my brother.” In a reminiscence of a rare outing with his own children, he recalls their “hands, outstretched like geckos’, and their foreheads and their lips glued to the window.” These images of extreme proximity nevertheless suggest unfamiliarity, as if his own children belong to a different world.

In the glimpse provided here of Shun Medoruma’s novel Rainbow Bird, translated by Sam Malissa, the main character, Katsuya, turns away from quotidian detail by popping a rented sci-fi movie into the VCR. We rocket through a kaleidoscopic and graphic hallucination experienced simultaneously by an entire team of Soviet first responders to a meteorite that has fallen into the forest. Battlefields of spears and axes melt into primeval hunts and “a million-year-old animal struggle for survival.” The imagery oscillates between the celestial and the personal, settling on the specter of a baby in a stroller, who soon crawls across the floor to Katsuya, who is unsure if he is still watching the movie or perhaps experiencing his own hallucination. The final image is one of gravity, or rather its absence: “The weight of the baby disappears,” a statement pointing at the way even feverish trauma can be willfully blocked from public consciousness when we treat it as a record rather than a part of who we are.

As goes for the whole of Japanese literature, much of the writing from these minority voices of Japan remains untranslated into English. Key works awaiting exposure outside Japan include the public-domain essays of twentieth-century Okinawan poet Baku Yamanokuchi; the writings of Yourou Wen, born in Taiwan to Taiwanese parents, especially her 2015 essay collection, Born in Taiwan, Raised in Japanese; fiction from Yang Seok-il, a Zainichi Korean author born in Osaka, whose work as a Tokyo taxi driver led to his 1981 debut novel, Taxi Rhapsody; and fiction from Yang Yi, who became the first non-native Japanese speaker to win the Akutagawa Prize for her 2008 novel, A Morning When Time Blurs. As a new generation of Japanese translators engages with a progressively diverse array of authors, we can look forward to hearing more of these minority voices outside of Japanese for the first time. 

"Beyond the Circle: Minority Voices of Japan" © Sam Bett. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.

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