Erin Aeran Chung on Multiculturalism and Problem of Racism in East Asia

Erin Aeran Chung is the Charles D. Miller Associate Professor of East Asian Politics in the Department of Political Science and the Co-Director of the Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship (RIC) Program at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. She specializes in East Asian political economy, international migration, and comparative racial politics. She has been a Mansfield Foundation U.S.-Japan Network for the Future Program Scholar, an SSRC Abe Fellow at the University of Tokyo and Korea University, an advanced research fellow at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Program on U.S.-Japan Relation, and a Japan Foundation fellow at Saitama University. Her first book, Immigration and Citizenship in Japan, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2010 and translated into Japanese and published by Akashi Shoten in 2012. Her second book, Immigrant Incorporation in East Asian Democracies, is under contract at Cambridge University Press. She was recently awarded a grant from the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS) to support the completion of her third book project on Citizenship, Social Capital, and Racial Politics in the Korean Diaspora.  

Sabrina Hartono CMC'21 interviewed Professor Chung on February 13, 2019.

East Asia has long been known as a region of homogeneous ethnic and cultural identities but there are undercurrents of racism toward foreigners in Japan, China, and South Korea. How is the problem of racism in East Asia viewed in the region?  What are the principle manifestations of racism in East Asia? What are the main causes of racism in East Asia?

There is a long history of racism in East Asia but the most contemporary manifestations have been anti-foreigner racism, which targets immigrants and long-time foreign residents in these countries. On the one hand, there is the legality issue. Foreign legal status has been the basis for  exclusion in Japan in the postwar era and in South Korea after the formation of the Republic of Korea. Aside from that, foreigners in East Asia, especially those from neighboring Asian countries, have been racialized and treated as sources of instability. There is much discussion about how foreigners, especially those with low levels of education, are contributing to increasing crime rates and the deterioration of “population quality.” In Japan, there is a widely shared sentiment about foreigners having a destabilizing impact on their local communities due to their inability to follow social and cultural norms—for example garbage disposal rules. Of course, some of this is due to language and cultural differences. Foreigners are also seen as sources of diversity in otherwise ethno-culturally homogeneous societies in Japan and South Korea. The root cause of anti-foreigner racism is attributable to the colonial legacies of Japan and Korea. First, the racialization of colonial subjects was central to Japan’s empire and continued even after Japan was defeated at the end of World War II. Former colonial subjects, being neither part of the victorious Allied forces nor part of the Japanese nation, were considered as “third-country nationals.” The continuation of these colonial legacies are unresolved historical issues. A closer view of anti-foreign movements or protests in Japan shows that they are focused primarily on Chinese or Korean long-term residents  rather than on foreigners as a whole. The main complaint is that they should not have special privileges equivalent to Japanese nationals. The problem of racism in East Asia is more a product of colonial legacies than of immigration.

In 2015, Ariana Miyamoto became the first half-black, half-Japanese woman to be named Miss Universe Japan. There was much controversy about her victory as she was a ‘hafu’—a person of mixed-race heritage. According to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, approximately 3 percent of births in Japan (around 36,000 children) are born with a non-Japanese parent, as of 2015. What is behind the rise of interracial marriage? How has the attitude toward mixed-raced people changed over the past decades, particularly in Japan and South Korea?

The growth of interracial marriages is rooted in the demographic crisis of these two countries. Japan and South Korea experienced a “rural bride famine,” where men living in rural areas were unable to find suitable partners since women were increasingly moving to the cities. As a result, there was a growing population of older “bachelor farmers.” In Korea’s case, local government officials as well as private organizations took proactive measures to find suitable marriage partners from outside of Korea. The first initiative was to import foreign brides from China with many of them being ethnically Korean. Eventually, the efforts expanded to Southeast Asia. In Japan’s case, there was less of an effort to import these “marriage migrants” and the growth of interracial marriages largely consisted of Japanese men marrying non-Japanese women who were already in Japan, often Filipinas. Prior to the 1990s, interracial marriages usually occurred between Japanese nationals and Koreans; the intermarriage rate within the Korean resident community in Japan was about 80%. The international marriage patterns in Japan and Korea were such that marriages between native male nationals and foreign females outnumbered marriages between native female nationals and foreign males by the early 1970s in Japan and by the mid-1990s in Korea.

Gendered migration and growing interracial marriages have prompted unprecedented reforms to Japan and Korea’s nationality laws. Neither country has introduced birthright citizenship to their nationality laws. The reforms were aimed at ethnicallyheterogeneous women and their bicultural children. These reforms challenged the core principles of the nationality laws, which were usually predicated upon claims of ethnic purity. An example from Japan’s case is the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2008 that stated children born out of wedlock to a Japanese father and a foreign mother should be granted Japanese nationality. In Korea, a dual-nationality bill was introduced in 2010.

In terms of social attitudes, there is a divergence between South Korea and Japan. In South Korea’s case, the social narrative about mixed race people has changed. Historically, the children of unions between Korean women and American men, many of whom were US military personnel, were known as honyeol, meaning “mixed-blood.” With the growing populations of marriage migrants from Southeast Asia, the narrative shifted to the “multicultural family.” The term, “multicultural family” is, at least on a superficial level, much more celebratory and has positive connotations. Conversely, the “mixed-blood” term carries the connotation that the children are not pure. Although “multicultural” should represent increasing diversity in the nation, the usage of the term tends to single out so-called multicultural families consisting of Korean male and Southeast Asian female parents. Even as they are pressured to  assimilate into the culture, they also are targeted as the objects of multiculturalism and as subjects of institutionalized state programs and support services. In contrast, in Japan, the emphasis is on assimilating foreigners.  Even though they are phenotypically different, there is a perception that they should be assimilated into Japanese society. There is an increasing divergence between the mixed-race Japanese with foreign faces and the unassimilated foreigners with Japanese faces, such as the co-ethnic nikkei Japanese migrants from Brazil and Peru.

The development of Japan’s multiculturalism is based on nationality. The co-ethnic Japanese, the Nikkei -jin, are at the center of debates on the opportunities as well as the dangers of multiculturalism. The hafu Japanese are less central to the discussion about multiculturalism; it is really more focused on foreigners. South Korea’s multiculturalism is also very targeted, selective, and much more assimilatory. The idea is to assimilate marriage migrants and their children into becoming the next generation of Koreans in that sense. The shift in attitudes is more of a practical solution to the demographic crisis in South Korea and Japan.

Earlier this year, Naomi Osaka became the first Japanese woman to win the 2019 Australian Open. In light of her win, one of her sponsors, the Japanese food brand Nissin, released an anime-style advertisement portraying Osaka as essentially white, replacing her tan Haitian features with more stereotypical anime-styled features.  This incident is seen as an example of racism in Japan.  How would you use this example to help our readers understand the problem of racism in East Asia from a more social aspect?

This case is not unique to Japan. The whitening of black public figures is evident in the United States, Brazil, and throughout the world. This practice is an attempt to make black people appear allegedly less threatening. In Brazil, there are numerous cases of the whitening of the black population who are celebrities or members of the political and economic elite. In another example, the media would often lighten President Obama in media portrayals. This points to a larger problem that is especially evident in Japan: in order to be embraced and welcomed as hafu, it is better to be someone who is half-white rather than half-black. Even if Japan is becoming more accepting of hafus, the fact is that those who are half-white are treated better than those who are half-black. There is an inconsistent relationship that Japan has had with  black populations. The anthropologist John Russell has described the very specific, anti-black racism evident in Japan as the “three stereotypes about the black population,” namely: that they are kowai (scary), kawaii (cute) and kawaisou (pitiful). The way that Naomi Osaka has been represented in the press illustrates this concept: where she is depicted as kawaii, her whiteness, her Western-ness, is emphasized rather than her blackness. But when there is a critique of her, there is more emphasis on her blackness and thus, as someone kowai.

The year 2017 saw a highly controversial disturbing blackface incident, in which Japanese comedian Masatoshi Hamada appeared in a Detroit Lions football jacket, a curly wig and dark makeup, in an attempt to imitate the actor Eddie Murphy’s character from the 1984 movie “Beverly Hills Cop.” However, instead of ignoring the criticism, the Tokyo Broadcasting System initiated educational lectures about the history of blackface in Japan and measures the company could take to increase diversity and representation in the media. What is the role of media: encouraging racism or advocating for multiculturalism?

The role of the media is key. Historically, such incidents have been ignored by the media. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, high-ranking Japanese officials made very racist statements about blacks in the United States, like comparisons between African-Americans moving into white neighborhoods and prostitutes moving into Japanese neighborhoods. And all of these were just ignored by the press. Hamada is certainly not the first person to perform in black face; it has been done in the past. But the fact that the media actually made this a big news story, and even made an effort to educate the public about black face and discrimination in the media, demonstrates that there has been a trend and effort to address the issue. It’s comparable to what has been going on in the US, with the Governor and Attorney General of Virginia, in terms of how the society as a whole can address the incident: Do we dismiss it, as if this is something of the past? Or treat it as a joke? Or are we going to use this as a moment for reflection?

South Korea’s education system indoctrinates the idea of a single-blooded nation — dubbed danil minjok in Korean. This myth of racial purity was promoted to foster national unity.  Is such a myth being challenged or criticized in South Korea, which has a vibrant democracy and free media?\

Increasingly, rather than focusing on the danil minjok narrative, the media has embraced the concept of multiculturalism. In fact, the term “multiculturalism’ has become a buzzword not just in the media, but also among politicians. There has been an ideological shift in the understanding of national unity. The current South Korean media is increasingly embracing multiculturalism because it is considered more cosmopolitan and more modern, as opposed to the traditional danil minjok narrative. However, multiculturalism as a new narrative is really focusing on a small section of the foreign population, specifically “marriage migrants” and  “multicultural families” who make up less than ten percent of all foreigners in Korea. This emphasis is rather misleading because, on the one hand, it seems to indicate that the South Korean society has become really quite progressive, welcoming, and tolerant in a very short period of time. On the other hand, a closer analysis of this narrative shows that it is really not about all foreigners or mixed-race people, or about diversity per se; it is really about a small section of the foreign population and the growing multicultural families.

In June 2017, a bar in the popular Itaewon district of Seoul refused an Indian customer. “No Indians,” the bouncer was heard to say. “It is a rule. No Kazakhstan, no Pakistan, no Mongolia, no Saudi Arabia and no Egypt.” There seems to be a trend among East Asian countries to discriminate largely against those who come from less developed countries or have darker skin. Why is this the case?  Are there laws prohibiting such discrimination?

Neither Japan nor Korea has anti-discrimination laws. This is an issue that has been discussed in policy circles and one that a number of civil society organizations have pushed for unsuccessfully. Such discriminatory signs are consistent with past generations’ exclusionary measures against foreigners in general, especially in Japan where public signs stating “No foreigners” were prevalent until recently. This is true in South Korea as well. However, this exposes a deeper layer of racism in these two societies. There is a distinction between foreigners broadly speaking and a rejection of a specific group of foreigners. This phenomenon really reflects the ways in which noncitizen hierarchies are developing in South Korea. Discrimination against largely brown migrants is based largely on the level of development of a country from which the foreigner comes and based on assumptions about class and the relation that class has with that particular nationality. Even if you look at the formation of particular visas in South Korea, the much more generous visa categories are aimed at foreigners coming from wealthy countries, especially from the United States. The most restrictive visas are those for foreigners coming from much poorer countries. So even though we are seeing much more diversity in South Korea and much more tolerance, it is an embrace that favors foreigners coming from wealthier countries rather than blue collar migrant workers coming from poorer countries.

Are East Asia’s younger generations less susceptible to racial stereotypes and more tolerant of racism?

I do think so. Public opinion surveys about allowing more migrant workers, or about South Korea and Japan becoming more diverse societies, demonstrate that, on the whole, younger generations are either supportive of greater diversity or less against it. The difference in attitudes has to do with the fact that the younger generation is more distant from the colonial era. With the younger generation, there are fewer racial stereotypes from that colonial era. There is also a growing sentiment among the younger generation that cosmopolitanism is better than racial, ethnic, or cultural purity. As such, there is more willingness to tolerate or embrace foreigners.  It reflects positively on both societies as to be more cosmopolitan. It is uncertain whether or not this acceptance will translate into an embrace of migrant workers, especially migrant workers from developing countries or the Global South.


Sabrina Hartono CMC '21Student Journalist

“Japanese Only” image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

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