Monday, February 8, 2021

Not getting the concept


In selling mass immigration to the public, Japan’s government is faced with a semantic problem. Many have trouble understanding the concept, i.e., foreigners can come in large numbers, receive citizenship, and be treated as if they really are Japanese. (Wikicommons – Maya-Anaïs Yataghène)



An ideology will spread more easily among people who already understand its concepts, and such understanding is made easier by a common language. Conversely, an ideology will spread less easily across a language boundary. The problem is not simply one of translating the words but also one of reformulating the concepts, which may seem less familiar in another language and culture.


For that reason, globalism has spread unevenly around the world. It has penetrated the thinking of nations that widely use English as a first language, especially their chattering classes. It has less easily penetrated where English is poorly understood. This has been the case in East Asia, especially Japan.


The Japanese exception


That country is linguistically isolated from the English-speaking world to a high degree, despite close economic ties. In 2019, Japan ranked 53rd in English proficiency out of a hundred non-English-speaking countries, down from 49th the year before. Even China had a better ranking (, 2019).


Japan’s linguistic isolation is part of a tendency toward cultural isolation that goes back to the two-century-long period of sakoku ("closed country"), when the government forbade Japanese nationals to go abroad and severely limited trade with other countries. That policy didn't fully end when Japan opened up to the world in the mid-nineteenth century. There has continued to be an unwritten policy of protecting Japanese culture and identity.


This isolationist tendency is now viewed as a problem by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Because of a very low birth rate, the population shrank by about 1.7 million between 2010 and 2018 and is projected to lose another 20 million by 2045 (Davison and Peng 2021). Stopping this demographic decline will require radical changes to the economy, particularly the balance between work and home life. There is also a deeper problem with consumer culture: advertising tends to promote the lifestyle of singles, since they have the most disposable income. Corporate advertising thus projects images of happy carefree singles, and such images influence how ordinary people see themselves.


While some moves have been made to improve work/life balance in Japan, fertility will not immediately return to replacement levels, even with generous incentives. We’re dealing with ingrained attitudes, as well as an uncooperative consumer culture. Policy makers are thus tempted by a seemingly easier solution—mass immigration—and that seems to be where they’re heading:


[…] some scholars and policymakers have called for a vigorous increase in the number of immigrants admitted to the country. [...] Sakanaka (2015), for example, argues that Japan would need to accept 10 million immigrants over the next 50 years (an average of 200,000 per year) to sustain its population and economy. (Davison and Peng 2021)


In 2014, a government commission came out in favor of increased immigration: "With the falling birthrate, in order to raise productivity, we will strategically bring in foreign talent (gaikoku jinzai) as we encourage a national debate, and we will design the development of our interactions with them" (Roberts 2018, 90).


A matter of semantics


In selling mass immigration to the public, the government is faced with a semantic problem. Many have trouble understanding the concept, i.e., foreigners can come in large numbers, receive citizenship, and be treated as if they really are Japanese. This was a finding from in-depth interviews with people from all walks of life:


An unexpected finding of our research was that the notion of immigration as we know it in the West — migration to a foreign country with the intention to settle as a permanent resident or naturalised citizen — was somewhat foreign to many of our interview participants. When asked for their opinions on immigration, many participants assumed the term 'immigrant' (imin) was synonymous with 'temporary foreign worker' (gaikokujin rodosha) and that 'immigration policy' (imin seisaku) was inclusive of temporary worker programmes like the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) that bring in up to 1000 nursing and care work interns from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam each year. (Davison and Peng 2021)


This misunderstanding can be seen in the following exchange between the interviewer (Davison) and nurses at a hospital:



There's one thing I don't get. When you say immigration ... if someone likes Japan and wants to live here ... Is that the kind of person you have in mind? Or someone who just wants to come here for a short time to make some money ... Is there a difference between those kind of people? When you say immigrants ... I don't understand the concept.



I mean people who come here and get citizenship, Japanese citizenship.



Get Japanese citizenship? So they're Japanese?


Most of the interviewees were initially neutral or favorable toward immigration. They often changed their minds when told that immigrants are "people who come to Japan with the intention to settle in the country and perhaps naturalise as Japanese citizens" (Davison 2021). This confusion may be due to government discourse on the subject:


For example, 'immigration policy' is frequently presented as 'acceptance of foreign workers policy' (gaikokujin rodosha ukeire seisaku) and, in official messaging, the implication of permanent settlement is often left unstated. (Davison 2021)


To some degree, the confusion may be deliberate. The government may realize that immigration is more acceptable to the public if presented as a temporary worker program, even if it provides a path to permanent residency and citizenship.





Davison, J. and I. Peng. (2021). Views on immigration in Japan: identities, interests, and pragmatic divergence. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. January 8 (2019). Japan's English Proficiency Drops among Non-English-Speaking Countries. December 4,-Culture%20Language%20Dec&text=A%20survey%20has%20revealed%20that,both%20South%20Korea%20and%20China.


Roberts, G.S. (2018). An Immigration Policy by Any Other Name: Semantics of Immigration to Japan. Social Science Japan Journal 21 (1): 89-102.

Monday, February 1, 2021

White Skin Privilege: Modern Myth, Forgotten Past


Cairo Slave Market, Maurycy Gottlieb, 1877 (Wikicommons)


I've published a paper "White Skin Privilege: Modern Myth, Forgotten Past" in the journal Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture. Here is the abstract:


European women dominate images of beauty, presumably because Europe has dominated the world for the past few centuries. Yet this presumed cause poorly explains "white slavery"—the commodification of European women for export at a time when their continent was much less dominant. Actually, there has long been a cross-cultural preference for lighter-skinned women, with the notable exception of modern Western culture. This cultural norm mirrors a physical norm: skin sexually differentiates at puberty, becoming fairer in girls, and browner and ruddier in boys. Europeans are also distinguished by a palette of hair and eye colors that likewise differs between the sexes, with women more often having the brighter hues. In general, the European phenotype, especially its brightly colored features, seems to be due to a selection pressure that targeted women, apparently sexual selection. Female beauty is thus a product of social relations, but not solely those of recent times.


Please feel free to comment.




Frost, P. (2020). White Skin Privilege: Modern Myth, Forgotten Past. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture 4(2): 63-82.