Nakasone's racialism

Promoting pride and prejudice

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared as
"Nakasone promotes pride and prejudice" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 135(8), 19 February 1987 pages 86-87

Blue phrases were cut from the FEER version.
Purple phrases were added to the FEER version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the FEER version.

What has moved Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone to be a politician? What are his aims, and are his actions consistent with his words?

All that Nakasone has said and done, since becoming a member of Japan's lower house in 1947, shows that he has been inspired by prewar patriotism to achieve two postwar goals: regain for the Japanese people the sovereignty he feels that Japan lost after the Great East Asia War; and regenerate in them the sense of ethnic pride he believes that they must have in order to contribute to the world as respected globalists with firm ethnic identities.

The Financial Times named Nakasone "Man of the Year" in 1986 for thus promoting Japan's role as an international state. Such acclaim comes partly because Nakasone is an impressive speaker who cultivates his image as a nationalist with a humanist's concern for the world.

But Japan's ethnic minorities, who exist despite Nakasone's claims to the contrary, have charged him with being a hypocrite who has failed to apply in Japan the principles of ethnic self-determination and human rights he has advocated internationally. And the evidence is on their side, judging from what he has said throughout his career about race and history. His now infamous remarks about minorities and acquired intelligence in Japan and the United States are only his most recent expressions of this racialism.

In a thick manifesto which Nakasone wrote in English to General Douglas MacArthur in 1951, he called the Japanese people a "race" and expressed his sympathy for "the spiritual beauty [of Japanese feelings] trained for [a] long two thousand years." He wrote that for Japan to become a truly sovereign state by the end of the century, "What is most required in Japan today is patriotism in the right sense based on idealism," and he argued that Japan's defense and politics should "be based on self-determination of the [Japanese] race . . . ."

The term "race" was Nakasone's contemporary English equivalent of minzoku.In older anthropological usage, "race" referred to any group which shared common genetic and cultural traits. In this narrow sense, minzoku has been translated also as "nation" as in "national minorities" in China and "Indian nations" in North America, but also as "people" with the nuances of Volk in Nazi pure-race ideology.

He used the word minzoku, meaning race, but often translated as "people" with the implied sense of Volk, as used by Nazi ideologues. In current social science idiom, however, minzoku denotes "ethnic group" while jinshu means "race" based on skin color. As a diplomatic and legal term, kokumin is the term for "people" when referring to the "citizens" or "nationals" of a country, nation, or state.

But Nakasone freely interchanges kokumin and minzoku when speaking or writing of the Japanese people. He seems to sense no contradiction in this, because he believes that Japan is a tan'itsu minzoku kokka (monoracial/monoethnic state). He also uses expressions like Nippon minzoku (Japanese race) and even Yamato minzoku (Yamato race).

Nakasone is not alone in his habit of seeing "the Japanese people" as a race or ethnic group. Major Japanese newspapers, even those which criticize Nakasone's minzokushugi (racialism), often refer to Japan's kokumin (people) as a minzoku (race, ethnic group).

Such racialism tends to get lost in the translations of political speeches and editorials. Even when racialistic words are correctly translated, few people in other countries are ready to question their appropriateness. Not only has the image of racial homogeneity become the key to most myths about Japanese culture and society, but even informed outlanders are sufficiently swayed by taboo not to test the acquired intelligence of Japanese business partners who were educated like Nakasone to believe that Japan has no minorities.

In the English version of his address before the United Nations in October 1985, Nakasone doubted that the wish to coexist in harmony is "unique to the Japanese." But the Japanese version read "minzoku [races, ethnic groups] which share a basic philosophy like this [with we Japanese] are not at all few." Minzoku jiketsu [racial/ethnic self-determination] in the Japanese speech became just "self-determination" in the English translation, with no hint of race or ethnicity.

Nakasone's racialism is even clearer when he speaks off guard. In August 1983, he told some patients in a Hiroshima hospital for elderly A-bomb survivors: "Japanese people [Nipponjin] have come [down to the present time] living on these islands for at least 2,000 years; [our] same Yamato race [Yamato minzoku] has come [down to the present time] living hand in hand, with no other, different ethnic groups [iminzoku] present [in these islands]."

The Korean A-bomb survivors who were present strongly objected to Nakasone's exclusion of them from Japan's multiethnic population. He apologized for offending them, but he did not retract his equation of "Japanese people" with "Yamato race" or otherwise revise his ethnocentric view of Japanese history.

A 1985 Ministry of Foreign Affairs booklet on Japan observes that "Experts disagree about the origins of the Japanese race, but archaeologists have established that its early inhabitants included immigrants from various parts of East Asia and the South Pacific islands. The ancestors of the Japanese people are generally believed to be an ethnic group now known as the Yamato race, which gradually asserted its supremacy over other warring tribes and clans during the first three or four centuries A.D. The Yamato leaders are generally accepted as the ancestors of the Japanese Imperial family."

The booklet fails to say that "the Japanese people" consists of several ethnic minority groups which total a few million individuals, in addition the the Yamato majority. Indigenous groups like the Ainu and Okinawans have resisted complete assimilation. Korean, Chinese, American, Filipino and other immigrants and their descendants -- some of them foreigners, others native-born or naturalized Japanese -- also face the assumption of "supremacy" on the part of their Yamato neighbors.

According to a 1983-1984 survey, over 80% of the people polled in two Tokyo wards thought that "the Japanese people [Nihonjin] are [one of the] superior races [sugureta minzoku] in the world." This suggests that most of Nakasone's Yamato compeers are prepared to agree with what he has said about minorities in the United States and Japan.

In September 1986, Nakasone claimed that Japan has an "intelligent society" because "in America there are many blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans." Later in the speech, made at Shizuoka, Nakasone said he believed that the black, white and yellow races of Africa, Europe and Asia have been developing independently. Even before modern times, he said, Japan was educationally advanced and had higher literacy rates than Europe. And even today in the United States, he added, "there are many blacks who do not know how to read or write."

Nakasone then observed that African animals, analogous to human societies, have thrived in segregated habitats. Thus "lions live in a world of lions, zebras live in a world of zebras, and rhinoceroses live in a world of rhinoceroses." When hungry, stronger animals may attack and eat weaker ones, Nakasone observed. But ordinarily they survive apart, and so Darwin's survival-of-the-fittest theory does not necessarily apply to human societies, many of which have coexisted for thousands of years despite occasional wars. In the age of nuclear destruction, however, new ways must be found to live in peace.

Nakasone then repeated the Buddhist philosophy that he has extolled in numerous speeches in Japan and abroad since becoming prime minister in 1982. He claimed that Japanese believe in the dignity of human beings and other animals, and that they value all life and seek to coexist with other people and nature, because Asia has monsoons. Such unconditional love and compassion could not have developed in the arid parts of the world, where eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth values prevail even today. Thus Christian love must have come from Asia by way of Alexander the Great.

The world today badly needs a philosophy of coexistence and symbiosis with humankind and nature, he continued, and so Japan should share its fundamental Asian traditions with other countries. And this, he believes, should be Japan's contribution as an international state.

To promote world peace and prosperity, however, Japanese must know their own traditions and be proud enough of them to want to correctly inform people in other countries about the real Japan that Nakasone thinks is badly misunderstood abroad. "Fathoming Japan's identity will become even more important as scientific civilization develops," he said at Shizuoka, "and it will also be vital to the honor of the Japanese race [Nippon minzoku], the height of [Japanese] spirituality, and academic interest in knowing our [Japanese] origins."

When Nakasone's remarks about minorities and literacy became an international issue, he explained that he had meant only to say that Japan had an easier time becoming an "intelligent society" because, unlike the United States, it was a monoracial state. This angered Japanese of Ainu ancestry, who said that calling Japan a monoracial state discriminated against them and other minorities.

Nakasone replied that Ainu Japanese were not a bona fide minority because they did not have their own language or religion. He insisted that there was no discrimination in Japan, and that the Ainu had been assimilated. He even claimed that he himself must have some Ainu blood in his veins to account for his heavy beard and bushy eyebrows.

The Ainu vigorously protested Nakasone's effort to humor them with a common stereotype about body hair. They bombarded him with letters, some written in Ainu, describing the kinds of prejudice which most Ainu experience all their lives. And they publicly rallied in ethnic dress to prove beyond doubt that they both exist and have their own gods. But still Nakasone refused to recognize that the Ainu are a true ethnic minority, much less that Japan is a multiethnic state and has been one since its genesis.

Also insulted by Nakasone's choice of words were people of racially or ethnically mixed ancestry. This means the offspring of parents of black-yellow, white-yellow, Korean-Yamato, Chinese-Yamato, Ainu-Yamato, Filipino-Yamato, and dozens of other "mixedblood" combinations.

In a newspaper interview at the end of the 1986, Nakasone said that "Japanese-like Japanese are respected [in other countries]. People of unknown nationality, like omajiri, are not respected." When asked if omajiri included mixedblood people, he said that he had used the word only to mean a kind of rice gruel with beans in it, as an example of something which lacks a clear identity.

Nakasone did not say what being "Japanese-like" entails. Nor did he explain why only Japanese who conform to his standards of identity would be respected, while others would be condemned as un-Japanese.

In 1979, Japan's largest advertising agency produced a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) campaign poster with the face of a 10-year-old girl of racially mixed parentage. Some people complained, and since then, LDP posters have featured only "full-blooded Japanese" faces, despite the presence of racially-mixed citizens in all social classes except the Imperial Family. No prince in line for the Japanese throne would be allowed to marry outside his putatively pure Yamato pedigree.

Most physical anthropologists agree that Japan's Yamato majority is an incomplete amalgamation of the ethnic groups which coexisted in Japan two millennia ago. This is the beginning of "the melting pot of Japanese history" into which Nakasone told MacArthur that "our race" has "acclimatized" Buddhism and Confucianism, and will "dissolve the agony of defeat" by the end of this century.

In July 1983, speaking before students at his alma mater high school, Nakasone said that his thinking has been strongly influenced by intellectuals like Tetsuro Watsuji (1889-1960), who held that climate determines culture, and who advocated that geography and history had imposed on Japan a mission to defend freedom in Asia. This sense of manifest destiny, when mixed with racialism, cannot but worry Japan's minorities, and Asian neighbors who are less willing than Nakasone to forget the recent past, when Yamato superiority was the banner of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Nakasone's mixed roots be what they may, one wonders how he hopes to impress the world with his beliefs in the innate divinity of all individuals, and their political right to ethnic self-determination, when he continues to insist that Japan is a country of one race, one language, and one historical experience. His romantic Yamatoism does nothing to enhance Japan's image abroad, and it casts doubt on his international motives to say nothing of his personal integrity.

Nakasone might consider such things the next time he reflects on himself while meditating at his favorite Zen temple. No one would begrudge him his personal ethnic pride as a Yamato Japanese, if he were to put his heart where his mouth is, and extend to Japan's non-Yamato minorities the esteem of recognition and understanding that he would like Japan to have from other countries.

Nakasone also told MacArthur: "we [Japanese] have a great task to be completed with half a century's time." He has one more year in office to decide if that task is pluralism or racialism. An official declaration that Japan is a multiethnic state would probably go a long way toward gaining Japan the respect it will need if it really wants to be "a nation at one with the world" and, as such, inspire other countries to coexist in the accommodating spirit of Buddhism.