Today, I am excited to introduce a new series called “Perspectives.” This series will feature the voices of other individuals who have also lived in Japan. Here, they will share their stories and reflections on life and diversity in Japan.

A big thank you to Dianne who has contributed the inaugural essay for the “Perspectives” series.

今日は「パースペクチブ」という新しいエッセーシリーズを紹介します。ここで日本に住んだ経験がある外国人の視点から日本社会や文化を見てみようと思います。

はじめとして、ダイアン・ハモンドさんのお話を紹介します。日本語バージョンは翻訳し次第またブログに載せます。

Dianne and her Japanese teacher Seiko in Fukuoka, Japan

Between Black and White: Reflections on Japan’s Diversity
By Dianne Hammond

I used to believe that Japan was as homogeneous as a society could be. After all, close to 98% of the population is ethnic Japanese. Japanese culture also emphasizes the group rather than the individual, which tends to mask differences between people. On my first two-week trip to Japan when I was 15, I looked around and couldn’t see past the matching school uniforms.

However, several years later on a college study abroad program, the more time I spent in Japan, what struck me was not how similar everyone was to each other, but how different. I lived in Nagoya, Japan, from September 2005 through May 2006 and attended Nanzan University. I lived with a Japanese host family, the Dannos, for the entire nine months. While I was faced with a different set of challenges than that of my peers staying in foreign student dormitories, such as the necessity of negotiating curfew and dinner arrangements, the Dannos were patient with me, and I learned more Japanese living there than in all of my classes combined.

I also got to know the innermost quirks of an unusual family. I was the 18th student the Dannos had hosted, so they were quite comfortable around foreigners. My host mother, Takako, was a stay-at-home housewife who hated to cook and clean so we ate out most nights. My host sister Reina, who was 26 at the time, still lived at home and was an ‘office lady’ by day and a musician and new age spiritualist by night. My host father worked at Toyota but seemed to spend the majority of his days at home, which was atypical of the workaholic ‘salary man’ stereotype.

As I got to know my host family and Japanese classmates, Japanese culture began to seem a lot less black and white. Everyone had a story about what made them different, and they were eager to share. For example, the first thing a classmate said when I met him was that he was of partial Korean descent, and could I tell? Another classmate had grown up in England where her father was a diplomat and spoke English with a heavy British accent. A girl who grew to be a close friend touted the regional cuisine and festivals of her hometown in Kyushu and invited me to stay with her family over winter break so I could see for myself.

Even as I became more aware of the nuanced variations among Japanese people and customs, I was also surprised to discover that Nagoya is home to so many Brazilian, Chinese and Korean workers and immigrants. Whenever I traveled outside of Japan, I had to first visit Nagoya’s immigration office to apply for a re-entry visa. The office was always packed with people speaking a variety of languages. On one of those visits I met Michel, a Brazilian immigrant who was excited to speak English with me and take a break from trying to learn Japanese. My impression was that economic reasons brought him to Japan, but he was not finding it easy to fit in and make Japan feel like home. I could understand how it could be discouraging living in a country and feeling unwelcome. My host mother, for one, sometimes voiced her opinion that these foreign immigrants were to blame for a recent rise in crime.

Her opinion was just one in an ongoing immigration debate that Japan is struggling with.  A recent Washington Post article explored the challenges faced by immigrants trying to stay in Japan long-term, why Japan may need to boost its immigrant labor force if it expects to maintain its current economic vitality, and the difficulties faced by lawmakers who hope to make a change in Japan’s immigration policy.

Japan’s population is expected to fall from 127 million to below 100 million in the next 45 years, meaning that Japan will have to look to immigrants to boost their declining workforce. Even though Prime Minister Naoto Kan recently outlined a plan toward easing immigration regulations and doubling the number of foreign workers in the next 10 years, widespread opposition to the plan makes it difficult to implement. The majority of Japanese people oppose accepting more immigrants to maintain economic vitality for a variety of reasons. However, the future of Japan’s economic success may very well depend on that mindset to change.

I’ve seen that Japanese society already has the capacity to celebrate individual differences. I think that cultural awareness programs like Bound in Japan will help give a much needed voice to immigrants and allow them to express why they are making Japan their new home. It looks as though their numbers will only increase in the coming years, and it may be essential to Japan’s economic vitality that they be accepted and welcomed.

Dianne Hammond studied Japanese and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After graduating she worked at the Embassy of Japan in Washington, DC, as the congressional affairs assistant for two years. She currently works at TogoRun, a healthcare PR firm. Dianne likes to travel and has visited Europe and Southeast Asia, including three separate trips to Japan. She hopes that her next trip abroad will take her to China, Japan and Malaysia.