Social Fabric of Japan: Case Studies of Selected Minority Groups
Grade Level: High School – Community College
No other major nation has such a homogeneity of face, skin, and hair color. From this flows the Japanese sense of nationhood and unity—and perhaps also the sense that any individual's first loyalty is to his nation, not to his individual welfare. (Forbis, William (1975). Japan Today. Tokyo: Tuttle, p. 9.)
Japan is widely perceived as a homogeneous, harmonious society, a uniform cultural monolith. Not only is this view prevalent in Japan, it has also been actively promoted abroad. Examination of minority issues in Japan reveals this to be a myth. It is a myth with serious implications, since it reflects a social ethos that makes no allowances for participation in society by persons of different ethnic or cultural heritage. (Coates, David, ed. (1990). Shattering the Myth of the Homogeneous Society: Minority Issues and Movements in Japan. Berkeley, CA: Japan Pacific Resource Network, p. 3.)
The contradiction of these two statements is obvious, but why is there such disagreement about the structure and makeup of Japanese society and why does it even matter to us? Because in any given society, diversity exists in some form or another. The perceptions and misperceptions that exist as a result are a testament to the need for greater understanding and tolerance of diversity. Even Japan, with its long-held image as an ethnically homogeneous nation, is diverse. Though the demographics of the Japanese population do not reflect the same levels of ethnic diversity as in some other nations like the United States, it nevertheless exists in Japan. The question is not so much whether or not diversity exists, but how and why it exists, and in what contexts and ways it has shaped the individual and collective identities of minority groups in Japanese society.
These are universal questions that transcend national boundaries and are relevant to students around the world. The Social Fabric of Japan: Case Studies of Selected Minority Groups introduces students to the topic of minority identity issues in the context of Japanese society. It is expected that teachers will use this as an opportunity to segue into meaningful classroom discussions of minority issues in their own society. This curriculum broaches some sensitive and controversial topics that challenge students to examine their own identities and reflect on their feelings and experiences with racial tension and intergroup conflict. It is crucial that the teacher be able to maintain a classroom atmosphere in which students feel safe to participate in the activities and discussions.
In this curriculum, students learn about four groups of people living in Japan: the burakumin, Koreans, Ainu, and Okinawans. By examining these groups and their experiences in Japanese society, students will consider the questions raised above and gain a deeper understanding of some critical social issues present in diverse societies and how these experiences have contributed to people's identities.
Lesson One sets the context for the entire unit by familiarizing students with minority issues on a general level, starting with notions of identity. The lesson begins by asking students to reflect on their own sense of identity and to think about what defines them both as individuals and as members of particular groups. Students will learn to make connections between the ways in which they think about their own identities and how these identities provide them with a feeling of belonging and with criteria for categorizing themselves and others. Students will participate in a simulation exercise in which they can begin to experience the dynamic between different identity groups that exist as part of a larger group. They will be able to draw upon the simulation to begin discussing parallel issues in real life. In the final part of this lesson, students complete a survey evaluating their current perceptions about Japanese and American societies. The lesson ends with a brief reading about minority groups in Japan. Students will retake the survey after the entire unit has been completed to assess how their perceptions may have changed.
Lesson Two further investigates concepts of identity by placing these notions in the context of real-life situations and events, since studying concepts in isolation does not allow students to recognize the relevance of these concepts to their own lives. The burakumin are Japan's largest minority group and their experience in Japan illustrates the extent to which historical legacies can affect one's identity, even centuries later. In this lesson, students will examine their thoughts and perceptions about discrimination. They will then be asked to apply what they have learned to understand the situation of the burakumin.
Lesson Three examines the nature of Japan's historical legacies that have affected the identities and experiences of its minority-group population. The Ainu, Okinawans, and Koreans in Japan share a common existence as marginalized peoples in Japanese society. Each group has faced in the past, or still faces today, complex issues surrounding its identity as a discrete group in a larger society. This lesson introduces students to these three minority groups and challenges them to draw parallels between the minority groups in Japan and those in other societies. The lesson starts with an introduction to Japan in the context of the international political climate of the mid-19th century and how Japan's era of nationalism and nation building might have been influenced by outside factors such as European imperialism throughout Asia and contemporary theories of Darwinism and social Darwinism. Together, these factors are evaluated in terms of their influence on Japanese society with regard to its minorities. Students then engage in readings and activities specifically about the Ainu, Okinawans, and Koreans in Japan, with respect to their identity. The final part of the lesson debriefs the entire curriculum module by leading students into a discussion about minority groups on a general level. Students draw parallels between minority groups and issues in Japan and in other societies.
Each of the three lessons in this curriculum unit has specific learning objectives listed. These objectives have been divided into knowledge, attitude, and skill objectives for students. The following are larger goals for the curriculum unit as a whole:
- to understand the basis of identity and how it varies
- to learn about minority groups and minority-group issues in the context of Japan
- to learn to think critically and make informed opinions about a controversial subject like discrimination
- to be able to draw parallels between case studies and other situations
- to learn tools to enhance awareness and communication
- to work effectively in small and large groups