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Fumihiko Ishiyama

Fumihiko Ishiyama [profile]

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Theoretical issues of multiculturalism

Fumihiko Ishiyama
Professor of Legal Philosophy (particularly modern theories of justice with a focus on multiculturalism theory), Faculty of Law, Chuo University

1. Multicultural coexistence and multiculturalism

Is it ideal for multiple cultures to coexist? It would take great courage to give a straightforward negative answer to this question. The philosophy of multicultural coexistence which is often used in official Japanese documents (in particular) is based on an affirmative answer to this question. Indeed, it seems that there is no argument against a positive answer. However, fierce opposition and debates surround the issue of multiculturalism which is often seen in countries that have accepted a large number of immigrants. It is not sufficient to simply state that the coexistence of multiple cultures is ideal. There are many issues to be dealt with, both on the level of specific onsite implementation and on a theoretical level. In this article, I will introduce several of these theoretical issues together with example solutions provided by multiculturalism theory.

2. Special treatment of minorities?

The following basic question can be raised regarding multiculturalism: Aren’t systems and policies based on multiculturalism unfair because they give special treatment to the minority culture? For example, the Act on the Promotion of Ainu Culture advances policies for promoting Ainu culture (Article 1 of the act). This raises the question of unfair favorable treatment for the Ainu culture.

From the perspective of multiculturalism, this question can be answered as follows.

  • (1) The coexistence of multiple cultures is ideal.
  • (2) The minority culture contains elements which will decline if not given special treatment.
  • (3) Therefore, in order to ensure the coexistence of multiple cultures, it is necessary to give special treatment to the minority culture.

Assuming that condition (2) is the correct statement of facts, the question raised above assumes that condition (1) is incorrect. If somewhat the questions raised above have the appeal, the condition (1) is vague, and then the basis for the condition must be disputed.

Now, why is it ideal for multiple cultures to coexist? One prominent theory of multiculturalism states that the fundamental life needs of a person cannot be guaranteed in a society where that person is discriminated due to his or her cultural roots, or in a society where the person must hide his or her cultural roots in order to avoid discrimination. If a society subjects a minority culture to the pressure of assimilation by failing to clarify the existence of that minority culture within official systems and policy, then that society treats members of that culture as second-class citizens. The continued existence of minority culture is necessary in order to ensure the fundamental life needs of minorities as equal members of society.

3. Do all cultures possess equal value of existence?

Although multiculturalism pronounces that the coexistence of multiple cultures is ideal, some ethnic groups have their own traditional cultures that repress a portion of their members. For example, some cultures greatly restrict the freedom of women or persecute the religious minority. Is coexistence with such cultures also ideal? Is multiculturalism based on the assumption that various cultures possess equal value of existence?

Multiculturalism offers diverse responses to such questions. If all cultures are considered as possessing equal value of existence, then it is easy to arrive at the conclusion that coexistence of all cultures is ideal. However, if different cultures are considered as possessing different value of existence, then we can say that coexistence with cultures other than repressive cultures is ideal. Furthermore, since culture changes with the passage of time, we can make the assertion that, instead of refuting the entirety of a repressive culture, we should fundamentally respect that culture and hope for the repressive element to change. In any case, if the coexistence of multiple cultures is easily accepted as ideal by most people, then it is possible that we have unknowingly lost sight of the existence of repressive cultures.

4. What connects individuals together?

The existence of multiple cultures is associated with systems and policies based on multiculturalism. However, won’t the connection between people be weakened as a result of emphasizing cultural differences? Doesn’t multiculturalism weaken the coherency of society, causing society to become fractioned and divided?

Multiculturalism can be interpreted as a philosophy which resists the pressure of cultural equalization which is ultimately linked to nation-states. The model of a nation-state assumes that citizens are brought together under a single national culture. In order to achieve this, national building projects have been implemented. In many cases, society’s majority tends to view their own culture as the national culture, attempting to either ignore or refute the existence of a minority culture. In contrast, multiculturalism is a philosophy which asserts the cultural minority is as equal as other citizens. However, in that case, what will take the place of a national culture in bringing people together? Won’t society become divided if there is nothing to fulfill the role of connecting people from different cultures?

There are also a variety of answers to this question. For example, one response is that people from different cultures can be connected through non-cultural elements such as political values. Specifically, a cohesive society can be maintained by sharing fundamental values which include freedom, equality and solidarity of individuals. In contrast, some people assert that connection through non-cultural elements is insufficient. These people claim that some sort of cultural connection is needed, even if it is cross-cultural. They state that people truly come together as a society through a culture which exists on a different level than the coexisting multiple cultures; in other words, a diluted culture. According to this assertion, even in societies like the United States and France which, on the surface, are said to unite citizens by sharing political values, it is difficult to deny the existence of a shared culture. This is exemplified by the use of a shared language.

5. To what extent is coexistence possible?

I have introduced the main questions raised against multiculturalism and have discussed answers from the perspective of multiculturalism. Finally, I would like to address a more fundamental issue which is also connected with the four questions examined above.

Multiculturalism states that the coexistence of multiple cultures is ideal. However, to what extent do human beings possess the ability to realize such an ideal state? How and to what extent do they coexist with others from different culture, or is it necessary to do so?

From the perspective of an individual, a person sharing cultures falls within a certain range of proper ideas and behavior. The existence of the person is reassuring as long as he or she remains within that range. Of course, just as there is no basis for suggesting that mutual understanding is possible because the same language is spoken, it would technically be nothing more than an illusion to state that mutual understanding is possible if the same culture is shared. Still, even if based on illusion, there is no denying the feeling of reassurance. Conversely, it is difficult to predict the ideas and actions of another person from a different culture. Consequently, the individual feels uneasiness, nervousness or even fear when interacting with a person from a different culture. Human beings are capable of enjoying such interaction if they have material and emotional composure. However, upon losing their composure, the interaction creates friction which sometimes escalates to violence. Obvious proof of this phenomenon is the ethnic disputes which have occurred in every area of the world.

The argument for protecting multiculturalism is that it is necessary to directly confront the human realities discussed above, instead of ignoring or disregarding such realities as irrational. Without such a perspective, multiculturalism will be nothing more than a philosophy that neglects the presence of a realistic basis and optimistically hopes for the coexistence of multiple cultures. How can we deal with the possibility that the inherent weakness of human beings will cause them to destroy themselves and others in order to coexist with different cultures? In my opinion, instead of hoping for a reform of humanity that will cause people to stop viewing each other as threatening, it is much more realistic to implement systematic measures which will prevent the danger felt by each person from manifesting in a destructive form.

Fumihiko Ishiyama
Professor of Legal Philosophy (particularly modern theories of justice with a focus on multiculturalism theory), Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Born in Tokyo in 1961. Graduated from the University of Tokyo Faculty of Law in 1984. Completed the Master's Program in the University of Tokyo Graduate Schools for Law and Politics in 1986.
Completed the Doctoral Program in the University of Tokyo Graduate Schools for Law and Politics in 1991. Doctor of Law (University of Tokyo).
After serving as a full-time lecturer, Assistant Professor and Professor at Daito Bunka University before assuming his current position in 2009.
His current research themes include the value of cultural diversity in global justice.
His main written works and theses are listed below.
Will Kymlicka and Multiculturalism as a Theory of Justice (1) to (6) Kokkagakkai-zasshi Vol. 113 Issues 1 & 2, 7 & 8, 11 & 12; Vol. 114 Issues 3 & 4, 9 & 10; Vol. 115 Issues 9 & 10 (2000 to 2002)
The Law at a Critical Point 3—New Visions for Legal Practices (co-written, University of Tokyo Press, 1999) (written for Language Policy and National Neutrality)
Human Order—The Individual and Universal in Law (co-written, Bokutaku-sha Publishing, 1987) (written for Arguments Regarding Reverse Discrimination and the Concept of Equality)