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What’s Wrong with Multiculturalism?

Gracia Liu-Farrer
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

There are over two million foreign residents living in Japan, and more than half of them are permanent residents. The presence of people from different national and cultural backgrounds disturbs the patterns of social life Japanese people are accustomed to and turns what constitutes Japanese culture and Japanese identity into question. In order to incorporate immigrants into the Japanese social fabric, the Japanese government has promoted the concept of multicultural coexistence (tabunka kyousei) and makes it a political guideline for local governments. The question I would like to ask here is how can multiculturalism actually work?

Multiculturalism, advocating a respect for different cultures with an attempt to create a harmonious community out of people from different cultural backgrounds, has been a political idea embraced in many nation states. However, as shown in several European countries, cultural conflicts have continued despite the multiculturalist policies. This situation is particularly urgent in societies that had previously embraced a strong ethno-cultural identity. It reached the point that Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, declared in 2010 that the country's attempts to create a multicultural society had "utterly failed." What is wrong with multiculturalism?

Multiculturalism is a well-intended ideal, but has an important caveat: in practice it tends to slip into a frame that essentializes cultural differences and divides people into cultural groups. In other words, it sees people from different ethnic and national backgrounds as embodiments of those particular ethnicities and nationalities. Therefore, people from Thailand become representatives of the so-called Thai cultures and are always expected to bring green curries to the multicultural festival. I believe this categorical multiculturalism is where the danger lies. It creates boundaries between “us” and “them”, the native and the foreign. The others can never be part of “us.” It is no surprise that the most radical immigrants are second generation immigrants. Imagine that no matter how long you have lived in the society and how well you speak the language, because of where your parents came from decades ago, you are forever marked as a member of the cultural other. This version of multiculturalism represents an egregious misunderstanding of the reality of immigrants’ social and cultural practices.

In reality, every immigrant is a multicultural person. The Chinese immigrants in Japan whom I have been studying for over a decade have all acquired Japanese language skills, internalized Japanese social rules, and absorbed many elements of local lifestyles. In the Chinese language school where I do participant observation, Chinese mothers discuss the morning children’s shows on NHK and play with their children along with Japanese children’s songs. Their all time favorite topic is the merits of Waseda Academy versus Yotsuya Ootsuka (both are cram schools for the preparation of middle school or high school entrance exams).

The children are even more culturally malleable. The Chinese immigrant children who have grown up in Japan predominantly speak Japanese as the their first language. They also have more Japanese than Chinese children as friends. Many of those who were born in Japan were not aware of their legal Chinese nationality until their teenage years. However, with their parents’ efforts and regular trips back to China, most maintain reasonable Chinese language skills. Though to avoid bullying or being singled out, some tried to pass as Japanese during their youth, but grew proud of their Chinese cultural competencies as they grew older.

Yet, they refuse to be pigeonholed. Often, to my question of what they think they are, the bicultural children of Chinese immigrants have difficulty deciding. Neither Chinese nor Japanese identities represent them adequately. In the end, some resort to the notion of a guojiren or shijieren (an international person or cosmopolitan person) to identify themselves.

This type of multicultural self is not unique to foreigners moving to Japan but can also be seen among many Japanese who have lived abroad for several years, often labeled kikokushijo. The multicultural individual is far more common than one might imagine. In fact, I would argue that in a globalizing world, if people do not move, cultures move. Every person who is connected to any type of media is subject to multicultural influences.

This reality that multiculturalism is located within each individual is not reflected in the current multicultural coexistence ideals. Japan’s multicultural programs still focus on providing multilingual services at ward/city offices, offering free or affordable language lessons to foreign residents, and organizing events to showcase the cultures of foreign residents. Though necessary, it is a very narrow meaning of multiculturalism.

For Japan to become a society where multicultural individuals harmoniously coexist, a more important step is to get rid of the rigid notion of national culture and national identity. It is to recognize that Japan already is a multicultural society made up of multicultural individuals. This education has to start in families and schools beginning at birth for all children.

Gracia Liu-Farrer
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University


  • Research Fellow, Tohoku University Center for the Study of Social Stratification and Inequality (2006-2007)
  • Assistant Professor, Ochanomizu University (2008-2009)
  • Visiting Professor, Institute for the Study of Global Issues, Hitotsubashi University (2008-2009)
  • Associate Professor, Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University (2009-2014)
  • Professor, Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University (2014-present)

[Major Works / Publications Awards]

  • Labor Migration from China to Japan: International Students, Transnational Migrants. London:Routledge (2011).
  • “Chinese Newcomers in Japan: Migration Trends, Profiles and the Impact of the 2011 Earthquake,” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal (APMJ), 22(2), 231-257.(2013)
  • “Making Careers in the Occupational Niche: Chinese Students in Corporate Japan’s Transnational Business,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 37 (6). pp. 785-803 (2011)
  • “Educationally Channeled International Labor Migration: Post-1978 Student Mobility from China to Japan,” International Migration Review, 43(1). 178-204 (2009)
  • Waseda Research Award (2014, High-Impact Publication)