Marginal society in Japan

Japan is often seen as a nation with little or no ethnic differences. This is based on the assumption that Japanese society is made up of a single ethnic group, “the Japanese.” This assumption has been widely accepted not only because most people have a superficial understanding of Japanese society but also because the Japanese themselves see, or more likely, want to see, themselves as a homogeneous society. This is evidenced by the expanse of Japanese works, academic or literary, on Nihonjinron. This emphasis on the ‘homogeneity’ of Japanese society is one of the ways the Japanese think of their society as being “unique” from others.

In this essay, our aim is to question the notion of a homogeneous Japanese society and argue that it is more a myth than reality. We will be looking at some marginals groups: the Ainu, Burakumin, Koreans, gaijins, homosexuals and the homeless. Though many Japanese would like to think of their society as homogenous, the existence of these groups of people prove that it is far from being so. Hence, it is crucial that we carefully analyze precisely what people mean when they say that Japanese society is homogeneous.



The Ainu, or Emishi, may have been descendents of early Caucasoid peoples who were once widely spread over northern Asia1. They once inhabited all four major islands of Japan. However, faced with attacks and defeats by an ever expanding Yamato state, they were forced back to the land called Ezo or the present Hokkaido, where most of the remaining 25,0003 still live today. The Ainu probably foresaw the threat that the Japanese people would pose and attempted to eliminate Japanese influences, even prior to the annexation of Ezo in 1869. Trade between Japanese and Ainu took place amidst dozens of wars. The most decisive of which was in the period 1668-72, during which the Ainu revolted against the forced imposition of unequal trade agreements. After that defeat, the Ainu staged their last military uprising against the Japanese in 1789, in the Kunashir-Menash Revolt.5 On 15th August 1869, the Meiji government established Hokkaido as a colonial state.


Even though the Ainu were theoretically given legal status like the Burakumin, efforts were made to assimilate them. One such method was the Hokkaidō Former Natives or Former Aborigines Protection Act (Hokkaidō Kyūdojin Hogohō) passed on 1st March 1899. The Act focused on agriculturalisation, education and welfare assistance.

As part of the scheme intended to turn the Ainu into farmers, each family was given 5 hectares of land, seeds and agricultural tools. However, land was repossessable if deemed undeveloped in 15 years and because much of the lands given to the Ainu were actually unfit for cultivation, it inevitably led to many of their lands being repossessed. Exploitation of the Ainu by the Japanese immigrants was also rampant with many Ainu losing their lands through unfair practices to their immigrant neighbours6. The main reason for the failure of this scheme was in no small meaure due to the fact that many Ainus could not cope with the sudden change from their traditional occupations as hunters, gathers and fishers to that of farming. This was further compounded by the influx of immigrants from mainland Japan, who were more experienced in farming. Thus, most Ainu ended up selling their lands.7

Education was assimilative in nature as the Ainu language was actively discouraged. Furthermore, education was of a more vocational than intellectual nature, further contributing to the theory that the Ainu were mentally inferior.8

Welfare was provided largely in the form of payment for medical bills. However, medical facilities were few and far in between given, leading many Ainu to live in sickness and sometimes, even death.9 This dismal state of affairs saw some improvement with the first revision of the Protection Act in 1919 but diseases like tuberculosis continued to afflict many Ainu until the introduction of penicillin after World War II.10


The Ainu were, and probably are still, considered to be racially inferior to other Japanese. They were believed to be descended from dogs11 and not man and such misconceptions still exist in present day Japan. To some Japanese, the fact that they tend to have more hair on their bodies seemed ‘proof’ enough that they were descended from beasts and not Man. Another misconception about the Ainu is that they were not capable of counting, with many not even knowing their own ages. In fact, the Ainu have a highly developed counting system based on units of 20, indicating that they were not influenced by Japanese methods of counting12. Some Japanese even go as far as to say that since they were a ‘primitive’ race that was dying out, efforts should not be made to preserve their race as such a consequence was only natural according to Darwin’s theory of evolution where only the fittest survive.13


The aggressive policy of assimilation inevitably led to resistance. In 1930, the movement, Ainu Kyōkai, was formed to stimulate changes to the inequalities present in the Protection Act. On 12th March 1937, the Act was finally revised. Native schools were abolished, land ownership no longer restrictive, and welfare extended. But it was only in 1997 that the Act was finally repealed. However resistance in the post-WWII period was generally passive until the 1960s, a periodthat witnessed a rise in the global struggles of indigenous peoples, and provided a much needed stimuli to the Ainu resistance movement.14 However, the Ainu Kyokai, renamed Utari Kyokai in 1961, does not foreswear assimilation in their desire to eliminate discrimination. Many members are those who have succeeded in joining the mainstream Japanese society and do not wish to be seen as being different from other Japanese15. On the other hand, fellow Ainus are still encouraged to assert their own Ainu identities, despite the silent nod given to assimilation.


Presently, although the Ainu have came a long way in asserting their ideas of equality and Ainu culture is at its most vibrant ever, it is a silent majority for whom the leaders of movements like Ainu Utari claim to work for. This majority do not belong to the movement, conceal their Ainu ancestry and has no interest in Ainu culture – basically, living lives as ordinary Japanese. Many have intermarried Japanese and no longer hold much hope for an ‘Ainu nation’. Thus, the idea that Ainu have indeed succeeded in bringing their own identities back seem to have not taken much steps forward after all.



There are many theories about the origins of this group of people. But they may most probably have been related to slaves in early Japanese society who attended to the needs of the aristocracy. Though slavery was later abolished, the stigma associated with this lowest class in society stuck. Somehow they came to be known as Eta, meaning “much flith”, probably because of the occupations they were associated with. This derogatory term was abolished in the Meiji Era and gradually, this group of people came to be known as Burakumin.17 The exact number of Burakumin is not known as the government does not have official statistics of this group but it was estimated to be around three million in the seventies.18

Stereotyped views

In actuality, a Burakumin is physically indistinguisable from other Japanese. However, there are many sterotyped views of the Burakumin. One view of them is that they are promiscuous and have loose moral standards. This generalization may have resulted from the fact that the Buraku community is generally more lenient to females than in non-Burakumin society. In some households, husbands who work away from the family may take a second wife and likewise, his wife may also find another man. Many Japanese also believe them to be of low intelligence. Some Japanese may point out the Burakumin’s failure to perform in schools and universities, tendency to take up menial, low paying jobs as signs of their inherent low intelligence. However, the main reason for their inability to perform academically is that Burakumin children often have to work to help support their family. They usually do not go beyond high school, meaning they will usually only be qualified for low-paying jobs. This vicious cycle of poverty continues for generations, leading observers to brand them as people of “low intelligence.”


The Burakumin were, and some still are, discriminated against for the occupations they chose, or more correctly were chosen for or forced into. Some traditional occupations of the Burakumin are making of bamboo and straw products, caretakers of graves and undertakers, leather-workers and butchers. Some of these occupations were shunned by non-Burakumin Japanese. The answer lies mainly in religion.

Shinto and Buddhism, the 2 main religions that most Japanese ascribe to, has not been so kind to the Burakumin. Not that these religions specifically target Burakumin for discrimination, but the interpretation of certain aspects of Shinto and Buddhism have resulted in greater discrimination against them. In Shinto, it is believed that spiritual and physical purification is very, if not, the most important aspect. Things like flith, blood and death are to be avoided.19 This explains the Japanese aversion to occupations like caretaker of graves, undertakers, leather-workers and butchers. The Burakumin who engage in these occupations are shunned and discriminated against as it was believed that flith, blood and death was contagious. So, in association, any contact with a Burakumin was to be avoided.

Buddhism was introduced early in the 6th century and subsequently exerted great influence on Japan. Together with Shinto, it formed the main religious viewpoint of most Japanese and unfortunately, the Burakumin were excluded from this viewpoint. The Buddhist belief that any form of life is precious meant that butchery, leather-processing and other occupations associated with the taking of lives were shunned by most Japanese. This attitude naturally applied to the Burakumin who engaged in such occupations too.

Despite the overwhelming religious factor that was a cause of their discriminaton, it is also important to look at the issue of discrimination on a broader social perspective. The Japanese mold their relationships with other people based on whether they belonged to the “uchi” or “soto” group. To non-Burakumin Japanese, the Burakumin is seen as the “soto” group. In terms of social hierarchy, this “soto” group is ranked below their “uchi” group. So they are the lower “soto” group. These, together with the Japanese tendency for conformity becomes the underlying reasons why the Burakumin, and other marginal groups, are discriminated against.

The Burakumin face many forms of discrimination. Not least of all in the form of language. Derogatory terms like yottsu, eta (meaning “much filth”) are often used to refer to them. It is akin to calling an African American a “nigger,” with all its negative connotations. Many Burakumin live in “ghettos”. These areas are usually slums where living conditions are way below that of the average Japanese. Living in these ghettos will usually identify one as a Burakumin. The government does set aside funds to improve their living conditions. But with continuing economic stagnation and protests from other Japanese, the government is hard-pressed in helping them too. Marriage is also one area where they face discrimination. Even if one does not mind the other’s Burakumin heritage, he/she will have to face objections from family, even relatives and friends. The pressure to conform to the wishes of the “uchi” group may often be so great as to render the marriage impossible.

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As for employment, employers often conduct background checks on applicants and some companies will not hire a Burakumin on discovering his/her heritage. Large companies are also inclined to recruit from affiliated universities where most Burakumin do not attend. Hence, inevitably, most Burakumin find employment only in small companies where pay and benefits are lower, and prospects dimmer. This kind of traps them in a vicious cycle of poverty, generation after generation.


The fact that a Burakumin is physically indistinguishable from other Japanese and the government’s refusal to acknowledge that such a group exists has resulted in no active policy of assimilation. Unfortunately, this does not mean that the Burakumin is not discriminated against as mentioned in the previous paragraph. In fact, it seems that government reluctance to acknowledge the Burakumin has compounded the problems faced by the latter because there is a problem of discrimination and yet, no solution to it partly due to the government’s refusal to act on these problems.


In the face of discrimination, there are two possible options. One of which is resistance. Efforts at resistance started in the 1920s with the formation of the Suihesha (1922-1940). The Buraku Liberation League (BLL) followed in the ashes of World War II. This organization has endured to become the major organization for the liberation of the Burakumin. Part of its organization also includes the Buraku Research Institute, created to study problems faced by the Burakumin and to find solutions to these problems and the Buraku Kaiho, a monthly journal.

Politization has also proved an option for the resistance movement. Many Burakumin have ventured into politics. A successful example of this move is Jiichiro Matsumoto. He became the first Burakumin to have an audience with the emperor and was also elected vice president of the upper house in the 1950s. Today, he is considered the father of the Buraku liberation movement.20 The movement has also began to form alliances with political parties i.e. Japan Socialist Party (JCP), Communist Party. Ultimately, the aim is to highlight the plight of the Burakumin in government policies and to raise awareness of the Burakumin issue among other the Japanese.


Another option, and a more common one, against discrimination is resignation. The natural consequence of openly resisting discrimination is being identified as a Burakumin, with the accompanying social stigma slapped on you like a label for defective goods. Not many Burakumin opt for this path of trial and tribulation. Instead, many choose to pass into mainstream society, since a Burakumin is physically indistinguishable from any other Japanese. They may do so by moving out of Buraku ghettos, taking up occupations not associated with Burakumin or as a more extreme measure, severing family ties. However, this will mean that he/she will be left alone to fend for themselves, without protection and support as a group. In a way, it will be akin to being in a limbo, neither beloging to the “uchi” or the “soto” group. However, the fear of being found out one day will always linger. And sad to say, being uncovered as a Burakumin may invariably lead to more discrimination and in extreme cases, make suicide seem like the easiest course.

Korean Japanese

The Korean Japanese population is a major ethnic group in Japan. The majority of the Korean Japanese is made up of either Korean permanent residents who are called the “Zainichi-kankoku/chousenjin,” or the Korean temporary residents in Japan, the “Zainichi Koreans.”


The phrase that “Korea is a dagger pointing at the heart of Japan” immediately makes one sense that there is a tense and uneasy relationship between the two. For over nearly two thousand years, Korea turned from being an equal to Japan, to becoming a vassal state and finally a colony in 1910. Despite this obvious dominance over its neighbour, some Japanese have always struggled with the seemingly possible notion that the ancestors of early Japanese might have been Korean after all as the former probably migrated to the Japanese islands from the mainland. Koreans subsequently went over to Japan for centuries, much prized for knowledge in Chinese language and culture. However, it was not until the colonization of Korea in 1910 that Koreans began to arrive in Japan in greater numbers. The Korean Japanese living in Japan today are mostly the descendants of Koreans who were brought to Japan as forced laborers by the Japanese from 1910-1945. The population of Koreans residing in Japan in present times experience tough social and political circumstances and most of them could be said to be caught in a socio-economic political vacuum. Perhaps we could argue that these could be attributed to the immense discrimination the Japanese have had and probably still have against the Koreans due to their antagonistic past.

The antagonistic past between the Japanese and Koreans is reflected in Jin Saeng So’s argument . She argued that “Japanese aggression towards Korea was first established when Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the three powerful rulers of late 16th century Japan, sent his soldiers to Korea. This aggression peaked when Japan colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945. The majority of the current Zainichi Koreans are descendents of Korean immigrants during this period”. She goes on to explain how “according to Sugimoto, Koreans were mainly brought to Japan as cheap labor in mining, construction, and shipping. Many of them returned to Korea after WWII, but about one fourth of Koreans at that time remained in Japan because they had already settled down in Japan and expected worse living condition back in Korea”.21 Hence, from this abstract, we can see how history plays an important role in determining they way people in society are treated and labeled.


Due to the almost widespread discrimination and prejudices Japanese place upon the Korean Japanese whom they do not regard as part of the Japanese citizenry, the Koreans often fail to be fully incorporated into the mainstream Japanese society. As argued by Jin, “the social stigma and obstacles that the Japanese impose upon the Zainichi Koreans keep them from total integration and participation in Japanese society.” She also mentioned that “the media representation of Koreans is limited and does not reflect diversity of Zainichi Koreans’ lifestyles. Therefore, the population of Zainichi Koreans in Japan is often invisible to the majority of the Japanese, and, ironically, to a large portion of the younger generation of Zainichi Koreans themselves”. This in turn brings us back to our argument of how Japanese society is in fact somewhat disintegrated and is far from being homogeneous as most of mainstream Japanese society would like to believe.

The warped socialization which most young Korean Japanese undergo could have led many of them to accept their “marginalized” positions as being normal. Jin argues that “many Korean youths who grew up in Japanese society often have difficulties accepting their Korean identity because the Japanese culture they grew up with enforced the concepts of a homogeneous Japanese society as well as discriminatory attitudes towards Koreans that they themselves have accepted as correct.” This further reinforces our earlier argument of how the notion of Japanese society as being homogeneous is problematic and remains a powerful myth which affects how people view the Japanese and Japanese society as a whole. This “warped” notion has even led to misconceptions of Japanese society as being homogeneous.

Whilst homogeneity would mean harmony to Japanese, to Korean Japanese who are often not incorporated into mainstream Japanese society and sometimes made to feel inferior because of their nationality, their definition of homogeneity is very much different from the Japanese’s. As mentioned by Jin, “it is also common that Zainichi Koreans have been conditioned by Japanese society to believe in the inferiority of their Korean ethnicity”. Moreover, in Kim’s research on consciousness among Korean youths in Japan 1993, Kim argues that “most feel inferior because of racial discrimination in their formative years.”22 Thus, to these Korean Japanese, homogeneity is not about harmony; rather, it is something from which they feel excluded since they were socialized from the start that they were not completely accepted by mainstream Japanese society.

Most Korean Japanese in Japan are not recognized by the Japanese state as being citizens of Japan and most find it difficult to enter mainstream companies, get into good schools, and pursue ordinary middle-class aspirations and lifestyles. The refusal or reluctance of many Japanese to recognize this sizable group in living in Japanese society highlights the fact that in the eyes of these Japanese, the Korean Japanese are different from them and the inclusion of them into Japanese society would invariably result in their society becoming heterogenous. However, choosing to ignore the existence of these Korean Japanese does not and cannot make Japan a homogenous society. It simply is not.

The discrimination faced by Korean Japanese living temporarily in Japan can be seen in Jin’s argument that the “Zainichi Koreans have been victims of the Japanese authorities’ unstable treatment. During the Japanese colonial era (1910-1945), Koreans were made Japanese nationals. Even though Koreans were never free from discrimination, they obtained certain rights, such as the right to vote or to be elected. They had to use the Japanese language and to adopt Japanese-style family names. They also served in the Japanese army during WWII. Thus, for more than three decades, they had been completing duties as Japanese nationals while struggling with unfair treatment by Japanese”. All these show how misconstrued the claim that Japanese society is homogenous is and how minority groups and in particular the Korean Japanese are treated in Japan.

Jin further argued how the Korean Japanese received unfair treatment by the Japanese government by having their Japanese nationality removed after having contributed to the Japanese nation. This can be seen in how “after WW II, their Japanese nationality was taken away…Only discrimination and unfair treatment towards them remained. Korean veterans who fought in WWII for Japan were not compensated because they were now “foreigners” who no longer had legal rights”. This again reinstates the point of how marginalized the Korean Japanese are in Japanese society and shows how Korean Japanese are often not fully incorporated into mainstream society in Japan due to predetermined notions of what mainstream society means.

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Discrimination against Korean Japanese can be overt or covert. As mentioned by Jin, “one of the infamous incidents that illustrates such discrimination occurred in 1923 after the Great Kanto Earthquake. Koreans, for the sole reason of being Korean, were accused of being criminals who exacerbated the aftermath of the earthquake by causing fires in neighborhoods and by poisoning the river and innocent Koreans were caught and killed”. This incident could reflect an attempt by Japanese society to counter challenges posed to mainstream society as Korean Japanese are seen as “outsiders” and not part of Japanese society.

Foreigners in Japan

Foreigners are known as “Gaijin” in Japanese, a term which translates to mean “outside person”. This group is often made up of foreign workers who come to Japan to take up employment positions. Karan notedthat at the end of 2000, the number of foreign workers in Japan was 1.68 million with migrant workers coming from a host of countries such as Korea, China, Brazil, the Philippines, the United States, Peru, Thailand, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, and Vietnam.23 The composition of the foreign population includes those who hold temporary work permits in Japan, working in sectors that require special skills of knowledge. It however also includes those who have either entered Japan illegally or overstayed their visas. Illegal foreign workers, Karan notes, “do jobs that most Japanese would do last”, jobs that are hard, dirty and dangerous.

Foreigners often find themselves in a position of cultural disadvantage and having to overcome a certain degree of cultural shock and learning to adapt to the Japanese culture and way of life.

Besides being a society that places great importance on conformity, Japan is also a country where the notion of consensus is preferred to that of conflict. The perceived homogeneity of Japanese society means that the presence of foreigners in the social fabric of Japanese society is at times met with resistance.


A new documentary by McGill alum Catherine Vidal, Few and Close Between notes that foreigners live in gaijin houses that are “cheap, run-down rentals shared by random, often foreign, people”25 and suggests that these cramped dwellings may well be symbolic of the marginalized culture of the foreigners being seemingly at odds with mainstream Japanese culture. Another reason why foreigners often live in such cramped dwellings is because there is a necessity for them to produce letters of recommendation should they wish to apply to live in apartments instead.26 This makes it difficult for them to obtain alternative housing options to gaijin houses.

Japanese treatment and perceptions of foreigners is varied. A 2002 fiscal survey reported some interesting findings pertaining to marginal groups in Japan, including foreigners. “Foreigners in Japan should not expect to have the same human rights protections here as Japanese, 21.8 percent of respondents said” as compared to 1997, in which 18.5 percent had felt that way. Another interesting response noted that “almost 20 percent (of respondents) said problems are inevitable until foreigners get used to Japanese society, while 3.3 percent said foreigners deserve to be at a disadvantage simply because they are foreign.” The report also noted that “public sentiment probably reflected rampant media reports in recent years of crimes allegedly committed by foreigners.”27 These findings raise interesting points about the Japanese perception of foreigners and imply somewhat that the impact of the media is to some extent, influential in shaping the perceptions and opinions of the Japanese towards foreigners. What can be noted is the possibility that the more the Japanese see foreigners as being a cause of social problems, the greater the tendency for them to perceive foreigners in an unfavorable light. A final interesting point that arose from the responses to the survey was the fact that the Japanese felt that “problems are inevitable until foreigners get used to Japanese society”. This illustrates how the Japanese see the need for adaptation to be undertaken solely by the foreigner, rather than a mutual understanding and acceptance of differences in culture, language and viewpoints. By expecting foreigners to adapt to the Japanese way of life and not vice versa, it reflects the Japanese desire for a homogenous society. This desire often translates, consciously or unconsciously, to them attempting to maintain a perceived homogenous society by marginalizing, assimilating or ignoring peoples who deviate from mainstream Japanese society.

What the future holds

Attitudes towards the presence of foreigners in Japan as we have seen is varied. While some see them as essential to the economic sectors that require labour-intensive manpower, others see them as an intrusion into homogeneous Japan. The Japanese economy is, however, facing future, potential labour shortage, hence it might soon be necessary in the near future for the Japanese to change their mindsets and to welcome foreigners instead. On the level of governmental institutions, Karan suggests the need for the government to review their laws relating to immigration and how “Japanese society also must step up efforts to break down barriers – inside and outside of the corporate world – and accommodate foreigners.”28



Homosexuality has long been present in Japanese society. In Japanese history, the Japanese arts have had homosexual connotations. These arts include the Kabuki, the Takarazuka, woodblock prints, watercolors and Japanese literature. There are especially strong homosexual connotations in the Kabuki and the Takarazuka. The Kabuki is a type of popular drama that is performed by only men. These men take up both the female and male roles in the drama. On the other hand, the Takarazuka, another popular form of entertainment in Japan, is performed by females who play the roles of both gender in musicals, stage dramas and dance revues. In addition to the Japanese arts, since the 13th century, both within the Buddhist monasteries and the samurai warrior class, homosexuality existed.29

The Society

The Japanese society has a unique social system. The Japanese people place great importance in collectivity. Conforming to social norms is essential, rather then the notion of individuality. Harmony is another important aspect. One should give in to the social system and think as a society in order to keep harmony in place. If a person focuses on individuality, harmony will be at stake as there will be different social values in the society. Therefore, it is fundamental that one sticks to this central notion of conformity.

The principal social responsibility of a Japanese is to one’s family and to the state. Pinkerton and Abramson stated that ‘the socially inescapable duty of every Japanese person is to marry and reproduce, in order to perpetuate the family lineage, and in so doing, to respectfully pay homage to past generations’.30 Therefore, homosexuality was deemed acceptable as long as the parties fulfill this social duty. However, for the exclusive homosexual, who does not want or is unable to perform this social duty of marrying and reproducing, there is no tolerance for them. This emphasizes the importance of homogeneity in Japan and to step away from the social norm, is a taboo.

Health Concerns

One of the main factors contributing to the marginalization of homosexuals in Japan is related to health. In Japan, people who are HIV-infected are discriminated against. The presence of homosexuals inevitably contributes to the number of cases of HIV infection. Since 1991, the rate of known HIV cases resulting from sexual transmission is increasing. It is reported that the main route of sexual transmission is through heterosexual sex while men who have sex with both men and women is the second most common avenue. Male to male sexual contact is the third most common cause. Public disclosure of an HIV positive diagnosis can cause marginalization in basic rights. Furthermore, since it is shameful to have a HIV-infected relative, familial ostracism does happen.

The healthcare sector also plays a role in this discrimination. Many medical personnels do not have a good understanding of HIV infection and AIDS, leading to cases where medical personnels are unwilling to treat patients with AIDS. Hoshino mentioned that ‘only 15 percent of the hospitals responding to a 1994 survey admitted that they accepted HIV-positive and AIDS patients’.

Discrimination among the Discriminated

Although homosexuals are discriminated against by the general public, there is prejudice in the homosexual community as well. Foreigners are often blamed for bringing HIV infection to Japan. These foreigners being discriminated against used to be only tourists, but increasingly foreign-born workers who provide commercial sex have also been included. Such discrimination is often indiscreet. An example of such discrimination include warnings in the international guide for gay travelers, ‘Spartacus’, that have captions spouting, ‘Only Japanese are Welcomed’.32 Another example is the categorization used by the AIDS Surveillance Committee to distinguish people with AIDS . The committee condemns all known cases of HIV infection to two categories – ‘Within Japan’ and ‘Outside Japan’.33


Gay-bashing is considered rare in Japan. However, homophobia does exist in Japanese society, especially towards exclusive homosexuals who do not want to perform their social duty.

One example of homosexual discrimination occurred in 1990 in Tokyo. A small group of homosexuals belonging to the Association for the Lesbian and Gay Movement (OCCUR), were not allowed to use a public facility called the Fuchu Youth House. OCCUR’s main objectives are circulating accurate information about homosexuality to the public and to educate the homosexual community on AIDS. The Tokyo Board of Education, implied that homosexual and AIDS information will have a negative effect on the moral development of other youths in Japan. OCCUR filed a lawsuit and won. This is the first ever homosexual rights suit in Japan and gives hope to other homosexuals who are fighting a constant battle for their rights.

Another example is the attacks on homosexuals in Yumenoshima Park in Tokyo’s Koto Ward in February 2000. These attacks resulted in the death of one person.35 However, such extreme acts of discrimination are far and few between.

It is evident that with the few gay-bashing occurrences in Japan, homosexuality is tolerated to a certain extent. However, exclusive homosexuals when publicly expressed challenges the social fabric of the society. Thus, the behaviour of these homosexual behaviors, tolerable when not publicly expressed, become a threat to the traditional notions of the Japanese society. Although marginalization of homosexuals in Japan, laws are slowly being implemented to include the rights of this group of people.

The Homeless in Japan

The homeless have become a part of the city landscape in urban Japan in recent times. The cityscape is dotted with temporary shelters which the homeless erect within park compounds and it is also common to find their sleeping areas within railway stations. Some areas in which the homeless congregate include Ueno Park in Tokyo, Shinjuku railway station in central Tokyo, Shinjuku Park overlooking the Tokyo Government Metropolitan Office complex, Kawasaki, Fujimi Park and near the Tama River. The homeless erect tents and wooden shacks for their dwellings and at times they are also seen living in cardboard boxes.

Some characteristics have also been noted of the homeless who live in these and other areas. Karan notes that “homeless residents in Shinjuku are mostly men in their late forties and fifties” and that “most of the homeless in Japan are hard-to-employ men for whom the slowdown in building and the concomitant collapse of the market for casual labour have meant destitution.” He also notes that “some homeless people have mental problems.”36 The American Forum for Global Education write-up on homelessness in Japan also noted that “some (of the homeless) were alcohol abusers and some had good backgrounds. Some were even doctors or psychologists, etc.”37 One other interesting characteristic of the homeless population in Japan pertains to the age factor. An article in The Christian Science Monitor38 noted that most of the homeless are middle-aged or older single men. They face double-discrimination because they are homeless and old. They are unable to gain re-employment because of the age factor which makes companies less willing or even totally unwilling to hire them.

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Causes of homelessness

A Wall Street Journal (2003) article estimated that there were about 25,000 homeless people, a figure which depicts a huge rise from close to none in the late 1980s.39 Some of the causes of homelessness as noted by Karan40 are: lack of daily employment, failure in changing jobs, personal problems, inability to pay rent, failure in business ventures and job loss due to restructuring, advanced age, injury or illness, employers’ bankruptcy. Of these, lack of daily employment is the most commonly cited cause of homelessness, with over 25% of homeless people in this category. A run-through of the this list of reasons for homelessness points to a worrying trend that economic factors like job loss are becoming increasingly responsible for the rise in the number of homeless people. This trend probably had its roots in the late 1980s when Japan’s bubble economy finally went burst. The bubble economy was sustained for nearly 2 decades by phenomenal economic growth fueled by rapid business expansion. However, with the collapse of the bubble economy, many people were forced into unemployment. Not only did many experience a sudden loss of income, homes and properties were also seized by banks and other financial institutions as repayment for debts incurred.

Karan highlights the impact of the loss of employment as being one of the primary causes of homelessness again when he states that “a large proportion of the homeless in Japan had steady jobs and stable lives until their companies went bankrupt or they were put out of work for some other reasons”.41 This has implications for our analysis and conclusion that the collapse of economic structures leading to loss of employment is one of the primary factors accounting for the huge number of homeless found in Japan. How unemployment due to economic factors often leads to homelessness is also tied to other factors such as the availability of state assistance.

Japan’s social safety net was based upon the company and the notion of lifetime employment. This phenomenon is however, slowly changing as new western models of human resource management are being introduced into Japan and more workers are being employed on a contractual basis. This means that the pattern of unemployment is not uncommon in recent times. A lack of employment means having no stable source of income and this usually results in poverty. Those mired in poverty often have few means of obtaining state assistance as well, for various reasons.

Why homelessness persists

Karan further notes that “Japan has tried to avoid making state assistance the first resort of poor people. The initial line of defence is work, then the family, and only then does the state step in with cash.” 42 This mindset of the Japanese government indicates the difficulty the poor may face in obtaining state assistance. An article from Share International illustrates this point about why the poor in Japan do not apply for state assistance but choose rather to remain as homeless.

“(y)ou need a fixed address to qualify to apply for welfare help. So, if you want financial help to find fixed accommodation you need a permanent address… The welfare benefits are (also) given in an attitude of condescending, patronizing charity. The laws, regulations, the pre-conditions required, the bureaucracy and the smug arrogance of officials all combine to act as a powerful deterrent.”

This suggests some reasons why the homelessness problem in Japan persists. Firstly, that there is probably no established government organization or active policy in place to help the homeless. Secondly, even if such an organization existed, the perceived social ‘shame’ or embarassment of having to accept help for one’s liability will invariably turn many homeless away. Examining the Japanese government’s response to this marginal group seems to yield more truth for the former. A Washington Post article (2000) notes that while “(l)ocal governments typically have opened public buildings or short-term shelters during the cruellest weeks of winter, (they) have (however) been reluctant to embrace longer-term solutions, and occasional proposals for more permanent shelters.”

And yet another article from The Wall Street Journal notes that: “Osaka officials concede they are uneasy about the growing permanence of shantytowns in public parks. But they say they don’t have the budget or national backing for a comprehensive relief program”45 These shed some light on why government response to assisting the homeless has been somewhat slow and ineffective. The inadequacies of Japan’s social security system, failure of the social net to capture most, if not all segments of the needy Japanese population, lack of motivation on the part of government officials to pay attention to the phenomena and simply a lack of resources or ability to cope with the ever-increasing social problem of homelessness are just some reasons why the government has been unable to solve the problem of homelessness.

However, the possibility that the problem remains unsolved because of the reluctance of the homeless to seek help should not be overlooked. The inability of the Japanese social system to cater for marginal groups such the homeless may reflect underlying Japanese desire to maintain the status quo. It may also suggest that the notion of homogeneity among the Japanese is so strong that it fails to encompass an acknowledgement of marginal groups like the homeless.

Regardless of the common perceptions and myths that people generally hold about the homogeneity of Japanese society, the problem of homelessness in Japan is very much a reality and the fact remains that the homeless are also one of the marginal groups found within the social fabric of Japanese society. Like most other marginal groups, they face much discrimination by the general society and are often conveniently left out of government policy considerations. However, unlike other marginal groups, they have no organization to represent their interests. To conclude our section on the homeless on Japan, we might want to consider some of the comment experts and analysts have made on the discrimination that the homeless face. The The Christian Science Monitor article previously cited notes: “Most of the homeless are systematically eliminated from society…(and that) Japan’s homeless problem is attributed to “deeply rooted discrimination” and that age discrimination against the homeless “reinforces their sense of alienation and adding to their suffering from “low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy.”46 Finally, we might also want to bear in mind the great warmth of human contact and love the homeless face because of the circumstances they find themselves in.


Having looked at the some of the marginal groups in Japan, we can safely say that Japan is not a homogenous society as is often claimed. Efforts by the Japanese government or society to assimilate these groups only reinforce the fact that in their own minds, most Japanese are aware that Japanese society is not homogenous. The discrimination against marginal groups that still persists even with such efforts at assimilation is the Japanese reaction towards people who are different, or perceived to be different, from them. True enough, the plight of marginal groups have improved with time as a result of government policies and social liberalization. However, what is more important to the marginal groups of Japan is changing the mindset or perception of the Japanese towards these groups. Unless the idea that these marginal groups are inferior is removed from the Japanese psyche through measures like re-education, the future for these marginal groups it will continue to be an uphill battle against discrimination.


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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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