Over the more recent centuries, Japanese leaders have steadfastly resisted any suggestion from abroad that perhaps they just might be extremely racially prejudiced. At the same time, however, they have staunchly followed policies that can only be described as highly discriminatory regarding the country's racial and other minorities.
Since the end of World War II, however, public rhetoric supporting such views has tended to be toned down - at least in public. But recent unfortunate remarks by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone raise fresh speculation as to why these attitudes persist and how deep they may be.The proud prime minister touched off the present controversy by making a series of race-related statements, beginning with comments during a meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in September. At that time he remarked that the existence of blacks and Puerto Ricans as well as Mexicans in the population of the United States has depressed the average intelligence of Americans.
Although he subsequently apologized for this distasteful statement, he has since come out with discriminatory remarks obviously aimed at the Ainu minority in Japan and persons in his country of mixed blood. His latest shocking gaff stressed that persons of "unclear nationality cannot be respected."
However, it is the Japanese government's position, apparently supported by Mr. Nakasone, that there are no minorities in Japan as defined by the United Nations' Covenants on Human Rights. In the case of the Ainu, the Tokyo authorities contend that modern-day Japanese originated from a mixture of many races that evolved over thousands of years and that the aboriginal people are only one of these races. Therefore, there can be no discrimination, the argument goes, since they are almost all assimilated into the general population.
The Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan living in the northern island of Hokkaido who exist under provisions of the "Former Djoin (native aboriginal) Protection Law" - which is not unlike the regulatory codes that govern the various Indian tribes of the United States.
The U.N. Human Rights Commission has promised the Ainu (24,381 in Hokkaido) to take up their contention that they are definitely discriminated against as a minority race when that body meets in March in Geneva. If approved by the 43-member commission, it is anticipated that the issue will be passed along to a working-level committee, according to officials of the Hokkaido Utari Association, an Ainu organization.
Whatever the claims of the Ainu people, there is evidence in these statements by the Japanese prime minister of the possible emergence of a new nationalism in Japan, a situation that doubtless could become dangerous at some point in view of the steadily rising trade frictions between the United States and Japan.
The wonder is that Mr. Nakasone has so far failed to make similar racial slurs against the thousands of Koreans living in Japan and the Burakumin, a three million-member group officially designated as socially outcast in the hierarchy of feudal Japan (1600-1868) that still exists within the country. Both of these groups face considerable discrimination in their daily lives.
Although the Burakumin are racially and culturally no different from present-day Japanese, they are still regarded as hereditarily outsiders. During the feudal period, members of this outcast class were engaged as leather tanners, butchers, dyers and in other occupations deemed unclean by the government at that time.
Mr. Nakasone's critics were quick to point out that such derogatory statements, which have enraged not only the American people but many within Japan, are clearly disgraceful for someone with a widespread reputation as an internationally minded politician.
But there is a certain amount of tiring deja-vu here.
This same Japanese leader informed students in a commemorative speech (when he was president of Takushoku University, a private college) in September 1967 that ". . . none of us of the Yamato race is contaminated by foreign blood."
It would appear that Mr. Nakasone has long entertained the philosophy that the Japanese are superior because they are ethically united and homogeneous. Such concepts, based upon self-righteous and narrow-ethic chauvinistic thinking, no doubt stem from his education under the prewar imperialistic system. Yet, even though ethnic pride based upon historic uniqueness is fine, the question remains whether such thinking is being overly stressed today throughout the Japanese educational system.
If this is the case, the nation's development of racial sensitivity and the capability to recognize the importance of various individualities, cultural traditions and modes of living of the world's diverse countries may be seriously delayed - just when the globally trading Japanese need these attributes more than ever before.
There remains some serious concern in the United States and within Japan itself about these offensive statements by Mr. Nakasone because they imply that such deplorable beliefs may emerge again during some future crisis between Washington and Tokyo over the massive annual trade surpluses that the Japanese continue to enjoy.
Certainly no other Asian trading power is so crucially situated in the world today, or has comparatively strong emotional proclivities that could badly upset trading relations. In this sense, a storm of major proportions could be brewing.
For all that, it is evident there exists in Japan a fair number of prominent businessmen and articulate political leaders who (at least for the moment) can be counted upon to provide a proper balance, realizing that common sense lies in continuing to pursue economic and diplomatic ties with the West and the United States in particular - despite those within the LDP who seem to be veering to the right in their public statements of late.
These quarters, admittedly not as strong in numbers as once was the case, oppose the right wing bigotry emerging to some extent in Japan, and are pushing for patience unswayed by the passions being aroused by the growing feeling that, simply because of their recent economic successes, the Japanese people are being made the scapegoats of the envious Americans.