Farah Stockman

Embracing diversity in Japan

About half of the students at West Homi Elementary School in Toyota City, Japan, are Japanese-Brazilians, or “Nikkei.”
About half of the students at West Homi Elementary School in Toyota City, Japan, are Japanese-Brazilians, or “Nikkei.”Ko Sasaki/The New York Times/file 2008

We Americans — at least those of us who are not Donald Trump — pride ourselves on being from a nation of immigrants. We consider the influx of talented, energetic strivers key to economic success.

But across the world lies a country that thinks exactly the opposite. Japan rose from the ashes of World War II to become the world’s second — and now third — largest economy on a policy of “Zero Immigration.” That’s right. Zilch. Nil. Nada. Only two percent of Japanese residents are foreign-born. The number of foreigners granted Japanese citizenship last year might fit into a minor league baseball stadium.

“Japanese-ness” — and the social cohesion it is believed to create — is considered so important that when Japanese companies like Honda and Yamaha needed low-skilled workers in the 1990s to fill their factories, they crafted a very Japanese solution: special work visas for people of Japanese descent whose grandparents moved to Brazil in the early 1900s.


“They believed in the DNA,” said Masami Matsumoto, founder of Mundo de Alegria, a school for Japanese-Brazilian children. “People assumed they would be much more similar to Japanese.”

People, it turned out, were wrong. The Japanese-Brazilians — or the “Nikkei,” as they’re called — couldn’t speak Japanese. Many had darker skin and wavy hair as the result of intermarriage. And they’d picked up certain habits: Christianity. Loud music. Bonfires on the beach.

They angered their Japanese neighbors by disregarding all the rules about parking and trash collection, since they couldn’t read the signs.

“When a Japanese husband and wife fight, they do it silently,” the leader of a local residents’ organization at a housing complex told me. “When the Brazilians fight, they’re loud. Neighbors call the police.”

But the biggest problem was their children, who flooded local public schools without knowing the simplest Japanese characters. They struggled. Their mothers, who worked in the factories, often couldn’t communicate with teachers at the school. Nikkei kids often drop out of school. Alienated and idle, some turn to crime.


And so Japan, a country that’s famously insular and homogenous, finds itself struggling with the same challenges posed by diversity all over the world.

Over the years, an increasing number of Japanese educators have devoted themselves to helping the Nikkei fit in.

In Hamamatsu, an industrial city of cement-block apartments and 7-Eleven stores, a local elementary school has 94 foreign students out of 600. The city government hired a Portuguese language specialist to work with Japanese-language learners in small groups until they catch up to the class. And after school, two dozen volunteers from the community take turns helpings kids do their homework.

The goal is clear: assimilation.

“We don’t encourage Brazilians to go to a certain school,” said Keiko Tanaka, secretary general of the Hamamatsu Educational Support Association for Foreign Children. “Our policy is to disperse them throughout the society.”

But others say assimilation is the wrong goal. Nomoto Hiroyuki, a university professor who helps run a special school for Nikkei, says that these kids should stay connected to their language and culture. Someday, he predicts, the Nikkei will help Japan build bridges to the rest of the world, which will be needed in the future to keep Japan’s economy afloat. Foreign kids should be seen as a resource, not a social problem, he says.

“We have to wait until the government finds that the cultural diversity is very important,” he told me. But for that to happen, Japan’s idea of itself — and “Japanese-ness” — will have to change.


Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.