'Homogeneous,' 'unique' myths stunt discourse | The Japan Times Online:
"Last month I attended an international lecture by one of Japanology's senior scholars. I'll call him Dr. Frink. Decorated by the Japanese government for his contributions to the field, he talked about Japan as a 'unique' state that never really changes, even as it slips to third place behind China's economy.
One reason he gave for this was that 'Japan is still the most homogeneous society in the world.' He defined homogeneity by citing Japan's tiny percentage of resident foreigners.
That was easily disputed after a quick Google search (the lecture hall had Internet; welcome to the 21st century). I raised my hand afterwards and pointed out that some 60 countries were technically 'more homogeneous' than Japan, as they have smaller percentages of foreigners, foreign-born residents and immigrants.
...this column will focus on a much deeper problem in Dr. Frink's school of scholarly discourse: The fixation on Japan's "uniqueness," and how a cult of Japanese homogeneity interferes with good social science.
Search academic databases for publications in Japan Studies. Quite a few of them (some with Japanese authors espousing their own uniqueness) toe the line of "Japan behaves this way because it is homogeneous, etc." Scholar Harumi Befu has written books on how this has crystallized into a pseudoscience called Nihonjinron, affecting debate worldwide.
There is a political dimension to all this: the politics of maintaining the status quo.
The Japanese government funds chairs and departments (especially in Japan) to influence the direction of Japan Studies, and is nowadays attracting students to focus on "soft power," "cool Japan" cultural exotica.
The point is, ruling elites in Japan are perfectly happy with Japan being portrayed as preternaturally intransigent — due to historical, cultural, geographical or whatever reasons — because they like Japan as it is.
However, for the rest of the people living in Japan, this status quo is sending us down a road of obsolescence..."