Two main groups can be described as national minorities in Japan: the Ryukyuan people, concentrated in the Ryukyuan Islands in Okinawa and Kagoshima prefectures, with a population of nearly 1.5 million (approximately 1.2 per cent of Japan’s population); and the Burakumins, historically segregated on the basis of their caste rather than ethnicity, with an estimated population of 2 to 3 million (1.6–2.4 per cent of the population).
1. FEDERAL OR QUASI-FEDERAL TERRITORIAL AUTONOMY
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- Japan has been a unitary country since the adoption of its constitution in 1946. It is composed of 47 prefectures, each overseen by an elected governor, which are responsible for the implementation of some governmental policies.
- The Ryukyuan minority is concentrated in the Okinawa prefecture, a group of islands in the south of the country.
- Most government expenditure takes place at the regional or local level, but the prefectural government is dependent on money transferred from the central government and is very limited in its autonomy with regard to spending (Inoguchi 2007).
- The Burakumin are widely dispersed on the Japanese territory and have no form of territorial autonomy.
2. OFFICIAL LANGUAGE STATUS, EITHER IN THE REGION OR NATIONALLY
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- Japanese is the only official language of the state, and more than 99 percent of the population of Japan is said to speak it as their first language.
- The Ryukyuan languages are similar to, but distinct from, Japanese. They tend to be presented as dialects of Japanese—a portrayal that is considered to be political rather than linguistic (Gottlieb 2005).
- Since the annexation of the Ryukyuan islands by Japan in 1872, language planning activities deliberately promoted Japanese as the sole state language, and few people born after 1950 are fluent in a Ryukyuan language.
- Recently, attempts have been made to revitalize the Ryukyuan languages: many research centres and organizations were established in past decades, and the preservation of the languages has become Okinawa Prefecture’s policy. The Council for Restoration of the Okinawa Dialects was created in 2000 and is working to establish a standard orthography for a variety of Ryukyuan languages that cannot be accurately represented using Japanese characters (Heinrich 2004). The prefecture has also adopted some ‘covert language planning’ initiatives over the past ten years—intended to encourage changes in language behavior without explicitly resisting the central state’s objectives (Heinrich and Ishihara 2018)—which are discussed in section 4.
- The Burakumin have no language of their own.
3. GUARANTEES OF REPRESENTATION IN THE CENTRAL GOVERNMENT OR ON CONSTITUTIONAL COURTS
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- Japan's legislative organ is the bicameral Diet, consisting of a House of Councillors and a House of Representatives. Members of both houses are elected according to a supplementary member system or mixed member majoritarian system (House of Councillors n.d.).
- A majority of the members of the Diet, that is, 300 members of the House of Representatives and 146 members of the House of Councillors, are elected in multiple-seat constituencies. The remaining mem- bers are elected by proportional representation in prefectural constituencies, in the former case, or from a single nationwide electoral district, in the latter (House of Representatives 2014).
- According to election law, prefectural constituencies are ensured a minimum of one representative. This, de facto, ensures that at least one representative of Okinawa is elected to the House of Representatives, but there is no indication that this was adopted to guarantee representation to the national minority (Free Choice Foundation, 2007).
- There is a Minister of State for Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs, but there is no requirement that this position be taken by a member of the Ryukyuan minority.
- In fact, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance reports that national minorities are "invisible in state institutions" (Commission on Human Rights 2006, 22), and recommends that "political representation of minorities should be guaranteed" (ibid.).
- As indicated by the Constitution of Japan (1946), judges to the Supreme Court are appointed by the Cabinet. This appointment is then reviewed by the people at the first general election of the House of Representatives, and judges can be dismissed if the majority of the voters decide so (Supreme Court of Japan 2020). Since this vote is cast on the national level, this system does not guarantee representation for national minorities.
4. PUBLIC FUNDING OF MINORITY-LANGUAGE UNIVERSITIES / SCHOOLS / MEDIA
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- Even though public schools in Okinawa are overseen by their own regional prefectural board of education, language planning activities in the 20th century consistently imposed negative measures against Ryukyuan languages. These minority languages were banned from schools in 1907 in an attempt to enforce the "standard language," Japanese (Heinrich 2004).
- The central government does not recognize or authorize languages other than standard Japanese as the language of instruction in public and private schools, or as the language used in textbooks and pedagogical material. In fact, Maher (1997) reports "neither government financial support nor accreditation will be given to those institutions" (that seek to maintain minority languages or cultural habits). Children graduating from minority-language schools are also ineligible for entry to institutions of higher education.
- Attitudes towards minority-language education are slowly changing, particularly because of the growing awareness of the declining use of these languages and of the pressure made by groups seeking to revitalize minority cultures. Ryukyuan plays and songs have been incorporated into Okinawan public schools, and basic Ryukyuan language courses are have been offered at many universities since at least the early 2000s (Heinrich 2004).
- Efforts in what Heinrich and Ishihara (2018) call ‘covert language planning’ have been introduced over the past decade, primarily by focusing on ‘shimakutuba’, or (deliberately unspecified) ‘local languages’. This allows the prefecture to address language endangerment without directly confronting Japan’s monolingual self-representation, through measures such as the 2012 “Okinawa 21st Century Vision Master Plan”, which declares shimakutuba to be the base of Ryukyuan culture and that efforts will be made to preserve them, and producing shimakutuba language manuals for both the general public and schools. Furthermore, Okinawa’s “Local Language Prefectural Campaign” encourages municipal governments, schools, mass media, private corporations, and ordinary citizens to promote the use of shimakutuba.
- There is little evidence of central government support for minority media, both in terms of content and as a medium.
- Television and newspaper coverage of Japan's national minorities is marginal.
- In 1997, Maher noted the sole use of standard Japanese in radio, television, and all print media, suggesting that this accelerated the decline of vernaculars such as the Ryukyuan languages. In 2004, however, Heinrich reported the broadcasting of news in Ryukyuan twice a week by a local radio station in Okinawa, as well as the publication of four issues of a newspaper in Ryukyuan per year.
- The past decade has seen further developments. The Okinawa Times, for example, has published a separate page every Sunday since 2013 titled “Local Language Newspaper Uchinaa Times”, supplemented by podcasts and other internet resources. NHK Okinawa, the prefectural branch of the national television broadcaster, has broadcast a Ryukyuan-themed program titled “Let’s Play in Okinawa” since 2010. And other TV and radio stations in Okinawa have been broadcasting programs in Ryukyuan as well (Heinrich and Ishihara 2018).
- In its 2006 report on Japan, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance recommends that "Japanese national media should give more space to programmes on minorities," which should be developed with the collaboration of minorities (Commission on Human Rights 2006).
5. CONSTITUTIONAL OR PARLIAMENTARY AFFIRMATION OF "MULTINATIONALISM"
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- Japan is far from acknowledging its multinational character; on the contrary, the state's claims of racial and cultural homogeneity are vigorous (and numerous).
- The preface of the 1946 Constitution of Japan starts with "We, the Japanese people" emphasizing a unity among all Japanese that is not nuanced later on. In a more explicit way, the central government has repeatedly denied the existence of linguistic minorities over the years and affirmed the racially homogenous character of the country, describing it as having one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, and one race (Maher 1997; Gottlieb 2006; Burgess 2007).
- While Burakumin and Ryukyuan people have never been recognized as racial, ethnic, or national minorities, the government has acknowledged the deep discrimination and economic difficulties suffered by these groups (particularly by the Buraku people), and has taken a set of actions to improve their social conditions. Thus, the Law on Special Measures for Dowa Projects (1969, terminated in 2002) and the Okinawa Promotion and Development Plan (2002) were adopted in order to improve the living conditions of the minorities, without, however, recognizing their particular needs and characteristics as such (Commission on Human Rights 2006). In 2016, the Diet adopted the “Act on the Promotion of the Elimination of Buraku Discrimination”, which asserted the government’s responsibility to combat discrimination against Burakumin through establishing consultation mechanisms, improving education and investigating instances of discrimination. Since it does not actually outlaw discrimination against Burakumin, however, contraventions of the law cannot be penalised (Minority Rights Group International 2018)..
- Discussion of minority rights and recognition is taboo in Japanese public space, partly because of the population's continued ignorance of the minorities' distinct culture and heritage. For example, the parts of school history books dedicated to the Buraku and Ryukyuan people are reported to be deliberately limited, reinforcing the impression of a Japanese uniform history (Commission on Human Rights 2006).
6. ACCORDED INTERNATIONAL PERSONALITY
(E.G., ALLOWING THE SUB-STATE REGION TO SIT ON INTERNATIONAL BODIES, SIGN TREATIES, OR HAVE THEIR OWN OLYMPIC TEAM)
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- Article 73 of the Constitution of Japan (1946) states that managing foreign affairs and concluding treaties are prerogatives of the state's Cabinet. The constitution does not recognize any role of the prefectures in that matter.
- No evidence can be found of independent international activities undertaken by the Okinawa prefectural government, and no change in these criteria can be observed over the last decade.