In Japan, Among Non-Japanese

Research summary by Paul Capobianco, PhD Candidate, Anthropology. 

Thanks to a generous research grant from the Japan Foundation and CAPS, I was able to spend several weeks in Japan formally concluding the collection of my dissertation data.

Paul and his contacts discuss their experiences as foreigners living in Japan from different professional, educational, and cultural perspectives.
Paul (second from right) and his contacts discuss their experiences as foreigners living in Japan from different professional, educational, and cultural perspectives.

As usual, this was a very enlightening and insightful trip to Japan. The country is in a process of change and these changes can be seen and experienced in many aspects of daily life. My research focuses on the socio-demographic changes Japan is experiencing as a result of different international and domestic processes. It seems like every time I visit Japan, there are more and more foreigners working in Japan in increasingly conspicuous roles. On the surface, this may not seem like a big deal. One would expect there to be more foreigners working in a country with an aging population like Japan’s. However, this actually has potentially significant ramifications for what Japan will look like in future years, both literally and figuratively. Serving as home to a larger number of foreigners from diverse backgrounds means that there is a greater potential for change in many areas of Japanese life. This raises important questions related to Japanese-foreigner relations and the nation’s future identity. 

My trip this summer involved predominantly conducting follow-up interviews with informants I had interviewed and talked with previously. I traveled from Tokyo, through the Kansai area, then to Shikoku, then Kyushu, then returning to Tokyo via Hiroshima. I was particularly interested in hearing the ways my informants believe Japan has changed over their time in Japan and with respect to recent events in Japan and abroad. While some have cited little to no changes in their experiences, others have cited serious changes to different degrees. These have come by way of increased civic activity amongst certain national and ethnic groups, a wider range of opinions held by their Japanese counterparts, and increased accessibility to different services and opportunities within Japan. In addition to conducting follow-up interviews, I also spent time conducting participant-observation in various locations where foreigners and Japanese would congregate and interact. Visiting these places, some of which I had frequented in the past and some of which were entirely new to me, provided an opportunity to engage with new informants and obtain more diverse perspectives from a wider range of Japanese and foreign voices. On this trip, I engaged numerous foreign communities residing in Japan, including Nigerians, Filipinos, Chinese, Koreans, and Ghanaians. Additionally, I also interviewed and conducted research with various Japanese university students and working professionals.

My dissertation discusses the practical and analytical contours of Japan’s changes. As a society long described as establishing inclusive criteria based on both biological descent and cultural fluency, the data I have gathered over the past several years suggests that this is slowly but surely changing. Interactions with non-Japanese and biracial people are becoming increasingly normative experiences and the patterns of interaction and forms of sociality that emerge carry significant ramifications for Japan’s future. Although my official research for this project has concluded, the questions surrounding Japanese-foreigner relations have just begun to unfold. Paying attention to how these relationships develop and endure will likely unveil important details about the future nature of Japanese society.

I would like to thank the Japan Foundation and CAPS for making this research possible. Such work would not have been possible without their generosity and for that I am sincerely grateful.

Paul Capobianco intends to defend his dissertation at the University of Iowa sometime in 2017 or early 2018. Data collected from his research has appeared in language studies journals and is presently being revised for resubmission in anthropology, communications studies, and Japan Studies journals.