Last month, YouTube personality Jon Jafari—known to his millions of subscribers as "JonTron"— backed himself into a particularly unsavory corner during a livestream debate held on Twitch, through making some unwarranted remarks concerning immigration. As he veered from one rhetorical disaster to another—you don't talk about "ethnic enclaves" and compare today's America to Apartheid-era South Africa without arching eyebrows—one of his examples was particularly revealing and dangerously uninformed.
During the stream—hosted on professional streamer Steve Bonnell's channel (where he's known as "Destiny")—Jafari called Japan a "model society," presenting a romanticized version of a country that, from the outside looking in, has got it all figured out. He would later go on to add, "nobody would ask Japan if it was okay if Japan became a minority Japanese nation," likely referencing how homogeneous the population is.
Jafari's beliefs are hardly unique, his opinions shared by others who reject the idea of a society that benefits from a diversified population for fear of losing their own identity, or who hold a desire to secure a presumed "purity." But I know for a fact—from personal experience and through education, having spent a lot of time there—that Japan is not the "model society" Jafari claims it to be.
Yes, I am in fact Japanese—though only ever half.
I've always been self-conscious about my mixed heritage. My mother was born and raised in Japan and went on to marry my half-Swedish father, whose blue eyes and blonde hair I did not inherit. My appearance holds no significant traits that can define exactly what I am. Not entirely white, not entirely Asian. While I can't place my finger on the source of the anxiety I have over my identity, there has always been an internalized pressure to "be" Japanese. This meant I needed to be fluent in the language, knowledgeable of the culture, and aware of every single historical event dating back to the conception of the country. I was preparing myself to take an imaginary exam that would prove to no one in particular that yes, I am in fact Japanese—though only ever half.
Japan is plagued by a number of societal and cultural issues that are often overlooked outside of the country itself, particularly by Western observers keener to celebrate its more colorful qualities. These complications—intense work ethics, high expectations placed upon students, social conformity—may appeal to people because they're supposed to be ideals that produce good results, but they do more harm than good. And such expectations, which have proven to be both physically and mentally damaging, should never be circumstances on which a "model society" are based.
The belief that Japan is considered "perfect" may be attributed to the media the country produces—and in turn, the media produced about Japan by the west, too. It's easy to look at the animated films, illustrated novels, and video games that it's well-known for and become enamored by it all.
These depictions of Japan often fall into one of two categories: First, Japan is rendered as an idealized, distant place of harmony and honor. It retains a sort of "old world" culture of loyalty and respect that the decadent west has lost—this is the Japan that Jafari suggests exists. Second, is "weird Japan," brought to life by the are countless, recycled jokes about tentacle porn and used panties on TV sitcoms and during podcast banter. But these two depictions are not in contradiction: This skewed perception of Japan that causes many to nonchalantly chalk up any indiscretions or questionable content in Japanese media as funny national characteristic. Whether someone believe that "Japan is weird!" or if they believe it's the last bastion of a more traditional age, both visions see Japan as an exception to the complexities of modern life. It's not a real place. It's a fairy tale, a joke, or both.
I'd like to emphasize that there's nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about the media that Japan creates. If your stepping stone to learning more about Japan stems from your excitement of its media, that's fantastic, and I encourage you to explore it. Japanese media isn't bad in and of itself, at all. But it only offers a small taste of what Japan is like: a place that, as it stands, clings to racial purity and remaining culturally homogenous.
Let's examine Jafari's "model society" outside of placing homogeneity as the standard. Businessmen fall asleep standing upright while riding the subway home at 10pm, beaten to the bone by a society that promotes a toxic work culture, still influenced by ancient ideals. If you're not working all the time to contribute to the good of society, then you aren't being constructive. The Japanese have a term, "Ganbatte" (頑張って), which loosely translates as "don't give up," or "do your best." It might be a cute phrase on paper to Western eyes—but in practice, with employers looking on as workers fake-smile their way through their day, it can be completely exhausting. It's usually a term reserved for showing support but when used in a context where workers are encouraged to exhaust themselves, it's hardly uplifting. And saying that the Japanese work harder than their contemporaries in the West really isn't a compliment.
Indeed, overtime culture is such a problem that there's a term for that, too. "Karōshi" (過労死) which translates literally to "overworking death." It's such an epidemic that working yourself to death can be officially registered on a death certificate. At it's current state, Japan's work culture promotes fatigue and overwork. Consider a man who leaves early and works late, leaving little time to spend with their family at home. How can he have a healthy work-life balance if the majority of it is spent at the office? If his co-workers are staying late, then it would be dangerous for him to stand out and leave at an acceptable time.
Although this doesn't affect the entirety of Japan, there is also the very real issue of loneliness and isolation. A hikikomori is an adolescent or adult who has resigned themselves away from society and social life—they're also often described as "loners" or "hermits." The degree to which this phenomenon exists depends solely on the individual; but in the most extreme cases, people effectively vanish for several years.
Some of these hikikomoris previously go through a phase of refusing to attend school, too, for a variety of reasons ranging from anxiety to other forms of stress. Having seen the Japanese school system first hand, I don't blame them—the country's education system can be brutal and places great demands on young people. There are high expectations, where students face significant pressure from parents and society as a whole to conform—much as their elders do when they move into employment. In both work and education, competition is fierce and breeds far too much stress to be considered healthy by the standards we generally accept in the West. Here, mental health matters are more commonly discussed, and it's become accepted that just because an employee or student isn't bearing any outward signs of pain doesn't mean they don't need help. But to many Japanese people, silent conformity is safer than becoming an outlier, where stepping away from perceived norms is to step away from society itself.
We cannot praise Japan for ethnic homogeneity as Jafari has done because it's deceptive and as illustrated, doesn't work when put into practice.
The elderly citizens of Japan greatly outnumber the young, with the country's overall population declining since 2011. The dramatic aging of Japanese citizens is a result of low sub-replacement fertility and high life expectancy. Older citizens are self-reliant and active, often taken care of by their families due to traditional household hierarchies and financial reasons. It's incredibly common for generations to live under the same roof, although this has started to change in recent years.
But when a family can no longer take care of their elderly loved ones, they move them into assisted living. Because over 33% of the Japanese population is above age 60, 25.9% are aged 65 or above, 12.5% and are aged 75 or above, placing the elderly into homes puts a massive strain on the economy and social services. With fewer working-aged individuals to contribute to society, Japan's economy is being affected. Even with an official retirement age in place, citizens can (and still do) work well into their 60s.
We cannot praise Japan for ethnic homogeneity as Jafari has done because it's deceptive and as illustrated, doesn't work when put into practice. The country has major problems around racial diversity. The issues afflicting Japan—especially the strong desire to retain group identity and exclude outside cultures—tie into the cultural issues of overwork, isolation, conformity, competition. Japan's cultural monism and deep nationalism influences the concerns I've laid out because it points to the larger problem of this mindset being associated with growth and success. If Jafari looks at Japan and idealizes the homogeneity and focusing on that as his selling point of "too much mixing causes problems," he's also looking at the of history of a country that has essentially ignored the warning signs of an inflexible mentality.
Through the admiring lens of western exoticsm, Japan is seen as having a unique culture because of its institutions and how they contrast against Western countries. It's a homogeneous society that has a strong sense of group and national identity, with little ethnic or racial diversity. Strict immigration laws prevent Japan from being fully inclusive. It does little to help assimilate transplants into everyday life.
But these beliefs are not good—they are and have been detrimental for Japan and Japanese society. Opposing diversity and embracing a racial purity that does not exist prevents richness and variety, breeding a dangerous "us versus them" mentality.
I love Japan, and I want my second home to thrive and work to fix these issues. But a cultural shift needs to take place in order to facilitate any meaningful movement, and solutions are hard to implement because they are not immediate. Many dangerous assumptions can be drawn by labeling a country that has a complicated history and societal differences as the status quo. It's the pinnacle of ignorance. Japan—like every other place in the world—is imperfect. One should take the time to research and learn about the intricacies of the environment which is being placed on a pedestal, especially if a wide audience has access to those misconceptions.
Perhaps the concept of homogeneity is appealing because there are people afraid of America, and other countries in the West, becoming more culturally diverse—Brexit couldn't have happened without a percentage of the British population holding strong anti-immigration values. But being resistant to cultural variety has a tendency to show one's xenophobia, as Jafari's comments so clearly illustrated. To individuals like him, the melting pot cannot contain too many varieties of people, or else it'll boil over.