Minzoku is a Japanese word meaning an ethnic group, a nation, a race, or even a combination of all these. A Japanese dictionary defines minzoku as ”(1) a social group sharing many common characteristics in race, language, culture, religion, etc.; (2) a social group sharing a territory, an economy and a fate and forming a state. A nation” (Umesao et al. 1989). Minzoku Japanese words coined in the westernizing Meiji era (1868-1911) on the basis of original western concepts.

The multivocal nature of the word reflects the fact that ethnic, national, and racial categories rather vaguely overlap in the Japanese perception of themselves. The Japanese view of nation is very much an ethnic one. Japan’s national identity has centered around the notion of the uniqueness of Japanese ethnicity shared by its members, a uniqueness which is a function of culture, religion, and race.

Although minzoku is commonly used in everyday language as well as in political discourses in Japan, conceptual ambiguities surrounding this concept render it unsuitable as an analytical tool in social sciences. In an effort to ensure greater analytical clarity as well as to deconstruct the notion of minzoku itself, social scientists generally make use of English social scientific terms such as nation, ethnicity, and race in examining minzoku related phenomena in Japan.

Japanese Minzoku as an Ethnic/Racial Nation

Traditionally, use of the term ”ethnic” in English was restricted to minorities and immigrant groups. Many social scientists now extend the use of the word to connote a broader historical prototype or substratum of national community. For example, Anthony D. Smith under stands nation – in the case of the first nations of Western Europe and several other leading states including Japan – as being based on ties of ethnicity, arguing that a nation arises upon an ethnic community, which he calls ethnie. ln the Japanese context, this can be taken to refer to a community or a group of communities that existed in what is now called the Japanese Archipelago in the period prior to the Meiji era, which was characterized by ethnic sentiment and an ethnic state but was not fully conscious of itself as a nation. In the Japanese language, however, there is no need to distinguish between premodern ethnie and modern nation. In fact, use of the notion of minzoku accentuates a sense of continuity between premodern developments in the formation of Japanese identity and the building of the modern Japanese nation.

The concept of “ethnic” can also refer to a substratal sense of identity among the contemporary Japanese based on culture and descent -though ambiguities surround the boundaries between ethnic and national sentiment. Again, it appears more realistic to use the Japanese notion of minzoku in depicting issues of Japanese identity, since ethnic and racial elements are fused with one another to form Japanese national identity.

The making of the Japanese minzoku (nation) had very much to do with the formulation in the late nineteenth century of the nationalist ideology that conceived Japan as a ”family nation” of divine origin. Members of the family nation were perceived to be related ”by kin” to one another and ultimately to the emperor. Kinship, religion, and race were fused with one another to produce an intensely felt collective sense of ”oneness.” This nationalist ideology went into eclipse following Japan’s defeat in World War II.

More recently, the myth of Japan as a distinctive ethnic/racial nation resurfaced in a more subtle form as part of a resurgence of cultural nationalism in the 1970s and 1980s. Cultural nationalism of this period was closely associated with the dominant discourses, commonly referred to as nihonjinron, which defined and redefined the distinctiveness of the Japanese. It was widely held that Japanese patterns of behavior and thought are so unique that one cannot understand and acquire them unless one is born Japanese. It may be said that Japanese culture is here perceived to be the exclusive property of the ”Japanese race.” It must be stressed that in reality there is no such thing as a ”Japanese race” and that ”race” itself is a socially constructed notion. If ethnicity is a collectivity of people defined by virtue of belief in shared culture and history, race focuses upon, and exaggerates, a particular aspect of ethnicity, that is, kinship and kin lineage. Here, race is a marker that strengthens ethnic and, therefore, national identity. Subconsciously, the Japanese have perceived themselves as a distinct ”racial” community, and this perception is characteristically expressed by the fictitious notion of ”Japanese blood.” Although most Japanese may doubt that such an entity exists in reality, this rhetorical symbol facilitates the sentiment that ”we,” members of the ”imagined kinship,” are the product of our own special formative experience in history and that, because of this, ”we” possess unique qualities.

This type of thinking, which closely associates culture with ”race,” is, again, reflected in conceptual ambiguities surrounding race, ethnicity, and nation in the Japanese word minzoku. In addition, there is a myth of Japan as a homogeneous, uniracial/ethnic nation (tan’itsu minzoku), that is, a strong emphasis on the homogeneity of Japanese society and a corresponding lack of adequate scholarly attention given to ethnic minorities in Japan such as Koreans, Chinese, Ainu, and Okinawans.

Changing Perceptions of Japanese Minzoku

Due to developments in studies of nationalism and national identity as well as to changes in Japan itself and its external relations, discourses emphasizing the ethnic and racial qualities of the Japanese minzoku (nation) now tend to be identified as problematic among concerned scholars. In particular, use of the cliche tan’itsu minzoku (uniracial/ethnic nation) increasingly provokes controversy and criticism, given the now dominant trend toward demythologization of the uniracial/ethnic nation of Japan. Some of the changes that have been occurring in the discourse on Japanese ethnic/racial/national identity may be mentioned here.

First, an increasingly large influx of migrant workers from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and other developing regions in the 1980s and 1990s served as a catalyst for the Japanese to reconsider the myth of homogeneous Japan. A growing number of newspaper articles, books, and television programs have featured race and ethnic relations involving these migrant laborers. The undeniable presence of visible foreigners living as neighbors in the community and working side by side with Japanese at construction sites and in factories and other workplaces has made it more and more unrealistic to refer to Japan (at least, urban Japan) as being homogeneous.

Second, in a wider context, the development of studies of ethnicity and nationalism has also provided stimulus for a critique of the tan’itsu minzoku myth. Recent years have seen a steady increase in the number of scholars who apply insights provided by theorists such as Anthony Smith and Benedict Anderson to explore some of the interesting issues of ethnie and nation that had hitherto been neglected. For example, it was long assumed that Japan was without a regionally based ethnic community comparable to the Basques in Spain or Bretons in France. With the development of the sociological debate on ethnicity, Japan’s own prefecture of Okinawa has increasingly drawn the attention of scholars. Indeed, Okinawans’ strong sense of possessing their own distinctive culture and history may well entitle them to be regarded as a distinct ethnic community.

A group of historians is now calling into question the very concept of the Japanese minzoku (ethnie) itself. A leading example is Amino, who is a long time critic of the notion of Japan as a uniracial/ethnic nation and whose writings have attracted increasing attention as the deconstruction of the tan’itsu minzoku myth has become part of the popular scholarly agenda. Amino maintains that, despite popular belief, the Japanese did not constitute an ethnie in the early medieval period or in the Kamakura period (1185-1333 ce). On the contrary, he argues that early medieval Japan consisted of an ”East Country” and a ”West Country” with two distinct types of social structures, political systems, and religious beliefs, and that the differences between the two ”countries” were as large as or even larger than those between Portugal, Spain, Italy, and France or between the Nether lands and Germany before they became nations as we know them today. Even though different regions of Japan had objective conditions for and the potential to develop into distinct minzoku (nations), Amino maintains that history did not take such a course due to various historical coincidences. His new interpretations of Japanese history are regarded as a prominent challenge to the tan’itsu minzoku ideology.

The notion that Japanese culture is the exclusive property of the ”Japanese race” is also being challenged by the growing presence in Japan of ”obvious” foreigners who speak Japanese just as naturally as the native Japanese, on the one hand, and those Japanese returnees from abroad (kikokushijo) whose behavior and use of the Japanese language appear ”foreign,” on the other. One result of these cases of Japanese like foreigners and un-Japanese Japanese is a lack of fit between cultural and ”racial” boundaries of difference, which in turn causes an inconsistency in and inefficacy of the symbolic boundary system that defines Japanese identity. The increasing occurrence of such ”boundary dissonance,” one byproduct of globalization, is posing a challenge to the assumption that those who speak and behave like the Japanese should be ”racially” Japanese, and vice versa.

Still, the racial and cultural overtones in the notion of Japanese minzoku have deep roots. Ironically, these roots often reveal themselves in the process of the so called internationalization of Japan. Just to give one noteworthy example, Japan’s immigration law prohibits the entry of unskilled workers partly because of fear that such an influx might endanger the racial homogeneity and harmony of Japanese society. While there is a real need for migrant workers in the labor market, the state is unwilling to change the immigration law. One measure the business community took to cope with this dilemma was to recruit South Americans of Japanese ancestry, as the law allows second and third generation Japanese South Americans to work legally in Japan provided that proof is submitted that one parent is of Japanese nationality. This case shows the continued relevance and changing arenas of the racial and ethnic nature of Japanese national identity amidst the phenomenon of globalization in the world economy and labor markets.


  1. Amino, Y. (1992) Togoku to Saigoku, Kahoku to Kanan (East Country and West Country, North China and South China). In: Arano, Y. et al. (Eds.), Ajia no Naka no Nihonshi IV: Chiiki to Etonosu (The History of Japan in Asia IV: Regions and Ethnos). University of Tokyo Press, Tokyo.
  2. Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, edn. Verso, London.
  3. Gluck, C. (1985) Japans Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  4. Oguma, E. (2002) A Genealogy of “Japanese” Self Images. D. Askew. Trans Pacific Press, Melbourne.
  5. Smith, A. D. (1986) The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Blackwell, Oxford.
  6. Umesao, T. et al. (Eds.) (1989) Nihongo Daijiten (The Great Japanese Dictionary). Kodansha, Tokyo.
  7. Yoshino, K. (1992) Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan: A Sociological Enquiry. Routledge, London and New York.

Back to Sociology of Race