A debate that is gaining traction in the west is the question of multiculturalism. Even societies that have an established history of multicultural existence such as India are reevaluating their orientation towards the phenomenon. In these circumstances, East Asia countries, nations that escaped the vagaries of colonialism and the migration of the globalised age, are seen as a model. Yet the myth of a monocultural ‘Orient’ in opposition to a multicultural ‘Oxidant’ hides the variances that exist within these nations.
Almost all societies are multicultural, they just might differ on how homogenous or heterogeneous the population is. In the West, multiculturalism is more apparent because societies are made of vastly different cultures. On the other hand, East Asian societies such as China are composed of cultures that are more alike. Thus, the domination of one, such as Hans, is obscured.
The not-so-monocultural East
During the Meiji period, an externally threatened Japan set out to remove any internal contradictions which might destabilise the rising nation. The expansion to the northern Hokkaido Island and the subjugation of its native Ainu population had begun during the feudal era. In 1899, Japan passed the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act which despite its name aimed for assimilation. Several acres of land were seized; a parallel to the American westward expansion. The Ainu were forced to adopt Japanese names and speak the Japanese language.
Japan started acknowledging these differences only very recently but the aftereffects of the decades-long oppression are still felt today. A 2017 UNHRC report has stated that the Ainu suffer greater rates of poverty and discrimination in comparison to Japan’s non-Ainu citizens. But there is hope for a more nuanced understanding of Japanese society. Noted playwright Roger Pulvers has noted a changing mindset with the turn of the century. With the achievement of economic development, the need to acculturate the population is not that strong. The younger generation view an intersection of cultures not only at the international level but also at the national level.
What Japan is slowly coming to terms with is what China seems to be in the process of doing.
The Hans, make up about 90% of China’s population and their ethnocentric nationalism has a long history despite the CPC’s attempts to dissuade its more chauvinistic aspects. Although various concessions have been granted to minority groups, the CPC expects a degree of conformity. There is evident Han centrism in Chinese society. The mass migration of the Hans into Xinjiang in the past few decades has been criticised as a deliberate government policy rather than an aftereffect of the region’s economic development. In face of competition with the multicultural USA, China might fall back on its Han centrism to appear more cohesive to project superiority. This will come at the expense of the ethnic minorities. While the West talks about a holocaust in Xinjiang, what is happening there is probably more of cultural genocide.
Even South Korea, the nation that is probably the mostly homogenous, has to deal with multiculturalism. Falling fertility rates also mean that East Asian nations will have to open their boundaries to foreigners to fulfill labour requirements. But an ignorance and denial of this diversity, no matter how small it is, has had negative consequences. Non-Korean women who move to South Korea after marriage to a Korean are forced to assimilate. The South Korean government neglected and at times discriminated against foreigners in their response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The multicultural reality
As shown through the above examples, a denial of multiculturalism leads to the erasure of the less dominant cultures. Only when we acknowledge the existing differences, can we prevent any erasure. The present tide of identity politics means that people are becoming more and more aware of the difference between them. Debates around cultural appropriation also help. But the boundaries around cultures are like lines in the sand.
Cultures are always in flux. They are not a set definable thing. Today some are even bringing back cultural notions from the past to justify the present. Even in the so-called monocultural East Asia, westernization and globalisation have had a heavy influence on the cultures of these countries. South Korea’s K-pop has directly imbibed music styles from its western counterpart, specifically from African American musicians.
When two cultures interact due to proximity, assimilation generally does not happen in one direction even if the more dominant culture doesn’t change drastically. Despite the Know Nothing’s xenophobia, St Patrick’s Day is celebrated throughout the country and considered a part of the American culture. The Irish diaspora became Americanised while in turn, America included a bit of Irish culture in its society.
Wherever two or more cultures exist and interact, there will be crossflow. In today’s world, as Benedict Anderson had highlighted in his Imagined Communities, modern communication is allowing us to identify with people we have never met based on a shared common background. At the same time, some are building firm boundaries between cultures to preserve their supposed purity. In the age of vast labour flows, it will be interesting to see how these boundaries will keep on shifting.
Whatever the result might be, it will be unwise to keep an illusion of monoculturalism in an era where people of various backgrounds are interacting while using different identities and cultures to link themselves to their past. Only when the difference is acknowledged can the neglected sections of society be integrated into the public and political space.