Global Human Rights and Minority Social Movements in Japan: A Webinar by Professor Kiyoteru Tsutsui

Global Human Rights and Minority Social Movements in Japan: A Webinar by Professor Kiyoteru Tsutsui

Tsutsui introduced the audience to three minority groups in Japan—the Ainu, resident Koreans (Zainichi), and the Burakumin—and illustrated how human rights have galvanized minority social movements there.
Tokyo’s Shin Okubo neighborhood, known for its Korea Town Tokyo’s Shin Okubo neighborhood, known for its Korea Town; photo courtesy Dr. Kiyoteru Tsutsui

On December 10, 2020, 44 educators from across the United States joined a webinar titled “Global Human Rights and Minority Social Movements in Japan.” The webinar was offered on Human Rights Day, 72 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted. The featured speaker was Dr. Kiyoteru Tsutsui, who is the Henri H. and Tomoye Takahashi Professor and Senior Fellow in Japanese Studies at the Shorenstein APARC at Stanford University. He is also Director of the Japan Program, a Senior Fellow of FSI, and a Professor of Sociology.

The webinar can be viewed below:

Tsutsui has written extensively about human rights, including his latest book Rights Make Might: Global Human Rights and Minority Social Movements in Japan. In his talk, Tsutsui introduced the three most salient minority groups in Japan—the Ainu, an indigenous people in the northern part of Japan whose numbers range from 25,000 to 30,000; resident Koreans (Zainichi), a colonial legacy whose numbers have hovered around a half million; and the Burakumin, a former outcaste group whose numbers are approximately three million.

Tsutsui set the context for his talk by providing an overview of the global expansion of human rights dating from the UDHR in 1948 to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights—both adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and came into force from 1976. Human rights are now established as one of the key principles in the international community. He noted that despite the wide recognition of human rights as an important international norm, whether the institutionalization of human rights in international society has done what it was intended to do still remains debatable.

Concerning the era of global human rights in Japan, Japan ratified the two International Covenants noted above in 1979 and has been a member of the UN Commission on Human Rights since 1982 and the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights since 1984. These as well as participation in other forums have impacted ethnic minorities in Japan.

Tsutsui shared the historical backgrounds and key issues concerning the Ainu and resident Koreans. Concerning the Ainu, he underscored their lack of ethnic/indigenous pride—much less political activism—prior to the 1970s. This was largely because of their dependence on government welfare and strong pressure for assimilation. He then highlighted how Ainus’ self-perception changed after the 1970s as a result of their exposure to the Global Indigenous Rights Movement, which led to a reawakening of indigenous pride and the rise of Ainu activism.

Concerning resident Koreans, Tsutsui introduced their history prior to the 1970s as Japanese colonial era immigrants and their descendants who came to Japan or were brought to Japan by increasingly forceful means towards the end of World War II. He discussed issues concerning their loss of Japanese citizenship after World War II, resulting practices such as the fingerprinting of resident Koreans, and hurdles to mobilize for civil and human rights due to their non-citizen status and divided identities. Like the Ainu, things began to change from the 1970s with the beginning of the human rights era in Japan. For example, from the 1980s, encouraged by universal human rights principles, some resident Koreans refused to be fingerprinted, a practice they had previously resented but reluctantly complied with, and by 1985, over 10,000 resident Koreans joined in refusal. Resident Koreans made appeals to the UN Commission on Human Rights and other international forums to pressure the Japanese government. Amid mounting pressure domestically and internationally, the government terminated the fingerprinting practice for permanent residents in Japan (largely resident Koreans) in 1993, and for all alien residents by 2000.

Tsutsui summarized his talk by noting that global human rights galvanized minority social movements in Japan in four ways: (1) they empowered local actors with a new understanding about rights; (2) they provided political opportunities at the global level; (3) they increased international flows of mobilization resources; and (4) they provided vocabulary to frame their causes effectively. He closed his talk with a question, “Should we have hope or despair in terms of the future of human rights in the world?” and noted that the empowering capacity of global human rights is often overlooked, that reform takes time, that it is important to identify conditions conducive to improvement, and that contemporary backlash poses serious challenges.

In reflecting on the webinar with the educators, Tsutsui noted, “I was honored to present my work to the educators who can teach students in their formative years how important it is to continuously work to support human rights and how these efforts in the local context can change human rights practices not just locally but globally. This is a particularly important moment in the United States and in the world to reinforce the importance of human rights and democracy, as fundamental principles of democratic governance are challenged and protection of basic rights is in jeopardy. In these challenging times, I’d like to emphasize the importance of continuing grassroots-level work to support the principles of human rights and democracy. Ideas matter, and education shapes the future of our world.”

Teachers might consider some of the following as essential questions to raise with their students after viewing the lecture by Professor Tsutsui:

  • How does the Ainu experience compare to the experience of Native Americans?
  • How do textbooks in Japan cover ethnic minorities, and how is this similar and different to how ethnic minorities in the United States are covered in textbooks?
  • How was ethnic minority participation in the Japanese military during World War II similar and different to ethnic minority participation in the U.S. military during World War II?
  • What role can museums that focus on ethnic minorities play in educating the public, e.g., National Ainu Museum, National Museum of African American History and Culture?
  • How is the backlash against ethnic minorities in Japan, e.g., being perceived as receiving special benefits, similar or different to that of ethnic minorities in the United States?
  • Why is it important for young students to understand the significance of universal human rights?

The webinar was made possible through the support of the Freeman Foundation’s National Consortium for Teaching about Asia initiative. The webinar was a joint collaboration between SPICE and Stanford’s Center for East Asian Studies, and the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. Special thanks to Dr. Dafna Zur, CEAS Director, and John Groschwitz, CEAS Associate Director, for their support; to Dr. Gi-Wook Shin, APARC Director, and Dr. Karen Eggleston, APARC Deputy Director, for their support; and to SPICE’s Naomi Funahashi for facilitating the webinar and Sabrina Ishimatsu for planning the webinar.