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People and Society, Ethnic Groups

kitsui, Ainu language, Australoid, kiken, Altaic

The overwhelming majority of Japan’s population is ethnically Japanese. Closely related to other East Asians, the Japanese people are believed to have migrated to the islands of present-day Japan from the Asian continent and the South Pacific more than 2,000 years ago. The Ainu are Japan’s only indigenous ethnic group. Japan is also home to comparatively small groups of Koreans, Chinese, and residents from other countries. All told, the non-Japanese portion of the population totals no more than 2 percent, making Japan one of the most homogeneous countries in the world in terms of ethnic or national composition.

Although the origins of the Ainu are uncertain, traditional belief holds that they descended from the earliest settlers of Japan, who arrived long before the first Japanese. Their physical characteristics suggested to early anthropologists that they were Caucasoid (ultimately originating in southeastern Europe) or Australoid (originating in Australia and Southeast Asia). More recent scholarship suggests that they are related to the Tungusic, Altaic, and Uralic peoples of Siberia. The Ainu once inhabited a wider area of northern Japan but are now concentrated in a few settlements on Hokkaido. Of the current population of about 20,000 native Ainu, very few native speakers of the Ainu language remain. The Ainu have a distinct language and religious beliefs, and a rich material culture. Many engage in agriculture, fishing, and logging, or in tourism in their distinctive villages.

Koreans are the largest nonnative group in Japan, numbering 645,000. When the Japanese colonized Korea in the early 20th century, they forced many Koreans to move to Japan to work in Japanese mines and factories. Many Koreans living in Japan today are the children of these unwilling immigrants. They have permanent resident status in Japan and most rights of citizenship, but they face roadblocks to full citizenship and often suffer discrimination. Koreans make up more than 51 percent of all foreign residents in Japan. The next-largest group is the Chinese, some of whom were likewise forcibly relocated during Japan’s occupation of Taiwan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sizeable communities of Brazilians, Filipinos, and Americans also live in Japan. Since the 1980s workers from Asian countries such as China, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iran have come to Japan on temporary visas to work in construction and industry doing so-called “3K” jobs (kitsui, kitanai, and kiken, or “difficult, dirty, and dangerous”) that Japanese workers avoid. These foreign workers often live in inferior conditions and are generally shunned by many Japanese.

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