Japan is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world, with over 99% of the population identifying as Yamato (i.e. ethnic Japanese). However, it is still home to several ethnic minorities, both indigenous and immigrant.
- See also: Japanese colonial empire
After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan began to expand, adopting the Western model of colonialism, first annexing the island of Ezo in 1869, and renaming it to Hokkaido. Prior to annexation, Ezo was considered to foreign land that was not part of any country, mainly inhabited by the indigenous Ainu people, with pockets of Japanese settlement on the southern tip, but a settler colonial policy instituted by the Meiji government resulted in large-scale Japanese settlement of Hokkaido following annexation. The Ainu were dispossessed of their land, forced to assimilate and heavily discriminated against by the Japanese government.
The Ryukyu Kingdom, which until then had been an independent kingdom that was a tributary state of Imperial China, was annexed by Japan as Okinawa prefecture in 1879. The culture of the local Ryukyuan people was heavily suppressed, and they were forced to assimilate into mainstream Japanese society. Japan would then expand further after defeating China in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, annexing Taiwan and forcing China to give up its influence over its vassal state Korea. Korea was then annexed outright in 1910.
Following Japan's defeat in World War II, Japan was forced to give up its colonial empire. Taiwan was returned to China, and Korea regained its independence, while Okinawa was placed under American occupation until it was returned to Japan in 1972. Most of the Koreans who had been brought to Japan as indentured labourers during the colonial period chose to return to Korea, though a significant minority chose to remain in Japan, where they are today known as the Zainichi Koreans.
Since the end of World War II, the Japanese government has gradually eased its policy of cultural assimilation, and there has been a revival of sorts of ethnic minority cultures, primarily for tourism purposes.
The Ainu (アイヌ民族) are the only officially-recognized ethnic minority in Japan. They are indigenous to the island of Hokkaido, the northern tip of Honshu, as well as the Kuril Islands, Sakhalin and the southern tip of Kamchatka in Russia.
They have long been severely discriminated against by both the Japanese and Russian governments, who both implemented aggressive cultural assimilation policies. Today, the Ainu language is extinct in Russia, and is moribund in Japan, having been reduced to only a handful of elderly speakers. While Ainu culture is effectively extinct in Russia, in Japan, the government has begun to take steps to preserve Ainu culture in the 21st century.
The Ainu and the Northwest Coast peoples of Canada and the US are only cultures in history to have developed complex forms of art before they had agriculture. Probably the fine food supply from salmon was the key factor allowing this.
Numerous tourist attractions in Hokkaido have been designed to give tourists a taste of Ainu culture.
- 1 Upopoy (ウポポイ), Shiraoi. Japan's main Ainu cultural centre, home to the National Ainu Museum (国立アイヌ民族博物館), a theatre where tourists can watch traditional Ainu performances, as well as a life-sized model of a traditional Ainu village called a kotan (コタン) in the Ainu language that tourists can explore.
- 2 Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum (二風谷アイヌ文化博物館), Biratori. A museum displaying numerous traditional Ainu artifacts, located in an area with several Ainu villages.
- 3 Lake Akan Ainu Kotan (阿寒湖アイヌコタン), Akan National Park. An Ainu village on the shores of Lake Akan, with numerous shops where you can purchase traditional Ainu handicrafts.
- 4 Shiranuka. The town of Shiranuka is an iwor (イオル), a designated Ainu traditional livelihood zone. As such, there are efforts to preserve and reestablish Ainu culture in the town. The Ureshipa Chise (アイヌ文化活動施設 ウレシパチセ) contains a small exhibit of Ainu cultural artifacts and provides opportunities to experience and participate in various Ainu cultural activities, from dancing to cooking. The city is also known for preserving three Ainu festivals, the Icharupa Festival (offerings are given to appease spirits and bring safety to the village), Whale Festival (thanks is given for the natural world that keeps people alive), and Shishamo Festival (prayers are given for abundant smelt fishing catches). Many sites around the city have corresponding legends. In addition, Shiranuka was the site of an invasion by outside Ainu groups and has a handful of chashi (Ainu forts and ritual sites).
- 5 Nemuro Peninsula Chashi, Nemuro. The Ainu built over 500 Chashi, often referred to as forts/castles, during the 16th-18th centuries all over Hokkaido Island. With 30 of them, the Nemuro Peninsula has the largest concentration of chashi. Twenty-four of these chashi have been labeled National Historic Sites and are also the first entry on Japan's Top 100 Castles list, so efforts have been made to preserve them. The chashi were built by the ocean near cliffs, mostly semi-circular in shape but sometimes rectangular, with only mud walls and a moat separating them from the outside. Their purpose is still debated. Some believe they were built for rituals and only used as forts when necessary or in later periods while others believe they were built specifically in preparation for war with the Japanese. In spite of their designations, many of the sites are unmarked or inaccessible to the public, so it is not possible to visit all of them. A few, such as the Onnemoto Chashi and Notsukamafu Chashi, have been marked and those that are accessible but unmarked can be visited with planning. No structures remain at any of the sites, but you can still see the outlines and layout at some of the better-preserved sites.
The Ryukyuans (琉球民族) are the indigenous people of the Ryukyu islands, today known as Okinawa prefecture. They were formerly an independent kingdom before being annexed by Japan in 1879. As the Ryukyu Kingdom was a tributary state of Imperial China, Chinese influences are much stronger in Ryukyuan culture than in mainland Japanese culture.
The Ryukyuan people spoke a variety of languages in the Ryukyuan branch of the Japonic language family, related to but distinct from Japanese. Due to decades of heavy discrimination and forced cultural assimilation by the Japanese government, the Ryukyuan languages are now moribund; most younger people cannot speak them unless they were raised by their grandparents.
Unlike the Ainu, the Ryukyuan people are not officially recognised as an ethnic minority by the Japanese government, and are instead considered to be a subset of the Yamato people. However, many Ryukyuans still have a strong sense of cultural identity, and regard themselves as distinct from the Yamato people of mainland Japan. Much of the cultural heritage of the Ryukyu Kingdom was destroyed by American bombing during World War II, though some of it has been reconstructed since the late 20th century. As the Japanese government gradually eased its cultural assimilation policy in the second half of the 20th century, Ryukyuan culture has experienced a revival of sorts, and there are numerous opportunities for tourists to partake in it.
- 6 Shuri Castle (首里城), Naha. The main royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, it was destroyed by American bombing during World War II. It was reconstructed using historical records and photographs beginning in 1992, but the reconstructed main hall burnt down in a fire in 2019, and rebuilding is only expected to be completed no earlier 2026.
- 7 Ryukyu Mura (琉球村), Onna, Okinawa Island. A small theme park dedicated to Ryukyuan culture, with numerous cultural performances and workshops for visitors.
- 8Taketomi Island (竹富島), Yaeyama Islands. A small island close to Ishigaki, it is known for having perhaps the best preserved example of a traditional Ryukyuan village.
Karate was originally developed in Okinawa.
- See also: Overseas Chinese cuisine
Contact between China and Japan goes back over a millennium, with traditional Japanese culture exhibiting strong Chinese influences. Many Chinese fled to Japan as refugees over the years during periods of political turmoil in China, while others went to Japan as traders; the Ming Dynasty loyalist Koxinga, who defeated the Dutch and set up a rump Ming empire in Taiwan, was actually born in Japan to a Chinese father and Japanese mother.
During the Edo Period, when the Tokugawa Shogunate implemented a strict policy of isolationism, minor exceptions were made for Dutch and Chinese merchants, who were permitted to set up trading posts at Nagasaki, albeit with their movements severely restricted by law. Due to this long Chinese presence, the local cuisine of Nagasaki exhibits strong Chinese influences, and the city is also known for having a particularly high concentration of Chinese temples.
During the Meiji and Taisho periods, as Japan became the first non-Western country to industrialise, many Chinese people made their way to Japan to study and bring back advanced knowledge, as Japan was both culturally and geographically closer to China than the Western countries, and much cheaper too; Sun Yat-sen, the founding president of the Republic of China, had studied in Japan. Moreover, many Taiwanese, both indigenous and Han Chinese, were brought to Japan as indentured laborers during Japanese colonial rule over the island (1895-1945).
In modern times, Japan is home to three Chinatowns, though there are also Chinese residents scattered throughout other parts of Japan. The modern Chinese population in Japan includes both more recent immigrants from China, as well as local-born residents of Chinese descent who have lived in Japan for many generations. The latter are known in Japan as the Zainichi Chinese (在日中国人). Chinese immigrants have also left a lasting impact on Japanese cuisine, with ramen being perhaps the best known Japanese dish of Chinese origin.
- 9 Nagasaki Shinchi Chinatown (長崎新地中華街), Nagasaki. The oldest Chinatown in Japan, founded in the 15th century by Chinese merchants from Fuzhou, who set up their warehouses in the area. Today, the area is known for being home to numerous restaurants serving Japanized versions of Chinese food, and is particularly beautiful during the Chinese New Year, when the streets will be decorated with red lanterns for the occasion.
- 10 Kannaimachi (館内町), Nagasaki. Formerly known as Tōjin Yashiki (唐人屋敷), this was where the Chinese merchants in Nagasaki maintained their residences during the Edo Period. As the Tokugawa Shogunate had adopted an isolationist policy, the Chinese merchants were mostly confined to this area when they were not working at their warehouses, and were required to be escorted by armed guards on the rare occasions they were allowed to leave. Today, while most of the former Chinese residents have moved elsewhere, the area is still home to a number of Chinese temples.
- 11 Nagasaki Confucius Shrine (長崎孔子廟), Nagasaki. A Chinese temple dedicated to Confucius that was built in 1893 by Chinese residents of the city with financial support from China's then-ruling Qing Dynasty. The land that the temple stands on continues to be owned by the Chinese embassy in Tokyo to this day. The temple grounds is also home to a museum of Chinese history, which often displays items on loan from museums in China.
- 12 Kōfuku-ji (興福寺), Nagasaki. The oldest Chinese temple in Nagasaki, built in 1624 by Chinese merchants from Fuzhou.
- 13 Sōfuku-ji (崇福寺), Nagasaki. A Chinese Buddhist temple built by Chinese merchants from Fuzhou in 1629, its architectural style is typical of that of southern China during the late Ming Dynasty. Many of the older buildings had parts that were made in China before being shipped to Japan to be assembled.
- 14 Nankin-machi (南京町), Kobe. Kobe's Chinatown dates back to 1868, when the city was first opened to foreign traders. Many Chinese traders, initially from Fujian and Guangdong settled in the area. They would later be joined by immigrants from all over China, including many from the city of Nanjing, thus giving the area its current name. Today, the area is still home to numerous restaurants serving Japanized versions of Chinese food, as well as a temple dedicated to Guan Yu, a famous Chinese general from the Three Kingdoms period.
- 15 Yokohama Chinatown (横浜中華街), Yokohama. The largest Chinatown in modern-day Japan, dating back in 1859. Today, it continues to be the main hub of Chinese culture within the Tokyo metropolitan area, and is home to many restaurants serving Japanized versions of Chinese food, several Chinese temples, and two Chinese schools.
While contact between Japan and Korea goes back millennia, the modern-day Korean community in Japan mostly traces its origin to Japanese colonial rule in Korea (1910-1945), when many Koreans were brought to Japan as indentured laborers. While most of these Koreans chose to go back to Korea after Japan's defeat at the end of World War II, a significant number opted to remain in Japan, where their descendants are today known as the Zainichi Koreans (在日韓国人 or 在日朝鮮人). There are two organizations in Japan representing the Zainichi Koreans, namely the North Korea-affiliated Chongryon and the South Korea-affiliated Mindan, both of which run a network of Korean schools in the country. Yakiniku, or Japanese barbecued meat, was originally introduced to Japan by Korean immigrants, albeit modified to suit the Japanese palate.
- 16 History Museum of J-Koreans (在日韓人歴史資料館), Minato, Tokyo. Museum dedicated to the history of the Zainichi Koreans.
- 17 Utoro Peace Memorial Museum (ウトロ平和祈念館), Uji, Kyoto Prefecture. Located in the Utoro district of Uji city, an area mostly inhabited by Zainichi Koreans, and long neglected by the Japanese government. The museum was built with support from the South Korean government, and has exhibits about the history of Japanese colonial rule in Korea, as well as the history of the Zainichi Korean community.
- 18 Komo Shrine (高麗神社), Hidaka, Saitama Prefecture. A Shinto shrine established in the 8th century by refugees from the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo who fled to Japan after its fall. While their descendants have assimilated into Japanese society over the years and are no longer identifiably Korean, the shrine features several reminders of the Korean heritage of its founders, such as two Korean steeles near the entrance, and several statues depicting the Goguryeo nobility.
- 19 Tsuruhasi (鶴橋), Ikuno, Osaka. A district of Osaka with one of the largest ethnic Korean populations in Japan, it is best known to locals for its Korean barbecue restaurants.
Very few Americans were permitted in Japan prior to Commodore Matthew C. Perry's "Black Ships" visit that forced the country to open up to trade with the outside world through the signing of the 1854 Convention of Kanagawa. This ended centuries of isolationism and led to the collapse of the shogunate in 1868. Since Perry represented the United States, his agreement naturally led to an influx of Americans being permitted. It also marked a shift away from Dutch learning as Japan realized the Dutch were not as prominent players on the world stage as they'd previously believed.
During WWII, American immigration was ceased and Americans and other citizens of Allied Powers already living in the country were placed in concentration camps. After winning the war against Japan, the US established military bases in Japan and placed Okinawa under American occupation. A large number of American military personnel were stationed in Japan with a majority being sent to Okinawa. More cultural interactions and exchanges took place with both the American military and American civilians. Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, but the US continues to have an active military presence on the island and maintains other military bases around the country as well. Because of this history, there are stark differences in views and attitudes towards Americans in Okinawa versus the rest of Japan. To this day, the US military operates a large area on the main island which leads to periodic protests, especially when a military member is accused of committing crimes against locals. American cultural influences remain strong throughout Japan, and the Japanese words for most modern concepts are derived from American English.
- 20 Shimoda. The southern Izu Peninsula is where Commodore Perry landed with his famous black ship, which led to the opening of Japan. In the city, you can find and ride a replica of the ship, visit monuments at Perry's actual port stop, and visit the temple were he was brought for meetings and negotiations.
- 21 American Village (アメリカンビレッジ). Mihama's American Village is an area of shops, hotels, and entertainment near the American military bases in Okinawa. Americans often come from the bases with friends and family, so there are venues that cater to American tastes as opposed to the Japanized versions that are typical in most parts of the country.
Japan's ethnic minorities have long been severely discriminated against by the Japanese government, who sought to create a culturally homogeneous Japanese nation-state following the Meiji Restoration. While cultural assimilation policies have been eased in the decades following World War II, and ethnic minority cultures can now be publicly promoted again, there is still some lingering mistrust of the Japanese government among them. As a visitor, you should be tactful when talking to Japan's ethnic minorities about their histories, and avoid discussing their modern-day relationship with the Japanese government.