Multiculturalism as a New Discourse: Race and Ethnic Relation in Japan’s Junior High Schools’ English Language Textbooks from the 1980s to the Present

Document Type


Document Subtype


Presentation Date

Summer 8-7-2009

Conference Name

Society for the Study of Social Problems

Conference Location

San Francisco, CA


This paper examines what cultural attitudes toward race and ethnicity are taught in Japan’s International Education and how its multicultural and international status, as well as its diversity and multiplicity, affect the school curriculum. According to the Course of Study, International Education is not an independent subject but an integral part of subjects such as moral education, social studies, and foreign language education (Ehara 1992). In this study, the English language as a Foreign Language is chosen because it has been taught as an important subject as a part of the International Education program. In a descriptive content analysis of Japanese junior high school textbooks to teach the English language as a Foreign Language, I explore how racial and ethnic relations are recognized and represented within the textbooks. Twenty four textbooks published between 1981 and 2006 are subjected to this content analysis. I intend to identify what racial and ethnic groups appear and how they are represented and interacted in the texts. Furthermore, I will present how the representation of race and ethnic relations in Japan had been changed over time, comparing the descriptions from the 1980s to the present.

Is teaching race and ethnicity irrelevant in racially and ethnically homogeneous societies such as Japan? Despite the view of Japanese society as racially and ethnically homogenous, a number of observers of Japan have started to argue its diversity and multiplicity (Befu 2000; Lee, Murphy-Shigematsu, and Befu 2006; Lie 2001; Maher and Macdonald 1995; Marshall 1994; McCormack 1996; McVeigh 2004; Murphy-Shigematsu [2000] 2003; Sugimoto 2003; Weiner 1997; Willis and Murphy-Shigematsu 2008; Yoshino 1992). Due to the influx of foreign immigrants since the 1990s, the issues of foreign residents in Japan have increasingly drawn public attention (Douglass and Roberts 2003; Lie 2001; Willis and Murphy-Shigematsu 2008), pointing to Japanese discriminatory attitudes toward non-Japanese (c.f., Befu 2006; Lie 2001; Chung 2006; Lee 2002; Russell 1991a, 1991b; Tsuda 2000; Yamanaka [2000] 2003). As a result, these discussions direct to shed light upon the issues of Japanese own ethnic minority groups such as the Ainu and zainichi-Korean (i.e., Korean descendents living in Japan), which have been neglected for a long time. If Japan’s International Education is to produce Japanese students capable to successfully communicate those who from other cultures, I would argue that the issues of race and ethnicity should be taught in the curriculum of International Education to foster cultural sensitivity.

One major finding is that the ethnic diversity of Japan and the world had been increasingly represented in the English language textbooks over time. Although ethnic characteristics were frequently found, racial characteristics were rarely expressed in the textbooks. The lack of racial descriptions can be understood from two perspectives. First, this ambiguity suggests that racial characteristics are difficult to define. Next, it refers to avoidance, unfamiliarity, or negligence about the idea of race. The textbooks might purposely avoid indicating racial characteristics or fail to acknowledge the racial and ethnic diversity around the world. Such avoidance does not serve Japanese learners of English well. Although Japan’s English language textbooks increasingly display various nations, including Asia and South America, no lessons regarding the issues of prejudice and discrimination were found.

Finally, I suggest that racial and ethnic relations (in both domestic and global contexts) should be taught to reduce discrimination and prejudice in Japan’s International Education. More specifically, race and ethnicity can be taught as an integrative subject of the English language curriculum. Students at junior high school level should be able to discuss those issues because they learn forms of prejudice and discrimination in other subjects such as social studies and moral education.


textbook, race and ethnicity, English as a Foreign Language, internationalization, globalization, Japan


Anthropological Linguistics and Sociolinguistics | Asian Studies | Bilingual, Multilingual, and Multicultural Education | Critical and Cultural Studies | Curriculum and Instruction | Curriculum and Social Inquiry | First and Second Language Acquisition | International and Comparative Education | International and Intercultural Communication | Sociology

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