“Unsilent Strangers – Music, Minorities, Coexistence, Japan” Hugh de Ferranti


Unsilent Strangers: Music, Minorities, Coexistence, Japan
Edited by Hugh de Ferranti, Masaya Shishikura and Michiyo Yoneno-Reyes
National University of Singapore Press, 2023


I live in Kawagoe, a once largely autonomous trading city between Tokyo and the Chichibu Mountains region, now a suburban hub with a decidedly conservative bent reflecting the dual spokes of the robust local economy: ‘heritage-scape’ tourism and traditional small-scale farming. Yet as I walk the sleepy streets of its western district, Kasumigaseki, often I’m immersed in the sounds of conversation among young Nepalis, Bengalis (from both Bangladesh and India), Vietnamese, and Chinese (from all over that vast country). When I hear that, I think to myself “Ah, monocultural Japanese suburbia is changing at last …”

2019 was dubbed Japan’s 移民元年, the initial year of the first publicly acknowledged ‘era’ of immigration in Japan since wartime. Ironically from the end of that same year the long-awaited governmentally-coordinated response to Japan’s labour shortage crisis was stymied by the emergence of Covid 19, then after a three-year global emergency it is only this year (2023) that numbers of entrants on Specified Skills working visas are starting to move toward levels that had been legislatively enabled at the end of 2018. The resultant impetus for dynamic demographic change in this infamously insular society is now accelerating spectacularly. The South and Southeast Asian young people one now encounters daily are familiar enough to me because I grew up in Sydney and have lived there on and off in periods of my life, but for most of the locals in western Kawagoe – people who are a generation or two removed from cosy agrarian life in this corner of the Kanto Plain - these foreigners are absolute strangers.

Strangers? It’s an English word that has become stranger, that is, increasingly strange or at least puzzling in its usage in the 2020s, because of the affordances of technology: Most people under age 50 spend a great amount of their private time watching, reading, listening and even responding to the words and actions of ‘strangers’ online, people whose real names and/or faces they may never know or see, especially on social media platforms. In 2023 that is as true for Japan as it is for any other technologically advanced society, but protocols for in-person interaction remain another matter. To the extent that historical tendencies and norms in the treatment of foreign ‘strangers’ (other than short-term visitors, generally regarded as tourists) persist, rita 利他 probably will not figure meaningfully in relations with these cultural and linguistic newcomers until such time as their literal and figurative voices are both audible and listened to. Until then, however, migrant minority members can choose to declare their presence sonically – in other words, they can be ‘unsilent’.

Unsilent strangers? Notwithstanding the bureaucratic rhetoric of the now 15 year-old slogan 「多文化共生」(in effect ‘multi-cultural coexistence’), there is a persistent widespread expectation that migrants’ participation in Japanese public life be conditional upon thorough assimilation to national and even some regional cultural norms. As a corollary of that, the largely unspoken assumption is that they should make themselves inconspicuous – in other words ‘stay quiet’ - until they have learned both how to behave appropriately and how to speak and read the national language sufficiently well to enable smooth interaction with ‘Japanese’ in daily life. My experiences walking the streets of western Kawagoe suggest that on a literal level that is simply not what is happening; even in peripheral Kasumigaseki the prevailing near-silence of back streets is often broken by a ‘babble’ of unfamiliar Asian languages. And figuratively speaking, while migrant minorities everywhere are in positions of socio-cultural weakness, they cannot be ‘silent’, nor should they be, notwithstanding attempts to silence them or exclude their presence from public discourse.

If rita is other-directedness, then public, civic and personal responses to the rapidly increasing numbers of cultural Others in this country can be imbued with potential for rita. To reiterate, 多文化共生 has become a broadly familiar policy slogan since around 2008, but it is a concept that in practice could display several of the characteristics members of this Center have proposed as intrinsic to rita – listening closely to what (in this case cultural and ethnic) Others say and communicate; leaving room to be affected by and change one’s mind in response to their needs and acts; not imposing one’s own pre-formulated agendas and beliefs on him/her/them; and so on.

It is in this very context that performance culture, specifically the music and dance of newcomer migrant minorities, can (but does not necessarily) constitute an effective medium for enticing people - the host Japanese, but migrants themselves, too - to take decisive first steps onto the bridge of intercultural and intersubjective experience, where conditions of rita can always arise. I don’t for a moment subscribe to the platitude that ‘music is a universal language’, which has been disproved time and again by work in the disciplines of ethnomusicology, music cognition and psychology. Yet it can be argued and to some extent empirically demonstrated (Clarke, DeNora, and Vuoskoski 2015) that experiences and enjoyment of music and dance performances by cultural Others bring about tangible changes in attitude that facilitate other-directed positive interactions.

This edited collection is one of the fruits of a Kaken/JSPS group project (Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research B, 17H02285; Lead Investigator Hugh de Ferranti) which ran from 2017 through early 2020, followed by two-and-a-half years of writing and collaborative editing with Michiyo Yoneno-Reyes and Masaya Shishikura in negotiation with the National University of Singapore Press. The book’s rather protracted gestation meant the final twelve months of editing work coincided with my first year of membership in the FHRC, such that a reading of the text from the perspective of rita has become possible.

With respect to the FHRC’s Rita Project, these are some of the pertinent findings of contributors' case studies on newcomer minorities in and around Tokyo, and on prewar Japanese as migrants:

i. Minority groups themselves make choices about whether to deploy music and dance in a mutually beneficial manner. Among the case studies of migrant Nepali, South Indians, Filipinos, Nikkei Brazilians, Iranians and ‘domestic migrant’ Ainu in Tokyo, there are situations in which musicians position or direct their performances toward the majority or ‘host’ Other, and ones in which they keep their musicking (Small 1998) within the community, private and quite unknown to Japanese and other ethnic groups around them.

ii. Contrary to general expectation, collaboration between migrant group members and Japanese musicians who have expertise in a given ethnic minority’s music and dance does not necessarily lead to reciprocal interest in the host culture’s music. This is especially highlighted for what Inoue Takako terms the South Indian ‘sojourner migrant community’, in her the case study based on three decades of involvement as both a performer and researcher.

iii. Among the comparative historical studies of Japanese as migrants, my own work on prewar Australia suggests that (again, contrary to my initial expectations) there was scope for firsthand experience and local context to enable intercultural affective experience through musical manifestations of an actual (if rarely verbally acknowledged) interdependence among what were then called different “races”.



Eric Clarke, Tia DeNora, Jonna Vuoskoski. 2015. “Music, empathy and cultural understanding”
Physics of Life Reviews 15 (2015) 61–88

Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening.
Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.