ABSORBING new citizens is not a task unique to immigrant-welcoming societies like the United States. It is also faced in various degrees by older countries like France or Japan. Should ethnic and religious minorities be walled off inside de facto ghettos, or should they be encouraged to integrate themselves into the surrounding community? What then happens to their own culture?
A Dec. 5 article in the New York Times by Alan Riding focused on the eight-month-old conservative French government's opposition to ``multiculturalism.'' It also reminded me of my encounter with a vivacious French black woman in Boston many years ago.
She was from the Caribbean island of Martinique and taught French literature at a public high school in Brittany. In those days, barriers between whites and blacks in the US were quite explicit in terms of schools, churches, and public transportation. But in France, my friend thought that there was nothing unusual about her being a black teacher in a white community.
The important thing was culture, this teacher said. If you spoke French without an accent, if you were thoroughly steeped in French culture, neither your skin color nor your ethnic origin made any difference. The French public school system made sure of that.
My friend exemplified an assimilation policy that prevailed when the vast majority of immigrants were from other parts of Europe. It was quite successful until postwar industrialization brought about an influx of workers from North and sub-Saharan Africa. Largely Islamic in religion and with social customs quite different from those of the surrounding French communities, these new immigrants clustered in ghettos that kept ethnic divisions alive instead of promoting integration.
Previous French governments encouraged multiculturalism. But the conservative government headed by Edouard Balladur appears determined to ensure the primacy of French culture as well as the secular character of its schools. When a primary school in eastern France suspended two girls as long as their parents insisted on having them wear Islamic-style head scarves, the government backed the school.
I can hear some of my American friends exclaiming, ``How intolerant!'' On the other hand, most Japanese, with their background of ethnic homogeneity, are likely to applaud the French decision.
The US was built by, and owes much of its vitality to, successive waves of immigrants. As a judge told a colleague of mine at his naturalization ceremony, you can become a good American without losing your cultural identity as a German or a Russian, a Chinese or a Japanese, because the essence of being an American is loyalty to a set of principles, of values embodied in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence - democracy, individual freedom, equality, the pursuit of happiness. The United States is a created country.
But Japan, like France, is a ``natural'' country. Its people are of diverse origins but have lived together on the same islands for two thousand years. To them, the essence of being Japanese is not a matter of principles but of ethnicity. Unlike the French, most Japanese do not think that ``Japaneseness'' can be acquired. People can speak perfect Japanese and have grown up within the Japanese school system, as have many Koreans, and still be regarded as aliens.
These attitudes are, however, changing, induced in part by the same phenomena that have taken place in Europe. Declining population growth and the need for workers in ``3-D'' industries - dirty, difficult, and dangerous - have caused an inflow of Asians within the past decade. The total is still barely one percent of the population, but already scholars warn that Japan must accustom itself to the idea of being a multi-ethnic society. Koreans are gradually being accepted as school teachers and in other public posts, and one Korean-Japanese is a prominent member of the Japanese parliament.
The question remains: What is the best formula for making immigrants feel at one with the surrounding community? Cultural identification with their new country? Biculturalism?
In the US, Daniel Boorstin decries the tendency to hyphenate Americans and says that everyone, whatever his ethnic background, must work to build up a common sense of community. In France, many experts argue that ethnic ghettos are a reality and that even the vaunted French school system cannot work with people as culturally and religiously distinct as the North Africans.
In Japan, the debate is barely beginning. What, beyond ethnicity, makes up Japaneseness? The traditional value is harmony. If the modern values of individual freedom and equality can be successfully grafted onto this traditional tree, Japanese society could develop in directions the ethnic majority can comfortably share with newer members of the community.