Terrie’s Take General Edition Sunday, February 10, 2008
Issue No. 456 A weekly roundup of news & information from Terrie Lloyd. (http://www.terrie.com)
We have been through Narita immigration 3 times now since the November 20th, 2007, implementation of taking fingerprints and facial images. Prior to the changes, many foreign residents were concerned about being forced to separate with their Japanese spouses and kids and having to join the tourist lines, thus enduring a blow-out on waiting times at immigration while the family waited at the other side. In the past, permanent residents could slip through in the Japanese-only lines, in just 10-20 minutes.
After the implementation date started to loom and enough people became concerned, a number of foreign chambers of commerce got involved and made submissions to the Justice Ministry to ensure that the changes wouldn’t be detrimental to international commerce (a great platform to argue from). At the eleventh hour, the Ministry decided that there should be a separate purpose-made Permanent Resident line, so as to allow foreign permanent residents traveling frequently to China and elsewhere an easy passage in and out of Japan. It is no secret that despite the costs, some foreign multinationals prefer to have their senior management for the region reside in Japan. This proved an important point of leverage in getting the initial arrangements changed.
As a result, the reality is that now Permanent Residents (PR) wait even less time than Japanese nationals to get through immigration, and sometimes there are only 2-3 people queued at the PR line for an entire airplane arrival. It’s embarrassing to see the number angry or puzzled looks from Japanese herded into half the number of lines they once had, while the PRs waltz through.
Even the foreign tourist lines are a lot shorter than they once were, so we don’t think the Immigration folks will maintain such one-sided preference for foreign visitors for long — but it’s nice while it lasts. Perhaps more importantly, the presence of this special line (actually there are now two) proves that the Justice Ministry does in fact listen to the foreign business organizations.
And that’s probably just as well, because there appears to be a clear intention by the government to start tightening up controls on foreigners living in Japan. Foreign chambers of commerce need to start looking at these measures before they become committed to law later this year.
Over the last 2 years, there have been a number of legislatory submissions and trial PR balloons floated that indicate that the government is intending to significantly increase its control over foreigners living here. Given that many other countries also impose strict tracking and controls on foreign residents who are not migrants, this wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad thing providing that there was some upside offered such as by those other countries. In particular, Japan needs to make laws and apply the proper enforcement of UN human rights to foreign residents. Rights such as anti-discrimination, right to impartial justice, fair treatment of refugees, proper criminalization of human trafficking, and rights of children are all severely lacking. But these unfortunately don’t seem to be part of the agenda at this time.
The latest round of controls was initiated by the Justice Ministry at the end of January, and was subsequently reported on by the Japan Times, http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20080126a1.html. The Ministry has submitted legislation to the Diet for approval this year that will scrap the Alien Registration system and replace it with a pseudo Family Register modeled on the Japanese one. The idea is that the current system tracks people as individuals, and so as their circumstances change and they get married and have kids, it is not obvious to the local authorities that these changes have occurred.
Commentary in the Japanese press seems to indicate that a driver for this change was the many Brazilian kids of Japanese-Brazilian families living in Gunma who don’t attend local schools and/or whose parents would move frequently and thus the kids were not at the schools the local authorities expected them to be at — thus causing the local government guys to embark on frequent goose chases to find out where they moved to. A Family Register would clearly alleviate this problem.
One thing to note about this proposed legislation is that the collection and distribution of data on all foreign residents in the future will become the job of the Justice Ministry, not that of the various local governments all over Japan. Centralization of the data would be achieved by collecting information from returning foreign residents at airports and/or at immigration offices, and would be keyed into central servers, as well as being encoded in to IC cards issued in replacement of the current Alien Registration card.
In and of itself, the idea of creating family registers for mid- and long-term residents in Japan is not such a bad idea. Yes, it would require that foreigners be more conscientious about registering changes of address and personal circumstance, but this would be no more onerous than for any of our Japanese colleagues. However, when you start looking at the change in context with some other recent Justice Ministry (and other Ministries) announcements, one wonders if there isn’t a larger agenda at work?
For example, take the January 2007 announcement, reported in the Nikkei, that the children of long-term foreign residents will be required in the future to attend local Japanese schools rather than English-speaking International ones, as the the current grey zone situation allows. Or the October implementation of compulsory employer reporting of foreign workers — which effectively makes employers the decision-makers on whether someone is working legally or not.
And the real kicker in December where a minister suggested that long-term residents will be given a Japanese language test before their visas are renewed. This point has got a lot of long-term Western foreign residents worried, because until now it has been perfectly feasible for someone to work for decades within the foreign community and never really become fluent in the language. Then of course, there are all the 3- to 5-year foreign CEOs appointed to manage their companies’ operations in Japan. What becomes of them and their families? We will find out when the Justice Ministry makes its final recommendations in the next month or so.
The message coming from the Justice Ministry is that they want to gain direct control over foreign residents in Japan and that they want people to be properly assimilated into society, by ensuring adequate language capabilities and their children attending regular local schools. At the same time, the number of foreign residents has been increasing at a steady rate, and so the controls don’t seem to be part of a general xenophobic trend (at least, no worse than it is at present) in government policy. Even after the highly publicized 2003 murder of a family by Chinese students, although the following year the number of students dropped by 20%, now in 2008 the total number is rising again, and will soon exceed 100,000.
Indeed, stepping back from the immediate, “What is Hatoyama and his Justice pals up to?” many of these announcements and new rules sound more like they are part of a larger plan to prepare for a large future influx of foreign residents. We speculated on this fact back at the beginning of 2007, but now it is much more obvious that this is the case. We all know that it is inevitable that the number of foreigners will increase, since not only will the nation’s factories need another 4m people in the next 10 years, but rest homes for the aged will need another 500,000 able-bodied, low-cost employees as early as 2014.
Most likely the reason the government hasn’t said publicly that they are in fact preparing the ground for a lot more foreign workers is that as polls have shown, many Japanese voters are still xenophobic, with up to 60% saying that they blame foreigners for a rise in crime, for example. So, instead, these new foreigner control law reforms are being carried out under the guise of “anti-terrorism” or “anti-crime,” which plays well to conservative voters.
So if there is a master plan, what other changes should we be expecting as foreigners living in Japan? Our guess is that the biggest change will simply be the absolute loss of privacy. Every foreign resident will be carefully checked on whether they are contributing to the social insurance program and paying their taxes. Those not complying will probably lose their residency rights — and we imagine that there will be few avenues of appeal where an administration mistake has been made. You only need to look at the process and meager results for refugee status appeals to see what the outcome is likely to be.
There will also be substantial increase in governmental department sharing of foreign resident data. A police check of all foreign fingerprints will become standard practice for all unsolved crimes. Even minor infractions of the law (fines, etc.) will become factors in evaluating continued residence, or for refusal of entry at Immigration. Less obvious will be the likely mis-use of the database for private purposes. Already private detective agencies use senior ex-police to gain inside information on individuals they are checking out (we know because we were offered to subscribe to just such a service several years ago). With the new centralized database, this will become a lot easier to do.
Then there is the issue of education of one’s children. This is a thorny issue, and probably one that will be met with significant response from the foreign community. Our guess is that this aspect of the integration program (pogrom?) will take much longer, and will require the Ministry of Education to agree to create a special category of state support for schools that don’t meet its curriculum, providing they do at least offer sufficient Japanese language exposure.
There will probably be several new visa categories. One that industry obviously wants is something that lets them bring low-cost workers in and prevents those people from using the constitutional right of freedom to work to skip off to a better paying job. Until now, the Trainee category filled that role, but industry needs something that will keep people here longer than 2-3 years. An appropriate nickname for the document will be the “slavery visa”.
Lastly, there is the even thornier question of what to do about expats. Our guess is that any new legislation passed will create a set of exemptions for those who are legitimate expat appointees in Japan. This mechanism already exists in other countries. In Australia, for example, those working on a 457 visa (Temporary Long Stay Business work visa) and earning over AUD75,000 a year can be exempt from the English language requirements normally needed.
This would conveniently provide Japan with an all-important loophole to deal with tough cases, and at the same time allow those foreign residents wanting to continue sending their kids to international schools to do so. Our guess is that this will be tacitly accepted so long as those on higher salaries keep contributing to the social insurance program!