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Embedded Racism: Japan's Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination

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  • Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column April 6, 2010 prints my speech to UN Rep Bustamante on “blind spot” re Japan immigrants

    Posted by Dr. ARUDOU, Debito on April 7th, 2010

    Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan\Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association forming NGO\「ジャパニーズ・オンリー 小樽入浴拒否問題と人種差別」(明石書店)JAPANESE ONLY:  The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japansourstrawberriesavatardebitopodcastthumb
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    Japan, U.N. share blind spot on ‘migrants’
    The Japan Times: Tuesday, April 6, 2010
    Original Version with links to sources at

    On March 23, I gave a speech to Jorge Bustamante, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, for NGO FRANCA regarding racial discrimination in Japan. Text follows:

    I wish to speak about the treatment of those of “foreign” origin and appearance in Japan, such as white and non-Asian people. Simply put, we are not officially registered — or even counted sometimes — as genuine residents. We are not treated as taxpayers, not protected as consumers, not seen as ethnicities even in the national census. According to government polls and surveys, we do not even deserve the same human rights as Japanese. The view of “foreigner” as “only temporary in Japan” is a blind spot even the United Nations seems to share, but I will get to that later.

    First, an overview: The number of non-Japanese (NJ) on visas of three months or longer has increased since 1990 from about 1 million to over two. Permanent residents (PR) number over 1 million, meaning about half of all registered NJ can stay here forever. Given how hard PR is to get — about five years if married to a Japanese, 10 years if not — a million NJ permanent residents are clearly not a temporary part of Japanese society.

    Moreover, this does not count the estimated half-million or so naturalized Japanese citizens (I am one of them). Nor does this count children of international marriages, about 40,000 annually. Mathematically, if each couple has two children, eventually that will mean 80,000 more ethnically diverse Japanese children; over a decade, 800,000 — almost a million again. Not all of these children of diverse backgrounds will “look Japanese.”

    What’s more, we don’t know Japan’s true diversity because the Census Bureau only surveys for nationality. This means when I fill out the census, I write down “Japanese” for my nationality, but I cannot indicate my ethnicity as a “white Japanese,” or a “Japanese of American extraction” (amerikakei nihonjin). I believe this is by design — because the politics of identity in Japan are all about “monoculturality and monoethnicity.” Given modern Japan’s emerging immigration and assimilation, this is a fiction. The official conflation of Japanese nationality and ethnicity is incorrect, yet our government refuses to collect data that would correct that.

    The point is we cannot tell who is “Japanese” just by looking at them. This means that whenever distinctions are made between “foreigner” and “Japanese,” be it police racial profiling or “Japanese only” signs, some Japanese citizens will also be affected. Thus we need a law against racial discrimination in Japan — not only because it will help noncitizens assimilate into Japan, but also because it will protect Japanese against xenophobia, bigotry and exclusionism, against the discrimination that is “deep and profound” and “practiced undisturbed in Japan,” according to U.N. Rapporteur Doudou Diene in 2005 and 2006.

    There are some differences in viewpoint between my esteemed colleagues here today and the people I am trying to speak for. Japan’s minorities as definable under the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), including Ainu, Ryukyuans, zainichi special-permanent- resident ethnic Koreans and Chinese, and burakumin, will speak to you as people who have been here for a long time — much longer than people like me, of course. Their claims are based upon time-honored and genuine grievances that have never been properly redressed. For ease of understanding, I will call them the “oldcomers.”

    I will try to speak on behalf of the “newcomers,” i.e., people who came here relatively recently to make a life in Japan. Of course both oldcomers and newcomers contribute to Japanese society, in terms of taxes, service and culture, for example. But it is we newcomers who really need a Japanese law against racial discrimination, because we, the people who are seen because of our skin color as “foreigners,” are often singled out for our own variant of discriminatory treatment. Examples in brief:


    One barrier many newcomers face is finding an apartment. According to the Mainichi Shimbun (Jan. 8), on average in Tokyo it takes 15 visits to realtors for an NJ to find an apartment. Common experience — this is all we have because there is no government study of the problem — dictates that agents generally phrase the issue to landlords as, “The renter is a foreigner, is that OK?” This overt discrimination happens with impunity in Japan. One Osaka realtor even advertises apartments as “gaijin allowed,” a sales point at odds with the status quo. People who face discriminatory landlords can only take them to court. This means years, money for lawyers and court fees, and an uncertain outcome — when all you need is a place to live, now.

    Another barrier is hotels. Lodgings are expressly forbidden by Hotel Management Law Article 5 to refuse customers unless rooms are full, there is a clear threat of contagious disease, or an issue of “public morals.” However, government surveys indicate that 27 percent of all Japanese hotels do not want foreign guests, period. Not to be outdone, Fukushima Prefecture Tourist Information advertised the fact that 318 of their member hotels refuse NJ. Thus even when a law technically forbids exclusionism, the government will not enforce it. On the contrary, official bodies will even promote excluders.


    Another rude awakening happens when NJ walk down the street. All NJ (but not citizens) must carry ID cards at all times or face possible criminal charges and incarceration. So Japanese police will target and stop people who “look foreign” in public, sometimes forcefully and rudely, and demand personal identification. This very alienating process of “carding” can happen when walking while white, cycling while foreign-looking, using public transportation while multiethnic, or waiting for arrivals at airports while colored. One person has apparently been “carded,” sometimes through physical force, more than 50 times in one year, and 125 times over 10 years.

    Police justify this as a hunt for foreign criminals and visa over-stayers, or cite special security measures or campaigns. However, these “campaigns” are products of government policies depicting NJ as “terrorists, criminals and carriers of infectious diseases.” None of these things, of course, is contingent upon nationality. Moreover, since 2007, all noncitizens are fingerprinted every time they re-enter Japan. This includes newcomer PRs, going further than the US-VISIT program, which does not refingerprint Green Card holders. However, the worst example of bad social science is the National Research Institute of Police Science, which spends taxpayer money on researching “foreign DNA” for racial profiling at crime scenes.

    In sum, Japan’s police see NJ as “foreign agents” in both senses of the word. They are systematically taking measures to deal with NJ as a social problem, not as fellow residents or immigrants.


    Japan’s registration system, meaning the current koseki family registry and juminhyo residency certificate systems, refuse to list NJ as “spouse” or “family member” because they are not citizens. Officially, NJ residing here are not registered as “residents” (jumin), even though they pay residency taxes (juminzei) like anyone else. Worse, some local governments (such as Tokyo’s Nerima Ward) do not even count NJ in their population tallies. This is the ultimate in invisibility, and it is government-sanctioned.


    With no law against racial discrimination, “No foreigners allowed” signs have appeared nationwide, at places such as stores, restaurants, hotels, public bathhouses, bars, discos, an eyeglass outlet, a ballet school, an Internet cafe, a billiards hall, a women’s boutique — even in publicity for a newspaper subscription service. Regardless, the government has said repeatedly to the U.N. that Japan does not need a racial discrimination law because of our effective judicial system. That is untrue.

    For example, in the Otaru onsen case (1999-2005), where two NJ and one naturalized Japanese (myself) were excluded from a public bathhouse, judges refused to rule these exclusions were illegal due to racial discrimination. They called it “unrational discrimination.” Moreover, the judiciary refused to enforce relevant international treaty as law, or punish the negligent Otaru City government for ineffective measures against racial discrimination. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

    Furthermore, in 2006, an openly racist shopkeeper refused an African-American customer entry, yet the Osaka District Court ruled in favor of the owner! Japan needs a criminal law, with enforceable punishments, because the present judicial system will not fix this.


    There is also the matter of the cyberbullying of minorities and prejudiced statements made by our politicians over the years. Other NGOs will talk more about the anti-Korean and anti-Chinese hate speech during the current debate about granting local suffrage rights to permanent residents.

    I would instead like to briefly mention some media, such as the magazine “Underground Files of Crimes by Gaijin” (Gaijin Hanzai Ura Fairu (2007)) and “PR Suffrage will make Japan Disappear” (Gaikokujin Sanseiken de Nihon ga Nakunaru Hi (2010)). Both these books stretch their case to talk about an innate criminality or deviousness in the foreign element, and “Underground Files” even cites things that are not crimes, such as dating Japanese women. It also includes epithets like “nigger,” racist caricatures and ponderings on whether Korean pudenda smell like kimchi. This is hate speech. And it is not illegal in Japan. You could even find it on sale in convenience stores.


    In light of all the above, the Japanese government’s stance towards the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is easily summarized: The Ainu, Ryukyuans and burakumin are citizens, therefore they don’t fall under the CERD because they are protected by the Japanese Constitution. However, the zainichis and newcomers are not citizens, therefore they don’t get protection from the CERD either. Thus, our government effectively argues, the CERD does not cover anyone in Japan.

    Well, what about me? Or our children? Are there really no ethnic minorities with Japanese citizenship in Japan?

    In conclusion, I would like to thank the U.N. for investigating our cases. On March 16, the CERD Committee issued some very welcome recommendations in its review. However, may I point out that the U.N. still made a glaring oversight.

    During the committee’s questioning of Japan last Feb. 24 and 25, very little mention was made of the CERD’s “unenforcement” in Japan’s judiciary and criminal code. Furthermore, almost no mention was made of “Japanese only” signs, the most indefensible violations of the CERD.

    Both Japan and the U.N. have a blind spot in how they perceive Japan’s minorities. Newcomers are never couched as residents of or immigrants to Japan, but rather as “foreign migrants.” The unconscious assumption seems to be that 1) foreign migrants have a temporary status in Japan, and 2) Japan has few ethnically diverse Japanese citizens.

    Time for an update. Look at me. I am a Japanese. The government put me through a very rigorous and arbitrary test for naturalization, and I passed it. People like me are part of Japan’s future. When the U.N. makes their recommendations, please have them reflect how Japan must face up to its multicultural society. Please recognize us newcomers as a permanent part of the debate.

    The Japanese government will not. It says little positive about us, and allows very nasty things to be said by our politicians, policymakers and police. It’s about time we all recognized the good that newcomers are doing for our home, Japan. Please help us.


    Debito Arudou coauthored the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants.” Twitter arudoudebito. More on this meeting and photos at Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month


    5 Responses to “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column April 6, 2010 prints my speech to UN Rep Bustamante on “blind spot” re Japan immigrants”

    1. onconditionofanonymity Says:

      Your remark in the April 6 column that “the US-VISIT program, which does not refingerprint Green Card holders” seems to be wrong. Green Card holders don’t need to go through that program because they are “legal permanent residents” and thus are not visiting the United States. But here’s the more important part, based entirely on experience. For the past couple of years, each time a Green Card holder enters the United States, that person is completely fingerprinted – all eight fingers plus the two thumbs – and a photograph is taken. The last time that a known Green Card holder entered the United States, not only were the passport and Green Card required, but so also was a “photo ID,” for which a Stateside driving license worked. Also, the passport inspector said that everybody entering the United States now has to do the fingerprints and photograph. Even though this is tangential to your newspaper column yesterday, the Green Card is valid for ten years (“permanent” = ten years?), and it contains the holder’s photograph on the left and one of the holder’s fingerprints on the right. In this regard, how might all this contrast with the way that Japan treats “PRs”? For somebody who is not a PR or Japanese national, coming into Japan is much less stressful than going into the United States – the Japanese look at a passport (the “gaijin” card seems no longer to be required at entry), take two fingerprints, and take a photograph, and there’s no quiz or interrogation. :)

      — Er. No. Wrong. Sorry. Please reread what I wrote.

    2. Joe Says:

      “…when I fill out the census, I write down “Japanese” for my nationality, but I cannot indicate my ethnicity as a “white Japanese, or a “Japanese of American extraction” (amerikakei nihonjin). “.

      I’m not sure this is a bad thing, Debito. Surely the world would be a better place if people ignored race completely. I regard anyone with a British passport as a compatriot and I’m not concerned with where they or their parents or their grandparents came from originally. I remember you relating how some bloke at immigration in Canada, I think it was, teed you off by asking where you’d naturalised from, and I understood how you felt.

      As for race, what would my half-British, half-Kenyan acquaintance put on the census form if he naturalised? It’d have to be something like “Koku-haku-Igirisu/Keniakei Nihonjin.” And what would that make his kids if he had them with a Japanese wife?

      No. I say “Japanese” means a citizen of this nation, with any privileges and responsibilities pertaining, and that race, along with religion, sexual orientation or fashion-sense, is utterly irrelevant.

      — Kum ba yah. But face reality. We have two extremes of “ignoring” race. Either we “ignore” it by not factoring it into any interpersonal or civic relationship (which is what you want; so do I), or we “ignore” it by claiming it doesn’t even exist as an issue — therefore pretending there is no problem. The latter is the case in Japan. White and ethnically-diverse Japanese are not technically “compatriots” since, as I argued above, their rights are not protected like their compatriots are — because there is no “race” problem that the GOJ will acknowledge. We have to go through a mid-stage of dealing with the problem before it goes away. The first step is to have information we can use to acknowledge just how ethnically-diverse the Japanese population is. Haven’t I made that clear above?

      PS: I got ticked off not at Canadian Immigration, but at the ground staff in Narita before boarding the Air Canada flight. They said it was Canadian Immigration’s wishes, but I have investigated this and it seems likely this was an excuse.

    3. jim Says:

      Debito you hit all the key points good article, and i wonder why these points are so easy to notice and fix so again i cant understand why the GOJ has dont nothing to address these very important issues? whats your take, are they in a permanent state of denial or they dont feel that NJ taxpayers are entitled to such basic rights as you mentioned? Could you please answer this simply question for me im dunbfounded by there twisted logic.

      — Very simply put, I believe Japan is run by elites who neither want foreigners doing god knows what to the society they already firmly control, nor trust foreigners with any sort of human, civil, or political rights. If they had their way, they wouldn’t trust regular Japanese with the same rights either, and they already do their best to minimize their influence over their power.

    4. jack Says:

      It seems somewhat disingenuous to say that allowing more options than “Japanese” on the census for ethnicity would make things too complicated. Certainly, one could imagine a byzantine system tracing genealogy to the last drop of blood on a form a dozen pages long. However, one could just as easily imagine a set of a half-dozen or so designations: Caucasian, Hispanic, etc. Let people check as many ethnicities as they feel apply, not just choose one, and give a generic “multi-ethnic” option for those who don’t wish to sweat the details. That’s generally how a lot of countries handle it, somehow without difficulty, even when faced with a naturalized citizen of German-Native-American-Peruvian-Moroccan extraction.

    5. John (Yokohama) Says:

      Good piece in the Asahi today.

      “POINT OF VIEW/ Daisuke Furuta: Japan must stop exploitation of foreign trainees”, Asahi, April 8, 2010

      The stated purpose of Japan’s training and internship programs for people from developing countries is to allow entrants to acquire skills in Japan that will enrich their home countries. In 2009, some 80,000 trainees, mainly from China and Southeast Asia, entered the country on these programs.

      In practice, however, many of these workers are being used as nothing more than low-wage labor.

      The Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan (SMJ), a nongovernmental organization that supports foreign trainees and interns, says it has received complaints of people being required to work for an hourly wage of 300 yen ($3.2). Others said they had been banned from communicating with outsiders and were threatened with deportation if they did not toe the line.

      It is common practice for these workers to deposit large amounts of “security money” with the organizations in their home countries authorized to dispatch them to Japan. These deposits often have a strong coercive effect: Trainees tend to be submissive to the Japanese organizations that accept them because of the fear of losing their deposits.

      Last year, the Immigration Bureau logged only 360 cases in which there had been irregularities involving foreign trainees and interns. But, with more than 30,000 organizations accepting trainees across Japan, the bureau said, “It is impossible to check all of them.”

      The government is making an effort to stop the abuses.

      Under a revised system to be introduced in July, dispatching organizations in home countries will be banned from requiring deposits. Labor laws, which currently only apply to foreigners in the second and third years of the three-year programs, will be extended to first-year trainees.

      The Japanese “primary accepting organizations”–the go-between bodies that help run the system, such as business associations and local chambers of commerce and industry–will be required to take greater responsibility for supervising individual companies accepting trainees and interns.

      However, observers familiar with the situation on the ground say the measures are unlikely to end abuses of the system.

      In China, for example, there are reports of brokers rounding up applicants in rural areas. Many trainees are bound into contracts with these brokers in addition to those they sign with authorized dispatching organizations.

      These brokers may also demand deposits, which raises the distinct possibility that the ban on deposits with the authorized dispatchers will become little more than window-dressing. Detecting and chasing down abuses involving third parties in foreign nations will be extremely tough.

      Even if labor laws are applied from the first year, the existing labor standards inspection system is unlikely to be able to investigate all problem cases.

      Ippei Torii, head of the SMJ’s secretariat, said the situation was further muddied by toleration and even involvement in the abuses by supposedly responsible organizations in Japan.

      “The new system ignores the fact that there are even cases in which primary accepting organizations advise on how to conceal wrongdoing,” he said.

      In January, the Kumamoto District Court heard a damages suit from former Chinese trainees at sewing factories, who claimed they had received abusive treatment, including illegally low wages. The court found that a Japanese “primary accepting organization” as well as the factories that directly employed the workers had been involved in malpractice.

      Japan’s population started to decline in 2005. The low birthrate means that Japanese society is aging at a rate never seen before in the world. As a result, many industries are braced for shortages of labor.

      The shortages are already biting hard in farming and fishing industries and among small manufacturers. They are relying heavily on foreign trainees and interns. But the supply of easily abused workers is not necessarily limitless.

      Journalist Mo Bangfu says the Chinese workers make up about 70 percent of the trainees.

      “In 10 years, they will no longer come to Japan because of China’s economic growth,” Mo says.

      As incomes at home rise, foreign workers are unlikely to come to a country where living expenses are high and where they are discriminated against.

      The Justice Ministry, which oversees immigration and status of residence controls, continues to maintain that the system’s purpose is to provide training. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is trying to crack down on unjust treatment of workers.

      Meanwhile, the ministries of industry, agriculture and infrastructure are keenly aware that industries under their supervision are desperate to secure more workers. These ministries have their own reasons for supporting the training and internship system, but the bureaucrats still admit the system is defective.

      No one seems to want to take the initiative to drastically reform this flawed system. I think this is because of a lack of clear political leadership on how to deal with the labor shortage, which is really the hidden function of the trainee and intern system.

      Should we be using foreign workers simply as a cheap and convenient work force to cover labor shortages? Or should we see them as our neighbors? This is an issue that concerns us all. A national debate is required.

      * * *

      Daisuke Furuta is an Asahi Shimbun staff writer at the Foreign News Section of the Tokyo Head Office.

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