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  • GOJ floats trial balloon: Japanese language improvement for visas

    Posted by arudou debito on January 16th, 2008

    Hi Blog. This has made a huge splash in cyberspace, so I guess we’d better take it up here too:

    /////////////////////////////////////////////////
    Japan May Require Foreign Residents to Know Japanese (Update 3)
    By Sachiko Sakamaki and Toko Sekiguchi
    Bloomberg News, January 15, 2008
    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601101&sid=a34ozVmUjMUU
    Courtesy Ben Shearon, Rita Short, Louis Butto, Matthew Simko, Akita Laura, and many others… Discussion at http://www.japantoday.com/jp/news/425041 and many other places.

    Jan. 15 (Bloomberg) — Japan may consider requiring long- term resident (chouki taizai) foreigners to have local language ability, Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said today, without saying to what degree the language would have to be learned.

    Komura said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Justice plan to start discussing the possible requirement. Komura didn’t say when the meeting would take place or provide further details on which residents might be affected.

    Japan’s mulling of a language requirement may hint at preparations to accept — rather than reject — more migrants, said Hidenori Sakanaka, director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute in Tokyo and formerly head of the Justice Ministry’s Tokyo immigration office. Officials realize that Japan’s aging society and pending labor shortage obliges them to boost immigration.

    “I think this is a preparation for that,” Sakanaka said. “It’s a global trend to require language ability for immigrants to integrate them into society.”

    Japan’s labor force will shrink to 55.8 million in 2030 from 66.6 million in 2006 if more women and the elderly aren’t allowed to work, according to a labor ministry report.

    “This shows that the government and business circles want to increase foreign workers,” said Ippei Torii, secretary general of Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, an advocacy group for foreign laborers in Tokyo. A language rule, however, may prevent some workers from coming and may force non-Japanese speakers to leave, he said.

    ‘Quality of Life’

    Komura said officials may not necessarily deny foreigners long-term residency just because they have no Japanese language ability. Establishing language as one criterion for residency would improve foreigners’ quality of life in Japan and encourage foreign students to learn Japanese abroad, he said.

    “There are positive and negative aspects” of a language requirement, Komura said during a press conference in Tokyo today. “Because there may be more positive aspects we’re going to consider it.”

    Wenzhou Song, 44, a consultant who founded the Tokyo software company Softbrain Co., said a language rule shouldn’t exclude talented people from immigrating.

    “It’s a very difficult line to draw,” he said. “It makes sense to require long-term residents to speak the local language but you can’t make the requirement too harsh or you will discourage people who want to come to Japan.”

    Song spoke little Japanese when he came to Japan from China as a student in 1985, he said.

    On Nov. 20 Japan began fingerprinting and photographing foreigners entering the country to prevent terrorism.

    To contact the reporters on this story: Sachiko Sakamaki in Tokyo at Ssakamaki1@bloomberg.net ; Toko Sekiguchi in Tokyo at Tsekiguchi3@bloomberg.net

    Last Updated: January 15, 2008 01:53 EST
    ENDS
    /////////////////////////////////////////////////

    COMMENT: As I told a reporter from ABC Radio Australia in an interview today (should be online fairly soon at http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/), I agree that Japanese language proficiency (meaning reading, writing, and speaking) is crucial for life in Japan. Functional illiteracy in any society is deprivational–it limits your world and voids your ability to control your fate here. And incentives should be there for those who are willing to make the investment and learn the lingua franca.

    However, the GOJ as usual is making the incentives a matter of sticks, not carrots. Learn or we boot you out. No suggestion of how the GOJ is going to make it easier for NJ to learn–free language classes, for example, paid for by national and/or local governments, are de rigeur in other societies (such as the USA).

    Other problems:

    1) It is unclear what “long-term resident” (chouki taizai suru gaikokujin in Japanese) actually means. That could mean anyone from a one-year visa, to several one-year visas, all the way up to Permanent Resident. Are we saying that people who apply for PR will also have to take a language test? What “level of improvement” counts as valid at each stage? How high will that bar be raised the longer you stay?

    2) It seems like yet another hurdle put up to keep the tide of immigration in check. With all the other languages out there with more use in other countries (English, for example, or even Spanish or French), are people going to be willing to put in all this investment in language just for the dubious honor of paying taxes, being treated like second-class residents with few labor rights and even fewer human rights, being assigned only 3K jobs with little chance of advancement (and no guarantee of education for their children), and being told in the end anyway they don’t belong here phenotypically–when they could just bog off to another set of countries where one language works for all of them instead? Nihongo is limited to this archipelago. Other multicultural languages beckon. Japan risks being passed by again.

    3) How is this “language test” going to be administered? Is there a clear standard and grading regime, or is it just something administered by haughty Immigration officials–or worse yet, corporate bosses, to hold over their NJ employees like a Sword of Damocles? “You don’t speak like we do. You still have an accent. Either take a pay cut or we won’t approve your language improvement certificate and you’ll lose your visa”. And if there is a family of visas involved, what happens if some members of the family pass and others don’t?

    I repeat, in principle, I think everyone should learn Japanese if they’re going to live here. But as I wrote before when this proposal was first floated years ago (Komura saying it now came as no surprise to me–it’s been in the pipeline; see links below), this requires more homework and concrete policy before floating anything as complicated as this as a mere policy trial balloon.

    Previous mentions at Debito.org at
    http://www.debito.org/?p=105
    http://www.debito.org/?p=443
    http://www.debito.org/?p=277

    It’s saddening that even though it’s been a policy topic for more than a year, little seems to have been done to make it more sophisticated by now. Arudou Debito in Sapporo

    18 Responses to “GOJ floats trial balloon: Japanese language improvement for visas”

    1. Jake Says:

      It’s sad how immigration policy seems to be negative rather than positive. As you mention, it would be nice to see some incentives for people to learn Japanese rather than punishments for not. Moreover, the government is going to have to create a much stronger infrastructure for such education if they plan on effectively implementing such a policy. As it stands now, most Japanese classes aimed at foreigners are run by volunteers at local international associations with little government funding — and on weekday mornings/early afternoons, no less. How is your average Joe supposed to take advantage of such classes?

      Although this policy doesn’t directly affect me very much, I can’t see many positive effects coming therefrom.

    2. scott lucas Says:

      Japan has a history of copying from the West and in many cases improving on things: cameras; cars etc. But it never does anything by halves.
      Immigration post 9/11 (11/9 for us Brits) has tightened up in many countries. An article in the Guardian Weekly last year mentioned about the U.S.A. testing the knowledge of people wanting to take citizenship. Even Americans would have failed it! In the U.K. language ability is being made in to a prerequisite. France is doing something similar in its immigration policies. The thing with Japan is that it goes to the extreme in whatever it does.
      The fingerprint/ photo business is a point in question. With so much info on residents anyway, is it really necessary for non-tourists to be fingerprinted, as well? In America green card holders are not subjected to such measures, as far as I know.
      Personally, I believe that as a show of respect to the people whose country you live in one should learn the language. Whether the natives respect you back is a different matter.

    3. JOHN G Says:

      Well, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to require some level of japanese ability for getting a PR. But what level and how and who checks it, I don’t know. But for short term visas, it should not be compulsory. Most foreigners stay for less than 3 years, are they going to bother to learn the language to any great extent?

      Really if the government is going to force this measure through, then they have to make it worthwhile for people to put in the effort to learn japanese. eg providing good secure jobs. I have read that about 90% of foreigners are on insecure short term contracts as that’s all they can find. And it’s high time the racial discrimination laws were passed. But I guess that will NEVER happen.

      –WOULD LIKE A REFERENCE THAT MOST FOREIGNERS STAY FOR LESS THAN THREE YEARS. I SERIOUSLY DOUBT THAT.

    4. hilary Says:

      Of course speaking some Japanese is useful but demanding it of everyone again just seems another way of trying to limit the number of foreigners in Japan. There are many foreigners here working for foriegn companies who do all their business in English and rarely need Japanese. why do we need to speak Japanese when most Japanese are so shy and never want to start a conversation with anyone in the first place !. Is there any other country that makes the same ridiculous demand ?

    5. J Says:

      NJ should have some Japanese ability, we live here for Gods sake. It annoys me intensly to hear NJ complaining about the Japanese treatment of them for not speaking Japanese. Most Japanese are nervous when they first meet a NJ and for many of them it really is the first time(except on TV)
      Price is not an issue in learning Japanese, most city offices offer some kind of volunteer lessons (free)
      Try saying to an official in the US or the UK that you can’t understand what they are saying and usually you will get a short sharp “Learn then”.
      I know that Britain has been talking abou the same type of thing for a few years now.

      I have only 2 concerns,

      1) What level of Japanese will we need.

      2) Who will explain to the Locals (Tokyoites,not had the problem outside Tokyo so much) that if a NJ speaks to them, they should #1 listen and #2 not shit their pants and run away like many usually do.

      But I must add that although I do speak a pretty high level of Japanese I usually pretend I can’t in official situations so can gain thinking time, and also that I stopped learning Japanese when I found I could understand what people on the train were saying about me(thinking I couldn’t understand) switching off…that stopped a lot of stress during my commute and dealing with the in-laws funnily enough.LOL.

      –SORRY TO SAY, MOST CITY OFFICES DO NOT OFFER SOME KIND OF FREE VOLUNTEER JAPANESE LESSONS.

    6. Andrew Smallacombe Says:

      I agree that having a certain degree of Japanese language skills is essential to actually function here, in addition to just being good manners. I can hardly believe that some people come here for periods of several years and are still unable to have a basic conversation, and can barely put a simple sentence together.
      I agree with Jake that without implementing policies, language learning will become too expensive. Volunteer-run classes once a week are not enough to rapidly build language skills, and professional schools are generally based in large cities only, plus are not cheap.
      Another factor to consider is the nature of how the government would measure one’s ability. Tests like the JLPT are administered only once a year, so they would not be practical. The alternative would be the government would develop their own tests.
      I remember as an exchange student seeing the English sections for entrance exams into certain Japanese universities, some of which contained culurally biased and non-language based questions like, “Which American presidential candidate’s name has been mis-spelled?” My fear is that the government might start putting questions of a similar nature, intentionally or unintentionally, into their language evaluation.

    7. tanuki Says:

      While I do agree speaking Japanese helps in this country (understatement of the year, I know), I think no one should be forced to take a test just to be able to stay – I know a lot of people living here for 10+ years who, for example, speak passable Japanese, but their knowledge of kanji is nonexistent – that of course would make them fail any Japanese language test instantly.

      Then, there’s another thing – why is ONLY the language proposed as a benchmark? Wouldn’t knowledge of Japanese culture further help us foreign monkeys to assimilate into this glorious society? I think at least some of the following should be included in the new requirements for long-term residency:

      * Chopsticks proficiency test
      * Origami test
      * “Guess the shogun” pop-quiz
      * Seiza endurance and manners test during a tea ceremony
      * Ojigi angle measurement
      * Honne and tatemae distinguishing test
      * Random Manyoshu poem recitation
      * Stupid rules gaman/compliance test
      and so on, and so forth…

      Just remember, gaijins – it’s all for YOUR good! It’s to improve YOUR quality of life! Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!

    8. Tom Says:

      The BBC had a similar article.
      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7189277.stm

      Though I agree it’s helpful to speak the language of the country in which you live I don’t think that’s what this is about. It’s just one more way to discourage foreigners from coming here. I think the last 2 paragraphs of the BBC article says it all.

      “Last year an opinion poll carried out for the government found that more than half the foreigners who live in areas where they mix with Japanese people would like more opportunities to interact with them.

      But only one in 10 of the Japanese living in the same areas wanted to talk to someone from abroad.”

      –OTHER FRIENDS OF MINE HAD ANOTHER INTERESTING TAKE. THIS IS ANOTHER WAY FOR AMAKUDARI AND RETIRED POLICE OFFICERS ETC. TO MAKE MONEY AFTER RETIREMENT. CERTIFICATION OF SOMETHING OR OTHER. IT WORKED FOR CERTIFYING PARKING SPACES IN ALL URBAN AREAS, FOR EXAMPLE. ANOTHER TAX/PUBLIC WORKS PROJECT FOR THEM, ANOTHER HURDLE FOR THE LIKES OF US.

    9. Ke5in Says:

      Debito, re. “many town offices don’t offer volunteer language lessons” – all the local town offices around here have a ‘Friendship Society’ or some such that offers free Japanese lessons. I don’t know for sure if they’re actually part of the town office but their offices are in the building right next door on the same piece of land, in most cases :D
      Maybe it’s just Shiga but there’s quite a big movement here in the (usually US) sister city cultural exchange program thing … perhaps some asking around not the usual people might yeild results? Also, those on the JET program may be able to hook into that kind of thing easier than someone walking in off the street into the town office …

      –FIVE YEARS AGO, I WAS TAKEN TO WHAT I WAS TOLD WAS THE FIRST CITY-OFFICE SPONSORED JAPANESE LANGAUGE LESSON IN JAPAN (THIS WAS IN AICHI). IT WAS NEITHER FREE NOR VOLUNTEER. AND IT WAS SEEN AS REVOLUTIONARY AT THE TIME. AGREED, IT’S BEEN FIVE YEARS, BUT I STRONGLY DOUBT THIS SORT OF THING HAS SINCE SPREAD TO EVERY CITY, TOWN, AND VILLAGE OFFICE IN JAPAN (BRAVO FOR SHIGA, ANYWAY).

      AND “FRIENDSHIP SOCIETIES”, WHILE WELCOME, ARE NEITHER SOMETHING GOVERNMENTAL LEVEL (THEY ARE GENERALLY PART OF CIVIL SOCIETY, CREATED TO FILL A GOJ POLICY SHORTFALL) NOR SOMETHING NECESSARILY RELIABLE TO BRING PEOPLE UP TO A “GOVERNMENT STANDARD” FOR VISA TESTING.

      IF YOU REALLY WANT TO QUIBBLE OVER SMALL POINTS, DOUZO. MY POINT IS THE GOJ IS CONSIDERING REQUIRING SOMETHING THAT WILL BE FUNDAMENTAL TO THE LIVELIHOODS OF NJ IN JAPAN, WITHOUT PROPOSING SOMETHING THAT WILL MAKE IT EASIER FOR THEM TO GET IT. THAT IS IRRESPONSIBLE.

    10. Jeff Says:

      Many people make good points and there are so many problems with a policy like this on so many levels that it is very funny. I think what is the most irresponsible part of all of this, is that Mr. Komura even made a statement about it at all. His statement just opens his ministry up to criticism, before he has given out any details whatsoever, which completely forces everyone into complaint mode and kills any chance of serious intellectual debate. He hasn’t defined “long-term”, he hasn’t even alluded to what an acceptable level of Japanese would be, and there is no mention of how someone would be tested. So, it makes almost no sense for anyone of us to even comment further than to request a more detailed statement from the minister. It’s in everyones interest to demand more information rather than to complain about something we have inadequate information about. I know that we all have better things to think about, like finding a way to stop the this fingerprinting atrocity at points of entry.

      Personally, i believe the idea is completely inane, simply because any new requirements will slow the flow of immigrants to Japan, causing an accelaration in the decline of the overall population, which exacerbates almost every macro economic and social problem Japan has.
      Cheers

      –QUITE. THIS IS WHY I LABELLED IT A POLICY “TRIAL BALLOON”–LIGHT, HOLLOW, GASEOUS, VISIBLE, AND EASILY SHOT DOWN IF ANYONE OUT THERE IS PREPARED TO. GOTTA LOVE A METAPHOR.

    11. zero abrera Says:

      “JOHN G Says:
      January 16th, 2008 at 10:26 pm

      Most foreigners stay for less than 3 years, are they going to bother to learn the language to any great extent?

      –WOULD LIKE A REFERENCE THAT MOST FOREIGNERS STAY FOR LESS THAN THREE YEARS. I SERIOUSLY DOUBT THAT.

      Ditto. I think he meant that on behalf of the native-English teaching community. *sigh* we really don’t seem to exist here…

    12. Simon Metcalfe Says:

      Looks like the JLPT and the Jetro BJT tests are going to be used, as on the BJT site.
      “BJT Test Scores Now Being Accepted in Japan Visa Eligibility Assessments”
      Link = http://www.jetro.go.jp/en/bjt/

      Interesting

    13. Daniel J. Says:

      This could easily allow the GOJ to suck millions of yen from immigrants. Once they have official testing standards, they could even eliminate competition by requiring ‘official’ GOJ Japanese schools (or approved) and the like. They could even use our taxes to pay for official Japanese language schools in other countries. It’s sickening to see how the GOJ takes advantage of their own people time and time again, but it hurts worse when it’s us and it’s made “mandatory” for our own good. Foreigners shouldn’t tolerate that anywhere.

      MYTHS APPARENTLY INCLUDED:

      1. Language proficiency levels EQUAL social integration.
      2. Japanese people will openly converse with language-proficient foreigners (that they don’t know personally).
      3. Japan needs more “foreigner filters”.
      4. Many foreigners can/will reach proficiency before getting to Japan.
      5. Japanese-proficient foreigners are less foreign.

      By the way, what is a “local language” in Japan? I thought “we Japanese” all speak Japanese.

    14. Ke5in Says:

      I was trying to offer some advice, from personal experience, that there may well be something helpful around but not part of the “official” town office. I can’t see how that’s quibbling about anything … certainly wasn’t the spirit it was posted in.
      Surely some instruction & is better than none?

    15. Greg M Says:

      “BJT Test Scores Now Being Accepted in Japan Visa Eligibility Assessments”
      Link = http://www.jetro.go.jp/en/bjt/

      Now that is what I call jumping the gun! What will people who have to renew their visas before the next round of testing do?

      Good thing I have PR, or maybe that’ll be revoked so I can take the test.

    16. ThePenguin Says:

      > “BJT Test Scores Now Being Accepted in Japan Visa Eligibility Assessments”

      If you read the linked PDF (apparently created on Dec. 27th, 2007) it looks like it’s just the BJT being accepted as a JLPT equivalent for Certificate of Eligibility assessments for people wanting to study in Japan.

    17. Colin M Says:

      Dunno about this ( maybe a time slip? ) :

      –FIVE YEARS AGO, I WAS TAKEN TO WHAT I WAS TOLD WAS THE FIRST CITY-OFFICE SPONSORED JAPANESE LANGAUGE LESSON IN JAPAN (THIS WAS IN AICHI).

      but personally I attended free city-sponsored lessons provided by Itami City (Hyogo-ken) in 1993.

      –OR MAYBE I WAS JUST TOLD THAT THIS WAS THE FIRST ONE BY UNAWARE BUREAUCRATS. ANYWAY, GOOD THAT OTHERS ARE SPONSORING J LESSONS… DEBITO

    18. Tyler Lynch / Kamesei Ryokan Says:

      I say the new proposals are great — kick out all those big, hairy gaijin that are ungracious enough to not learn the mother language of their host country. But why stop there? Why not give the boot to any native Japanese that can’t communicate? We had a guest at our inn recently, a mentally and physically retarded middle school kid that had to be carried from car to room. Even though he’s born Japanese, he can’t talk, so send him away! And the local ‘demae’ soba delivery guy is deaf — I yell “gochisosama deshita” until I’m blue in the face, and he never responds. Another Japanese person that can’t communicate. Kick him out, too! But wait, there’s more: what about all those Kansai or Tohoku people with their non-Standard Japanese accents? Or all the kids in Yokohama that add a “-sa” to every other word they say? That’s not textbook nihongo. I’d be first in line to give them the boot!

      Signed,

      Big Hairy Gaijin in Nagano

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