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
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
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).
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.
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