Eric Johnston review of Sakanaka book "Nyuukan Senki"

NB from site editor: A review of a very important new book. Written by Japan Times reporter Eric Johnston (and unpublished in the Japan Times, as it is JT policy to review books that are billingual or English-language only), it incorporates many of the themes of immigration into Japan we have covered in the past at www.debito.org. Freely forwardable, this will be archived on my website at http://www.debito.org/publications.html#otherauthors Arudou Debito in Sapporo


Immigration Battle Diary (Nyukan Senki)
By Hidenori Sakanaka

Reviewed by

Special to www.debito.org
Released May 24, 2005
Freely Forwardable

In March 2001, just weeks before Junichiro Koizumi became Prime Minister to the squeals of "Jun-chan" from (senile?) middle-aged women enthralled by his looks, Japan's most notorious middle-aged political matron stopped off in Osaka to lend her voice to the growing chorus of Koizumi supporters.

Makiko Tanaka was then the country's most popular politician, at least among members of the public. But she knew she was hated in Nagata-cho, and was thus stumping for Junichiro Koizumi in the upcoming LDP election, an election that would decide who would get the dubious honor of replacing Prime Minister Mori.

Ms.Tanaka is loved by reporters for her sharp, barbed quotes and fiery populist rhetoric. Rarely is she at a loss for words when speaking to assembled reporters, be they foreign or Japanese. But although I was not trying, I managed to startle her into relative silence.

It happened during a quick interview after her speech when, rather than the usual questions about why she was supporting Koizumi, I asked about what discussions were taking place in the Diet regarding the future of Japanese immigration and the integration of foreigners into the workplace.

Ms.Tanaka had played a large role in helping many Japanese born in China during the war years to return to Japan. So I figured that, with her reputation for being one of the more internationally-minded Diet members, she would be able to respond at length to what I thought was a simple question.

Instead, she looked at me with a surprised glance and said, "Nobody in the Diet is really discussing the issue seriously or in detail. Which is exactly why we need to start discussions." End of interview.

In the four years since, the issue of opening up Japan to foreign immigrants has simmered just under the surface of the mainstream media. But despite United Nations' reports that Japan may need 30 million foreigners by 2050 in order to maintain current levels of economic prosperity, serious discussion of bringing in more foreigners seems taboo.

Instead of thoughtful, reasoned public debate in the mainstream press, we get "educated" business leaders (complete with advanced degrees from America's best universities) arguing in business journals over whether or not it's best to bring in Brazilians or Asians to do the hard, dirty work in the factories and service industries, and expressing their fears that too many Brazilians will result in late-night samba parties that will keep the neighbors awake, while too many Asians could lead to gang problems. This is the sad and pathetic state of quasi-official "discussion" of future immigration needs.

Until now, that is. In late April, one of bureaucratic officialdom's most interesting and controversial people, Hidenori Sakanaka, published a work that will, hopefully, take the issue of increased immigration out of the hands of moronic and self-interested businessmen and place it squarely where it belongs --in the realm of public debate.

Sakanaka, until he retired in March, headed the Tokyo Immigration Bureau. He is a life-long civil servant and a maverick who has seen the best, and worst, of Japan's immigration policies over the past 30 years. An outspoken humanist who basically favors more immigration, Sakanaka details his experiences and concerns in "Nyukan Senki", and offers a scenario for what Japan might be like in 2050 with a more open immigration policy.

While he does not name names, Sakanaka lashes out at the greed, stupidity and criminal behavior of Japanese politicians, businesses, and his own immigration bureau for their attitudes towards legal and illegal immigrants, their refusal to treat Japanese-Koreans as citizens, and their turning of a blind eye to human trafficking.

It is clear Sakanaka despises the right-wing fueled paranoia and xenophobia towards foreigners. It is also clear, however, that he understands the real concerns of ordinary Japanese that lie behind the rhetoric, and that he has few illusions about the kinds of problems and issues Japan would face if it decides to welcome millions of immigrants.

The foreign community in Japan, rightly, has passionate views of the immigration debate and those views have many intellectual merits. Individuals often have their own immigration stories, sometimes with happy endings, sometimes not. But Sakanaka has been on the front lines, had his life threatened by yakuza thugs, and been reassigned out of Tokyo by politicians getting rich off of human trafficking and illegal immigrant labor when he refused their requests to ignore the problem. He is neither a well-meaning but inexperienced human rights activist nor a corporate executive simply looking at the bottom line. He's an insider, a man who reached the top of the heap, and he has an authority on the issues that is unmatched anywhere in Japan.

While Sakanaka's experiences make for interesting reading, especially for those who have always wondered about foreign crime in Japan, it is the last few chapters, which offer alternate scenarios for life in Japan by 2050 and policy advice on how to integrate immigrants into Japanese society by then, that really make this work stand out.

Fundamentally, Sakanaka argues, the issue before Japan is what kind of country it wants to become by the middle of this century: a "big" country or a "small" country. Becoming a Big Country means accepting, by 2050, roughly 20 million immigrants in order to maintain current economic levels of prosperity. The alternative is to become a Small Country, let the population drop to about 100 million, keep most foreigners out, and use robots to do some of the work often done by immigrants elsewhere.

To achieve the goal of becoming a Big Country, Sakanaka advocates the establishment of an Immigration Ministry, a separate government organ with full ministerial powers that would be responsible for all aspects of Japan's immigration policy, as well as the immigrants themselves once they have arrived and until they have obtained Japanese citizenship. Sakanaka basically favors Japan becoming a Big Country, not just for economic reasons but to serve as the "Canada of Asia", a multicultural, multiethnic salad bowl of a country where people of all races and creeds can feel comfortable.

The analysis is not perfect, and even Sakanaka the humanist falls into some racial stereotyping traps. For example, he assumes that, by 2050, certain immigrants will remain in certain positions they are often dominating now. In Sakanaka's Japan of the future, Chinese and Indian immigrants are taking the lead in information technology businesses while taxi drivers, busboys, and service industries are dominated by Southeast Asians. Perhaps this will come to pass, and perhaps he simply wanted to present a theoretical possibility that he thought readers could easily identify with. But a slightly wider imagination would have allowed for the possibility of large professional class of immigrant doctors, lawyers, and others. And, most damningly, Sakanaka has little to say about the children of immigrants and what their role in Japanese society might be.

Still, Sakanaka is an idealist. He is also an engaging writer. No academic jargon or (for the most part) sentences that sound as if they were written by Kasumigaseki bureaucrats. His book will serve as a primer to anybody interested in immigration issues, and how Japan might adopt an enlightened, progressive, and, above all, humane, immigration policy in the years to come.

So, despite the flaws, this book needs to be read by as many people as possible, and soon, for it's thoughtful analysis and reasonable suggestions. An English language version would be greatly appreciated, but appears not to be forthcoming anytime soon. This is sad. For the immigration debate, in my opinion, is rapidly becoming hijacked by the corporate world, which, if they get their way, will simply dictate to politicians and bureaucrats behind closed doors what kind of an immigration policy serves their narrow interests, rather than the interests of the nation.

Human rights groups and other experts including, yes, immigration officials, are being shut out of these back-room debates when they try to join. But, sadly, many don't even try, seemingly believing that if they just hold enough symposiums with like-minded souls, the problems, current and future, will get resolved.

As Sakanaka shows, they are dreaming, and all responsible residents of Japan, no matter what their passport says, as well as the international community would do well to consider the merits of his arguments and proposals.


"Nyukan Senki" (Kodansha Inc 2005, 254 pages, ISBN 4062128527) is now available at major bookstores. Amazon.co.jp site:

Eric invites informed commentary at <japantimes-osa@sannet.ne.jp>

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Copyright 2005 Eric Johnston
Used with permission of the author