Treatment of Japan's International Residents

Problems and Solutions for a 21st-Century Japan

By Arudou Debito (

(Text of this handout with live links at

The world has now entered the 21st Century, with the promises and problems of global and "borderless" societies. Japan too is in the throes of an inevitable internationalization, with record numbers of resident foreigners year on year. Registered foreigners (that is, on three-year visas and up) surpassed 2 million souls in 2006 (1.6% of the population), and with a net increase of c. 50,000 people per annum. However, even though international residents pay taxes and contribute to Japanese society the same as citizens, there are several societal and legal barriers to them enjoying equal rights and social treatment. In fact, overt exclusionism remains largely unremedied, often by Japanese Government (GOJ) design. This handout will describe several social and structural problems that warrant attention, and in the end propose some modest solutions to make Japanese society easier for everyone regardless of nationality to live in.




a) Unfettered defamation. Shuukan Asahi of Feb 25, 2000: Miwa Lock KK, Japan's biggest locksmith, ran an advertisement headlining: "Are your safety measures adequate? Crimes by foreign gangs skyrocketing", in a cynical attempt to promote sales by stoking fear of foreigners. Likewise with magazine "GAIJIN HANZAI URA FAIRU" (Gaijin [sic] Crime Underground Files, Eichi Shuppan Inc. Jan 2007, more at, which had caricatures of gaijin criminals coming to "lay waste to Japan" and "targeting everyone in 2007", lurid manga reenacting a Fukuoka murder with smiling Chinese drowning and strangling an entire family for a pittance ("Did they do this crime, incomprehensible to Japanese, because they are Chinese?"), and depicted foreigners turning parts of Tokyo into "lawless zones". It also included sections on things that were NOT crimes, such as interracial couples (one depicted as a "nigger") engaging in public displays of affection, and whether or not Korean prostitutes have nether regions that smell like kimchee. like these assigning criminality to foreignness would be seen as most problematic (under the ICERD and ICCPR) as speech encouraging hatred towards a group of people. But not in Japan, which required a social movement by consumers to take it off the shelves. More at

GAIJIN HANZAI scanned in its entirety at

b) Politicians and media engage in "foreigner bashing". April 9, 2000, Tokyo Gov. Ishihara Shintaro speech to the Nerima Ground Self Defense Forces: "foreigners and 'Third-County Nationals' (a derogatory term for certain foreign Asians) are committing heinous crimes over and over", calling for the SDF in the event of a natural disaster to round them up. He later indicated he meant rounding up "illegal foreigners", but how an officer would determine "illegality" on sight was left unclear. This sentiment fed into a May 1, 2000 Sankei Shinbun cover story ( proclaiming "foreign crime skyrockets, six-fold in ten years", without comparison to (also rising) Japanese crime. Ishihara also claimed in his Sankei Shinbun column of May 8, 2001, "Japan, Guard Your Inner Flank", that Chinese have genetically criminal tendencies due to "ethnic DNA". More at and Contemporary NPA crime statistics for non-Japanese at (demonstrating that foreign crime had levelled off, even falling in some areas). Even today the NJ crime rate in total is still below the J crime rate (esp. when excluding visa violations, which Japanese cannot commit), but reporting that has less "news value"; so much so that the Mainichi (Feb 8, 2007) headlined a drop in English but a rise in Japanese (Japan Times Feb 20 2007 More of the same, with only one retraction in the lot:

·        ”A million [Chinese, Koreans, etc.], all thieves and murderers, are in Japan... making Kabukicho a lawless zone.” (Dietman Etoh Takami Jul 12 2003)

·        "Given the exceptional atmosphere of the [2002 World Cup], we must face the possibility of unwanted babies fathered by foreigners who rape our women.” (Miyagi Pref. Assemblyman Konno Takayoshi Jun 27 2001)

·        “Foreigners are all sneaky thieves. As Tokyo Gov. Ishihara cracked down on them, they flowed into Kanagawa Prefecture.” K. Gov Matsuzawa Nov 2 2003)

·        “Roppongi is now virtually a foreign neighborhood. Africans --I don't mean African-Americans--who don't speak English are there doing who knows what. This is leading to new forms of crime such as car theft. We should be letting in people who are intelligent.” (Tokyo Gov. Ishihara, Feb 19, 2007).

c) The National Police Agency wilfully exaggerates foreign crime. One of their 2001 homepages depicts foreign gangs invading the Japanese archipelago ( The Shizuoka Pref. Police published a Feb. 2002 handbook entitled "Characteristics of Foreign Criminals--How to Avoid Being Victimized", depicting the local Brazilian and Peruvian population as violent indigents. Distributed to shopkeeps, it provides advice like "if two or more foreigners walk in your store, report their licence plate number to the police" (perfect for police targeting with circumstantial evidence). See

d) Targeting as police policy. The NPA 2000 White Paper (pg 37) reported the May 1999 establishment of a "Policymaking Committee against Internationalization" (kokusaika taisaku iinkai)--the nuance being that "kokusaika" is now a social bane, not a boon. It is specifically charged with taking measures against foreign crime. As with any committee with line-item budget, it found ways to justify its annual tax budget--by issuing "beware of bad foreigners" etc. banners and posters for public places (bank ATMs, train and subway stations etc) nationwide. How were foreign-looking customers to enter banks etc now without arousing fear in other customers, and criminal suspicion in police? Unclear, especially since the author (a Japanese citizen) has been stopped several times (illegally) and questioned for no reason except for walking while White. New policy pushes now include deputizing hotels to record (i.e. demanding passports for photocopying) and report to police "all foreign guests", even though the 2005 revision to the Hotel Management Law only requires ID from "foreigners without addresses in Japan", with two differing notices to all hotels.

e) Result: Public opinion shifts against protecting foreigners' human rights. According to the Mainichi Shinbun (Apr 4, 2003), a PM Cabinet Survey on human rights asked the question, "Should foreigners in Japan have their human rights protected equally with Japanese?" Only 54% of respondents said yes, down 11.5% from the last survey in 1997. Respondents agreeing with the statement, "Foreigners not having the same human rights protections is unavoidable" rose from 18.5% in 1997 to 21.8%. Why a GOJ survey would make protection of human rights for human beings seem optional is odd enough, but in any case, quantifiable social damage has been done by all the foreigner-bashing. A Ministry of Justice official noted in the same Mainichi article, "It is probably due to the rise in foreigner crime."



It must be noted at this point that foreigners do not have exactly the same rights as citizens anywhere in the world--or else there would be no benefits to citizenship! So this section will talk about the systematically unequal treatment of foreign residents in Japan not found in other developed countries.

       a) The Foreigner as Invisible Family Member. Japan has a Family Registry (koseki) system, whose bugs appear in the case of international marriages (i.e. citizen with non-citizen). Even though the marriage is recognized under Japanese laws as legal, the Koseki does not list foreigners under the "husband" or "wife" columns. Instead, they are listed with the fine print of the family dossier. Not only is this profoundly disrespectful to the institution of marriage, but also social welfare systems often kick in, sending information to what appears to be a single-parent household. See

       b) The Foreigner as Invisible Resident. Japan also has a separate Residency Certificate (juuminhyou) system, which indicates where a person lives. However, only people with the abovementioned Koseki may be listed on it. Nowhere else in the OECD (even Germany, with a similar system) is citizenship required for residency, and foreign family members (upon request, and at the discretion of local bureaucrats) may only be listed as a "remark" on it. This has presented problems with child custody in divorce proceedings, and will make exact whereabouts of all household members unclear in the event of a natural disaster. Moreover, adding insult to injury, a sealion named "Tama-chan" was awarded an honorary Residency Certificate in Feb 2003 by Yokohama Nishi Ward, ignoring the thousands of other foreign, taxpaying, mammals in their midst. See

       An example of a Residency Certificate:

       c) "Native-Born Foreigners". Japan confers citizenship by blood (jus sanguinis), not birth (jus soli) like almost all OECD countries. The result is ethnic "Zainichi" Korean and Chinese etc minorities (some forcibly brought to Japan during its colonial period) are born and have lived here as foreigners for generations now. Numbering close to a million people, this means the majority (around 60% in 1996) of "registered foreigners" in Japan are natives--a situation found nowhere else in the developed countries. The proportion will soon shift in favor of immigrants, but the point is clear--why should native-born and raised people like the Zainichis be legally treated for the most part like foreigners fresh off the airplane?

       d) So why don't more people naturalize? Because it is not at all easy. The author, who has successfully undergone the process, can attest to the rigorous procedure followed (not just the paperwork, found in all countries), including background checks, interviews with the neighbors, even inspections of house interior, refrigerator, and children's toys to see how "Japanized" the candidate is. Success is not giving inspectors a "feeling of incongruity". This "Good Behavior Survey" may reject people for even a speeding ticket--meaning most Japanese could not pass the test. Also, dual nationality, uniquely in the OECD, is not allowed in Japan, making for identity sacrifices. No wonder fewer than 15,000 people per year (about ten days' worth of successful candidates in the USA) become new citizens of Japan. The arbitrariness of the process became clear in 2000, when Peru-born former president Alberto Fujimori fled to Japan and was nearly immediately granted Japanese citizenship--bypassing the yearslong naturalization process--despite criminal allegations, and an extradition order from the Peruvian govt.!



Despite residency and taxpayer status, foreigners systematically endure inordinate economic and political disadvantages. For example, blanket refusals for credit cards and house loans (impossible without Permanent Residency, which takes 5 to 10 years to qualify for). Many issues are outlined on "The Community" Issues Page (, but egregious examples are:

       a) Contracted employment status specifically for foreign university educators. A contracted position may not sound bad to Western ears, but Japan's tertiary education system (the second largest in the world) does not contract full-time Japanese educators. Since almost all full-time Japanese enjoy permanent tenure from day one of hiring, a contract becomes a term limit only for foreigners. Abuses of the system include "The Great Gaijin Massacre" of 1992-4, where most foreign faculty above the age of 35 in National Universities found their contracts were not being renewed--in a successful attempt by the Ministry of Education to bring in younger, cheaper foreigners. Since these veteran teachers had not paid into overseas pension plans (and decades of Japanese pension payments are nonrefundable), they could not simply "go home". They got stuck with part-time work with no benefits to pay house loans, kids' college tuition, or fulfill pension plans. According to Ivan Hall's CARTELS OF THE MIND (WW Norton, 1998), there are more full-time foreign faculty with permanent tenure in one American university than in all of Japan! Not to mention a systemwide disdain ("academic apartheid") towards foreign educators regardless of qualification, seeing them merely as cheap disposable labor. See the Blacklist of Japanese Universities, a list of institutions with breathtakingly unequal employment policies, at

       b) No laws against racial discrimination at the national or local level. Japan is the only OECD country with this situation. Westerners, jaded by pressure groups decrying "racist" at too many junc-tures, may consider this refreshing, but consider a society with no legal protections at all against racism. From 1993, bathhouses in Otaru, Hokkaido, claiming that ill-mannered Russian sailors were driving away regular Japanese customers, put up "JAPANESE ONLY" signs--excluding not all Russians, but all foreigners! "Banning all Russians only would be discriminatory," they claimed, so treating all foreigners equally differently than Japanese was their solution. The problem with this vigilanteism is that "foreign" got judged by physical appearance, and Japanese people who looked like foreigners, such as children of international marriages and naturalized citizens, were banned as well. The authorities wrung their hands, admitted this was racial discrimination and contrary the Japanese Constitution, but as it was not specifically *illegal* there was nothing they could enforce to stop it. Then they refused to pass any laws against it, in violation of the UN Convention on Racial Discrimination (which Japan effected in 1996), hoping the problem would just go away. It didn't. It got worse, in fact, as more places realized they could signpost away foreigners with impunity. First it was other bathhouses in Otaru, then other places around Hokkaido (Wakkanai, Monbetsu, Nemuro, Sapporo, Ohtaki-mura--which is not even a port town), then other businesses (bars, discos, ramen shops, sport shops, barbershops, restaurants, eyeglass shop...), then other cities nationwide (Misawa, Akita, Tokyo Shinbashi and Ogikubo, Hamamatsu, Nagoya...). See photos of these establishments and their signs at

       Finally, after all other possible measures were exhausted, the author and two other excluded friends took one of the Otaru bathhouses (for racial discrimination) and the City of Otaru (for doing nothing for so long it became the mere epicenter of this new type of overt discrimination in Japan) to court in Feb 2001. In Nov 2002 and Sept 2004, the Sapporo District and High Courts respectively ordered the bathhouse to pay plaintiffs each one million yen, but exonerated Otaru City of any negligence and of any responsibility to make racial discrimination illegal. The case was rejected for consideration by Japan's Supreme Court in April 2005. See for full information on the case and its background, for more on Arudou Debito's book in Japanese and English on the case, JAPANESE ONLY, published by Akashi Shoten ( And, for a particularly nasty case in Misawa, Aomori-ken, where the author was refused entry despite displaying a Japanese passport--by foreign hostesses!

       c) Wilful GOJ misinterpretation of international treaty. In its (very late) periodic reports to UN committees on human rights (1998, 2001), the GOJ states, "We do not recognize that the present situation of Japan is one in which discriminative acts cannot be restrained by the existing legal system. . .a law prohibiting racial discrimination is not considered necessary." The GOJ also voided any domestic application of the International Convention on Racial Discrimination by stating that nobody in Japan is covered by it: Minorities such as Ainu and Burakumin are not racially different, while Koreans, Chinese, etc are not citizens anyway. The UN: "We regret that previous recommendations on civil and political rights have largely not been implemented", chiding Japan for its "repeated use of popularity statistics to justify attitudes", and finishing with "human rights standards are not determined by popularity polls". and

       d) NTT DoCoMo's "Foreigner Tariff". Citing delinquent payments by repatriating foreign customers, NTT, Japan (and the world's) largest telecom company, had its mobile-phone subsidiary, DoCoMo, levy a 30,000 yen deposit on all phone contracts for foreigners from April 1, 2002. Although company reps told the author and the media that foreigners default at "six times the rate of Japanese", they refused to make public any hard figures, and eventually admitted 1) most foreigners do not default, and 2) the damages done by Japanese defaulters far outweighed the foreign. Nevertheless, DoCoMo refused to levy the deposit on all customers, rightly fearing widespread flight to Japan's two other cellphone operators, Vodafone and AU. It was obvious that DoCoMo assumed foreigners were too few to matter and wouldn't fight back. After some bad press, DoCoMo later that year amended the policy to tariff foreigners without credit cards, but to this day has the tariff in place. Foreign customers are to DoCoMo apparently less trustworthy than regular Japanese, a belief the other carriers do not share. See (info site) (multilingual protest letter)




Let us not forget that foreigners are in Japan fulfilling a role--some here at the GOJ's behest (the Nikkei Brazilians, Peruvians, etc for factory work), others for intellectual, cultural and economic transfer (educators, businesspeople, JICA, etc,), others fulfilling various market demands, and the majority by dint of birth. Almost all pay into Japan's pension system, groaning under the strain of the world's fastest aging society, and all into a tax system hobbled by perpetual fiscal irresponsibility. It is churlish to presume that a nation can take from residents and not be responsible for defending their rights--i.e. rights to maintain a standard of living, spend their wages, and avail themselves of the fruits of society like any other resident of Japan. But that is what Japan is doing in too many cases. To help resolve this, I charge Japan's administrative, legislative, and judicial branches to consider the following proposals:


1) Pass laws at all levels of government outlawing discrimination by race, appearance, nationality, national and social origin. (Model law submitted in 2001 by the author and friends to the Hokkaido and Otaru City Assemblies, and the Democratic Party of Japan at

2) Empower the ineffectual Ministry of Justice's Bureau of Human Rights with punitive powers.

3) Create regional human-rights ombudsmen, with appropriate oversight and punitive powers.

4) Abolish full-time contracted positions for foreign educators at universities, and employ them on the same terms as Japanese full-time faculty.

5) Create family and residential registry systems to register non-Japanese equally with citizens.

6) Ease the naturalization process and legalize dual nationality.

7) Grant citizenship from birth, shorten the time period for qualifying for Permanent Residency, and make the Re-Entry Permit (aka the "Gaijin Tax") system free of charge.

8) Ease restrictions on granting credit to international residents, including government loans to homeowners based on individual merit, not solely Permanent Residency.

9) Publicly promote at the national govt. level the fact that foreigners are not temporary guests, but rather residents, taxpayers, and immigrants, worthy of most privileges and immunities of citizens, and a social boon, not a bane.

10) Grant suffrage to Permanent Residents, as most would be already be citizens in OECD countries.

11) Promote the fact that in 21st-Century Japan, "Japaneseness" can no longer be a matter of blood or appearance, rather a matter of legality--for the sake of Japan's hundreds of thousands of Japanese children with international roots.




Regarding anti-foreigner statements by politicians and media: Hate speech, as far as the United Nations is concerned:

·        [States parties] (a) Shall declare an offence punishable by law all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination, as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another colour or ethnic origin, and also the provision of any assistance to racist activities, including the financing thereof. (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Art 4, Japan effected 1996)

·        “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law” (International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, Art 20, Japan effected 1979)

·        Recent Human Rights Council discussion on this topic: A/HRC/2/6 20 September 2006