STILL WARY OF OUTSIDERS,
JAPAN EXPECTS IMMIGRATION BOOM
THE NEW YORK TIMES, March 14, 2000
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
SAGAMIHARA CITY, Japan -- This town an hour outside of Tokyo, unremarkable
except for its sprinkling of Chinese and Southeast Asians, could soon be
known as a forerunner of Japan's 21st-century immigration boom.
Shrinking faster than any other nation, this country's population is
projected to decline by 17 percent during the next half century. By 2050 the
population will dwindle to 105 million from 127 million now, according to
United Nations estimates.
To maintain a steady population, on average, Japanese women would have to
give birth to 2.08 children. But in Japan, by 1998, the last year for which
such information is available, the childbearing average stood at 1.38 per
woman. What is worse, the rapid aging of Japan's people will further
accelerate the population decline as there will be fewer women of
Government experts, demographers and economists say that as Japan loses
people -- and workers -- the only way for it to maintain its lofty living
standards is to quickly begin accepting immigrants in far greater numbers
and to abandon the age-old comfort of its near-uniform ethnicity.
The United Nations has gone one step further, pointing out that Japan, which
has the lowest percentage of immigrants and expatriate workers of any
advanced industrialized nation, would need to take in 600,000 immigrants a
year just to maintain its present work force. Already, industries such as
elderly care, hospital work and the lowest-paying farming and manufacturing
jobs are struggling to find enough workers to keep up with demand.
Despite Japan's coming demographic crisis, which will affect everything from
financing pensions for the world's oldest population to supplying workers to
crucial manufacturing industries, any discussion of remedies quickly
collides with a deep-seated social resistance to accepting outsiders.
Sagamihara and the surrounding area came by its immigrant population through
an accident of history, and not as a result of any repopulation drive. The
city was selected two decades ago as one of the relocation centers for about
10,000 people from Southeast Asia who were brought to Japan in an extremely
rare bid by this country to absorb part of the region's swelling pool of
Life in places like this may differ little from the rest of Japan, but
nonetheless, as many as 80 percent of the respondents in a recent national
poll said they opposed allowing any more immigrants into the country.
Most invoked Japan's historically high unemployment rate in opposing more
immigrants. But experts say there is far more at work in the rejection --
above all, a tradition of insularity that openly regards most foreigners,
particularly fellow Asians, with disdain.
"We face tremendous handicaps to internationalize our country," said
Masakazu Yamazaki, a playwright from Osaka University who is a member of a
commission recently appointed by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to identify
national priorities for the 21st century. "Japanese are not confident about
opening up, but this is because of historical factors. Japan was effectively
closed up until the 1970's or 1980's."
Japan was, in fact, an officially closed country between 1639 and 1854, with
no immigration or foreign travel allowed, on penalty of death. Since then,
the country has scarcely opened. The largest influx of foreigners was the
arrival of thousands of Koreans brought to Japan to work or fight on its
behalf during Japan's 35-year annexation of Korea early in this century.
And even after several generations here, these Koreans have never been truly
accepted into Japanese society. In 1998, the latest year for which
information is available, 1.1 million foreigners were registered with the
government as residents of Japan. Another 270,000 are estimated to be living
here without proper visas.
Mr. Yamazaki's panel was created largely because of government alarm over
the implications of Japan's expected population decline, and worries that
Japan's largely homogeneous, monolingual population is ill prepared to face
the challenges of globalization.
Even before the panel's conclusions were published in January, the Justice
Ministry began to formulate new, slightly looser rules governing what types
of jobs foreigners should be allowed to have in Japan. In an unprecedented
pronouncement, the ministry urged Japanese to "aggressively carry out the
smooth acceptance" of foreigners.
Still, many acknowledge, any plans for increasing the number of foreigners
runs up against the harsh realities of a culture that is fearful, suspicious
and often even openly contemptuous of outsiders.
In Japan, lock companies appeal to racial fear in advertisements that
bluntly link crime to foreigners. Most real estate companies openly refuse
to take foreign clients. Banks often refuse to lend to foreigners. And many
places of entertainment, from pachinko parlors to hot baths, maintain a
Japanese disdain for others is directed most strongly at other Asians, who
would be the most logical source of future immigration. But even the
cautious recommendation of increased "intellectual immigration" made
recently by the prime minister's panel already faces serious resistance.
In 1983, the prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, set a national goal for
Japan to draw 100,000 foreign university students to the country annually by
the year 2000. But with its reputation as a relatively unwelcoming place for
foreigners -- particularly other Asians -- the number of exchange students
has stagnated around 50,000 since 1993.
Foreigners who study in the United States or other Western countries, often
do so with the desire of eventually working in the country. Japan's
immigration laws make naturalization almost impossible, and rigorous
work-permit laws and rules governing residency are meant to discourage
Meanwhile, foreign faculty members here have often found themselves subject
to discrimination, typically denied equal pay or tenure and other benefits
on the same basis as their Japanese counterparts.
In one recent, widely discussed case, Gwendolyn Gallagher, an American
professor who is married to a Japanese and has lived here for 14 years, was
dismissed from Asahikawa University with the sole explanation that the
school needed "fresh foreigners." To the shock of many foreign academics
here, the dismissal was upheld in court.
In cases like these, many who favor increased immigration say that the
government has often set nice-sounding goals, but has failed to lead.
Japanese are taught as children that when they find something of value that
has been lost, they should seek to return it. But moral lessons about
discrimination are totally absent.
"Japanese are very interested in racial discrimination in other countries,
but they behave as if they are not aware of the phenomenon in their own
country," said Hiroshi Tanaka, a professor of sociology at Hitotsubashi
University in Tokyo. "Now that we have these problems in our country we need
to have regulation. We need leadership on this issue but the basic premise
of the Government is that Japanese do not accept foreigners."
Here in Sagamihara, in contrast to most of Japan, where foreigners are few
and far between, Asian immigrants represent an appreciable minority.
In Sagamihara City's schools, about 3 percent of the students nowadays come
from countries including Laos or Cambodia.
At the Oshima Elementary School in Sagamihara a small number of Chinese,
Laotian and Cambodian children blend into their classrooms so well that a
visitor would be unable to point most of them out. Such scenes make up a
sort of best-case fantasy of Japanese who realize their country will have to
open up to outsiders: as long as the change is imperceptible, the nuisance
will be tolerable.
But like the country in general, the school makes almost no concessions to
the foreigners who attend it. What is done to help them depends largely on a
few volunteers, and on the goodwill of the administrators and teachers here.
Unlike an American school, say, in New York or Los Angeles, there is no
special program of second-language instruction, or special learning classes.
There are no social workers to ease the adjustment of families, and as the
academics become increasingly rigorous in middle school and beyond, few
immigrant children are able to keep up.
"I don't know what has happened to the kids who came in the early years, but
I have heard that some of them have had hard lives," said the school's
principal, Tadashi Shinoda. "It seems that some of their families have
If mixing is free and easy at the youngest ages, by the time immigrants
reach the age to attend the high school next door, they find that their
young Japanese classmates have frequently absorbed the hostility to
foreigners that is characteristic of their elders and often express it
Korean immigrants to Japan have long known the phenomenon of taunting and
hazing by their school-aged Japanese peers. In this school district, now it
is the turn of the Cambodians and other Southeast Asians who began arriving
here in the 1970's.
"I had one girl who was looked down upon by schoolmates," said Masahisa
Minato, a teacher who recently wrote a study about the challenges of
absorbing foreign students. "She was told, 'you should go back to your
home,' and 'you are too black.' Through this experience, she lost her desire
"I think that kind of condition exists all over Japan, even in elementary
school," he added.
Such attitudes have led many Japanese who advocate greater openness toward
foreigners to feel pessimistic about the future. Even if Japan faces labor
shortages in the near future, they say, there is little to suggest that
hostility toward outsiders will soon fade.
"Japanese society still has fantasies about our pure blood, and about the
ability of Japanese people to understand each other better than others,"
said Katsuo Yoshinari, head of the Asian People's Friendship Society. "Even
if the government or the business community accepts more foreigners, without
much more effort on our side, these feelings of rejection toward foreigners
will remain strong."
NY TIMES ARTICLE, MAR 14, 2000, ENDS