Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 53 July 3, 2012: “In formulating immigration policy, no seat at the table for NJ”


Books etc. by ARUDOU Debito (click on icon):
Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan\" width=「ジャパニーズ・オンリー 小樽入浴拒否問題と人種差別」(明石書店)JAPANESE ONLY:  The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japansourstrawberriesavatardebitopodcastthumb
UPDATES ON TWITTER: arudoudebito
DEBITO.ORG PODCASTS on iTunes, subscribe free

Hi Blog. My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 53 dated July 3, 2012, is on the Japanese Government’s renewed policy debate on creating conditions conducive to immigration (without actually portraying it in any way as “immigration” (imin), just more NJ residents). It’s their attempt to address Japan’s demographic and probable economic nosedive despite their assiduous efforts over the decades to a) exploit NJ as temporary workers on a revolving-door labor visa regime, b) blame NJ for all manner of social ills, including foreign crime and desertion, and in the process c) poison the public debate arena for productive discussion about ever treating NJ well enough that they might want to actually stay (since the past three years have seen the NJ population continuously dropping, after 48 years of unbroken rise). The writing’s on the wall, and the GOJ is finally doing something constructive. But (as usual) the bureaucracy is controlling the agenda, and the typical blind spots are coming into play, so as things stand now I think the policy drive will be ineffective.  Have a read and a think.  Arudou Debito

In formulating immigration policy, no seat at the table for non-Japanese

The Japan Times: Tuesday, July 3, 2012
JUST BE CAUSE Column 53 for the Community Page
By ARUDOU Debito

Last month the Japanese government took baby steps toward an official immigration policy. Ten ministries and several specialist “people of awareness” (yūshikisha) held meetings aimed at creating a “coexistence society” (kyōsei shakai) within which non-Japanese (NJ) would be “accepted” (uke ire).

This is a positive change from the past two decades, when Japan cultivated an unofficial unskilled labor visa regime that a) imported NJ as cheap work units to keep Japanese factories from going bankrupt or moving overseas, and then b) saw NJ as an inconvenient unemployment statistic, fixable by canceling visas or buying them tickets home (JBC, Apr. 7, 2009).

Yes, we’ve seen this kyōsei sloganeering before. Remember the empty “kokusaika” internationalization mantra of Japan’s ’80s bubble era?

But this time the government is serious. Sponsored by the Cabinet, these meetings are considering assimilationist ideas suggested by local governments and ignored for a decade.

Why? Attendees acknowledged that Japan needs NJ to revitalize its future economy.

Unusually, their discussions were open to public scrutiny (www.cas.go.jp/jp/seisaku/kyousei/index.html) Thank you. And here scrutiny comes . . .

The good news is that the meetings’ heart is in the right place. A fuller analysis of the materials can be found at www.debito.org/?p=10271, but what they’re getting right includes:

• State-supported Japanese language education for all NJ.

• State-supported education for all NJ children (so they don’t wind up as an illiterate unskilled underclass).

• More multilingual information online and in public access areas.

• Proper enrolment for NJ in Japan’s health, unemployment and social welfare systems.

• More assistance with finding NJ employment and resolving unemployment.

• Some attention to “cultural sensitivity” and “mutual respect” issues (not just the one-way gripe of “how NJ inconvenience us Japanese on garbage day”).

• Better coordination between all levels of government for more comprehensive policies, etc.

Bravo. But there are some shortcomings:

First, definitions. What do “coexistence” and “acceptance” mean? Just letting people across the border? Gated communities? Official recognition of ethnic minorities and domestic “foreign cultures”? Acceptance of ethnic differences as “also Japanese”? Or repressing and overwriting those “foreign cultures” (a la the Ainu, Okinawans, Koreans and Taiwanese in Meiji Japan). Without making the terms of discussion clear, we can’t see ultimate intentions.

Second, hard-wired in the proceedings is a narrative that “offsets” and “others” NJ. We have the standard embedded policy invective of “our country” (wagakuni — but isn’t Japan the country of all its residents?), with the issue couched negatively as “the foreign laborer problem” (gaikokujin rōdōsha mondai). If NJ are not treated as intruders, then they are “guests” (as opposed to just human beings) being indulgently granted something from above.

Third, the ministries are considering vague “environmental preparations” (kankyō seibi) before more NJ get here. (But wait, aren’t NJ already here? Or are we somehow wiping the slate clean?)

OK, fine — semantics. But then you read how each ministry’s proposal further betrays an odd predisposition toward NJ:

The Justice Ministry complained that they can’t “administer” (kanri) NJ properly once they cross the border. But with upcoming reforms to NJ registration systems ferreting out more visa miscreants, that’s fixed, they added. Phew. Not much else was proposed.

The health ministry suggested making some important improvements to welfare and employment systems. But nothing too legalistic — after all, discrimination against NJ as workers is already forbidden (kinshi) by law (as if that’s made much difference so far). They also heralded the preferential treatment for “high-quality” (shitsu no takai) NJ from now on through a new “points system” (critiqued as problematic in my March 6 column).

The Cabinet talked exclusively about assisting nikkei — NJ of Japanese descent. Never mind residents from, say, China or the Philippines; bloodlines take priority.

The education ministry recycled old ideas, saying that we need to teach NJ the Japanese language and, er, not much else — not even any antibullying proposals.

Nothing at all from the attending ministries of foreign affairs, finance, trade and industry, transport and tourism, or forest and fisheries.

The most useless report was from the National Police Agency, who, with a single page of statistics cooking up a NJ crime rise (despite a dramatic fall across the board (JBC, April 3)), advocated more policing, much like the Justice Ministry did. (Funny thing, that: Are the police invited to every policy meeting on the treatment of Japan’s residents, or only for policies concerning those inherently untrustworthy NJ residents?)

The biggest problem was the lack of diversity. As this article went to press, all attendees were older Japanese men (OK, two women), with approximately the same socioeconomic status and life experience. Not one NJ attended.

Thus everyone relied on third-party “reports from the field” (genba de), as if NJ are exotic animals studied from binoculars in their habitat. Not even the token Gregory Clark (who never misses an opportunity within these pages to claim how open-minded the Japanese are because they plonk him on blue-ribbon panels) was shoehorned in.

If the people for whom this policy is being created are not present at the agenda-setting stage, the inevitable happens: blind spots.

Here’s the major one: Where is the legal apparatus (hō seibi) to back up those “environmental preparations”?

For example, where is a proposed amendment to the Basic Education Law (to remove the conceit of kokumin, or Japanese national) to ensure that Japanese schools can no longer refuse NJ children an education?

Where is a proposed punishment for the employer who treats his NJ workers unequally, such as by not coughing up their required half of social insurance payments?

What about that law against racial discrimination? Again, these meetings are a well-intentioned start. But I think the outcome will still be policy failure. For there is still no discussion about making NJ feel like they “belong,” as “members” of Japan.

Academic Yumiko Iida (a Japanese, so no claims of cultural imperialism, please), in her award-winning research about Japanese identity (see www.debito.org/?p=10215), argued that there are four things any viable nation-state must create to make its people feel like “members”:

1) A shared memory of the past (i.e., a national narrative) that links them all.

2) A sense of community, with moral obligations attached to it.

3) A world view that makes sense.

4) Hope for the future that other people share.

Consider how NJ are denied these things:

1) NJ have little presence in Japan’s history (remember the old saw, “Japan merely borrows ‘things’ from overseas and then uniquely ‘Japanizes’ them”) so, as these meetings indicate by their very attendance roster, NJ are forever an exogenous force to Japanese society.

2) As discussed on these pages (JBC, June 5), NJ are systematically othered, if not completely ignored as even a minority community within Japan, and that will naturally discourage a feeling of moral obligation to Japan.

3) A world view that does not acknowledge the existence of entire minority peoples cannot possibly make sense to those peoples.

4) Hope for the future in a Japan in decline is a hard sell even for Japanese these days.

The point is, if this policy discussion is to go beyond political theater, the GOJ must now use the dreaded word “immigration” (imin). It must also prepare the public to see immigrants as members of Japanese society — as minority Japanese.

This committee has not. It had better start.

In this era of unprecedented opportunities for world labor migration, Japan must be more competitive. Above all, it must lose the arrogant assumption that people will want to come to Japan just because it’s Japan.

Japan must seriously think about how to be nice — yes, nice — enough to NJ so that they’ll want to stay. And that means making them feel equal in terms of importance and inclusion — as though they belong — with everyone else.

So you want to create public policy that reflects, not dictates, what NJ need? Then listen to those of us already here. The government has admitted you need us. Treat us as an exogenous force at your peril.


Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community page of the month. Send your comments to community@japantimes.co.jp. For readers’ views on last month’s column, please visit www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20120703hs.html

13 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 53 July 3, 2012: “In formulating immigration policy, no seat at the table for NJ”

  • Stanislas says:

    Once again, very well said. For my part, I’me really fed up with Japan and its constant double standart way of life. I’ve been insulted by an old bastard who “didn’t want to hear speaking a foreign langage during his break” and gave me names in front of everybody. After that, the CEO of the chain agreed with the old racist and then me, the victim, was expelled from a cafe where I was used to drink almost everydays for two years. Two times victim in a raw. Me, a good customer expelled because a big liar that came just two or three times in the same place than me complained of being disturbed while being seated far far from me (I was speaking silently with a tea master, yes, it’s not bull..it)…
    One example of the “kindness” of Japanese people. Another one ? When I travel in a tour with other japanese travellers, I’m almost always placed to the “blind seat” located behind the curtain in the bus. Another one ? When I reserve a room in a ryokan, I’m always given the room located to the far end of the coridor, probably in order my not disturbing other “so-quiet” customers who, actually, scream and shout, and walk around totally drunk.
    Well, me life was full of nice moments in Japan, but after 16 years here, I can’t bear anylonger the other moments that are so numerous my friends can’t believe the “Japan of their dream” is what I’m describing to their biggest disappointment.

    That’s why I don’t care what the GOJ is aiming to do, sincerely or not it’s anyway too little too late. But honestly, I don’t believe in their “good will toward foreigners” and all they’re doing is as always buying time and trying to look nice to the international observers.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    I don’t believe anyone in GOJ is willing to listen to the voices of NJ, unless the bureaucrats admit their mistakes, open up their minds, and treat naturalized citizens and legal/permanent residents as same human being as Japanese. There are too many old ARC (Arrogant, Clueless, and Robotic!) politicians whose mindsets quite resonate with an old racist like the late Jesse Helms (Rep. SC) or those who hold the Southern Dixie mentality to defend a dark legacy of African-American slavery and Jim Crow by honoring the Confederation flag. I don’t expect the immigration policy will be unfolded into any form of constructive debate in the Diet—much less for public participation, unless GOJ appoints NJ Diet member(s) and/or NJ researchers to the committee for constructive engagement in public policy debate.

  • Too little, too late. I have voted with my feet as have many others I know. Like many I know we have taken Japanese nationals with us.

  • Yes!! This is exactly what I think and feel when I listen to this sort of rhetoric! It was difficult to hold back my applause as I read this one.

    It seems to me that teaching Japanese children just how ethnically diverse even the ancient Yamato people were would help to create a “we’re all immigrants because we all came from somewhere else” feeling that might work towards improving acceptance (meaning acknowledgement as minority Japanese) of NJ. I recommend Kamigaito Kenichi’s book “Hybrid Japan” (2011) – really, I think it should be required reading for Japanese history classes in high school.

  • May be, just may be there is light at the end of the tunnel.

    What is “common practice and well known for decades in other industrialised countries has only now just been “discovered”. Looking after the employee helps the company. In this case the Japanese Armed forces:


    By creating an environment where the women are felt needed and not left out when the go have children…and can still contribute as well as being recognised as contributing prior to leaving.

    So, now they have made this (all to obvious step, could they, may be, just may be…make the same “leap” with NJs?

  • I agree with your point (it resounds within me):

    “But I think the outcome will still be policy failure. For there is still no discussion about making NJ feel like they “belong,” as “members” of Japan.”

    I believe that a better way to envision residence in Japan is like my years in Saudi Arabia — a society in which one can never and will never be accepted and in which the official ideology is extremely frank regarding that fact.

    If those coming to Japan to reside better understood that no matter their language proficiency level, or knowledge of J culture, they must forever remain as those with inferior rights, then I believe it would be easier and less painful for all.

    It is because NJ wrongly believe that Japan is willing to accept them as equals that unhappiness occurs.

    NJ believe that because Japan falsely creates that view (by allowing naturalisation, through NHK, etc.), and also because they often want to believe that.

    It was simpler in Saudi, where they were quite blunt and said to anyone and everyone who is a foreigner that they could never, ever be accepted as an equal member of society.

    Why is it that GOJ is unwilling to be more bluntly honest?

    — Er, because the world expects more of Japan as a “modern, rich, civilized nation worthy of respect amongst its OECD brethren” like Japan essentially says it is, and doesn’t have oil to offer so the world will avert its eyes?

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    Having “imin” or “ijumin” as part of the vocabulary instead of the forever-not-belonging-here “gaikokujin” and its offensive abreviation would be a start.
    Immigrants came here from another place to live. Foreigners don’t belong here.

  • Anonymous says:


    Right on. At first, when I read your comment, I was thinking, “Yeah, I’m going to use that idea.”

    “If someone calls me a gaikokujin, or a gaijin, I will correct them by saying ‘移民’ or ‘移住民’.”

    But now, I’m thinking, let’s take it one step further. Let’s simply focus on the word ‘Resident’.

    Thus, “If someone calls me a gaikokujin, or a gaijin, I will correct them by saying ‘にっぽんの住民’.”

    — I’ve done that for decades. Pass it on.

  • Baudrillard says:

    @ Charazu. Postmodern thinking or Confucian Confusion in Japan is to blame. Japan is a mess, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.

    Thus, you have a foreign “democracy” and its signs and symbols imposed on a post fascist, ex feudalist country where the Daimyo handed down their titles, much as various Japanese political dynasties are doing to this day in rotten boroughs, everyone from Abe to Hatanoyama.

    Similarly, the country is divided in its opinions though maintains the illusion of unity through shared myths. It was even divided in WW2 with the polity and diplomats quite often disagreeing with the militant actions of the Black Dragon Society in China, basically an out of control army. This could all happen again,(hence the continuing US army occupation) but I digress.

    Thus, apart from the lip service to free movement of peoples, G7 treaties blah blah blah, there are also a number of intelligent people who recognize the need for immigrants. But there is an equal anti-immigrant minority. Because “wa” is valued, if this reactionary minority shouts loud enough, policies do not become law; the obvious and shocking example was the local votes for foreigners fiasco, withdrawn by a *majority Govt.

    Time and time again I have seen the majority held hostage by a tiny dissenting minority in Japan, usually in corporate meeting rooms where 9 people out of 10 will say yes, but that sulky ojisan in the corner says “no” and they want to reach an unanimous decision to maintain harmony,or more often just to avoid a fight because they cannot be bothered with conflict or implementing anything troublesome, (“mendokusai” is a huge determing factor), so any and every decision is so compromised, so watered down, that no one is really happy with the mediocre result.But it is what was decided as a group and is the least disliked course of action, causing the least “meiwaku”.

    A microcosm of Japan’s inertia and inability to enact meaningful change. Things just stay the same and no one rocks the boat, a boat that is getting a bit leaky now and taking on water.

    Finally, throw cultural consideratons in the mix, like “tatemae” and you end up with a contradictory and confusing set of disaparate policies which often contradict each other. Thus one official will tell you one thing, e.g.you can submit tax returns online, then you go to your ward office to do so and out pops ojisan with a bow and smile to say, “no sorry gaijin san, you cannot submit your tax returns online”.

    Charazu,I like what you said about “NJs often want to believe that (they can be accepted)”. Yes, we all had our Japanese dream, didnt we?
    There are also many Japanese who would like to believe Japan now is,overnight almost, a western style democracy with the same “individual freedoms”, but often these are buzzwords which go against a deeply ingrained grain, and indeed these are often tolerated to some extent (tolerated, not encouraged, and not in any conservative workplace). It has often been said that Japanese are only free in their hobbies (and even some of these are deeply regimented, e.g. Ikebana,Sado, ceramics etc having to study under a Sensei).

    Sadly, I think a number of these progressively minded, individualistic people may just end up leaving.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ John K #6

    Japan shouldn’t be shouting on BBC with pride that they did that, instead they should be ashamed it took them so long (to keep mothers in working in their unconstitutional military).

  • Debito-san

    Probably your best Just Be Cause article you have written. You articulated both the positive and the negatives well.

    I see this as a positive step, but I also agree that they need at least one long term foreign resident and at least one Japanese citizen that has obtained citizenship by naturalization. The long term resident and naturalized citizen would bring much to the table and probably have slightly different perspectives, which would be helpful.

    Over the past 10 years I have seen a positive trend toward the treatment of foreigners (albeit slow). It could be the optimist in me (or apologist as some like to say). It would be even better to see an acceleration. Even if this is done out of economic necessity it could bring about positive changes.

    @ John K (6) – I have seen at least 3 different companies doing this in the past few years (offering extended leave, with pay, after women have had children). All 3 of the women were technical professionals. I do not know if this has anything to do with it or not.

    @Jim Di Griz (2)- your comment in number is probably one of few things we see the same way. I also agree this was an excellent article (as stated above) and the conclusion was excellent.


  • As always a very well written, important and interesting article. I want to thank you for your tireless contributions to our NJ community here. Your several links (which I had missed in your earlier entries) were also of particular interest to my ongoing work.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>