My Japan Times JBC column 76: “Humanize the dry debate about immigration”, June 5, 2014, with links to sources


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Hi Blog. Thanks as always for putting my article in the Top Ten most read on the JT Online once again!
Humanize the dry debate about immigration
By Dr. ARUDOU, Debito
June 5, 2014, courtesy
Version with links to sources.

Japan’s pundits are at it again: debating what to do about the sinking demographic ship. With the low birthrate, aging and shrinking society (we dropped below 127 million this year) and top-heavy social security system, Japan’s structural problems will by many accounts spell national insolvency.

However, we’re hearing the same old sky pies: Proposals to plug the gaps with more Japanese babies, higher retirement ages, more empowered women in the workplace (also here) — even tax money thrown at matchmaking services!

And yet they still won’t work. Policymakers are working backwards from conclusions and not addressing the structural problems, e.g., that people are deserting a depopulating countryside for urban opportunities in an overly centralized governmental system, marrying later (if at all) and finding children too expensive or cumbersome for cramped living spaces, having both spouses work just to stay afloat, and feeling perpetual disappointment over a lack of control over their lives. And all thanks to a sequestered ruling political and bureaucratic elite whose basic training is in status-quo maintenance, not problem-solving for people they share nothing in common with.

Of course, proposals have resurfaced about letting in more non-Japanese (NJ) to work. After all, we have that time-sensitive 2020 Tokyo Olympics infrastructure to build — oh, and a Tohoku to reconstruct someday. And no self-respecting white-collar Taro wants those 3K (kitsui, kitanai and kiken — difficult, dirty and dangerous) jobs. Never mind that policymakers have rarely cared about the NJ already here investing their lives in Japan, long discouraged from settling via revolving-door visa regimes, and even bribed to leave in 2009.

So, come back! All is forgiven!

Predictably, the Shinzo Abe administration recently announced the expansion of the “trainee” program. You know, that exploitative, abusive and unmonitored system that has imported NJ since 1990, free from the protections of labor law? The one that causes dozens of NJ deaths from overwork and other “unknown causes” every year, and keeps many in conditions of virtual slavery? Despite a decade of criticisms from human-rights groups, parliamentarians and the United Nations, these three-year visas have been lengthened by two more so we can exploit them longer.

And then, a previously taboo word entered the discussion: imin (immigration). It made such an impact that prominent debate magazine Sapio made it June’s cover story.


Michael Hoffman reviewed this spread in the JT in his Big In Japan column on May 24, “Will Japan be a country that welcomes all?”

Great. But I’ll answer Michael’s question right now: no — and not just for an obvious reason like Japan’s innate mistrust of outsiders. We also have a structural problem with how the concept of imin is being framed. It goes beyond constant othering and alienation: NJ aren’t even being seen as people.

Last time this debate came up, I lambasted the government for shutting NJ long-termers out of the deliberation councils drafting policies affecting them. I also mentioned how policymakers avoided the word imin.

So now imin has been formally broached — albeit while being stigmatized: The person in charge of the Immigration Bureau, Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, immediately said NJ would present “adverse effects on security.” (Note to ad agencies: Don’t hire Tanigaki to sell your product.)

But imin has also been dehumanized. Look up “immigrant” in an English-Japanese dictionary and you get words such as ijūmin, ijūsha, imin rōdōsha and, oddly, mitsunyūkokusha and fuhō nyūkokusha (illegal immigrant). But these aren’t immigrants: These are migrants, here temporarily, as properly translated by domestic NGOs looking out for NJ interests, such as the Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan (Iju Rodosha to Rentai Suru Network).

The word for “immigration,” meaning something permanent, is imin — denoted on the Denshi Jisho dictionary site as a “sensitive” word (of course; that’s why the government avoided using it for so long).

But we still have no word for an immigrant as an individual person, such as iminsha, with its own honorific sha — in the same vein as ijūsha (migrant), rōdōsha (laborer), teijūsha (settler, usually a Nikkei South American), zairyūsha (temporary resident), eijūsha (permanent resident) and even (in a few government documents) kikasha (naturalized citizen).

It’s just the clipped imin. That means nobody gets to claim “I am an immigrant” in Japan. (Try it: “Watashi wa imin desu” sounds funny.) And this in turn means immigration remains a strictly statistical animal. Lost in this narrative is the idea that when we import labor, we import people. With lives. And needs. And voices to be heard.

This kind of framing damages the debate by taking away the immigrant’s voice. Take that Sapio special: From the very cover, you’ll notice that not one visible minority is featured among the talking heads.


Almost all those speechifying inside are elite Japanese (including former Tokyo governor and professional bigot Shintaro Ishihara, which already signals where things are headed): the same old pundits defending their ideological camps with no real new ideas.

But more indicative of the framing of the debate is the main photo on Sapio’s cover: a hate-speech rally showing anti-Korean demonstrators vs. anti-racism counterdemonstrators. (A smaller inset photo shows South Americans at a labor-union rally. Their faces are visible, unlike those in the larger photo, which were blurred out to protect people’s privacy. More evidence of powerlessness: Apparently NJ aren’t people with privacy concerns.)

Hang on: An anti-Korean rally is not an issue of immigration; it’s got more to do with Japan’s unresolved historical issues with its neighbors.

If you define “immigrants” as NJ who have moved to Japan and made a life here as long-term residents (if not regular permanent residents, or ippan eijūsha) — i.e., the “Newcomers” — that’s a different group than the one being demonstrated against.

Being targeted instead are the “Oldcomers” — the Zainichi Korean and Chinese special permanent residents (tokubetsu eijūsha), descendants of former citizens of empire who have been living in and contributing to Japan for generations. The Oldcomers are not the “immigrants” in question — and from this blind spot, the debate goes askew.

Sapio’s editorial on discrimination towards NJ (pages 20-21) not only neglects to mention any examples of discrimination against Japan’s Newcomers; it also crosses its analytical wires by citing the Urawa Reds “Japanese only” exclusionary banner at Saitama Stadium last March as hate speech against the Oldcomers.

Hang on again: That “Japanese only” banner would not have affected the Zainichis. “Japanese only” is a narrative targeting Japan’s visible minorities, i.e., those who don’t “look Japanese” enough to pass an exclusionary manager’s scrutiny. Naturally, after several generations here, Zainichi can quietly enter a “Japanese only” zone without drawing hairy eyeballs. And while the historical wrongs done to the Zainichi in Japan are very worthy of discussion, they should not suck the oxygen out of the debate on immigrants.

But I believe this is by design: By entangling the debate in the same old Zainichi issues, the xenophobes can derail it with the same old paranoid fears about granting rights to potentially subversive North Korean and Chinese residents. This makes the true iminsha not only voiceless but invisible.

That’s exactly what the xenophobes want. A common theme in rightist writings is “more foreigners means less Japan,” and admitting more visible minorities (which inevitably happens when you import people) will always bring forth that tension. Best to just argue as if they don’t exist.

So what to do? Be Gandalf and say “That shall not pass!” Just as the Urawa Reds fans’ “Japanese only” banner forced the domestic media in March to finally admit that racial discrimination happens in Japan, we must force the nation’s elites to reframe the concept of immigration and humanize the immigrants behind the statistics. Allow the public to see a way to welcome Newcomers not only as individuals, but also as long-termers, immigrants and, ultimately, as citizens with the same rights and obligations as every other Japanese.

The elites will resist this, because the economic incentives are clear: The more powerless and invisible you keep NJ, the easier it is to exploit them.

So, if you want to finally address one of Japan’s structural problems, start by popularizing the word iminsha. Let regular folk with regular lives attach that term to an NJ neighbor they know. Then give them a voice.

Otherwise, it’s same old debate, same old (and getting older) Japan.

Debito Arudou received his Ph.D. from Meiji Gakuin University in International Studies in April. Twitter: @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Thursday of the month. Your comments:


29 comments on “My Japan Times JBC column 76: “Humanize the dry debate about immigration”, June 5, 2014, with links to sources

  • Onceagaijin,alwaysagaijin says:

    …people are deserting a depopulating countryside for urban opportunities in an overly centralized governmental system, marrying later (if at all) and finding children too expensive or cumbersome for cramped living spaces, having both spouses work just to stay afloat, and feeling perpetual disappointment over a lack of control over their lives. And all thanks to a sequestered ruling political and bureaucratic elite whose basic training is in status-quo maintenance, not problem-solving for people they share nothing in common with.

    Debito, you have just summed up, in a nutshell, my current and professional situation.

  • I don’t think your analysis of the word imin is spot on and would withstand a deeper linguistic analysis.
    -sha is not a honorific suffix, it’s used like “-er” in English. work – worker, sing – singer, dance – dancer etc.
    Since imin already has “min” (people) it doesn’t need “sha” to make it about persons, it means immigration/migration as well as immigrant/migrant. Of course, the term is also used for migration from Japan to another country.
    Imin is the same kind of linguistic construction as kokumin, kenmin, jumin and “watashi/kare ha imin desu” doesn’t really sound weird. Or if it does, that’s simply because it’s not yet used very often (it’s usually just “gaikokujin”, with no differentiation between tourists and actual migrants).

    — Disagree. And “Watashi wa imin desu” does sound weird. I’ve tried to use it (as an actual immigrant for decades), only to receive in all cases without exception blank looks, or people telling me that it wasn’t grammatical. Yes, kokumin, kenmin, juumin, and shimin all can be used with an individual. But not imin. Therein lies my point.

    And you also make my point by saying that gaikokujin offers no differentiation between tourists and actual residents. Or immigrants. There is no way to talk about immigrants in Japan as individuals because there is no word for an immigrant as an individual. Just a foreigner.

  • I fear Debito has hit the nail on the head. I say fear because I see in Nagoya each year more tension between the expat community and the Japanese. In the heavily populated Brazilian area of Tokaidori there was the black van squad holding their rally, as usual each Saturday. Each Saturday their rally is louder and larger in numbers. They have expanded their rally to Sakae, Nagoya Station, and Chikusa the last few months as well on Saturdays.

    I minister to the homeless and migrant workers on Saturdays and Sundays, and I can tell you that many of the worker visa holders feel as dispossessed as the homeless native Japanese. Both groups are pushed aside, treated less than human, or virtually ignored. Japan demands to be seen as an equal partner among nations yet refuses to accept the responsibility that goes along with that. I wish to voice my admiration for the courage Debito has, and I only wish the expats in Japan could become more united but sadly the comments in the Japan Times article shows that is not happening.

    We need to be unified and show solidarity or we will be targeted for worse than discrimination as this problem festers without solution. The black van squad is growing and getting more vocal, and we need to start having the courage of Debito to counter them. We need solidarity among all the expats here in Japan, for whatever reason we are here.

    — Thank you very much for the kind words. Please post this opinion in the Japan Times article’s comments too, because this insight is very, very important, and must be heard by as many people as possible.

  • Yes, the situation is becoming more grim. You can go into towns durring the week, and all you see are old people. Old people riding the trains as well. If you in Tokyo, you can see lots of young people, but that is misleading. Outside of Tokyo in some towns its all old people, really amazing.

    About the black goon squad, I havent seen much of them recently around where I live. So, they have migrated to Nagoya, have they? They used to make their rounds in Tokyo, but I think after the Right Wing restoration party got into the Diet, there was no need to stir up trouble like when the DPJ was in power.

  • Just an aside, but do you know where the black van squad gets their funding from? They must get their money from somewhere, because they obviously have a lot of vehicles that need maintenance, etc., and the whole convoy driving around all day takes a lot of gas. They don’t do any business that generates revenue, so who funds these guys?

  • Blank looks might be because people are not used to hearing the expression. I’ve heard people use it, although mostly Japanese who migrated to the US, so they are more familiar with these terms.

    I do think there is a real issue being discussed in your article, which is the fact that there is no differentiation between anybody not ethnically Japanese (hence the overuse of “gaikokujin”) on one hand, and also the fact that the concerned persons are excluded from any debate on the subject in the media and politics, which is “dehumanizing”.

    It’s only the linguistic part about why iminsha is better than imin that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
    Obviously, Japanese nouns for their lack of count distinctions (singular, plural and also the lack of articles) always have a certain ambiguity in that aspect, which is then made clear by context and usage.
    When used without any precision the general (plural) aspect is often stronger (“onna no ko ha” – “girls are”), which is kind of the opposite of English, in which the basic form of a noun is usually singular.

    One can indeed argue that imin is not a precise enough term. The difference between imin and iminsha is that the latter makes it clear you’re not referring to the act of “im/migration” (which can be useful).
    Still, both words can refer to a group of people or to an individual (just as rodosha or gaikokujin) and can be used with expressions such as “hitori no imin” or “aru imin”.
    On a different note, “ijumin/sha” (emigrant) is not less permanent than “imin/sha”, but only has a more precise meaning concerning the direction of migration.

    By the way, 出ていった移民を移出民(emigrant)、入ってきた移民を移入民(immigrant)と呼ぶ。But I’m sure even less people are familiar with these terms.

    — Thanks for the debate on the smaller point (I’m very glad you can see beyond it to the larger points). But we’ll have to agree to disagree. And you keep inadvertently reconfirming my point: The fact that native speakers of Japanese have to get experience with being an immigrant themselves outside of Japan before they can individualize the word imin — because they themselves dealt with the issue as individuals.

    And no, regarding ijuumin as being less permanent: ijuu suru and imin suru are two very different things. Because imin is permanent, and ijuu not necessarily. That’s why imin is denoted as “sensitive” in the dictionary.

    This linguistic denialism is what gives the word imin such political power — people assume that non-native speakers, who have had experience on the outside looking in and dealing with the connotations of words in personal practice, aren’t taken seriously out of reflex. Don’t fall for it. And that’s why I’m suggesting a different term for a different framing of the debate. Otherwise there’s no individuality to the debate — there are no individual imin(sha). That needs a corrective with a suffix.

  • Mark Hunter says:

    Bang on! Linguistic debates aside, Debito’s central point about immigrants not being seen as equally human is accurate. Because of this dehumanization, rights do not have to be afforded -all part of the continuum on which actual slavery can be found. It’s really that simple. Thanks Debito for keeping up the good fight!

    Slightly off topic, here in Canada we are going through some minor spasms over too many TFW’s (Temporary Foreign Workers). Despite becoming an increasing necessity to operate parts of the economy, politics has reared its ugly head and it looks like there will be at least surface attempts to limit numbers. It’s really crazy because just this week, with a bountiful harvest of lobster on the east coast, more than one processing plant had to basically shut because of a lack of workers held up in Bangkok. Where I live many restaurants cannot operate properly because of a lack of cooks……and on and on……

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    >The difference between imin and iminsha is that the latter makes it clear you’re not referring to the act of “im/migration” (which can be useful).

    Disagree on the reference. The first Chinese character ‘移’ refers to an act of movement or transition, and it usually functions as either verb or noun. The following character ‘民’ is a general term referring to ‘resident’ or ‘civilian.’ So, both ‘imin’ and ‘iminsha’ contain the act(ion) of moving from one’s home country to another attributed to human subject. So, in general, two words are essentially same.

    In my opinion, “imin-sha” gives more clear meaning of migratory action through its distinctive phonetic sound by functioning as descriptive adjective attributed to a person being referred to. On the other hand, “imin” could sound confusing to some people–due to its phonetic similarity with ‘imi” (meaning in Japanese) and ambiguity/uncertainty contained within a character ‘移’ (e.g., whether moving/relocation is permanent or transitory).

    Anyway, which word people use, both ‘imin’ and ‘iminsha’ have the connotation of ‘migrating to another country for the purpose of seeking the eligibility for permanent residency or the acquisition of citizenship,’ and make them very self-conscious about the presence of strangers.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    Oh, and one more thing about the connotation of imin. I have never heard of people saying ‘imin’ suru, personally. It’s grammatically incorrect, since the word describes ‘a person’ with a specific attribute. It would make sense if you say ‘imin’ to-shite utsuru/utsuri-sumu’ (relocate/move as an migrant/immigrant). Japanese tend to use abbreviations as the matter of convenience in conversations in order to save syllables.

    The reason why people feel so sensitive to ‘imin’ compared to ijyuu is because the word appeals to the subjective autonomy of human agent–rather than an action, even though the Chinese character “移” does not always implicate the intension of permanent settlement.

    — Thanks for the feedback. I’ve also tried to say “imin ni naru” (as in “become an immigrant”), but even that didn’t pass muster. Again, my years of experience trying to test out the expression of my status AS an immigrant in Japan only led me to the conclusion that imin did not refer to individual people, only to the statistical movement of people. Immigration, not immigrants.

  • @Al(#5) You are asking the right questions. I don’t have a source for this, but the most obvious answer is “they are financed by the Japanese public”.
    What is very clear is that these ultra nationalist forces are wanted and protected by the highest ranks of Japanese society – or else how could they exist in a society where speaking up is frowned upon?
    Japan’s bureaucracy has a “black budget” (Zaito) which is sourced from the Japan Post Bank’s saving accounts of regular people. (Source: Van Wolferen / Patrick M. Smith).
    It’s probable that the Uyoku are being paid from this budget, through opaque channels, like Yakuza companies. They are a de facto Gestapo and their job is to keep left-wing tendencies out of Japanese society.
    Being a Western person in Japan is a bit like Alice in Wonderland in this regard, as you are constantly amazed how deep the rabbit hole goes.
    Look up the name “Yoshio Kodama”, one of the founders of the LDP, who was sort of an Al Capone of post-WWII Japan.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    The fact that in the 21st century Japan has linguistic difficulties with the concept of ‘immigrants’ shows clearly how behind the times Japan is.

  • Wonderful and powerful article. Thank you for writing this. If only this was spoken about in the so-called “news” here.

  • – Disagree. And “Watashi wa imin desu” does sound weird. I’ve tried to use it (as an actual immigrant for decades), only to receive in all cases without exception blank looks, or people telling me that it wasn’t grammatical.

    For an imin of 2 decades and more, your Japanese could do with a fresher course.
    If you were to say ‘watashi wa Brazil Kara imin desu’ most Japanese might find the concept strange, but totally understandable and OK.

    — Not in my experience. I did say the equivalent of “watashi wa amerika kara imin desu”, and nobody got it. Nobody has EVER been able to associate imin with an actual immigrant TO Japan (it’s always been immigration [sic] FROM Japan, like, say, South America) and I’ve surveyed quite widely, and over time, and with an actual individual immigrant (me) they’ve gotten to know. Thus it’s a problem of national narratives. Perhaps in the case you give (without evidence; even you say “might find”), people have been softened up to seeing Brazilians here for the long haul or permanently. But given that GOJ surveys indicate a near-majority of Japanese aren’t aware that Brazilians even live in Japan, I kinda doubt it.

  • John (Yokohama) says:


    Trust me, the idiots in black trucks are in my neighborhood (and the surrounding ones) in Tokyo every week. Nothing has changed on that front.


  • Debito,

    Good article with several valid points.I just wish the government of Japan would take your advice and actually do something about immigration reform and policy instead of just talking about it every few years or so But they refuse to do absolutely anything to make life better for the NJ that are already here with regards to equal rights and even human rights such as a anti-discrimination law like all other developed countries have so until they do this first I’m afraid they can never achieve real immigration reform.


  • – Not in my experience….Perhaps in the case you give without evidence.

    Fair point, but the semantic understanding is there, as well as the grammar, if the intellect has not yet caught up.

    However back to point, the ugliest basics of the immigration debate in Japan is that the negatives do not center around economics (UK: immigrants take jobs that natives could do and undermine the minimum wage by working for less) political (US: legal immigrants are OK, but ‘illegal’ ones are not) or societal (Spain/Greece/Italy: immigrants are using too much of the already limited welfare state, which is needed by the existing citizens). As a matter of fact it because of these economic, political and societal needs/regulations (shrinking workforce, kokumin rights v non-kokumin rights upheld by the Japanese supreme court in countless cases) that the pro-immigration lobby in Japan have any feet to stand on.

    The anti immigration argument in Japan, gaijin pets and those foreigners married into the family aside, boils down to the simple facts that Japanese want to catch a bus and have the opportunity to take a seat not next to a foreigner, to have the opportunity to live in an apartment without having to have a foreigner as a neighbor and to conduct their day to day business and lives without having to interact with non-Japanese.

    It really doesn’t matter who or what is included in the immigration debate in Japan until those variables are dealt with, the immigration debate in Japan will have only one narrative and one outcome.

    — Many people who can’t agree 100% with an essay are inclined to quibble over the percentages they disagree with, and not address the larger point being raised (which in this case is the issue of framing and its effect on overall narrative). You didn’t do that. You went right back on point. Appreciate it.

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    For a some insight for how it works on the flipside, consider the language used for the JICA
    Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama (海外移住資料館)
    Note the use of 移住.
    Some quick revferencing shows no distinction on the most basic Japanese tranlations of emigrant and immigrant – both are 移民.
    A quick search for an immigration museum in Japan comes up with イミグレーション・ミュージアム, which seems to be more of a project than an actual immigration museum. Quite telling is the quote at the bottom of its “about” page:
    *注 日本国内に散見できる「移民博物館/移民センター/移民資料館」等は、過去に国内から海外へ移住した人々(中南米や
    ハワイなどへ)の記録を扱うもので、 国内に移住してきた人々を「移民」と認識したうえで対象化している施設は現在のところ

    I find a society that celebrates emigrants but not immigrants to be lacking.

  • Edward J. Cunningham says:

    Nobody has EVER been able to associate imin with an actual immigrant TO Japan (it’s always been immigration [sic] FROM Japan, like, say, South America)…

    In other words, they associate “imin” with emigration, not immigration.

  • Debito – You are ahead of the group. You have accomplished something that is unfamiliar to the majority of Japanese people – moving to Japan, to live, rather than leaving Japan.
    I suspect within a very short time (1 year? 2?) the terminology and concepts you mention here will gain familiarity with the masses. Give them time to adjust to (what is for them) a new concept.

    The “Japanese only” sign at the soccer match in Saitama has really accelerated the discussion – pushing it to the mainstream National/International news level. Many more Japanese are now familiar (slightly) with the concept of foreigners who live, work (and go to soccer games) among them.

    #17 Scipio – you nailed it. That is the real issue.

    #18 Andrew in Saitama – very telling quote.

  • I can’t comment on the linguistic debate, so I’ll leave it up for the experts to decide what japanese words are more helpful to the cause, but I agree that in general that “framing” (an issue in terms that appeal to your position) is important. It would be nice if language was neutral instead of loaded and public discourse was rational instead of emotionally manipulated, but I guess that’s not how the world works. Especially when you have opponents who have less scruples to spin-doctor the playing field to their advantage. As frustrating as it sometimes can be, words actually do matter – like the (american, but relevant) example of polls showing that people have different opinions on “undocumenteds” versus “illegals” (that is, regarding the former much more favorably than the latter) even though it’s just the same thing.

    As for “humanizing” the debate in general, I can agree that the SAPIO-special is rather symptomatic – the same old same-olds arguing their same old points. The establishment talking from above about how “we” should engage the other “them”, and the lines are drawn at “yes, because unfortunately it has become an economic necessity” and “no, because they increase crime and disrupt our awesome social harmony”. Gee, between those choices I can’t imagine how wanted and valued an immigrant must feel when that are the attitudes they’ve been given. Your role in the debate is not that of a person, but of a number (you’re either an increase in the GDP statistic, or the crime statistic) and engagement is either a chore at best or dangerous at worst.
    As an aside: It always leaves a sour taste in my mouth when I see the word “harmony” (in a social/political context) translated from asian source texts, because where in the west it has a rather undue hippie feel-good connotation which gives the wrong impression when the word “order” is much truer to what is actually meant, the hierarchical ordering of society, where every part has its place and you damn better well know yours (as those who talk the most about harmony are usually at the top of it and therefore selfinterested to remain as such by promoting the concept in the first place).
    And if they’re serious about preserving their oh so unique cultural cohesion (against that dastardly liberal individualism, I guess), they should just focus on getting people from countries like Korea and China that are the most compatible cultures, meaning that people from there can most relate to japanese work and social relations because they are familiar with a similar cultural background of hierarchy and group-orientation and be less of a culture shock than the west. But good luck getting them to admit that, same with the foreign nurses revolving-door system you’ve described: why not just hire people from already kanji-literate countries ? Nah, because that would be just too easy, they would actually pass the exams and might actually stay and expect to be treated as belonging instead of being kicked out when obsolete ? Can they admit to actual immigration, that is permanent residents and naturalized citizens, or do they expect to keep the country running on just an ever-increasing and accelerating treadmill of disposable guest workers ?

    Anyway, I guess “humanizing” the debate is the job of every immigrated person themselves. The in-group establishment can’t be expected to do so, when every government report and media roundtable is just another inertial japanese-only navelgazing circlejerk. Not that I can offer much useful advice (I’m an immigrant though not in Japan), and I don’t expect everyone to stick their necks out and agitate for the cause, but the few who do are the ones who give an actual voice in the public conversation, making people understand (or at least see and hear) that the ones who came to Japan are not inscrutable and scary foreigners, but for the most part just normal people trying to make a normal life, real people you can relate to, people who are not here to cause problems but who actually have problems themselves. I know that sounds much too general and grassroots, but that’s just the approach I got from my feeling of migrating to a different country.
    As for the media, this is just wishful thinking (because you can’t really influence media, beyond your own), but maybe focus more on the people you’re just talking about – let the immigrants tell their stories, what made them take the meaningful decision of living in Japan, what got them here, what keeps them here, and what could be done to make it better, for all of us (that’s the whole point, establishing an “us”). Let them speak about their hopes and fears, their tribulations and their contributions, and most of all, just listen for a minute.
    But I’m getting ahead of myself there. Realistically, I don’t think the media would handle the topic well, even if they try to approach it from a positive angle. At best it would be a useless sentimental fluff-piece that they’re so fond of producing, at worst it would be another patronizing parade-of-differences in the long tradition of “international understanding” (which is actually neither of both). I can already imagine it: “tell us, oh honored guest, what you like most about Japan (because we like hearing it); do you eat natto too; wow your nihongo so sugoi;…” and of course it wouldn’t be complete without a row of no-talent talentos oohing and aahing at every mundanity like it’s about a zoo with gaijin exhibit.
    Yeah, wouldn’t get my hopes up, on that front.

    Keep up the good work, Debito, and control your own narrative.

  • Jim di Griz says:

    I agree with Enginerd. The whole linguistics discussion is a red herring with the aim of destroying Dr. Debito’s credibility by attempting to show that his Japanese is not up to scratch, and therefore (as the apologists ‘logic’ goes) that he hasn’t made enough effort to integrate into Japan, and all his (as the apologists would say ‘alleged’) incidences of discrimination are nothing more sinister than a misunderstanding on his part.

    Nice try apologists, but we’ve heard it all before.
    Anyhow, as Enginerd explains above, the linguistic issue (even if there really is one), does not in any way detract from the serious failings in which Japan is by befuddled fits and starts attempting to control any discussion about immigration.

    — Well, I brought up the aspect of linguistics, and suggested corrective measures, so the issue is up for critique. What’s not fair, as you mention, is the fact that that becomes the focus of attack for some people — as I said, fixating on the smaller percents that one disagrees with while ignoring the bigger point.

    That’s the problem with my suggesting corrective measures — there’s no proof they will work until they are tried, so they are necessarily hypothetical. And with that comes opportunities to sow seeds of doubt not only for the large point, but also for my entire credibility as a proponent. But if I hadn’t made suggestions, critics would say I only complain and don’t give concrete alternative proposals. It’s an awkward position, and one reason why so few people take the trouble to expose their thoughts to scrutiny. The critics always have the advantage of only being required to doubt and nitpick, never having to offer concrete counterproposals of their own. Or for that matter, even giving their real names.

    Anyway, criticism of the healthier sort has taken place here and elsewhere (thanks for it!), and if I had a do-over, I would revise my column thus:

    1) Remove the irrelevant word “honorific” and replace it with “suffix” (i.e., in regards to adding “sha” to “imin”). Less plausible deniability.

    2) Make clearer that we need the “sha” not as a point of grammar, but as a corrective. Yes, superfluous in light of “juumin”, “shimin”, “kokumin” etc. which don’t take “sha”, but still necessary in order to stress that imin are people too.

    3) Add the caveat that imin (as evidenced by the link in the comments above) can refer to people, but only if they emigrate from Japan. Not if they immigrate to Japan. Nevertheless it’s hardly common parlance in either case.

    But the larger point I make about framing the issue is still quite valid, and that’s the point that few critics take up. No wonder. I’ve heard little doubt that word choice influences dramatically how the public reacts to an issue. That’s pretty much accepted as a truism in any social science.

    As for my Japanese ability, I have tested at college-educated native or near-native level, have various media out there with me speaking Japanese, and have written books and many more articles in Japanese. So people who wish to discredit me in that regard are just trying to sow more doubt by using the facile presumption that non-natives in Japanese lack insight on Japan (as if only natives have the valid insights on how language is used, in this case politically). That’s also unfair and, of course, prejudiced against non-natives (ironically, it’s the self-hating non-natives who make those claims most frequently).

    Anyway, that’s my appraisal of this month’s trollery. See you next month for yet another salvo.

  • Jim di Griz says:


    Immigration? Pah! Our ‘Dear Leader’ Abe has a plan!

    To preserve a 100,000,000 population level, Abe has decided that every couple will have three children, or more!

    How will he achieve this incredulous goal? In the same way he ‘achieves’ every goal; forceful sound bites and vague pledges. There you go, problem solved.

    Drastic budget expansion vowed to tackle low birthrate

    The government on Monday pledged to drastically expand the budget to address the low birthrate and keep Japan’s population from shrinking below 100 million five decades from now, an outline of the new economic and fiscal policy blueprint revealed Monday.

    Fears are growing that population decline will create a workforce shortage that will cause the nation’s economic and fiscal health to crumble.

    “After beating deflation, the government will make efforts to implement budgetary, tax and regulatory reforms to create an environment in which the economy can achieve sustainable growth,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said during a meeting of the influential Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy.

    In the outline of the administration’s longer-term policy blueprint set to be finalized later this month, the government said it will increase spending to encourage couples to have three children or more. Japan’s total fertility rate — the average number of children born to a woman — stood at 1.43 last year.

    “It’s important to support marriage, pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing in a seamless manner” to avoid a sharp decline in the population, Abe said, expressing a desire to bolster support for women.

    To restore the nation’s fiscal health, the worst among the major developed economies, Abe’s Cabinet promised in the outline to decide by the end of this year whether to finish doubling the consumption tax rate to 10 percent in October 2015 as planned.

    Rest at

  • Now, don’t be hatin’… In principle, having better support for the raising of children is important and a sensible issue to improve. Basically every country on earth does this and tries to manage its population levels with various incentive schemes (tax breaks for marriage, tax breaks for children or state-sponsored stipends for them, subsides for care and educational facilities, work-life-balance arrangements etc..) – positive reform in those areas would certainly only benefit Japan and all of its present and future inhabitants.

    However – it’s only natural to be skeptical. Let’s first get the general (not-japan-specific) criticism out of the way:

    Population management is an incredibly complex thing, a society being a whole of interconnected moving parts, you can tweak the system here and there but results are uncertain. The nightmare of technocrats, so to speak: “We gave the people 5% more tax breaks for having children, WHY aren’t they having 5% more children GODDAMNIT ?!” Well duh, it’s not that simple. Studies have shown (you could’ve also just listened to the actual parents on the ground) that fiscal policies do not have a proportional effect on fertility levels (up to a point they certainly do help or hinder, but beyond that diminishing returns set in), because the “costs” of raising kids (esp. in Japan) will always vastly outnumber any money the government is willing (or able) to throw at it.

    Also, there are vested interests in society that conflict with what needs to be done to support parents and children. Modern economy, especially in its japanese incarnation, has made decades of nice profits from monopolizing the time and energy of its workers, in detriment to their families. They certainly don’t like changing their system if it hurts their balances, even if it’s unsustainable for society in the long run – the old model of father-breadwinner and mother-housewive just isn’t valiable anymore when corporate pressures have decreased the jobs available with wages that can support such an arrangement. Now everybody has to work, how wonderful! Activate every dormant resource to increase GDP! But, if left unchecked, such a development will even further take time away from the families and lower fertility (as now even more women can partake in the wonderful tradition of staying overtime at the office). Increased female labour participance, out of necessity or under the guise of economic empowerment, has to be prepared by a systemic change in the work-life culture, and I’ll reserve my doubts wether the government goes with the people or the businesses on that one.

    And at the end of all policy initiatives remains the inconvenient fact that you can’t really do all that much against it, as fertility almost axiomatically goes down as development to modernity goes up – even the often-praised Scandinavian countries with all their wonderful support systems (not perfect but arguably best in the world) still have fertility rates somewhat below replacement level (of 2.1 kids). Immigration, like into western countries, may delay the decline, but ultimately it is just another ponzi scheme. They may come from high-fertility background countries but after a generation or two they will acculturate to the low-fertility host society, and the shell game begins anew. What do you do, now bring even more immigrants in ? Also unsustainable, for various reasons. No one has the silver bullet answer for that conundrum in the modern world.

    As for the specific Abe initiative, it sure won’t come to much. Just typical japanese buerocratic announcments, maybe a few finance-tweaks here and there but nothing substantial – which would upset corporate interests, not to say the least of the very fabric of the gender culture. Because you can’t have it both ways, you can’t say to women “work more!” and at the same time “have more children!”. They’ll just look at the current system and continue their ongoing strike. Sure, because I’m just so damn patriotic I’d love to have more expensive kids while working more shittier jobs to support them, sign me up. Honey, throw away the condoms, lie back and think of the prime minister. Yeah, that’ll get people going again. C’mon, get real.
    Which ties into the raise of the consumption tax, that only adds to the increase of the cost of living (and children) – while simultaneously lowering corporate taxes ? Just goes to show who’s getting squeezed here for whose benefit. Poor people, rich country – a fact that even got its own japanese saying.
    If you’re inclined to view Abe as a more or less disguised right-winger, you can certainly also take umbrage on the specific recommendation for the number of children, which is reminiscent if you’re familiar with the forceful natalism of imperial times. But I don’t think that’s a particular new development, as the discourse has always been on this level when it came to private matters vis à vis the interests of the state. I am certainly, as a man, more offended by the implication (not just here specifically but in general) that children are always just a ‘womans issue’ and the men are seemingly removed from the discussion (oh I certainly don’t mean the old men who are discussing about how to legislate women having more children). I mean the fathers who are just as important in the decision to have and raise kids, and also need support in this. This conspicuous absence just reeks of a thoughtless continuation of the outmoded “Oh he’s not going to be there anyway because he has to be working all the time at the corporation” mindset – which just.isn’t.working.anymore! As long as they don’t get that, they can do anything they want and nothing will change.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Scipio #25

    Great article, thank you for posting!

    It’s so predictable to read the factory owner going through the age old litany of Japanese excuses for discrimination;

    1. They wanted to work illegal overtime, so I let them (ah, so kind!).
    2. I thought everyone was doing it.
    3. I stopped paying them less than the legal wage (when I was coerced to do so by outside agency), so everythings good, right?
    4. They were happy until they left, and only complained after trouble-makers put them up to it (see, it’s not really his fault?).

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    And now we have Osaka mayor and sometime Ishihara ilk Hashimoto stating that with the declining birthrate and all that, Japan cannot do without the help of foreign laborers.

    At the end the article talks about the creation of “special zones”.

    橋下市長「外国人どんどん受け入れる」 政府方針を歓迎

    朝日新聞デジタル 6月15日(日)23時15分配信




    Instead of the creation of special zones, how about considering that foreign workers don’t need “zones” or even “special”? They need to feel part of the society they enter and know that they will have all the same rights and privileges as everyone else.

  • Baudrillard says:

    Since 2007 tokyo became more xenophobic–and I wondered why. Today I found this thoughtful comment from Steve Jackson on Abe’s third arrow at Japan Times and finally got it:
    “when an immigrant/foreign worker is placed in a professional office setting in Japan. This generally brings out the worst in Japanese workers. Chances are that it would create great anxiety and insecurity among the Japanese workers around him (the more capable the foreign worker, the greater the anxiety and insecurity felt by his Japanese colleagues). They view this as an incursion into their predictable and insular world and their reaction would most likely be to gang-up against the foreign worker and do everything possible to sabotage and undermine him. He would be treated as the proverbial fly in the ointment and no one around him will rest easy until he is taken out and the status quo is restored.”


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