Japan Times JBC Column 104: The Top Ten Human Rights Events of 2016


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Japan’s human rights issues fared better in 2016
The Japan Times, Jan 8, 2017, Column 104 for the Community Page

Print version at http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2017/01/08/issues/japans-human-rights-issues-fared-better-2016/

Version with links to sources follows

Welcome back to JBC’s annual countdown of the top issues as they affected Non-Japanese (NJ) residents of Japan. We had some brighter spots this year than in previous years, because Japan’s government has been so embarrassed by hate speech toward Japan’s minorities that they did something about it. Read on:

No. 10)  Government “snitch sites” close down after nearly 12 years

We’ve named and shamed this before (“Downloadable Discrimination,” Zeit Gist, March 30, 2004). From Feb. 16, 2004, Japan’s Immigration Bureau had websites where anyone could anonymously rat on foreigners for any reason whatsoever — including (as a preset option) the xenophobic “repugnance and anxiety” (ken-o fuan). This occasioned calls for abolition from rights groups, including Amnesty International, and government leaders. As the Japan Federation of Bar Associations pointed out in 2005, “The program has ordinary citizens essentially spying on people suspected of being illegal aliens, which serves only to advance prejudice and discrimination toward foreigners.”

Yet Japan’s police “see no evil” when it suits them. According to the Asahi in 2015, the sites were being inundated with hate emails “slandering” Japan’s Zainichi generational Korean community. Immigration suddenly realized that false leads from trolls were a waste of time. Yep, we told you so more than a decade ago. Glad it sunk in.

9 Priyanka Yoshikawa wins Miss World Japan

This year showed us that 2015 was not a fluke. In 2015, multiethnic American-Japanese Ariana Miyamoto won the Miss Universe Japan competition as Japan’s first biracial national beauty queen. In 2016, Indian-Japanese Priyanka Yoshikawa was elected to represent Japan despite protests about whether she is a “real” Japanese. Although these events are cheer-worthy because they demonstrate that “Japaneseness” is not purely a matter of looks, they’re more important because the women’s stories of being “different” have highlighted their struggles for acceptance. When the domestic media bothers to report them, that is.

The discussion has mostly been a shallow one about “looks.” Sadly, this is par for the course. As I said to ABC NewsRadio Australia, “Why do we keep doing these 19th-century rituals? Demeaning women by putting them on a stage, making them do debasing things, and then saying, ‘This is a standard of beauty that is or is not Japanese?’ How about we just call it what it is: incitement to superficial judgment of people not as individuals but by physical appearance?” Progress made, yes, but the real progress will be when beauty pageants stop entirely.

8 Japan’s multiethnic citizens score at 2016 Olympics

Similarly, Japan’s athletes have long been scrutinized for their “foreignness.” If they are “half” or even naturalized, their “foreignness” becomes a factor no matter what.

If they do badly, “It’s the foreigners’ fault.” As seen when Japan’s men’s rugby team lost in 2011 and the nation’s rugby union criticized coach John Kirwan for using “too many foreign players” (including naturalized former NJ). The team was then ethnically cleansed. When multiethnic Japanese figure skaters Chris and Cathy Reed underperformed in 2014, Tokyo 2020 Olympics Chair Yoshiro Mori essentially labeled them leftovers, bashing them (mistakenly) as “naturalized citizens” who couldn’t make the U.S. Team.

But if they do well, they get celebrated. Remember October 2015, when Brave Blossoms, the men’s rugby team, scored an upset over South Africa, and their players’ enhanced physical strength was attributed to their multiethnicity? Suddenly the fact that many players didn’t “look Japanese” (11 were even born outside Japan) was no problem.

Same when Japanese athletes did well in Rio last year. Prominent performances by multiethnic Japanese, including Mashu Baker (Gold in Judo); members of Japan’s Rugby Sevens (the men’s team came in fourth); other members of Japan’s soccer, basketball and athletics teams; and most prominently, runner Asuka Cambridge (who missed out on Gold only to Usain Bolt) made it clear that hybrid Japanese help Japan in sports. If only people would stop putting up the extra hurdle of attributing success or failure to race.

7 Renho Murata takes helm of the Democratic Party

After years of tired leftist politics with stale or uninspiring leaders, last September the main opposition Democratic Party made young and dynamic Taiwanese-Japanese politician Renho Murata its leader. It was the first time a multiethnic Japanese has ever helmed a major party, and immediately there were full-throated doubts about her loyalties. Media and politicos brought up Renho’s alleged ties to untrustworthy China (even though Taiwan and China are different countries; even the Ministry of Justice said that Taiwanese in Japan are not under PRC law), or that she had technically naturalized (Renho was born before Japanese citizenship could legally pass through her mother) but had not renounced her dual citizenship, which wasn’t an issue when she was a Cabinet member, nor when former Peruvian President and dual citizen Alberto Fujimori ran for a Diet seat in 2007 (Zeit Gist, May 5, 2009).

Whatever. Renho has proven herself a charismatic leader with an acerbic wit, ready to ask difficult and pointed questions of decision makers. She famously did so in 2009, during deliberations to fund the “world’s most powerful computer,’ when she asked, “What’s wrong with being number two?” The project still passed, but demanding potential boondoggles justify themselves is an important job. The fact that Renho is not cowed by tough questions herself is good for a country, which with 680,000 Japanese dual citizens deserves fresh unfettered talent with international backgrounds.

6 Abubakar Awudu Suraj case loses once and for all

This has made the JBC annual Top 10 several times, because it’s a test case of accountability when NJ die in official custody. In 2010, Ghanaian visa overstayer Abubakar Awudu Suraj was so “brutally” (according to this newspaper) restrained during deportation that he was asphyxiated. Suraj’s widow, unsuccessfully seeking justice through Japan’s criminal justice system, won civil damages from the Immigration Bureau in a 2014 Tokyo District Court decision. However, last January, the Tokyo High Court overturned this, deciding that the lethal level of physical force was “not illegal” — it was even “necessary” — and concluded that the authorities were “not culpable.” Suraj’s widow took it to the Supreme Court, but the appeal was rejected last November.

Conclusion: Life is cheap in Japan’s Immigration detention systems (Reuters last year reported more NJ deaths in custody due to official negligence). And now our judiciary has spoken: If NJ suffer from a lethal level of force — sorry, are killed by police — nobody is responsible.

5 2016 Upper house elections seal Shinzo Abe’s mandate

Past JBC columns on Japan’s right-wing swing anticipated that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would capitalize on the left’s disarray and take Japan’s imagined community back to an imagined past. Sure enough, winning the Upper House elections last July and solidifying a majority in both houses of Parliament, he accomplished this hat trick. Since then, Abe’s popular support, according to the Asahi, remains at near record-highs (here and here). There’s even talk of changing the rules so he can be PM beyond his mandated five-year term.

That’s it then, really. Everything we feared his administration would do since 2012 is all coming to pass: the dismissing of universal human rights as a “Western concept,” the muzzling and intimidation of the press under a vague state secrets act, the deliberate destabilization of East Asia over petty territorial disputes, the enfranchising of historical denialism through a far-right cabal of elites, the emboldening of domestic xenophobia to accomplish remilitarization, the resurgence of enforced patriotism in Japan’s education system, the further exploitation of foreign workers under an expanded “trainee” program, and the forthcoming fundamental abrogation of Japan’s “Peace Constitution.”

Making Japan “great” again, similar to what’s happening in the United States under President-elect Donald Trump, has been going on for the past four years. With no signs of it abating.

4 Next generation of “Great Gaijin Massacres” loom

In April 2013, Japan’s Labor Contracts Law was amended to state that companies, after five years of continuous contract renewals, must hire their temporary workers as “regular employees” (seishain). Meant to stop employers from hiring people perpetually on insecure contract jobs (“insecure” because employees are easily fired by contract nonrenewal), it is having the opposite effect: Companies are inserting five-year caps in contracts to avoid hiring people for real. Last November, The Japan Times reported on the “Tohoku University job massacre,” where 3,200 contract workers are slated to be fired en masse in 2017.

JBC sees this as yet another “Gaijin as Guinea Pig” scenario (ZG, July 8, 2008). This happened in Japanese academia for generations: Known as “Academic Apartheid,” foreign full-time scholars received perpetual contract employment while Japanese full-time scholars received permanent uncontracted tenure from day one. This unequal status resulted in the “Great Gaijin Massacre” of 1992-4, where the Ministry of Education (MOE) told National and Public Universities not to renew the contracts of foreigners over the age of 35 as a cost-cutting measure. Then from 1997, the MOE encouraged contract employment be expanded to Japanese full-time educators. From 2018, it will be expanded to the nonacademic private sector. It’s a classic case of Martin Niemoller’s “First they came …” poem: Denying equal rights to part of the population eventually got normalized and applied to everyone.

3 The government surveys NJ discrimination

Japan has been suddenly cognizant of “foreigner discrimination” this year. Not “racial discrimination,” of course, but baby steps. The Asahi kicked things off in January by reporting that 42 percent of foreign residents in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward encountered some form of discrimination, and nearly 52 percent of that was in finding apartments. Glad to have the stats, albeit localized.

Then the Ministry of Justice’s Bureau of Human Rights conducted its first-ever nationwide survey of discrimination toward longer-term NJ residents by mailing them a detailed multilingual survey (available at www.debito.org/?p=14298), asking questions specifically about unequal treatment in housing, employment, education, social situations, etc. It even mentioned the establishment of “laws and regulations prohibiting discrimination against foreigners” (not a law against discrimination by race, natch).

Although this survey is well-intentioned, it still has two big blind spots: It depicted discrimination as 1) due to extranationality, not physical appearance, and 2) done by Japanese people, not the government through systemic racism embedded in Japan’s laws and systems (see my book “Embedded Racism” for more). As such, the survey won’t resolve the root problems fundamental to Japan’s very identity as an ethnostate.

2 Blowback involving NJ tourism and labor

Japan’s oft-touted sense of “selfless hospitality” (omotenashi) is an odd thing. We are seeing designated “foreigner taxis” at Kyoto Station (with a segregated stop), “foreign driver” stickers on Hokkaido and Okinawa rental cars stigmatizing NJ tourists (and NJ residents touring), and media grumblings about ill-mannered Chinese crowding stores, spending scads of money (diddums!) and leaving behind litter. (Japan’s tourist sites were of course sparkling clean before foreigners showed up. Not.)

Then there’s the omnipresent threat of terrorism, depicted for years now by the government as something imported by foreigners into a formerly “safe Japan” (although all terrorist acts so far in Japan have been homegrown). To that end, 2016 was when Japan’s Supreme Court explicitly approved police surveillance of Muslim residents due to their religion. (What’s next? Surveilling foreign residents due to their extranationality?)

Yet foreigners are a necessary evil. Japan still needs them to do its dirty work in the construction, manufacturing, agriculture, fishery and nursing sectors. So this year the foreign “trainee” work program was expanded, along with measures against abuses. About time — bad things, including NJ slavery and child labor have been happening for decades, with the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry acknowledging that about 70 percent of employers hiring “trainees” engage in illegal labor practices. Omotenashi has been counterweighted by government-sponsored exploitation of NJ, and now with the upcoming 2020 Olympics, there’s plenty more dirty work out there.

And after all this, 2016 offered one big bright spot:

1 Hate speech law gets passed — and enforced

Japan’s first law protecting “foreigners” from group denigration in public was passed nationwide in May. JBC (Feb. 1) heralded it as a step in the right direction. Critics quickly pointed out its shortcomings: It doesn’t actually ban hate speech, or have penalties for violators, and it only covers people of overseas origin “who live legally in Japan” (meaning “foreigners,” but not all of them). Plus it skirts the issue of racial discrimination, natch.

However, it has had important effects. The law offered a working definition of hate speech and silenced people claiming the “Western construct” of hate speech didn’t exist in Japan. It also gave Japan’s bureaucrats the power to curtail haters. The Mainichi Shimbun reported that this year’s xenophobic rallies, once daily on average somewhere in Japan, had decreased. Rallies also reportedly softened their hateful invective. Since Japan’s outdoor public gatherings need police and community approval (ZG March 4, 2003), even an official frown on hatred can be powerful.

Official frowning spread. The National Police Agency advised prefectural police departments to respond to hate speech demos. A court banned a rally in a Korean area of Kawasaki for “illegal actions that infringe upon the personal rights for leading a personal life.” Another court ordered hate group Zaitokukai to compensate a Zainichi Korean for public slurs against her. Both judges cited the United Nations Convention on Racial Discrimination, which has been ignored in lawsuits against “Japanese only” establishments.

These are remarkable new outcomes in a society loath to call “No Foreigners Allowed” signs discriminatory, let alone order police to take them down. Progress to build upon.

Bubbling under the top 10

11 Population of registered NJ residents reaches record 2.23 million despite significant decreases in recent years.

12 “Special economic zones” expand to the aging agriculture sector, and want “skilled foreigners” with college degrees and Japanese-language ability to till fields on three-year visas. Seriously.

13 The Nankai Line train conductor who apologized to passengers for “too many foreigners” on an airport-bound train is officially reprimanded, not ignored.

14 Osaka sushi restaurant Ichibazushi, which was bullying foreign customers by deliberately adding too much wasabi, is forced by social media to publicly apologize.

15 Debito.org’s archive of human rights issues in Japan celebrates its 20th Anniversary.

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14 comments on “Japan Times JBC Column 104: The Top Ten Human Rights Events of 2016

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Great article Dr. Debito!
    Laughable to see apologist Ken Yasumoto Nicholson in the comments section complaining about anti-hate speech legislation!

  • @JDG

    Yeah, I’m a bit confused by his remark. Persons actually following the news will remember the pamphlet released by the LDP (you know, the political party controlling most of the government) in which some human rights were determined to be “minor” (and consequently dispensable), as well as the known position of 日本会議 (you know, the maniacal right-wing group that the PM belongs to) whereby human rights are precisely such–“a Western concept.” I’ll support them when they discard their air conditioners in mid-July, as they are a Western concept too.

    Back to the point, these are examples of Dr. Arudō’s point that I suppose Ken believes we ought hand-feed him, as he is apparently incapable of researching the issue himself. The concession of the basically toothless hate speech law is a tiny silver speckle on a dark storm cloud of swelling right-wing fervor in the national government. Dr. Arudō has written about “human rights” issues–I suppose persons as ignorant as Ken interpret that to mean exclusively NJ rights issues, but the reality is the threat of war, increased media censorship, heightened taxes, and a reverting to archaic, sexist, classist policies affects EVERYONE in Japanese society. The move to abolish laws restricting overtime is but one example that comes to mind. I guess Ken missed that one while he had his hands clamped over his ears, screaming “I can’t hear you” on the playground.

    I suppose it’s Dr. Arudō’s fault that Ken is completely unaware of the bigger picture, leading to his confusion and inability to reconcile the content of the article with his very limited perspective.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ HJ,

    Great comment.
    Ken is too fixated on slamming Dr. Debito to consider that Dr. Debito could be referring to things that benefit (or are to the detriment of) both Japanese and NJ alike. It’s a kind of myopia that prevents proper understanding whilst (thankfully) exposing his bias.
    Maybe he should find out ‘what Japan thinks’ about losing its inalienable human rights, before slamming NJ for talking about it (since he refuses to accept that Dr. Debito is Japanese, which is kind of ironic for a guy born in Scotland who changed his name to ‘Yasumoto’ and considers himself to be Japanese).

  • Loverilakkuma says:


    I disagree with you on your last statement. Debito has no obligation to fix his problems(e.g., cognitive dissonance, habitual contrarianism) in the first place. One commenter made a quick response to YN, chiding him for ignorance and cluelessness.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Dr. Debito,
    As an addendum to my post about maids, what annoys me (I think) is that it seems the recruitment company run by former Minister (Persona) is trying to force the idea of master/servant style relationships like something out of Downton Abbey, rather than the kind of ‘maid’ we had when I was a kid; a woman in her 50’s who came over for a few hours a couple of times a week to help my Mom with the housework, cooking, and babysit me. She used to talk to my mother like a colleague not a servant.

  • @Loverilakkuma

    I was being sarcastic when I said it was Dr. Arudō’s fault. The commenter you are referring to is I. I’ll take your words as a compliment. 😉

  • Baudrillard says:

    @ JIm, as just 26 maids coming it is barely worth reporting, I wouldnt even call it a step, more like a quiver. The comparison to Hong Kong and Singapore is interesting though; there is a lot of abuse in this places as the maids only get 40,000 yen or so in these very expensive cities, though they dont pay rent as they live with the families, sometimes sleeping on the kitchen floor. Needless to say, a lot of them can be found moonlighting as bar girls in Wan Chai etc to supplement their meagre incomes.There are many sources for this, including government ones, but here’s an intersting discussion:

    The article about Pasona doesnt seem to address where theses maids are going to stay in Japan. Nor how much they will be paid, which speaks volumes.

    I dont think they will come flooding in though, as cultural and religious differences in Japan make multicultural Hong Kong and Singapore more attractive destinations to English speaking Filipinas, and these places have churches and support networks already in place.

    Once again, Japan seems a masochistic choice to work in comparison, unless the pay is much better, which is quite doubtful given Japan’s track record of exploiting foreign labor.

  • Baudrillard says:

    Correction to my post, “(the Filipina maids) be paid as much as their Japanese colleagues. Rather than living with a family, recruits must be provided with their own accommodation. ”
    This would be a vast improvement to Hong Kong, where employers think they “own” the live in maids 24/7 and there is a temptation to ask them to do everything just because they are around, even on their days off. And this leads to disputes over lifestyle choices, like not allowing the maid to party in her own time, go out at night etc.

    So although the attitude of the Pasona president is somewhat paternalistic (agree with JIm here) , at least the maids SHOULD be living away from the families so presumably this allows for some freedom.

    Though knowing Japan, they might stick them in a dorm with a strict curfew. Rules, rules, rules.

    And knowing Japan, they will try to do it on the cheap (Oh how the mighty have fallen since the 80s when Japanese companies used to reject offers because “price doesnt matter, quality does”).

    Ps. While typing this, the PC autocorrects “and” to “Abe” several times. Is there a sublime connection the machines know about?

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Baudrillard,

    I agree, 26 ‘immigrant workers’ is hardly a lot to shout about; 26 new tax payers, and 26 housewives liberated from home keeping to return to the workforce on minimum wage temporary contracts, is not going to make up for the governments huge shortfall in tax revenues due to demographics.

    However, what really annoyed me when I read the article was;

    1. The minister who set up the law to allow this scheme is now the president of the company that will make economic gain from said law.

    2. Aforementioned company (Persona) is now arbitrarily able to set the business model standard for the entire NJ maid industry in Japan, which is worrying because,

    3. As the article explained, these maid applicants are getting fired from training for not being servile and humble enough. That is to say, Persona (and by extension the J-Gov) is creating this business model that is based on a fantasy TV English period drama depiction of what ‘maids’ were in stately manors 150 years ago! It was an abusive system them, and should not be emulated now (after all, to see how social attitudes have changed in the west, look at how the relationship between Bruce Wayne and his butler Alfred is depicted: a modern audience would not be sympathetic to a Bruce Wayne who fired Alfred for not bowing and scraping enough. This is of course fiction, but fiction is the mirror of our reality). Now, contrast that with how Japan wants to force hierarchy on these maids. I would love be to seee a copy of a contract of employment.

  • Baudrillard says:

    @JIm, Japan trying to own, dominate and lord it over Filipinas and other Asian women is a darker, but relevant interpretation. There are also several Filipina bars that are vehemently “Japanese (men) only”.

    I used to have a Filipina GF in Japan and the evil stares (and even a shoulder push that almost led to a street fight) I got from Japanese oyaji in Kawasaki were incredible considering we are both technically foreigners. The outside of my house was also graffitized with anti gaijin abuse as a result. It said stuff like “Today we saw you with “C Cup Onna at 7/11. Do you have AIDS?”

    There is arguably a subset of the male Japanese populace that consider SE Asian women “their” women. I ll confine this generalization to blue collar Kawasaki,

    (Yet, walk with a Japanese woman and they dont bat an eyelid, go figure).

  • Baudrillard says:

    I dispute Abe’s similarity to Trump”Making Japan “great” again, similar to what’s happening in the United States under President-elect Donald Trump,”
    Abe is a revanchist nationalist, a descendant of a war criminal. Abe is rooted in the past, a nostalgia for pre war imperial Japan.

    Trump is a businessman. He could care less about foreign adventures (e.g. Japan v Korea, “good luck with that”). He says he would withdraw if allies don’t pay their share. “MAGA” is about cuting costs (e.g. Airforce One) and the (misguided?) belief that certain allies are taking the US for a ride.

    Which is what Abe would like to do- drag the US into a war of Japan’s making.

    Their only similarity is ironically their anti immigrant stance, except that Abe pretends he isn’t. At least Trump calls a spade a spade.

    I think Abe fears Trump. That is why he hurriedly went to meet him. He is deeply afraid of losing American tacit support for his regime and his agenda. Thus all the hopeful spin PR after their meeting of :”I think Abe will become a very good friend of Mr Trump”.

    I cant see Trump being much interested in Japan, unless Ivanka can close that business deal for her clothing company. He may get frustrated if the Japanese real estate market remains essentially closed. He sees Japan as a trade enemy, so this could actually be a welcome wake up call to Japan- they cant depend on sweetheart agreements with the US anymore-

  • @ Baudrillard,

    Re; attitudes to Filipino ladies.

    I guess, its this world view of hierarchical relationships that is so prevalent in Japan. It’s ‘bad enough’ that you ‘don’t know your place’, but the assumption is that you will enjoy Japan and go home. However, giving ‘subordinates’ ‘ideas above their station’ before you leave is too disturbing to their world view?


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