Asahi column on “Broadening definition of ‘Japanese'”


Hi Blog. Watashi no Shiten column on what to do about immigration–offering the inclusive view and how to make people accepted as Japanese. Article starts off slow, but builds up to conclusions I agree with. Hope to see these views become more common currency in the policymaking arena. Thanks to Colin and LIJ for notification. Debito in Sapporo


POINT OF VIEW/ Takashi Miyajima: Time to broaden the definition of ‘Japanese’

Some people say Japan keeps its doors closed to foreign labor. But that is not an accurate description. Excluding foreigners staying in Japan illegally, there are already about 600,000 foreign nationals working in this country. Japan’s doors are not closed to foreign labor.

The problem, however, lies in the gap between the government’s official policy and the reality of accepting foreign laborers. The Japanese government has been sticking to the principle of not accepting unskilled foreign workers mainly out of concerns that a sharp increase in the number of foreigners could cause cultural conflict and a deterioration of public safety.

But, in the face of an increasingly acute labor shortage in manufacturing and some other industries, the government in the 1990s created schemes to bypass immigration laws and allow unskilled foreign workers into the country. A system was established to allow South American nationals of Japanese descent to work in Japan without imposing any restrictions on the types of jobs they could do.

A special on-the-job training program was created to enable companies to hire foreign workers as “trainees.” These schemes should be criticized as disguised ways to accept low-skilled foreign laborers.

The foreign nationals of Japanese ancestry who come to Japan through these backdoor channels tend to have children and stay for the long term. Despite being aware of the situation, the government has been making no serious effort to establish a system to accept immigrants under an official national policy. The decision to ignore these immigrants has been made on the grounds that there is no national consensus on becoming a country of immigration. The government’s inaction is now beginning to produce serious consequences.

The most serious problem is that the children of these foreign workers are not receiving a proper education. About 30 to 40 percent of the children of foreign workers of Japanese descent are not attending Japanese schools due to a number of problems but mainly because of the learning difficulties they face. Our survey shows many of these children give up the idea of going on to high school during the second half of their second year in junior high school. Consequently, they begin to feel unsure about their future.

One factor that is often behind this situation is their parents’ vagueness on how long they are going to stay in Japan. But most of the blame rests on the government’s failure to take specific steps to provide detailed assistance for these children–such as reducing the number of students per class and adjusting school curricula to the new international environment.

Accepting a larger number of foreign workers, including unskilled laborers, would be a realistic way to deal with the problem of labor shortage due to the nation’s aging population. Even if they are allowed to work in Japan only for a limited period of time, however, many of them would develop a desire to settle down in this country as they get used to their workplaces here and establish strong ties with the communities.

It would be better if Japan decides to become an immigration society that accepts foreign workers as new members and starts developing necessary systems to deal with this. For instance, the government should consider granting foreign nationals born and raised in Japan the right to obtain Japanese nationality on the grounds of jus soli, the principle that a person’s citizenship is determined by the place of birth rather than by the citizenship of one’s parents.

But systems alone would not solve the problems. We can draw some important lessons from the riots that broke out in Paris and other parts of France in 2005.

The youths who torched vehicles were mostly the children of immigrants of north African origin. Many of these second-generation immigrants face discrimination in employment even after they become adults with French nationality.

The widespread unrest underscored the fact that children of immigrants are treated as second-class citizens in French society, which takes pride in its egalitarianism. Frustration among these youngsters with foreign roots over the gap between what they were taught at school–there is no discrimination–and the reality, ignited the violent acts of protest.

In Japan, the children of the foreign workers of Japanese ancestry will soon start to come of age. The nation must undergo some social changes to prevent them from becoming isolated.

One inevitable change is broadening of the concept of “Japanese.”

In the United States, there are various hyphenated terms for citizens of foreign origin, such as Italian-Americans or Chinese-Americans. But there are no corresponding terms in Japan. There are a number of criteria that narrow the generally accepted definition of “Japanese,” from the color of hair and eyes to the ability to speak Japanese without accent or with proper use of honorifics.

People who don’t fulfill these criteria are alienated, classified as “foreigners” even if they have Japanese nationality. As a result, they feel a strong sense of discrimination.

Japan should now create a society where people with various cultural backgrounds are accepted as Japanese, called “Chinese-Japanese,” for instance, without any discriminatory connotations and be treated fairly as equal and important members of society.

* * *

The author is a professor of sociology at Hosei University.(IHT/Asahi: February 20, 2007)

2 comments on “Asahi column on “Broadening definition of ‘Japanese'”

  • I’d be really interested in hearing from an international couple with mixed children. Debito, have your kids had any problems?

    We as adults can push policy and fight for these hyphenated terms all we like, but in the end, kids aren’t going to pay attention to that. They might not even follow the example of their parents. In such a racially “homogeneous” country, with the definition of Japanese being the way it is, the teasing or discriminating of children with different features is almost inevitable, I think; I know it’s not racism coming from children, but it can still significantly affect their development and their perception of how the world treats them. The stake sticking out getting hammered down, as it were; only in this case, the stake can’t help being a stake.

    Fukuoka Now article regarding racism in schools


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>