Interview with the Berlin Institute for Population and Development


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(title deleted since I fundamentally disagree with it, and it sounds like a quote from me when it isn’t)
of Arudou Debito, Hokkaido Information University
Interview by Sabine Sütterlin, August 3rd, 2009

Author and civil rights activist Debito Arudou was called David Christopher Aldwinckle originally and was born in 1965 as an American citizen. In 1991, he settled in Sapporo on Hokkaido Island. He regularly deals with xenophobia and exclusionism he finds in Japan. Since 1993, he has taught English and Debate at the private Hokkaido Information University. Since 2000, he is a Japanese citizen.

Only 1,7 per cent of Japan’s population – which in 2007 totalled 127,77 million people – are foreigners. This is one of the lowest percentages worldwide. Why are there so few? Where do they come from? And what has brought them to Japan?

After opening to the world now nearly 150 years ago, Japan has had a long history of bringing in foreigners. First as advisors to get Japan “caught up” technologically after centuries of isolation. Then as laborers from the Japanese empire at that time to man its war machine. Then as leftover former citizens of the empire, moreover educators, researchers, students and regular workers during its postwar reconstruction.

The most pronounced period of importing foreign labor began in 1990, when Japan inaugurated a new visa regime to bring in laborers from poorer countries, particularly China, South America, and South-East Asia. Japan had a huge labor shortage in the dirty, difficult, and dangerous industrial jobs which Japanese workers eschewed. Policymakers saw benefit in bringing in laborers who would be willing to work for less than those Japanese workers. Consequently, this visa regime has more than doubled the number of non-Japanese residents in Japan since 1990.

But why are there still so few?

Japan has no official immigration policy. In fact, its policy is for “revolving-door” employment. That means people have term-limited visas dependent on having a job in Japan, as in the factory “trainees” from China. Other example: Foreigners of Japanese ancestry can come here for as long as they like, work in factories and contribute to the national pension plans, but then have been offered bribes to go back home and forfeit all their investments as soon as economic conditions turn sour; this happened last April. There is little governmental preparation for assimilation or assistance in helping people settle in. And it is quite difficult to get Permanent Residency. The official attitude is: As a foreigner, you’re a guest. Enjoy your time here, make some money, then go back.

How did you manage to become a Japanese citizen?

It is a procedure like naturalization anywhere, with some arbitrary requirements about acculturation that I managed to overcome.

You reflect on some of these arbitrary requirements on your website: For example, you were asked to submit a form to indicate whether your relatives approved of your naturalization. According to other sources, officials would sometimes recommend applicants to change their names so that those sound more Japanese.

You have to show how Japanese you are, and that includes permission from family and neighbors. Other officials wanted to see how Japanese the contents of applicants’ refrigerators or their children’s toys were. These are basically means for inspectors to refuse you if they feel something “funny” about you, I guess. It didn’t happen to me, and I am pretty “funny”. And according to government naturalization statistics, they accept almost anyone who passes the initial screening interview and files the paperwork.

But if Japan decides it does not want or need immigrants – what is wrong with that?

Because it doesn’t reflect reality. We have had a UN report that stated, at least one Prime Minister who acknowledged, and several important domestic organizations who admitted, that Japan needs immigration. Now. Our society is aging and our tax base is decreasing. We are on the cusp of a demographic nightmare, a future with a society that cannot pay or take care of itself. Either way, people will come here, even if it means they find an enfeebled or empty island to live in. Might as well do it now while we have more energy and choices.

The people who represent us or make decisions for us are not necessarily that receptive to understand that people who appear to be different are not a threat. We cannot expect them to lead us to a world they cannot envision. It’s our country, too.

Japanese demographers emphasize that the shrinking of the population has also positive effects like having more space or more land for agriculture.

More land is great, but who will farm it? We are already seeing the depopulation of the countryside in Japan. Our farmers have so much trouble finding wives that many import them from abroad. Meanwhile, things are centralizing in the urban areas and becoming even more crowded. I do not think there is a move to “return to the garden” yet, like one sees when people retire to the country overseas. I think things will continue on the same steady decline for at least the next few years.

How does Japan manage to keep its productivity on the long term without enhancing its labor force with immigrants?

I do not think anyone knows. A society with the most elderly as a percentage of the population in modern history is an unprecedented development. Business federations and think tanks in Japan wanly talk about robotics and automation, employing women and old people more effectively. That is about all. But it seems that talking about “immigration” as a means to fixing the problem is taboo at the moment.

How do Japanese react when they hear about integration problems in Europe?

It is used to make the ramparts even firmer. Politicians here cite riots and intercultural strife overseas all the time. This stops our country from even considering an immigration policy. So we bring in unofficial labor force anyway and end up with much the same problems. Blinkered viewpoints and scare tactics all around. It is disappointing, and untoward for a society this educated and literate.

Interview by Sabine Sütterlin, August 3rd, 2009

The interview may be reprinted with indication of source (Sabine Sütterlin / Berlin-Institute).

8 comments on “Interview with the Berlin Institute for Population and Development

  • Supporting the need for some truth in immigration and population level sustenance.

    Then Again, Maybe Not – Family Registry Version
    After composing my post of yesterday, I could not get over the really odd idea that, if one goes by the family registries of the local administrative areas, the number of deaths in Japan soared 4.1% in between 2007 and 2008 but only grew 0.8% in between 2008 and 2009. I simply could not accept such a swing between two consecutive years as reflecting anything even approximating reality.

    So I looked back in time to see if there were any other anomalies.
    The columns are the number of deaths recorded in family registries, according to the annual survey conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. The red line is the year by year growth in the number of deaths, in percent.

    (Graphic on original posting)




    All I can say is whatever it is that the family registries statistics are registering — it sure ain’t likely to be the actual number of deaths in any given year.

  • I think an interesting poll would be:

    How many people here in Japan have come here to
    1) teach English
    2) they’re here because of their wife’s/girl friends
    3) to learn Japanese/martial arts
    4) because it is a country they want to settle in.

    But how many come to Japan doing “their normal job” but just in another country?. All the NJs here i know fall into categories 1)about 80~90% and 10~20% #2. There are the handful of #3 and even less of #4.

    Point being, many people dream or desire to go to another country to live/work. I just wonder how many select Japan on their “must go and live there” list?

    There is no incentive to come here nor for long term settlement. It is considered an interim/transitory settlement.

    I could go and work in Italy, or France or Australia etc…good reasons for each. And non having the only job available as “teaching English”. In each country i could work as my professional just as easily as pretty much anywhere else in the world, but not so here!

    So, come to Japan and teach English…..well, what else is there for NJs to do here, really??….how is one going to encourage immigrants which such a legacy?

    — Hi John K. I don’t think this poll is all that viable because it’s lumping together cause and effect. People come here for a multitude of reasons, but “to settle” in itself is usually a conclusion drawn after trying on a place for size. Ellis Island is a paradigm for few countries. The most potential “settlers”, refugees (as in, they give up their migration abilities for a safe harbor), are frowned upon as official policy, however, so we’re going to get few 4) responses. Most of the emails I get anyway from people who say “they want to come here to live forever and take out citizenship” are from starry-eyed high school and college students who have fallen in love with manga from overseas and have never been here in the first place. Ewg.

  • Hi John K.

    Given that much less than 10% of the NJ in japan are actually English teachers (I’d say less than 2%, but decided to stay in the safe side), I’d say there’s plenty to do in Japan other than teach English.

  • Debito/Claus

    Hmmmm..perhaps i should ahve worded it, how many of those who are employed in Japan teach English?

    Claus suggests less than 10%, i doubt that. I know of only one NJ that is employed in Japan who is not teaching English. He worked for a company in the UK and was seconded to Japan, and stayed. He didn’t decide one day, for whatever reasons, to go to Japan then say…hmmmm..what job shall i do now, plenty to choose from!

    This is also supported by every Japanese i meet that assumes 1) I am American and 2) i am teaching English. So, what do NJs do for employment if not teaching English or have been seconded here? I am of course discounting those economic migrants such as those from Vietnam, Cambodia etc who are slaved at in factories.

    My point is that the opportunities for NJs to be employed in anything other then teaching English in Japan, from my own experience, is very low indeed.

  • Hi John K and other readers

    we have 3 or so English speaking Caucasians in my small city but 400 or so Chinese ‘trainees’ working in the fish cleaning, processing factories, the wages in the fish cleaning plants not high enough to attract or compensate for the seasonality and difficulty of fish plant work. A massive number of high school and semmon gakko graduates trained well in enough to clerk in convenience stores who end up moving to the big cities, a large number of single women who are underemployed because they stayed here to care for aged parents. Often temporary civil service and semi civil service jobs have a maximum number of years (3 or so)that a person can be employed until they have to quit and be replaced by someone else. None of my students or other single female contacts would even consider marrying farmers.

    There is also difficulty to ‘go back to the land’ because credit for the most part is controlled by the established farm co-op members. Nothing will make Japanese agriculture more cost competitive until significant progress is made reducing input costs and narrowing the percentage of the food dollar that is taken by the post production packaging and processing industries.

    There are also some ‘regulatory’ issues that prevent the do-it-yourselfer from doing things themselves even for personal use and consumption.
    It is also extremely difficult and expensive to rehabilitate farmland once it has been abandoned to giant knotweed, dock, thistles and brush.

  • Just in case John K is interested, almost all the NJ I know are just “doing their normal job” but in a different country. That includes scientists, teachers (not an “English teacher” on a gap year, but real school teachers), various business/law things for multinational corporations. Most of us were open to overseas work and ended up in Japan basically through luck. Some stay longer than others, some leave by choice and almost all are limited by contract and job opportunities. I know of many who have basically been kicked out, as I almost certainly will be at some point in the future.

  • Very few gaijin living in central Tokyo are English teachers – it’s just not financially reasonable. Bankers, lawyers, government types, lobbyists, executives, engineers, etc. are more common. Perhaps these different views simply reflect differing social circles. We need statistics from a representative sample to answer this question.


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