(title deleted since I fundamentally disagree with it, and it sounds like a quote from me when it isn’t)
INTERVIEW WITH THE BERLIN INSTITUTE FOR POPULATION AND DEVELOPMENT
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).