"Taking the 'gai' out of 'gaijin'"
Can Japan absorb foreign influx?

Immigration reality makes assimilation absolutely vital

Column 28 for The Japan Times Community Page
January 24, 2006
(This is an adapted version of a much longer article published by Japan Focus on January 12, 2006.)

When discussing the recent ethnic riots in France, The Economist newsmagazine ("Minority Reports," Nov. 10, 2005) posed an important question: How come some countries assimilate immigrants more peacefully than others?

It concluded that five basic things are necessary: lingua franca skills; income; mobility; home ownership; political representation; intermarriage.

This article will discuss how well Japan does on this scale, and offer suggestions on how it can do better. But first, let's reconfirm that something needs to be done.

Resistance is futile

As has been discussed previously in this column, immigration will be a factor in Japan's future because it is unstoppable. Not only is cheap foreign labor now an intrinsic part of the Japanese economy, but also Japan by itself is about the same size as all other Asian economies combined. The economic pull for immigrants is irresistible.

It is already becoming visible. The growth of the Brazilian Community from negligible into the third largest ethnic group has been well observed. The news is that record numbers of "newcomer" foreigners are making themselves unremovable -- by taking out Permanent Residency (PR).

According to the Ministry of Justice, "General Permanent Residents" ("ippan eijuusha") swelled from 145,336 in 2000 to 312,964 in 2004.

Meanwhile, the number of "Special Permanent Residents" (the ethnic Korean and Chinese "Zainichi") actually shrank (due to death or naturalization) from 512,269 to 465,619. Thus the PR Newcomers may outnumber the Oldcomers in just a few years.

Now, add the huge numbers of multiethnic Japanese, due to record levels of international marriages, international children, and naturalized citizens. We don't know exactly how many because they don't appear in statistics for registered foreigners (of course not -- they're citizens), and Japan's Census Bureau does not survey for ethnicity.

Face it: it is now simply impossible for "foreigners" and their influence to disappear.

Fortunately, Japan finally seems ready to face it. Emerging is a grudging acceptance of the inevitability of immigration.

About time too. As far back as 2000, a Cabinet report (as well as the U.N.) famously advised Japan to import around 600,000 foreigners per annum. This would maintain Japan's tax base, aging due to record-high longevities and record-low birthrates. This trial balloon was soon deflated, however, by government-sponsored campaigns against foreigners, focusing on hooliganism, terrorism, and crime.

Nevertheless, the watershed moment arrived last December with the news that Japan's population is officially in decline.

Japan's Ministry of Health announced that deaths in 2005 unprecedentedly outnumbered births by 10,000.

From 2006 the population is projected to dwindle, falling to 100.7 million by 2050. Which means that the foreign resident influx, about 50,000 people annually, is buoying the stats in the black.

There was an audible intake of wind within policymaking circles. Even frequent foreigner basher Tokyo Governor Ishihara, in a Dec. 22, 2005 news conference, stated that Japan needs a firm immigration policy, and offered suggestions (such as granting PR to foreign graduates of Japanese colleges) to get educated people to stay.

So can Japan deal with a future of immigration? There are reasons to believe so.

Factors conducive to assimilation

1.) Foreigners can own property in Japan, buying homes and establishing businesses. Doing this is, however, difficult without PR, as established financial institutions require it before granting affordable loans. PR is itself difficult to get, as it generally requires at least five years' residency (if married to a Japanese, 10 years' if not) and documented financial stability. Regardless, record numbers are taking the PR plunge.

2.) Foreigners can run their own businesses (as the ethnic restaurants, kitchen-sink importers, used-good exporters, and nightlife around Japan can attest). Naturally, there are some barriers to entry, such as (depending on your visa) local-hire requirements, heavy deposits for loans, and denials of financial amenities as basic as a credit card.

Still, according to the World Bank and domestic entrepreneurs, startups have gotten easier, with things like "1-yen companies," open-secret loopholes (such as getting a visa separate from your business, then declaring your business as a side-job), simplified procedures and cheapened registration costs (now around $4,000) to clear.

3.) There is a labor shortage, meaning if you come to Japan you will probably land a job. That said, jobs for foreigners tend to be neither secure nor lucrative, which does not help newcomers invest in their future.

4.) Japan has few, if any, state-created "foreign tenements" (one of the suggested causes of France's riots). However, there is little to no protection against housing discrimination, resulting in "gaijin apartments" and ethnic clusters near factories.

5.) There is a promising degree of multiethnicity already visible: salsa and samba clubs, Korean pop and rap culture, best-selling manga about international relationships, and culinary culture vulture-ism.

There are many entertainers, sportspeople, businesspeople, and politicians with international backgrounds. Nevertheless, many sectors, even sports leagues have " foreigner quotas," if not outright exclusionary rules.

6.) Tens of thousands of people marry Japanese every year -- which opens doors in terms of working visas and community credibility.

Factors unconducive to assimilation

1.) Compulsory education in Japan does not apply to foreign children. This means foreign children who can't handle Japanese primary schooling drop out and face no other education choices, sometimes winding up in an uneducated underclass of youth gangs (cf. the Herculano Murder Case).

Moreover, the Ministry of Education has refused to accredit most international schools, which means that graduates cannot enter a Japanese university and are thus denied most upwardly-mobile jobs.

2.) Foreigners looking for gainful work often find themselves barred from it. Some "Japanese Only" jobs are as mundane as government food preparation or firefighting.

Glass ceilings in Japan's corporate culture are rife, and many foreigners often cannot even sit civil-service examinations for promotion (in Tokyo, for example), since foreigners are not allowed to have " administrative duties" over Japanese.

3.) Those who do find jobs are not entitled to the same job security, welfare benefits, or legal protections as Japanese. Many resort to working in the black-market economies or as permanent part-timers, for low wages without health or unemployment insurance. This does not help establish firm roots in society.

4.) Those who do settle down and marry face the clearest case of arbitrary segregation yet: the Residency Certificate ("juuminhyou") and Family Registry ("koseki") systems.

Because only citizens can be listed as "residents," foreigners officially become invisible family members, unrecorded even as "parent" or "spouse."

Few things are more alienating to potential immigrants than being officially separated from their families!

5.) Government policy is even less welcoming. Many proposals, written under a rubric of application to "kokumin" (nationals), explicitly exclude foreigners from regular taxpayer benefits.

Moreover, the government does nothing to resolve this perception problem when it refuses to collect any data which might contradict the official image of Japan as "monocultultural, mono-ethnic society."

6.) Continuously portraying the outsider as social bane instead of boon is not only hurting people, it is damaging the government's integrity. As this column has reported and revealed at various times, Japan's law enforcement is falsifying statistical interpretation, encouraging public witch hunts of foreigners, using outright racism in crime research , and even breaking their own laws to justify their pursuit of the foreigner in our midst. This must stop.

How can things be improved

1.) Illiteracy saps the potential of people in every society, so institute free government-sponsored language classes to get immigrants up to speed on their reading, writing, and spoken Japanese.

2.) Extend compulsory education to all children regardless of nationality, and accredit more ethnic schools to give them a choice.

3.) Take concrete measures to protect the rights of non-Japanese residents. This includes not only outlawing racial discrimination, but also passing laws ensuring equal access to living quarters and public goods, empowering watchdog agencies with policing and punitive powers (such as the ombudsman proposal currently stalemated in the Diet), and clarifying labor statutes protecting foreign workers against discrimination.

4.) As Gov. Ishihara suggested, enact a clear immigration policy, with targets to bring in educated people and ensure them stable jobs and visa status.

Similarly, eliminate the "nationality clause" ("kokuseki joukou") for all government employment, and let qualifications and civil service exam results determine employability.

5.) Resolve the gray legal status of the Zainichi and other long-term foreigners.

This would include legalizing dual nationality, reducing the arbitrariness of naturalization procedures, granting local suffrage to Permanent Residents, and conferring citizenship by birth.

The Zainichis in particular are denied the rights of citizens even after four generations here, and there are too many disincentives for them to assimilate fully.

6.) Eliminate the separation of "resident" and "citizen" fostered by the "koseki" and "juuminhyou" registry systems.

7.) Make statements at the highest levels of government explaining why foreigners are in Japan, the good works they are doing as taxpayers and community members, and their indispensable role in Japan's future.

Too much ink has been spilled about crimes only a tiny minority commit, and the threats to public order they have not caused.

Japan still has trouble knowing what to do with foreigners once they get here, or trusting them to carry on by themselves.

But this is a society remarkably open to outside ideas, and it will get them in time from fluent immigrants.

Japan is world-class at welcoming strangers with kindness in the short term. It must now learn how to do it long term.

A longer version of this article can be found at www.japanfocus.org

The Japan Times: Jan. 24, 2006

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Copyright 2006, Arudou Debito, Sapporo, Japan