The myopic state we're in

Original title: FAITH NO MORE
Fingerprinting is but one sign of the government's now undeniable xenophobia
By Arudou Debito
Column 42 for the Japan Times Zeit Gist Column December 18, 2007, available at
DRAFT NINETEEN--"Director's Cut" with links to sources

We all notice it eventually: how nice individual Japanese people are, yet how cold - even discriminatory - officialdom is towards non-Japanese (NJ).  This dichotomy is often passed off as something "cultural" (a category people tend to assign anything they can't understand), but recent events have demonstrated there is in fact a grand design.  One visible in government policies and public rhetoric, hardwiring the Japanese public into fearing and blaming foreigners.

Start with the "us" and "them" binary rhetoric in official government pronouncements:  how "our country" (wagakuni) must develop policy for the sake of our "citizens" (kokumin) towards foreign "visitors" (rarely "residents"); how foreigners bring discrimination upon themselves, what with their "different languages, religions, and lifestyle customs" n'all; and how everyone has inalienable human rights in Japan - except the aliens (Zeit Gist Oct 23, 2007).

The atmosphere wasn't always so hostile.  During the Bubble and its aftermath, the official mantra was kokusaika (internationalization), where NJ were given leeway as misunderstood outsiders.  

But in 2000, kicked off by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara's "Sangokujin" speech - in which he called on the Self Defense Forces to round up foreigners during natural disasters in case they riot - the general attitude shifted perceptibly from benign neglect to downright antipathy.

As "Japanese Only" signs and exclusionary rules proliferated, up popped the "cultural" excuses:  Japan can't help itself (after all, it has an isolationist history and deep-rooted, unique concepts of racism); Japan is catching up with the West, and will change when the more internationalized youngsters grow up and take the reins; international marriages and foreign neighbors will ultimately clear up residual "gaijin allergies."

Meanwhile, high-profile anti-gaijin movements were converging and cross-pollinating:  the Otaru Onsens Case of 1999-2005, the "beware of foreign criminals" police notices in banks and on public transport, the "anti-hooligan" push during the 2002 World Cup, the al-Qaeda scare of 2005, "Gaijin Hanzai" magazine in February 2007 (ZG Mar 20 2007), and the "foreign crime is rising" (even when it isn't) police media campaigns every six months (ZG Feb 20 2007). 

It's reached saturation point.  In addition to October's new law requiring all employers to register their NJ workers with the government, last month Japan reinstated fingerprinting for foreigners at the border.

This time the weak excuses--about fingerprinting being merely a sign of the times--fell flat.  Japan's program went further than the American policy it was modeled on, requiring fingerprinting every time almost any foreigner enters Japan - even Regular Permanent Residents.  The government has also been unclear how long the biometric data will be stored or protected.  Or with which government agencies and countries – besides the US - it will be shared

More telling was Japan's officially-sanctioned defamation:  When applying these policies solely to non-Japanese, government portrayed them as more likely to be criminals, terrorists, and carriers of contagious diseases.

Things might have been different in a society where the accused has the right of reply.  But in Japan it's not a fair fight.  Media blackouts on minority views are commonplace.  And this time it became clear how officialdom manufactures "Team Japan vs. The World".

After little public debate over the years, fingerprinting was rammed through the Diet during the era of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's virtual omnipotence.  When it came into effect on Nov 20, debate was again stifled. 

Nothing was left to chance that day.  NHK 7PM's 3-minute segment only parroted the government's line of protecting "citizens" from the outside world, with no airtime given to the protests outside the Justice Ministry.  NHK 9PM's 6-minute segment gave positive feedback from a couple of tourists, but no word from any NJ residents whatsoever.  NHK's BS News at 10:50PM didn't even bother to carry the story.

How can NHK ignore a story affecting well over a million NJ residents (and millions more if you include their families)?  Why are foreigners paying NHK fees if they're not valued as an audience?

Other networks and newspapers carried news about concerns for human rights, the malfunctioning fingerprint machines, and angry tourists.  But not one network had the presence of mind to interview a NJ resident or immigrant. 

Then, right on cue, came the vindication:  Hours past midnight, the Nikkei, Sankei, and Yomiuri dailies all released articles in time for their Nov 21 morning editions:  "Five foreigners snagged!"  Huzzah for our new system!

Not so, actually.  The Sankei Shimbun admitted they were snagged for odd passports, not fingerprints, which happens every day anyway.  Thus this was not news.  It was propaganda.

And man did people get mad as hell about it.  Respondents to the Debito.org blog have finally gotten sick of contributing to Japan only to be constantly bashedThey are forming a nonprofit group to promote the interests of immigrants.

This shouldn't be necessary.  Plenty of domestic avenues recognize the need for foreigners, and actively created policy to bring them here.  Even Japan's largest business lobby, Keidanren, is partially responsible for the Trainee Visa regime that has doubled Japan's NJ population since 1990.  Policymakers want foreigners here.

But scratch the surface.  I recently attended a speech by a Keidanren foreign labor policymaker.  I asked why Japan would import so many foreign "trainees" yet not take care of them.  Why exempt their visas from Japan's labor laws and social safety net? 

His answer was enlightening.  He claimed Japan's labor protections are haphazard for everybody (which justifies full exemption for foreigners?), and that Japan's society is not wired for immigration.  (So why import more than a million foreign workers?  Just to exploit them as revolving-door work units?)

Now I get it.  Policymakers just don't care.  In their view, gaijin only come here to make money off the rich society we Japanese alone built, right?  So once they get here, they're on their own, and should entertain no thoughts of planning to stay. 

"Mottainai" – what a waste.  Japanese officialdom would be well-advised not to squander the potential foreign workers offer Japan, whose aging society and withering labor force promises to price itself out of the international market.  Policymakers know this, yet they make their own lame excuses about employing more robots, elderly, and women.  Then they wonder why the birthrate keeps dropping.  Complete policy incoherence.

The rot reaches the very top.  I harbor no illusions about who makes policy in this country (the bureaucrats, of course), but let's take a look at our elected Diet members, since the public has some say in their existence. 

Politicians are even further out of touch.  No wonder, considering they are effectively a peerage masquerading as an elected legislature.

After the last election, 185 of 480 Diet members (39%) were second- or third- (or more) generation politicians (seshuu seijika).   Of 244 members of the LDP (the ruling party for practically all the postwar period), 126 (52%) are seshuu seijikaLikewise eight of the last ten Prime Ministers, and around half the Abe and Fukuda CabinetsWhen the average turnover per election is only around 3%, you have what can only be termed a political class.

As the party cream floats to the top, debates become very closed-circuit, intellectually incestuous--and even oddly anti-gaijin.  For example, Justice Minister Kunio "friend of a friend in al-Qaeda" Hatoyama was quoted as saying (Shuukan Asahi Oct 26, 2007 p. 122), "The Japanese place more importance on the value of life... European civilizations of power and war mean their concept of life is weaker than the Japanese.  This is why they are moving towards abolishing the death penalty."  Then he approved three execution orders.  Earth to Kunio, come in?

These isolated people (and our unvetting media cartels) are simply unable to see anyone's interests but their own.  They not only serve the country poorly--they are devastating it.

Crunch the data from the IMF World Economic Outlook (http://www.econstats.com/weo/V016.htm) for percent change in GDP per capita, at current prices between 1996 and 2006. 

A basket of 15 developed countries/mature economies (European, North American, and Antipodean) have all grown by an average of around 57%; even the laggard, Germany, grew by 22.9%.  Japan, meanwhile, shrank by 1.47%!  Since Japan's neighbors, China and South Korea, have grown by 131.9% and 51.3% respectively, Japan's future as the leader of Asia is in jeopardy.

Yet Japan clearly resists the forces or globalization--by having, according to The Economist Dec 1, 2007, the lowest levels of import penetration, inward foreign direct investment, and foreign workers in the OECD (the club of developed countries).  Not to mention the highest government debt, at 180% of GDP.

Japan even refuses to fulfill simple obligations as a developed nation--not only because it won't pass a law against racial discrimination.  It won't even take people who would come here no matter how poorly they're treated.  Despite being the third-largest donor to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Japan accepted only 34 asylum-seekers in 2006 (compared to 23,296 in the US and 6,330 in Britain that year), and a total of only 1,975 since it signed the Refugee Convention back in 1951!  Take our money, keep your aliens.

As Japan sinks into elderly obsolescence and threatens to retire to the economic backwaters, it needs more openness, not less.  Yet our leaders insult NJ residents by calling them names and policing them further.  Not to mention the purposeful xenophobes, capitalizing on a complicated world, who whip up public fear of foreign terrorism and crime.  The nation is being run by people out of sync with Japan's present and future, who won't live to see the full extent of the damage they are wreaking anyway.

We cannot expect people like these to lead us to a world they cannot envision.  Neither Japanese citizens, nor the international residents who plight their troth here, deserve this fate.  At the very least, Japan needs a change in leadership.  Knock the LDP from its half-century in power, for starters.

As for the media, let's have a pro-gaijin campaign for a change.  To paraphrase one of Japan's outspoken historical revisionists and xenophobes, the late Diet member Eto Takami, "we're doing good things too".  Acknowledge that.

More information at http://www.debito.org/japantimes121807.html
1600 words

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Copyright 2007, Arudou Debito, Sapporo, Japan