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The lowest form of flattery?

Japan's take on global trend toward language tests, biometric scans for foreigners flawed

by Chris Burgess

In order to avoid the entry of terrorists into Japan, it has been decided to impose fingerprinting and photography at immigration.’ So begins the Foreign Ministry video explaining the November changes to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act.

Two months later, Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura proposed adding a Japanese-language requirement for long-term foreign residents. “Being able to speak Japanese is important to improve the lives of foreign residents in Japan,” he told reporters.

Recently, I was asked by Radio Australia to comment upon both these changes. I explained that the toughening of immigration controls was part of a worldwide movement, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks. In America, Europe, and Australia, public attitudes toward immigration have hardened, anti-immigration rhetoric has grown louder, and new measures aimed at better controlling immigration — both legal and illegal — introduced. There is no reason to believe that Japan should be immune from such global trends.

Interestingly, my comments never made the final cut. Radio Australia already had a different story in mind: Foreign residents in Japan were increasingly persecuted simply for not being Japanese by a “callous” government intent on keeping Japan a homogenous society.

Undoubtedly, there are a number of problems with the recent changes, which I will get to shortly. However, failing to place Japanese immigration reform in an international perspective is also problematic. In Japan, there is a discourse on Japanese identity known as “Nihonjinron,” which typically argues that the country is “uniquely” unique. Critics who fail to place Japan in an international context and attack the government as racist and discriminatory inadvertently reinforce a discourse that is at base insular and parochial. The result is that it is easy for policymakers to dismiss such criticism as nothing more than emotional “Japan-bashing.”

Japan has always been a borrower and copier. In the past, agricultural and craft techniques, philosophy, Buddhism, writing, art, political and social organization were imported from China via the Korean Peninsula; early European contact brought firearms, movable type and Christianity; the Meiji Period saw the wholesale introduction of Western industrial, educational, political, transport and social models; and in the postwar period, American ideals and values came to permeate society.

Given this history, together with the current process of globalization, it is no surprise to see Japan especially sensitive to global trends. One of these is immigration policy. In the U.S., digital fingerprinting and photographs have been required for most foreign nationals since 2004. The EU is also reportedly looking at fingerprint requirements for their border systems. Meanwhile, the British government is already involved in talks with the aviation industry over the installation of scanners at airports.

As for language tests, last year Australia unveiled a new citizenship test that includes assessment of English skills and knowledge of Australian history, values, and culture. In Germany, Austria, and Denmark, applicants for permanent residence must pass a language and general culture test. And in the U.K., migrants coming to undertake skilled work must provide evidence that they have an acceptable level of English.

In sum, it is no surprise, given the way that the wind is blowing internationally, that Japan has also adopted tightened border security controls and is considering language tests for migrants. The problem is this: what happens when borrowings are not properly adapted to the new environment and copies are less than perfect?

In the U.S., those holding immigrant visas, such as Legal Permanent Residents (Green Card holders), are currently exempt from the US-VISIT program. The same is true of most Canadian visitors, as well as Mexican citizens with a Border Crossing Card. In Japan, while Special Permanent Residents — mainly resident Koreans — are exempt, all other non-Japanese, including General Permanent Residents, have to be fingerprinted and photographed each time they re-enter Japan. In other words, the Japanese “copy” is broader in scope than the original. The result is that border security in Japan is now the strictest in the world.

General Permanent Residents are one of the fastest growing migrant groups in Japan. They are the Japanese-speaking bicultural professionals, the lecturers, traders, and business people who fell in love with the country and underwent the strict vetting required to secure permanent residence. They are also some of the most law-abiding individuals in Japan, so much so that they are not even included in the National Police Agency’s foreign crime statistics. Yet each time they re-enter Japan they have to separate from their families and undergo fingerprinting as “a preventative measure against acts of terrorism.”

The U.S. and U.K. have valid reasons for being afraid of foreign terrorism. But what of Japan? The most serious terrorist incident in recent years was the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, in which 12 people were killed and thousands injured. The attack was carried out by members of Aum Shinrikyo, a domestic group which the 2007 NPA white paper says still presents a danger to public security. Since April last year, the cult and a splinter group were reported to have earned ¥100 million.

Although the sarin gas attacks grabbed the headlines, according to the NPA acts of “terrorist/guerrilla” violence occur each year in Japan. For example, in 2006 there were six such acts of violence (including the burning down of LDP big-wig Koichi Kato’s home) and more than 2000 rightists were arrested for other offenses such as assault, extortion, or fraud. However, these incidents receive little media attention and have even been tacitly supported by well-known politicians. For example, in September 2003 Tokyo Mayor Shintaro Ishihara called the attempted bombing of senior Foreign Ministry official Hitoshi Tanaka’s home “an entirely natural response.”

In a 2003 paper in the online journal Japan Focus entitled “When is a Terrorist not a Terrorist?” Tessa Morris-Suzuki notes the double standard that allows homegrown terrorist groups to flourish even as a battery of new security measures cracks down on foreign residents.

My key point is not that Japan is wrong to adopt the kind of reforms that other countries are adopting, but rather that such reforms have been poorly implemented. Specifically, the government seems to lack expertise in and understanding of the realities of migrant life in Japan. For example, the experienced researcher or NGO volunteer will tell you that so-called illegals tend to keep their heads down and concentrate on earning and remitting money. Yet, the popular discourse on “illegal” immigrants invariably paints them as vicious criminals. The media is generally happy to play on this fear of foreign crime in general and of rising numbers of “illegal” immigrants in particular. Both, however, are myths. Numbers of “illegal” migrants (the majority of who have simply overstayed their visa) have halved in the last 10 years (estimated at 149,785 as of January 2008). And “foreign crime” statistics — despite excluding permanent residents and including all short-term visitors — consistently reveal the crime rate for non-Japanese to be lower than for Japanese.

Another example of the government’s lack of expertise in migrant matters are the proposed language tests. Although keen to stress that they were not targeting any particular ethnic group, the deputy director of the foreign nationals affairs division, Tarasara Ganichi, revealed that Nikkeijin were a focus of the test.

Nikkeijin — Japanese return-migrants and their descendants, mostly from South America — have, since 1990, been brought in to satisfy the demand for cheap labor. However, the original government belief that Japanese blood- descendants would not be so different from other Japanese and would assimilate and learn the language relatively quickly has proved to be unfounded. Thus, the test — reported to be equivalent to Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, which entails 900 hours of study — appears to be a tool for repatriating Nikkeijin by blocking visa extensions.

This contrasts sharply with the global norm that sees language tests as a path to citizenship.

Japan is relatively new to the postwar immigration game. Perhaps it needs time to adapt these foreign borrowings to the Japanese milieu. But if it doesn’t adjust soon, it may find that the foreign laborers and professionals central to the future of a rapidly aging Japan are no longer around to contribute.

Chris Burgess lectures in Japanese and Australian studies at Tsuda College. The Radio Australia interview is available at www.radioaustralia.net.au/connectasia/stories/s2141423.htm. Send comments and story ideas to community[*at*]japantimes.co.jp