Dear Japanese lawmakers,
In mid-March, I opened up my newspaper to find an article about the government granting one-year temporary resident status to Noriko Calderon, an ethnic Filipino girl. I was shocked by the news because Noriko was born and raised in Japan. And just like most of her ethnic Japanese counterparts, Noriko said she loves her native country. Still, the Japanese government treated her like an “alien.” As far as I am concerned, Noriko is not a foreigner, and she shouldn’t need any special permission to live in Japan. Sure, her parents are from the Philippines, so she is of Filipino ancestry. But for that matter, all the children born to Japanese parents in Brazil, the U.S. and the Philippines are of Japanese ancestry. Does that make them “aliens” in their countries of birth?
People of Japanese ancestry, or nikkeijin, have been accepted as full members of other societies. According to the Association of Nikkei and Japanese Abroad, there are about 2.6 million of them living in their adopted countries. Some have even become lawmakers in their country of birth or adoption. But the contrast with Japanese attitudes is sharp. The government here maintains a racist and xenophobic system under which people who fulfill every internationally accepted qualification for citizenship are denied it.
Each year, I give about 60 lectures to PTAs, students and ordinary citizens around Japan to promote multiculturalism. There is a profound problem here in that the fight against racism and discrimination hasn’t been taken seriously. The hurdle is a lack of knowledge and sensibility when it comes to tackling these matters. I believe the public would react positively to an educational campaign about these issues, but there is a real lack of political push in this fight.
The majority of Japanese people still firmly believe that the key to Japanese identity is found in the blood. A Japanese is not someone born in Japan or someone who became Japanese through naturalization, but someone born to ethnic Japanese parents. This is a very racist concept, and doesn’t fit with the present, more multiethnic reality of Japanese society. Now, a remarkable new debate is needed to change the Japanese concept of citizenship.
A few open-minded lawmakers are willing to consider granting citizenship to anyone born in Japan, and to offer dual citizenship to those with foreign-born parents. But the idea always comes up against opposition from the most conservative politicians. They argue that Japan, unlike America or Canada, is not a country of immigrants. The more rightwing Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers claim Japan is an ethnically homogenous nation.
Japan’s political culture has not caught up the reality. While hundreds of thousands of Japanese have chosen to marry foreign nationals and have children in Japan, the government still treats foreigners as intruders. Neither the government nor civic organizations have significant programs to help foreigners integrate. The country still has no law regulating immigration.
The debate about liberalizing citizenship laws needs to be stepped up, particularly considering the large number of babies born here that are currently classed as “non-Japanese.” The largest group of foreigners in Japan are ethnic Chinese and Koreans, but these people, who pay taxes and often feel more Japanese than Chinese/Korean, can become Japanese citizens only with great difficulty. They cannot get dual citizenship either, as Japan does not admit the concept.
Redefining Japanese citizenship by birth or choice instead of blood will certainly encourage Japanese people to accept foreigners. It would provide relief for millions of people who are now destined to live in a country where they feel they will never fully belong.
Most people take pride in their heritage, and this is important. But to function effectively in the 21st century, we must reach beyond our ethnic and cultural borders and work to create moral and just communities that foster the common good.
Joel Assogba is an African-Canadian educator, writer, illustrator and public speaker. He can be reached at www2.saganet.ne.jp/joel/ or firstname.lastname@example.org. Send submissions for Hotline to Nagatacho of between 500 and 600 words to email@example.com