Japan, U.N. share blind spot on ‘migrants’

by Debito Arudou

On March 23, I gave a speech to Jorge Bustamante, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, for NGO FRANCA regarding racial discrimination in Japan. Text follows:

I wish to speak about the treatment of those of “foreign” origin and appearance in Japan, such as white and non-Asian people. Simply put, we are not officially registered — or even counted sometimes — as genuine residents. We are not treated as taxpayers, not protected as consumers, not seen as ethnicities even in the national census. According to government polls and surveys, we do not even deserve the same human rights as Japanese. The view of “foreigner” as “only temporary in Japan” is a blind spot even the United Nations seems to share, but I will get to that later.

First, an overview: The number of non-Japanese (NJ) on visas of three months or longer has increased since 1990 from about 1 million to over two. Permanent residents (PR) number over 1 million, meaning about half of all registered NJ can stay here forever. Given how hard PR is to get — about five years if married to a Japanese, 10 years if not — a million NJ permanent residents are clearly not a temporary part of Japanese society.

Moreover, this does not count the estimated half-million or so naturalized Japanese citizens (I am one of them). Nor does this count children of international marriages, about 40,000 annually. Mathematically, if each couple has two children, eventually that will mean 80,000 more ethnically diverse Japanese children; over a decade, 800,000 — almost a million again. Not all of these children of diverse backgrounds will “look Japanese.”

What’s more, we don’t know Japan’s true diversity because the Census Bureau only surveys for nationality. This means when I fill out the census, I write down “Japanese” for my nationality, but I cannot indicate my ethnicity as a “white Japanese,” or a “Japanese of American extraction” (amerikakei nihonjin). I believe this is by design — because the politics of identity in Japan are all about “monoculturality and monoethnicity.” Given modern Japan’s emerging immigration and assimilation, this is a fiction. The official conflation of Japanese nationality and ethnicity is incorrect, yet our government refuses to collect data that would correct that.

The point is we cannot tell who is “Japanese” just by looking at them. This means that whenever distinctions are made between “foreigner” and “Japanese,” be it police racial profiling or “Japanese only” signs, some Japanese citizens will also be affected. Thus we need a law against racial discrimination in Japan — not only because it will help noncitizens assimilate into Japan, but also because it will protect Japanese against xenophobia, bigotry and exclusionism, against the discrimination that is “deep and profound” and “practiced undisturbed in Japan,” according to U.N. Rapporteur Doudou Diene in 2005 and 2006.

There are some differences in viewpoint between my esteemed colleagues here today and the people I am trying to speak for. Japan’s minorities as definable under the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), including Ainu, Ryukyuans, zainichi special-permanent- resident ethnic Koreans and Chinese, and burakumin, will speak to you as people who have been here for a long time — much longer than people like me, of course. Their claims are based upon time-honored and genuine grievances that have never been properly redressed. For ease of understanding, I will call them the “oldcomers.”

I will try to speak on behalf of the “newcomers,” i.e., people who came here relatively recently to make a life in Japan. Of course both oldcomers and newcomers contribute to Japanese society, in terms of taxes, service and culture, for example. But it is we newcomers who really need a Japanese law against racial discrimination, because we, the people who are seen because of our skin color as “foreigners,” are often singled out for our own variant of discriminatory treatment. Examples in brief:

1. Housing, accommodation

One barrier many newcomers face is finding an apartment. According to the Mainichi Shimbun (Jan. 8), on average in Tokyo it takes 15 visits to realtors for an NJ to find an apartment. Common experience — this is all we have because there is no government study of the problem — dictates that agents generally phrase the issue to landlords as, “The renter is a foreigner, is that OK?” This overt discrimination happens with impunity in Japan. One Osaka realtor even advertises apartments as “gaijin allowed,” a sales point at odds with the status quo. People who face discriminatory landlords can only take them to court. This means years, money for lawyers and court fees, and an uncertain outcome — when all you need is a place to live, now.

Another barrier is hotels. Lodgings are expressly forbidden by Hotel Management Law Article 5 to refuse customers unless rooms are full, there is a clear threat of contagious disease, or an issue of “public morals.” However, government surveys indicate that 27 percent of all Japanese hotels do not want foreign guests, period. Not to be outdone, Fukushima Prefecture Tourist Information advertised the fact that 318 of their member hotels refuse NJ. Thus even when a law technically forbids exclusionism, the government will not enforce it. On the contrary, official bodies will even promote excluders.

2. Racial profiling by police

Another rude awakening happens when NJ walk down the street. All NJ (but not citizens) must carry ID cards at all times or face possible criminal charges and incarceration. So Japanese police will target and stop people who “look foreign” in public, sometimes forcefully and rudely, and demand personal identification. This very alienating process of “carding” can happen when walking while white, cycling while foreign-looking, using public transportation while multiethnic, or waiting for arrivals at airports while colored. One person has apparently been “carded,” sometimes through physical force, more than 50 times in one year, and 125 times over 10 years.

Police justify this as a hunt for foreign criminals and visa over-stayers, or cite special security measures or campaigns. However, these “campaigns” are products of government policies depicting NJ as “terrorists, criminals and carriers of infectious diseases.” None of these things, of course, is contingent upon nationality. Moreover, since 2007, all noncitizens are fingerprinted every time they re-enter Japan. This includes newcomer PRs, going further than the US-VISIT program, which does not refingerprint Green Card holders. However, the worst example of bad social science is the National Research Institute of Police Science, which spends taxpayer money on researching “foreign DNA” for racial profiling at crime scenes.

In sum, Japan’s police see NJ as “foreign agents” in both senses of the word. They are systematically taking measures to deal with NJ as a social problem, not as fellow residents or immigrants.

3. Exclusion as ‘residents’

Japan’s registration system, meaning the current koseki family registry and juminhyo residency certificate systems, refuse to list NJ as “spouse” or “family member” because they are not citizens. Officially, NJ residing here are not registered as “residents” (jumin), even though they pay residency taxes (juminzei) like anyone else. Worse, some local governments (such as Tokyo’s Nerima Ward) do not even count NJ in their population tallies. This is the ultimate in invisibility, and it is government-sanctioned.

4. ‘Japanese only’ exclusion

With no law against racial discrimination, “No foreigners allowed” signs have appeared nationwide, at places such as stores, restaurants, hotels, public bathhouses, bars, discos, an eyeglass outlet, a ballet school, an Internet cafe, a billiards hall, a women’s boutique — even in publicity for a newspaper subscription service. Regardless, the government has said repeatedly to the U.N. that Japan does not need a racial discrimination law because of our effective judicial system. That is untrue.

For example, in the Otaru onsen case (1999-2005), where two NJ and one naturalized Japanese (myself) were excluded from a public bathhouse, judges refused to rule these exclusions were illegal due to racial discrimination. They called it “unrational discrimination.” Moreover, the judiciary refused to enforce relevant international treaty as law, or punish the negligent Otaru City government for ineffective measures against racial discrimination. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Furthermore, in 2006, an openly racist shopkeeper refused an African-American customer entry, yet the Osaka District Court ruled in favor of the owner! Japan needs a criminal law, with enforceable punishments, because the present judicial system will not fix this.

5. Unfettered hate speech

There is also the matter of the cyberbullying of minorities and prejudiced statements made by our politicians over the years. Other NGOs will talk more about the anti-Korean and anti-Chinese hate speech during the current debate about granting local suffrage rights to permanent residents.

I would instead like to briefly mention some media, such as the magazine “Underground Files of Crimes by Gaijin” (Gaijin Hanzai Ura Fairu (2007)) and “PR Suffrage will make Japan Disappear” (Gaikokujin Sanseiken de Nihon ga Nakunaru Hi (2010)). Both these books stretch their case to talk about an innate criminality or deviousness in the foreign element, and “Underground Files” even cites things that are not crimes, such as dating Japanese women. It also includes epithets like “nigger,” racist caricatures and ponderings on whether Korean pudenda smell like kimchi. This is hate speech. And it is not illegal in Japan. You could even find it on sale in convenience stores.


In light of all the above, the Japanese government’s stance towards the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is easily summarized: The Ainu, Ryukyuans and burakumin are citizens, therefore they don’t fall under the CERD because they are protected by the Japanese Constitution. However, the zainichis and newcomers are not citizens, therefore they don’t get protection from the CERD either. Thus, our government effectively argues, the CERD does not cover anyone in Japan.

Well, what about me? Or our children? Are there really no ethnic minorities with Japanese citizenship in Japan?

In conclusion, I would like to thank the U.N. for investigating our cases. On March 16, the CERD Committee issued some very welcome recommendations in its review. However, may I point out that the U.N. still made a glaring oversight.

During the committee’s questioning of Japan last Feb. 24 and 25, very little mention was made of the CERD’s “unenforcement” in Japan’s judiciary and criminal code. Furthermore, almost no mention was made of “Japanese only” signs, the most indefensible violations of the CERD.

Both Japan and the U.N. have a blind spot in how they perceive Japan’s minorities. Newcomers are never couched as residents of or immigrants to Japan, but rather as “foreign migrants.” The unconscious assumption seems to be that 1) foreign migrants have a temporary status in Japan, and 2) Japan has few ethnically diverse Japanese citizens.

Time for an update. Look at me. I am a Japanese. The government put me through a very rigorous and arbitrary test for naturalization, and I passed it. People like me are part of Japan’s future. When the U.N. makes their recommendations, please have them reflect how Japan must face up to its multicultural society. Please recognize us newcomers as a permanent part of the debate.

The Japanese government will not. It says little positive about us, and allows very nasty things to be said by our politicians, policymakers and police. It’s about time we all recognized the good that newcomers are doing for our home, Japan. Please help us.

Debito Arudou coauthored the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants.” Twitter arudoudebito. More on this meeting and photos at www.debito.org/?p=6256. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month