No. 5: Renho joins Kan’s Cabinet
Japanese politicians with international roots are few but not unprecedented. But Taiwanese- Japanese Diet member Renho’s ascension to the Cabinet as minister for administrative reforms has been historic. Requiring the bureaucrats to justify their budgets (famously asking last January, “Why must we aim to develop the world’s No. 1 supercomputer? What’s wrong with being No. 2?”), she has been Japan’s most vocal policy reformer.
Why this matters: Few reformers are brave enough to withstand the national sport of politician-bashing, especially when exceptionally cruel criticism began targeting Renho’s ethnic background. Far-rightist Diet member Takeo Hiranuma questioned her very loyalty by saying, “She’s not originally Japanese.” (Just Be Cause, Feb. 2) Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara expanded the focus by claiming people in the ruling coalition had foreign backgrounds, and were therefore selling Japan out as a “duty to their ancestors” ( JBC, May 4). Fortunately, it did not matter. In July’s elections, Renho garnered a record 1.7 million votes in her constituency, and retained her Cabinet post, regardless of her beliefs and roots.
No. 4: Apology for Korea annexation
After all the bad blood between these strikingly similar societies, Japan’s motion to be nice to South Korea was remarkably easy. No exploitable technicalities about the apology being unofficial, or merely the statements of an individual leader (as was seen in Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s apologies for war misdeeds, or Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono’s “statement” about “comfort women” — itself a euphemism for war crimes) — just a prime minister using the opportunity of an centennial to formally apologize for Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, backed up by a good-faith return of war spoils.
Why this matters: At a time when crime, terrorism and other social ills in Japan are hastily pinned on the outside world, these honest and earnest reckonings with history are essential for Japan to move on from a fascist past and strengthen ties with the neighbors. Every country has events in its history to be sorry for. Continuous downplaying — if not outright denial by nationalistic elites — of Japan’s conduct within its former empire will not foster improved relations and economic integration. This applies especially as Asia gets richer and needs Japan less, as witnessed through:
No. 3: Chinese tourist visas eased
Despite a year of bashing Chinese, the government brought in planeloads of them to revitalize our retail economy. Aiming for 10 million visitors this year, Japan lowered visa thresholds for individual Chinese to the point where they came in record numbers, spending, according to the People’s Daily, ¥160,000 per person in August.
Why this matters: Wealthy Chinese gadding about while Japan faced decreasing salaries caused some bellyaching. Our media (displaying amnesia about Bubble Japan’s behavior) kvetched that Chinese were patronizing Chinese businesses in Japan and keeping the money in-house (Yomiuri, May 25), weren’t spending enough on tourist destinations (Asahi, Jun. 16), were buying out Japanese companies and creating “Chapan” (Nikkei Business, Jun. 21), or were snapping up land and threatening Japan’s security (Japan Times, Dec. 18). The tone changed this autumn, however, when regional tensions flared, so along with the jingoism we had Japanese politicians flying to China to smooth things over and keep the consumers coming.
Let’s face it: Japan was once bigger than all the other Asian economies combined. But that was then — 2010 was also the year China surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. Japan can no longer ignore Asian investment. No nationalistic whining is going to change that.
No. 2: Suffrage hopes suffer setback
The ruling coalition sponsored a bill last year granting suffrage in local elections to NJ with permanent residency (Zeit Gist, Feb. 23) — an uncharacteristically xenophilic move for Japan. True to form, however, nationalists came out of the rice paddies to deafen the public with scare tactics (e.g., Japan would be invaded by Chinese, who would migrate to sparsely populated Japanese islands and vote to secede, etc.). They then linked non-Japanese (NJ) suffrage with other “fin-de-Japon” pet peeves, such as foreign crime, North Korean abductions of Japanese, dual nationality — even sex education.
Why this matters: The campaign resonated. Months after PR suffrage was moribund, xenophobes were still getting local governments to pass resolutions in opposition. Far-rightists used it as a political football in election campaigns to attract votes and portray the Democratic Party of Japan as inept.
They had a point: How could the DPJ sponsor such a controversial bill and not rally behind it as criticisms arose? Why were the xenophobes basically the only voice heard during the debate? This policy blunder will be a huge setback for future efforts to promote human rights for and integration of NJ residents.
No. 1: The ’09 drop in the non-Japanese population
For the first time in 48 years, the number of foreigners living in Japan went down. This could be a temporary blip due to the nikkei repatriation bribe of 2009-2010 (JBC, April 7, 2009), when the government offered goodbye money only to foreigners with Japanese blood. Since 1990, more than a million Brazilians and Peruvians of Japanese ancestry have come here on special visas to help keep Japan’s industries humming cheaply. Now tens of thousands are pocketing the bribe and going back, giving up their pensions and becoming somebody else’s unemployment statistic.
Why this matters: NJ numbers will eventually rise again, but the fact that they are going down for the first time in generations is disastrous. For this doesn’t just affect NJ — it affects everyone in Japan. A decade ago, both the U.N. and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi stated that Japan needs 600,000 NJ a year net influx just to maintain its taxpayer base and current standard of living. Yet a decade later, things are going in exactly the opposite way.
It should be no surprise: Japan has become markedly unfriendly these past 10 years. Rampant and unbalanced NJ-bashing have shifted Japanese society’s image of foreigner from “misunderstood guest and outsider” to “social bane and criminal.” Why would anyone want to move here and make a life under these conditions?
Japan’s economic vitality depends on demographics. Yet the only thing that can save Japan — a clear and fair policy towards immigration — is taboo for discussion (JBC, Nov. 3, 2009J).
Let’s hope Japan next decade comes to its senses, figuring out not only how to make life here more attractive for NJ, but also how to make foreigners into Japanese.
Bubbling under in 2010: Oita High Court rules that NJ have no automatic right to welfare benefits; pressure builds on Japan to sign the Hague Convention on Child Abduction; Tokyo police spy on Muslims and fumble their secret files to publishers; America’s geopolitical bullying of Japan over Okinawa’s Futenma military base undermines the Hatoyama administration (JBC, June 1); Ibaraki Detention Center hunger strikers, and the Suraj Case of a person dying during deportation, raise questions about Immigration Bureau procedure and accountability.
Illustration by Chris MacKenzie.
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