Tweak the immigration debate and demand an upgrade to denizen class


Crucial to any public discussion is defining the terms of debate. However, often those terms must be redefined later because they don’t reflect reality.

One example is Japan’s concept of “foreigner,” because the related terminology is confusing and provides pretenses for exclusionism.

In terms of strict legal status, if you’re not a citizen you’re a “foreigner” (gaikokujin), right? But not all gaikokujin are the same in terms of acculturation or length of stay in Japan. A tourist “fresh off the boat” has little in common with a noncitizen with a Japanese family, property and permanent residency. Yet into the gaikokujin box they all go.

The lack of terms that properly differentiate or allow for upgrades has negative consequences. A long-termer frequently gets depicted in public discourse as a sojourner, not “at home” in Japan.

Granted, there are specialized terms for visa statuses, such as eijūsha (permanent resident) and tokubetsu eijūsha (special permanent resident, for the zainichi Korean and Chinese generational “foreigners”). But they rarely appear in common parlance, since the public is generally unaware of visa regimes (many people don’t even know foreigners must carry “gaijin cards”!).

Public debate about Japan’s foreign population must take into account their degree of assimilation. So this column will try to popularize a concept introduced in the 1990s that remains mired in migration studies jargon: denizen.

“Denizenship,” as discussed by Tomas Hammar of Stockholm University, is a mid-step between migrant and immigrant, foreigner and citizen — a “quasi-citizenship.” In his 1990 book “Democracy and the Nation State,” Hammar talks about three “entrance gates” for migrants to become citizens: 1) admission to the country, 2) permanent residency, and 3) acquisition of full citizenship.

Denizens have passed the second gate, having become resident aliens who have been granted extensive civil and social citizenship rights — including national and/or local suffrage in some countries.

Although denizens lack the full political rights of a citizen, scholars of international migration note that countries are increasingly giving denizens faster tracks to full citizenship, including relaxation of blood-based nationality (e.g., in Sweden, Holland, Switzerland and Germany), official guidance in naturalization procedures after obtaining permanent residency (e.g., United States), greater tolerance for dual citizenship (e.g., Mexico) and some electoral rights (e.g., European Union).

A similar discussion on denizenship has taken place in Japanese academia, thanks to Atsushi Kondo (1996), Chikako Kashiwazaki (2000) and Akihiro Asakawa (2007) et al., all of whom rendered the term in katakana as denizun, translating it as eijū shimin (permanent “citizens,” so to speak).

Perhaps this will come as no surprise, but their extensive research highlighted the comparatively closed nature of Japanese immigration policy. Japan has been an outlier in terms of citizenship rules, going against the trend seen in other advanced democracies to enfranchise denizens.

For example, Japan has an intolerance of dual nationality, high hurdles for achieving permanent residency, arbitrary and discretionary rules for obtaining full citizenship, few refugees, and strict “family” blood-based citizenship without exception for future generations of denizens (which is why Japan is still home to hundreds of thousands of zainichi “foreigners” 60 years after their ancestors were stripped of Japanese citizenship).

Essentially, Japan does not recognize denizenship. This was underscored during recent debates on granting local suffrage rights to permanent residents (gaikokujin sanseiken). Opposition politicians stated clearly: If foreigners want the right to vote, they should naturalize.

Sadly, steps to humanize the debate, by incorporating the perspectives of long-term residents themselves, were not taken, creating a tautology of disenfranchisement. The antireformers eventually won the debate, retrenching the binary between “foreigner” and “citizen” and obscuring the gray zones of long-term residency.

There are long-standing systemic issues behind this entrenchment. As Kashiwazaki notes: “The system of naturalization is not designed to transform foreign nationals promptly into Japanese nationals. Restriction on naturalization corresponds to the government’s stance on border control, namely that Japan does not admit immigration for the purpose of permanent settlement.”

As discussed on these pages numerous times, the fire wall keeping foreigners from ever becoming settlers is maintained by Japan’s revolving-door visa regimes, strict punishments for even slight administrative infractions that “reset the visa clock,” and a permanent “police the foreigners” credo from a Justice Ministry not configured for immigration or integration.

This has a long history. As Japan’s “Immigration Bureau” has argued repeatedly after it designed the postwar rules on any foreign influx (here in 1959): “Since Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, policies of controlling both population growth and immigration are strongly called for. It should therefore be a government policy to severely restrict the entry of foreigners into Japan. Particularly because there are undesirable foreigners who would threaten the lives of Japanese nationals by criminal activity and immoral conduct.”

After a high water mark of “internationalization” in the 1990s, Japan’s conservatives in the 2000s (backed up by periodic official “foreign crime” and “visa overstayer” campaigns to scare the public) managed to stem the tide of liberalization seen in other advanced democracies, turning Japan into an immigration Galapagos increasingly reactionary towards outsiders — even as demographics force Japan’s decline.

Like the people it represents, denizenship as a concept remains invisible within Japan’s public discourse, oblivious to how foreigners actually live in Japan. Categorically, people are either gaikokujin or nihonjin. Rarely if ever are the former termed eijūsha, eijū shimin, imin or ijūsha (immigrants).

Let’s tweak the terms of debate. If you’re planning on living in Japan indefinitely, I suggest you get your neighbors warmed up to the fact that you as a non-Japanese (let’s at least avoid the dislocated, transient trappings of the generic word “foreigner”) are not merely gaikokujin. You are jūmin (residents). And as of 2012, most of you now have a jūminhyō (residency certificate) to prove it.

Then spread the word through the grass roots, such as they are. Upgrade your status and mollify the binary. Or else you’ll just be stuck in a rhetorical limbo as something temporary and in transit. Not good for you, not good for Japan.

Debito’s most recent publication is “Japan’s Rightward Swing and the Tottori Prefecture Human Rights Ordinance” in The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus (japanfocus.org/site/view/3907) Twitter: @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Pages of the month. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Mints

    Japan does recognize denizenship by granting permanent residency. Unfortunately suffrage rights are not included, but how uncommon is that? Arudou mentions “some countries” grant suffrage, but doesn’t say how many and provides no examples. His criticism of Japan would be much more convincing if he offered comparative data, especially from countries with similar backgrounds and immigration issues (like say, South Korea and Italy).

    I wonder how connected Arudou is to public debate and “common parlance” in Japan. Is it really true that Japanese don’t take into account the degree of assimilation of non-Japanese here? Generally they make the distinction based on language fluency. And compared to other countries, a remarkable number of foreigners (mostly English speakers) lack fluency despite living here for years. Learning the language, not grassroots activism, is the first step to “upgrade your status.”

    Incidentally, language fluency is not even a requirement for permanent residency in Japan, unlike in Germany, for instance. In fact, the hurdles for
    acquiring permanent residency here are not as high as many people think.

  • Masa Chekov

    Why should Japan tolerate dual nationality? I can understand there being an issue for a child of an international relationship – one parent is Japanese and the other is not – but in that case the child is allowed dual citizenship until adulthood anyway, which seems reasonable enough.

    But for immigrants to Japan? I don’t understand this at all. If you want to become Japanese, become Japanese. The barrier to entry is actually quite low. But if you want to be Japanese and something else, well, perhaps you should just stick to permanent residency then.

    Wanting to keep your old citizenship sounds like an insurance policy for buyer’s remorse. Well, too bad. One should consider the full consequences of a decision to naturalize before doing so.

  • FightBack

    First off, congratulations to Debito for once again showing us the way forward in these dangerous times for NJ. Gaining a residency certificate is just another small step towards emancipation and I’m guessing it’s in no small part due to the continuing efforts of Debito’s struggle for our rights.

    Now that we have this certificate we need to make the Japanese public aware. Poster campaigns, even t-shirts with the residency certificate printed on them, these have all shown themselves to be effective at getting the message across. We are denizens, not tourists, and we deserve to be recognized as such.

  • Nanagoro

    ”many people don’t even know foreigners must carry “gaijin cards”!

    Does anyone carry such cards these days?

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    Once again Arudou is attempting to influence a debate by introducing his beliefs as facts.

    Of the four countries he cites as relaxing the Jus Sanguinus requirement for citizenship, only Germany has actually done so. A child born in Germany to a foreigner with permanent resident status does acquire provisional German citizenship at birth – but they must apply to keep it before they turn 23 or they will lose it. Sweden and Switzerland only recognize children born to their own nationals as citizens, and Holland will only recognize the child of a resident foreigner as a citizen from birth if in turn at least one of the parents’ parents was also born in Holland or a Dutch territory.

    For all of Arudou’s talk about strict “blood-based” citizenship, it is interesting that he skips over the bit about how he, a white born and raised in America, is a Japanese citizen, and any children he sires in the future, regardless of the nationality or ethnicity of his wife, would automatically be Japanese nationals from birth! As were any Zainichi Koreans or Chinese with a Japanese parent. In fact, Japan refused to divest North Koreans with a Japanese parent of their Japanese citizenship, as to do so would (from Japan’s point of view) render them stateless (Japan does not recognize the DPRK).

    The reason why Japan still has Zainichi Koreans and Chinese 60+ years after divesting them of their Japanese citizenship has less to do with Japan’s laws concerning nationality and naturalization and a lot more to do with the fact the Koreans and to a much lesser extent the Chinese refuse to accept Japanese citizenship – in part because they cling even more stubbornly to ideas of “blood-based nationality” than Arudou thinks the Japanese do.

    Arudou also trots out the old “well the EU gives local voting rights to foreigners” distraction again, while ignoring the bit about (most) States in the EU giving local voting rights only to permanent resident EU citizens. This is not giving voting rights to “foreigners”, it is giving voting rights to fellow citizens from the same political entity, with the giving of those rights being a precondition for admittance of a State to the EU.

    Further, if Arudou thinks the hurdles for permanent residency or naturalization are “high” or “aribitrary”, then he clearly knows little if anything about the process elsewhere, including his land of birth and current residence. Compared to a great many countries, obtaining permanent residency or citizenship is a cakewalk in Japan. Lots of paperwork, certainly, but not particularly onerous. Likewise, find me a country, any country, where the citizens refer to the foreigners in their midst in such nuanced terms as “that nice fellow with indefinite leave to remain” (note not “Permanent”, just “indefinite”!) or “our neighbor the green-card holder”. They are “foreigners”.

    And didn’t Mr. Arudou write a long piece about how gaijin/gaikokujin is the same as the N-word? Why does this middle-aged Japanese man still insist on referring to us by the “N-word” then?

    Finally, can someone tell me what on Earth “mollify the binary” is supposed to mean? Mr. Arudou, return that thesaurus to the library, please, you clearly don’t know how to use it.

  • qwerty

    Some NJ are grateful just to be in this magical land and gladly accept the terms and conditions. Others want a better deal. It probably depends on where or what they came from.

  • Al

    Many countries and their people are “Dreaming” about such restrictive immigration politics which Japan do.

    For example the Russia – largest surface territory country on the planet Earth (even after USSR collapse – in fact Russia now is in borders of Brest’s Peace treaty after First World War – the humiliating pact when it’s lost thousands kilometers of western territories – and even with all of this it’s got the 1st place today).

    Russia have enormous immigration flow from Central Asia region which uses the union treaty signed in 1990’s which makes literally no borders between Russia and Central Asia – it is former soviet republics, but they are independent at the same time, mostly muslims with very big populations. The other immigration danger is of course the biggest neighbor – China. The border between Russia and China closed, only tourists visas – but it’s not stopping the thousands of chinese citizens to cross the border even by making the fake documents. Russia is really very afraid of chinese people expansion – so all attempts to make the compact “china towns” on russian territory are prevented by authorities. Special law signed by president Medvedev forbids of selling the land for foreigners in all russian near-border regions.

    Maybe 5 years ago, but China lost it’s main outpost in Russia – Cherkizone (Cherkizovsky market) – the gigantic enormous market which itself by the size was like a city with underground tunnels and warehouses. It was in the russian capital – Moscow, built by turkish oligarch from the start (i doubt that Beijing authorities will agree to place the same awful “thing” in their capital). It was the dirtiest and disgusting place with very bad reputation, their own local laws and local language and pure criminal – chinese build there their own hidden banking system connected with mainland China by couriers which was so secretive that noone even today know it’s size but the closing only one hidden office of that banking system revealed the gigantic cash piles – all transactions was made manually by secretive cash couriers through the borders. This whole dirty market dump was destroyed by authorities, even the chinese officials make a diplomatic note after that.

    The latest news – Unprecedented on the Global scale.
    The Tajikistan muslim republic from Central Asia (it’s near Afghanistan and main cross country of narcotics trafficking) officially requests Russia to Allow their citizens which was already officially deported from Russia for violating the immigration law with 5 year penalty to enter again – to cross the border. This is unbelievable. Can you imagine that some country will asks your country to allow their criminal citizens (which already violated law in your country) to Forgive them and enter again? This is first time something like this on international scale. And it’s serious – the number of non-grata (no enter) Tajikistan’s citizens which they are talking about is 400 000 (yeah, thousands) – near the half of million people.

    More than a half of people in Russia wants to close the border with Central Asia because of illegal immigration of muslim populations and heroin-trafficking problem from Afghanistan (in fact after western forces enters it – the heroin production only increased).

  • Samuraijamie

    I had a bizarre experience at the immigration office last year. I changed my visa status from Specialist in Humanities and International Relations, to Spouse of a Japanese National. However, I had 2.5 years of 3 remaining on the former visa, but I only received a 1 year spouse visa back. I objected saying that this was absurd – they were prepared to give me a 3 year visa to an unmarried foreigner, but when I got married to a Japanese they cut this to 1 year. I questioned this and to their credit they recognised the absurdity, but said that was the Rules. However, what was even weirder was the Immigration Officer in an attempt to placate me assured me that my new visa, although shorter, gave me a “higher status”. I was speechless. Do we acquire status through our visas? Is one foreigner higher than another on the basis of the wording of the stamp in their passport? If so, what is the pecking order? All I could see when I looked at the visa was the renewal date and that instead of having 2.5 years without having to go back to the hellhole that is Shinagawa Immigration Bureau, I now had to return within 12 months to repeat the process.