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Humanize the dry debate about immigration

by

Special To The Japan Times

Japan’s pundits are at it again: debating what to do about the sinking demographic ship. With the low birthrate, aging and shrinking society (we dropped below 127 million this year) and top-heavy social security system, Japan’s structural problems will by many accounts spell national insolvency.

However, we’re hearing the same old sky pies: proposals to plug the gaps with more Japanese babies, higher retirement ages, more empowered women in the workplace — even tax money thrown at matchmaking services!

And yet they still won’t work. Policymakers are working backwards from conclusions and not addressing the structural problems, e.g., that people are deserting the depopulating countryside for urban opportunities in an overly centralized governmental system, marrying later (if at all) and finding children too expensive or cumbersome for cramped living spaces, having both spouses work just to stay afloat, and feeling perpetual disappointment over a lack of control over their lives. And all thanks to a sequestered ruling political and bureaucratic elite whose basic training is in status-quo maintenance, not problem-solving for people they share nothing in common with.

Of course, proposals have resurfaced about letting in more non-Japanese (NJ) to work. After all, we have that time-sensitive 2020 Tokyo Olympics infrastructure to build — oh, and a Tohoku to reconstruct someday. And no self-respecting white-collar Taro wants those 3K (kitsui, kitanai and kiken — difficult, dirty and dangerous) jobs. Never mind that policymakers have rarely cared about the NJ already here investing their lives in Japan, long discouraged from settling via revolving-door visa regimes, and even bribed to leave in 2009.

So, come back! All is forgiven!

Predictably, the Shinzo Abe administration recently announced the expansion of the “trainee” program. You know, that exploitative, abusive and unmonitored system that has imported NJ since 1990, free from the protections of labor law? The one that causes dozens of NJ deaths from overwork and other “unknown causes” every year, and keeps many in conditions of virtual slavery? Despite a decade of criticisms from human-rights groups, parliamentarians and the United Nations, these three-year visas have been lengthened by two more so we can exploit them longer.

And then, a previously taboo word entered the discussion: imin (immigration). It made such an impact that prominent debate magazine Sapio made it June’s cover story. Michael Hoffman reviewed this spread in the JT in his Big In Japan column on May 24, “Will Japan be a country that welcomes all?”

Great. But I’ll answer Michael’s question right now: no — and not just for an obvious reason like Japan’s innate mistrust of outsiders. We also have a structural problem with how the concept of imin is being framed. It goes beyond constant othering and alienation: NJ aren’t even being seen as people.

Last time this debate came up, I lambasted the government for shutting NJ long-termers out of the deliberation councils drafting policies affecting them. I also mentioned how policymakers avoided the word imin.

So now imin has been formally broached — albeit while being stigmatized: The person in charge of the Immigration Bureau, Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, immediately said NJ would present “adverse effects on security.” (Note to ad agencies: Don’t hire Tanigaki to sell your product.)

But imin has also been dehumanized. Look up “immigrant” in an English-Japanese dictionary and you get words such as ijūmin, ijūsha, imin rōdōsha and, oddly, mitsunyūkokusha and fuhō nyūkokusha (illegal immigrant). But these aren’t immigrants: These are migrants, here temporarily, as properly translated by domestic NGOs looking out for NJ interests, such as the Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan (Iju Rodosha to Rentai Suru Network).

The word for “immigration,” meaning something permanent, is imin — denoted on the Denshi Jisho dictionary site as a “sensitive” word (of course; that’s why the government avoided using it for so long).

But we still have no word for an immigrant as an individual person, such as iminsha, with its own honorific sha — in the same vein as ijūsha (migrant), rōdōsha (laborer), teijūsha (settler, usually a Nikkei South American), zairyūsha (temporary resident), eijūsha (permanent resident) and even (in a few government documents) kikasha (naturalized citizen).

It’s just the clipped imin. That means nobody gets to claim “I am an immigrant” in Japan. (Try it: “Watashi wa imin desu” sounds funny.) And this in turn means immigration remains a strictly statistical animal. Lost in this narrative is the idea that when we import labor, we import people. With lives. And needs. And voices to be heard.

This kind of framing damages the debate by taking away the immigrant’s voice. Take that Sapio special: From the very cover, you’ll notice that not one visible minority is featured among the talking heads. Almost all those speechifying inside are elite Japanese (including former Tokyo governor and professional bigot Shintaro Ishihara, which already signals where things are headed): the same old pundits defending their ideological camps with no real new ideas.

But more indicative of the framing of the debate is the main photo on Sapio’s cover: a hate-speech rally showing anti-Korean demonstrators vs. anti-racism counterdemonstrators. (A smaller inset photo shows South Americans at a labor-union rally. Their faces are visible, unlike those in the larger photo, which were blurred out to protect people’s privacy. More evidence of powerlessness: Apparently NJ aren’t people with privacy concerns.)

Hang on: An anti-Korean rally is not an issue of immigration; it’s got more to do with Japan’s unresolved historical issues with its neighbors.

If you define “immigrants” as NJ who have moved to Japan and made a life here as long-term residents (if not regular permanent residents, or ippan eijūsha) — i.e., the “Newcomers” — that’s a different group than the one being demonstrated against.

Being targeted instead are the “Oldcomers” — the Zainichi Korean and Chinese special permanent residents (tokubetsu eijūsha), descendants of former citizens of empire who have been living in and contributing to Japan for generations. The Oldcomers are not the “immigrants” in question — and from this blind spot, the debate goes askew.

Sapio’s editorial on discrimination towards NJ (pages 20-21) not only neglects to mention any examples of discrimination against Japan’s Newcomers; it also crosses its analytical wires by citing the Urawa Reds “Japanese only” exclusionary banner at Saitama Stadium last March as hate speech against the Oldcomers.

Hang on again: That “Japanese only” banner would not have affected the Zainichis. “Japanese only” is a narrative targeting Japan’s visible minorities, i.e., those who don’t “look Japanese” enough to pass an exclusionary manager’s scrutiny. Naturally, after several generations here, Zainichi can quietly enter a “Japanese only” zone without drawing hairy eyeballs. And while the historical wrongs done to the Zainichi in Japan are very worthy of discussion, they should not suck the oxygen out of the debate on immigrants.

But I believe this is by design: By entangling the debate in the same old Zainichi issues, the xenophobes can derail it with the same old paranoid fears about granting rights to potentially subversive North Korean and Chinese residents. This makes the true iminsha not only voiceless but invisible.

That’s exactly what the xenophobes want. A common theme in rightist writings is “more foreigners means less Japan,” and admitting more visible minorities (which inevitably happens when you import people) will always bring forth that tension. Best to just argue as if they don’t exist.

So what to do? Be Gandalf and say “That shall not pass!” Just as the Urawa Reds fans’ “Japanese only” banner forced the domestic media in March to finally admit that racial discrimination happens in Japan, we must force the nation’s elites to reframe the concept of immigration and humanize the immigrants behind the statistics. Allow the public to see a way to welcome Newcomers not only as individuals, but also as long-termers, immigrants and, ultimately, as citizens with the same rights and obligations as every other Japanese. The elites will resist this, because the economic incentives are clear: The more powerless and invisible you keep NJ, the easier it is to exploit them.

So, if you want to finally address one of Japan’s structural problems, start by popularizing the word iminsha. Let regular folk with regular lives attach that term to an NJ neighbor they know. Then give them a voice.

Otherwise, it’s same old debate, same old (and getting older) Japan.

Debito Arudou received his Ph.D. from Meiji Gakuin University in International Studies in April. Twitter: @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Thursday of the month. Your comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • phu

    There is no reporting here on anything except the author’s (consistent but impotent and increasingly incoherent) anger.

    Arudou cites himself three times, yet lines like “dozens of NJ deaths from overwork and other “unknown causes” every year,” which actually do warrant citation, receive none. No other actual citations are made. Two other articles are referenced; one, though, is another Japan Times opinion piece, and the other is a tangentially related example (the author’s only one) of the his latest pet peeve.

    A large part of this also revolves around what appears to be the author’s own skewing and misinterpretation of said article:

    “The Oldcomers are not the “immigrants” in question — and from this blind spot, the debate goes askew.”

    Considering the amount of space dedicated to the problems with the article he’s discussing, I can’t help but conclude that it simply was not written in the context of “the debate” Arudou refers to. He sees something about immigrants and immediately assumes that it is specifically about people in his situation (and, if it’s not, then it should be).

    It’s fairly amusing that the conclusion here is that if you don’t label something, no one will care about it (and, somehow, that giving something a label makes it suddenly real and relevant). Even assuming the author does in fact understand Japanese language well enough to draw his linguistic conclusions (he’s not a scholar of Japanese, nor does he cite or even mention any), the insistence on having a standardized term ignores the fact that such labels invite connotation and prejudice more than acceptance. At best they will do absolutely nothing to change perceptions of immigrants; at worst they’ll simply become the next evolution of the term “gaijin,” with the same uses and abuses. Sorry — “microaggressions.”

    The most (only?) insightful comment here relates to a picture of South Americans at a labor rally and the fact that their faces are not obfuscated the way Japanese faces are in the same publication. That in itself could be a great start to a treatment of racism in the context of Japanese media. Unfortunately, it’s relegated to a parenthetical comment, after which the article rambles on in less coherent directions.

    Another quizzically meandering issue of Arudou’s Monthly Immigration Soapbox.

    • blondein_tokyo

      Yes, because one must consult a linguist in order to make the claim that a word does not exist in a language. Which is why I can use words like “lsiethjrexuey” and you can’t tell me it’s not real.

    • ScottyP

      I too felt that the most pointed comment of the piece was that of the faces of the South Americans not being blurred to protect their privacy. And, I agree wholeheartedly that reducing it to a parenthetical aside was an unfortunate decision by the author.

    • Steve Jackman

      Instead of nitpicking and splitting hairs, I suggest you try to look at the bigger picture and the main thrust of Debito’s article. Ever heard of the phrase, “failing to see the forest for the trees”?

    • Steve Jackman

      Your Nihonjinron theories about how someone like Debito, who is a Japanese citizen but not of Japanese blood, cannot be expected to have enough Japanese proficiency or cultural understanding to write about this topic have been thoroughly discredited. Since you are so big on citations, I suggest you read the just published article in Bloomberg Businessweek, titled, “Japan’s Incredible Shrinking Empire”.

      The article talks about Japan as a jus sanguinis (right of blood) country, and starts out as follows:

      “In 1985, as a supercharged Japanese economy awed and unnerved Western business executives, Tadanobu Tsunoda published a book called The Japanese Brain. An audiologist at Tokyo Medical and Dental University, Tsunoda developed tests with an auditory feedback device in which subjects responded to cues heard through headsets by tapping a key. He used experiments with alternating and delayed sounds to analyze brain activity and concluded that the Japanese rely more on their left cerebral hemisphere to interpret language compared with foreigners. He also believed this finding explained the unique characteristics of the Japanese language—and even the emotions and thinking patterns of the Japanese people.

      Tsunoda’s work elicited skepticism abroad and fascination at home—as did an array of anthropological, sociological, linguistic, and pop psychology works stretching back decades, a genre known as nihonjinron, or the theory of Japaneseness. In the early 1970s, University of Tokyo anthropologist Chie Nakane and psychoanalyst Takeo Doi, in separate works, noted that their fellow citizens naturally sought out authority figures for guidance and approval in contrast with more individualistic Westerners. Other writers touted Japan’s homogeneity in race, language, and culture as unique strengths. In 1989 the novelist and archconservative Shintaro Ishihara (who would become governor of Tokyo) and Sony (SNE) co-founder Akio Morita, in The Japan That Can Say No, wrote triumphantly about the superiority of the nation’s culture as reflected in its technology and collaborative business practices.

      With a more than two-decade run of subpar growth since 1992, including five recessions, Japan is nobody’s idea of an economic exemplar. Yet the nihonjinron industry lives on (The Japanese Brain is in its 40th printing) and assumed darker hues during the country’s fallow period. One of the hottest trends in Japanese publishing is the kenchu-zokan (works critical of China and South Korea) paperback, several of which have been best-sellers in 2014. A manga series called Kenkanryu (or The Hate Korea Wave) has sold more than a million copies since its launch in 2005.

    • Steve Jackman

      You have heavily criticized Debito’s take in his article about how to improve the situation for immigrants in Japan while at the same time helping the country confront its demographic problems, but you have failed to present any alternate viewpoints about how to address this issue. The fact remains that Japan has significant demographic and economic problems, so successful integration of immigrants into Japanese society can have a very positive impact on the country.

      In a recent article by Brian Bremner in Bloomberg Businessweek, titled “Japan’s Incredible Shrinking Empire”, dated June 5, 2014, the author presents a very convincing case for the Japanese to change their close minded attitude towards immigrants. It debunks the nihonjinron, or the theory of Japaneseness, arguments about Japanese uniqueness and superiority. It also addresses Japan’s belief in the “unique characteristics of the Japanese language—and even the emotions and thinking patterns of the Japanese people”, its “epic hubris”, “unbridled xenophobia” and “Japan’s brand of cultural bigheadedness” (these are their words, not mine).

      Japan is simultaneously aging and shrinking. Non-Japanese make up less than 2 percent of the Japan’s population, which is one of the lowest among developed countries. You can criticize Debito and his article all you want, but in the end you are doing Japan a disservice by trying to derail and stifle a constructive discussion of this serious issue facing Japan.

  • minami

    imin can refer to an individual, the same as kokumin, shimin, and other “min”s do. Please don’t post baseless nonsense when you don’t know. Describing “sha” as an honorific is also laughable.

  • Ron NJ

    The person in charge of the Immigration Bureau, Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, immediately said NJ would present “adverse effects on security.”

    Dear Tanigaki: according to the NPA’s own data, we’re less likely to commit crimes than your own citizens are. Fact. End of story. Get over it.

    (Source: http://www.npa.go.jp/english/seisaku/Crime_in_Japan_in_2010.pdf )

  • TLD_0819

    First three paragraphs were written and thought out well…kind of slid off the rails after that.

    I’d honestly like to see this side of Japan that you write about. In my 12 years here, I have experienced none of these problems. Is it an English teacher thing? Is it a particular part of Japan? If someone could tell me where I can see an example I’d really appreciate it.

  • phu

    Certainly. It’s not my intention to downplay the issue itself; I think it’s important and should be discussed and addressed. However, this article (and pretty much everything Arudou writes) fails to address the problem in any useful manner and does not contribute to useful discussion. This author’s main contribution for years has been making it easier for gaijin to be dismissed as irrational and strident.

  • Mike Wyckoff

    I got to the 7th paragraph before the Japan hating became too much.

  • Roan Suda

    The notion that one can change reality by fiddling with words is a common human failing, made worse by modern relativistic/nihilistic ideologies. Going into a tizzy over “discriminatory” language has now become a familiar racket on US college campuses, Mr. Arudou (oops, Dr. Arudou) having himself become a compulsive practitioner of the dubious art. Why the Japan Times goes on publishing this sort of glop escapes me, though I suppose there must be a market for it among those Occidental expats who need the fires of their resentment and paranoia stoked.

    Arudou-san endlessly reminds everyone that he is “Japanese,” but he strikes me as so thoroughly American that he is quite incapable of understanding or appreciating any culture other than the one in which he grew up. I am no relativist, trying to excuse racial or ethnic discrimination, but the fact is that varying historical and social circumstances make for varying responses to the question of immigration. It’s not just a matter of being “open and fair” vs. being “mean and xenophobic.”

    Not to put too fine a point on it, Arudou-san’s native land has lost control of both its borders and its national heritage. Much of Europe is now facing a similar mess. I don’t want to see Japan make the same mistake, esp. not under pressure from loud-mouthed demagogues like Immigrant Arudou.

    As for the linguistic matter, Arodou-san’s Japanese is relatively fluent, though, not surprisingly, not as good as he seems to think it is. (If he seriously thinks that -sha is an honorific, how does he account for yōgisha ‘suspect’, itansha ‘heretic’, and inoshishi-musha ‘foolhardy [wild boar] samurai’, the latter being a good description of a certain social commentator.)

    Unlike the rather rigorous citizenship test that at least used to be in place in America, Japan’s requirements are remarkably lax. The bottom line is whether one appears to be relatively productive and relatively innocuous. (Of course, sometimes the authorities make mistakes…) Generally, one has to be able to speak Japanese well enough to get through an interview, but an essay written in one’s own scrawl is not exactly what anyone would call a great linguistic hurdle.

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  • Fayt Strife

    Exactly the KKK is still around but they are basically like Westboro just a small group of hate filled people/ The Nation of Islam is basically dead. Go to any random African American neighborhood in the US and see how many people are in the Nation of Islam you wont find many. Out of 50,000 you might find 30 or 40 people.

  • Gordon Graham

    ALTs have considerably lower salaries than Japanese English teachers as very few of them have a teacher’s license issued in Japan. This disparity in income often results in animosity and resentment, and interpreted as racist.

  • Gordon Graham

    20 hour workdays! Wow! When do they sleep!