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Time to act on insights from landmark survey of Japan’s foreign residents

by

Special To The Japan Times

As promised, in March the Justice Ministry released the results of a survey of Japan’s foreign residents (gaikokujin jūmin chōsa) conducted last year (see “Government, Survey Thyself,” JBC, March 5). Compiled by the Center for Human Rights Education and Training public-interest foundation, it surveyed the types and degrees of discrimination that foreign residents face here. (The report in Japanese is at www.moj.go.jp/content/001221782.pdf.)

And, as promised, here’s JBC’s synopsis of those results:

The report opens with a statement of purpose, talking about the pressures to “live together” (kyōsei) with non-Japanese due to internationalization and globalization, not to mention the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Record numbers of foreign nationals are crossing Japan’s borders, bringing with them different languages and customs, and “so-called” hate speech demos are also causing “numerous human rights problems.”

So to lay the groundwork for human rights protections for foreign nationals, this survey would grasp the issues directly facing noncitizens “staying” (zairyū) in Japan. To its credit, it also mentioned “foreign nationals who come to Japan to live” (ijū).

The survey was conducted by a board of academics from prominent universities, experts in the fields of sociology, statistics, international human rights law and anthropology. They met six times over the past year to discuss overall goals, the wording of questions, the interpretation of results, and strategies for reporting.

Conclusion: Due diligence was done beyond the bureaucrats this time. (Contrast with “In formulating immigration policy, no seat at the table for NJ,” JBC, July 3, 2012.)

Who took the survey?

Exactly 18,500 foreign residents nationwide were sent surveys in 14 different languages, in bundles of 500 for each of 37 municipal areas. A total of 4,252 responses were received, a rate of 23 percent. The highest response rate was from Sapporo (kudos to my hometown!) with 33 percent, the lowest Tokyo’s Minato Ward (with the country’s highest concentration of embassies and non-Japanese on expat packages) with 15.4 percent.

Of respondents who indicated their backgrounds, more women (57.1 percent) replied than men (41.7 percent), and about half were aged in their 20s and 30s. More than half were either Chinese (32.5 percent) or South Koreans (22.1 percent), with Filipinos, Brazilians and Vietnamese filling out the top five.

Nearly a third (30.4 percent) were regular permanent residents (i.e., “newcomers,” the equivalent of U.S. immigrant green card holders), followed by special permanent residents (the “oldcomer” generational Zainichi) at 17.6 percent, and the long-term residents (the Nikkei South American “returnees”) at 9 percent. Nearly 40 percent, however, were every other kind of visa, meaning shorter-term residents (between three months and five years, including those on spousal visas). The report notes that as a proportion of the overall foreign population, response rates were higher from oldcomers and Nikkei, lower from newcomers and others.

In terms of their life status in Japan, respondents were mostly employed or going to school (77.7 percent), and about the same proportion (75.4 percent) were or had been married/partnered, mainly to Japanese. A full 19 percent were born in Japan, and 10.7 percent have lived in Japan their entire lives. The highest number of responses was from people who had lived in Japan three to 10 years (21.8 percent), followed by 10 to 19 years (20.4 percent) and 20 to 29 years (13.2 percent). Thus the majority of respondents were “lifers.”

In terms of (self-assessed) conversational Japanese language level, nearly a third (29.1 percent) said they spoke at a native Japanese level, while the overwhelming majority (82.2 percent) indicated that they had no issues with work- or lifestyle-level communication. Nearly three-quarters — 73.7 percent — indicated they communicated almost entirely in Japanese in their workplace or school (conversely, only 2.1 percent almost never used Japanese there), indicating a high level of fluency among respondents.

In sum, the survey covered thousands of foreign residents from all over Japan, mostly of Asian nationalities, who have lived here a long time, with stable lifestyles, long-term visas and excellent Japanese skills. They know Japan well, and if discrimination happens to them, their testimonials should be taken as indicative.

Housing discrimination

First up was housing rentals, where many foreign residents first experience “Japanese only” exclusionism.

Nearly half the people surveyed indicated they had looked for housing within the past five years. More than a third of those (39.3 percent) said they were refused entry for being foreign; 41.2 percent said they were refused due to the lack of a guarantor (which generally only comes through family or an employer); and more than a quarter (26.8 percent) said they saw properties with “no foreigners” clearly written, so they gave up.

It is fortunate that these are not majority experiences. But this is not an insignificant minority experience either: Between 1 in 4 and 1 in 2 foreign residents face some kind of barrier to the most basic of human needs — a place for shelter and rest.

Further, these statistics may be underestimates, for the following reasons: 1) As noted above, the majority of respondents are settled in Japan, and may have not had the need to move house within the past five years (which is why limiting samples to this time frame is problematic). And 2) the survey didn’t take into account multiple refusals, as in one respondent being rejected several times by different landlords or rental agencies (not to mention agencies minimizing the sample by not offering up exclusionary apartments in the first place). By surveying the client instead of the industry, we still have an incomplete idea of what percentage of Japan’s housing market is simply off-limits to noncitizens.

There is a lot more detail in the report, but the upshot is this: For the first time, we have reasonable nationwide statistics for how exclusionary Japan’s landlords are. And the evidence is damning, clearly requiring long-overdue counteractive legislation.

Work/public discrimination

Of the two-thirds of respondents (65.6 percent) who indicated they had looked for work over the past five years, a full quarter (25 percent) said they had been refused for not being Japanese, and a fifth said they had been given a lower salary than a Japanese for the same work (19.6 percent) or faced other disadvantages in conditions or promotion (17.1 percent). Lower rates of discrimination were found for adverse working or vacation hours (12.8 percent), or being fired specifically for being foreign (4.4 percent).

In terms of freedom of public access and freedom from harassment, the overwhelming majority of respondents had never been refused entry into a store or restaurant (92.2 percent). Good. Significantly fewer had never experienced insults or discrimination from Japanese in the past five years (66.7 percent). If insults happened, they mostly came from strangers (53.3 percent), but sometimes from the workplace (38 percent) or neighborhood (19.3 percent).

Most reported slights involved being stared at (31.7 percent), workplace or schoolyard prejudice (26 percent), bullying about language ability (25.1 percent) or being ignored when speaking to someone (18.4 percent). The classic “empty seat beside you on the train” phenomenon was comparatively minor, at 14.9 percent.

Finally, in terms of freedom from hate speech, a large number of respondents have been exposed to public demonstrations of xenophobia, generally through the broadcast media (42.9 percent) or internet (33.3 percent). A fifth of those surveyed (20.3 percent) had actually witnessed a hate demo. No doubt this will be further fodder for strengthening Japan’s first anti-hate speech laws.

What to do about it?

Respondents gave multiple answers to possible resolutions in preset questions. More than 60 percent wanted policies that would acknowledge different lifestyles and customs, and promote mutual respect. Fifty-three percent wanted more regional opportunities for foreign and Japanese nationals to get together.

Just over 45 percent advocated that the legal status and rights of foreign nationals here be properly communicated to Japanese; 38.6 percent wanted better systemic redress when discrimination happens; and 37.5 percent wanted an actual law against “foreigner discrimination” (sic). Respondents who thought nothing needed be done totaled only 7.1 percent.

That’s all the space I have for an overview. There’s much more rich material to be mined from this survey, and I recommend people read it thoroughly and seize their own trends of interest. Now let’s turn to critique:

Analysis and caveats

Readers are probably expecting JBC to find fault with everything and rubbish this survey. Well, surprise: Overall, it’s excellent. It asks mostly the right questions with minimal confirmation bias, offering a rich data set that analyzes discrimination victims by age, nationality, language ability, acculturation and other factors to tease out probable causes. It also has qualitative eyewitness accounts and stories that add living flesh to the bones of contention.

Some people have already argued, “Well, the majority of foreigners aren’t being discriminated against, so it doesn’t matter.” But that’s not how minority studies works. Human rights are not a matter of degree — they are a matter of incidence, i.e., preventing all occurrences of discrimination. Since the goal is zero percent, the fact that the numbers are this high will probably shock United Nations watchdogs.

Still, let’s acknowledge some caveats: The survey’s sample size is only a few thousand scattered around the country, and there are no statistical mathematics given for margins of error, confidence levels or standard deviations. However, more than 4,000 raw responses, with a response rate of 23 percent (when telephone surveys average around 8-12 percent and email surveys around 25 percent) warrants reading the survey more closely to investigate questions and methodologies. Those with degrees in statistics can hold court from here.

The biggest problem I have with the survey is what is not sampled. Again, a survey for “foreigner discrimination” (not racial) overlooks the fact that discrimination by physical appearance also happens in Japan, irrespective of nationality. After all, getting Japanese citizenship will not save you from a racist landlord or realtor who still sees you as a foreigner. And couching the issue in terms of “foreigners” excludes Japan’s visible minorities, e.g., naturalized citizens and Japanese from international unions who cannot be surveyed for being treated like a foreign national because — legally — they aren’t. This creates significant blind spots regarding Japan’s true internationalization.

The other big issue, as I said in my previous JBC, is that the survey ignores a root cause: discrimination fostered by government policies (such as the fictitious “foreign crime waves” generated by the National Police Agency, and standardized racial profiling for public ID card checks by the police). As long as official policies can dictate with impunity that foreigners “look different” than Japanese, and that foreign nationals should be treated as different from Japanese, the public will follow their lead.

Still, this survey is a good first step, and I salute the government for doing it. Let’s do even better next time.

Meanwhile, policymakers, you see how normalized the discrimination is now. The Olympics loom. Get to work before we’re all embarrassed by the bigots.

Debito’s latest book, “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination,” is out now in paperback. Twitter: @arudoudebito. Your comments and Community story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp