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Visitors to stay — for the time being

by Florian Coulmas

GLOBAL JAPAN: The experience of Japan’s new immigrant and overseas communities, edited by Roger Goodman, Ceri Peach, Ayumi Takenaka and Paul White. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003, 241 pp., £65, (cloth).

Many in Japan have been slow to accept the fact that international labor migration does not stop at Japan’s doorstep. But in recent years, the presence in Japan of workers from various Asian and Latin American countries has become a fact of life that cannot be overlooked anymore.

The flow of labor across borders is one aspect of globalization that has begun to affect social reality in Japan — later than in many other highly industrialized countries but in many comparable ways nonetheless. The steady increase of foreign workers, both legal and illegal, shows no sign of abating, despite more than a decade of economic stagnation and growing unemployment.

Over the past decade, a sizable body of literature about immigrant communities in Japan has been produced. The present volume, although it takes up many themes that have been dealt with at great length before, is a welcome addition to this new field of scholarship.

“Global Japan” brings together 15 papers about various aspects of labor migration by scholars from inside and outside Japan. What distinguishes this book from others about related topics is that it deals both with the establishment of new non-Japanese minorities within Japan, and of Japanese communities outside Japan. How do the Japanese accommodate others in their midst? And how do they accommodate to others when living abroad?

Pursuing these complementary questions within the same context can shed light on the social fabric of Japanese communities and how it is affected by global forces of change.

It is, however, not so easy to find common ground when discussing topics as diverse as legal aspects of labor migration control in Japan; the Japanese communities in London, Duesseldorf, Singapore and Hong Kong; the networks of Iranian workers in Japan; the changing status of returnee children in Japanese society; and the lifestyle of Vietnamese youths residing in Japan.

True, all of the above and other topics combine to form the larger picture of ongoing changes in Japan and Japan’s changing role in the world. Taken together, these chapters also show how the forces of globalization, often perceived as a threat to diversity, bring about more diversity both inside one country and globally.

Although this is a highly intriguing perspective on the issue of migration to and from Japan, the moral emphasis on the beauties of diversity that transpires from the pages of this book must also be taken for what it is — a tribute to the postmodernist zeitgeist.

Most papers in this collection display an overinsistence on Japan’s so-called myth of ethno-cultural homogeneity, a myth that has been castigated, especially by Western writers, relentlessly for the past 20 years or so. Time and again, reference is made to former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s remark two decades ago that U.S. economic decline at the time was a result of the heterogeneity of its population. And time and again it is pointed out that this myth must be refuted because there is, after all, both autochthonous diversity and immigration. On the other hand, it is rarely acknowledged in this book that Japan is, indeed, more homogeneous than any other industrialized country.

Similarly, there is too much emphasis on Japan’s self-image as “different” and “unique.” Upon reflection, there is no shortage of “unique” nations and “chosen” people in this world, and stressing that which distinguishes oneself from others is a rather common strategy of identity assertion. This is not to deny that the Japanese are champions of this endeavor, but dwelling on it seems trite and distracts from more remarkable issues.

For example, highly segregated residence patterns of Japanese communities in very different parts of the world, such as in Singapore and Duesseldorf, throw an interesting light on Japanese closely knit social relations and their reproduction outside Japan. Although there are significant differences between meeting immigrants in your own environment and being an immigrant yourself elsewhere, certain conclusions can be drawn from comparing both situations.

Observations that Japanese immigrant communities abroad are characterized by self-reliance, well-organized networks and social infrastructure suggest certain social preconditions for immigrant communities in Japan that encourage segregation rather than integration. By and large, this expectation is borne out by empirical research reported.

Just as interesting are findings that point to the development of entirely new life patterns and social practices. A case in point is the return migration, or repeated migration back and forth across the Pacific, by members of the nikkei (Americans of Japanese descent) community who develop transnational strategies and identities of their own, being less firmly rooted in ethnicity than the host communities on either side.

The establishment of expatriate communities in Brazil and Japan raises the question of how ethnicity and social class interact in the world today. As the findings reported in this book indicate, class is far from obsolete as a determinant of social status. Rather labor migration appears to be a key mechanism for the coming into existence of a new sector of the working class in Japan.

Yet another aspect of migration not commonly dealt with, but made topical in this book, is the gender bias of Japanese expatriate communities in other countries. In Britain, particularly, the Japanese immigrant population is strongly weighted toward females with about 83 males per 100 females. Again, a situation outside Japan reflects ongoing social changes within. Well-qualified women are ready to expand their role in the labor market, but the opportunities they are offered in this regard are better abroad than in Japan.

In sum, this book reveals how in a number of sometimes unexpected ways globalization, cross-border labor migration and social change interact. In spite of the misgivings expressed above, it can be recommended to everyone interested in present-day changes of Japan’s role in the world.