OSAKA — As the debate intensifies over allowing more foreign workers into Japan to make up for the coming labor shortage, human rights groups have recently stepped up efforts to push for a law against discrimination.
Yet despite calls from not only human rights nongovernmental organizations but also the United Nations for such a law, the central government says separate legislation is not needed because the Constitution provides sufficient protection against discrimination.
Japan’s population is expected to decline from the current 127 million to about 100 million by 2050. The working population, defined as those between the ages of 15 and 64, is expected to shrink from the current 66 million to about 44 million by that year, according to government statistics.
Government ministries as well as the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) have put forward proposals for bringing in foreign labor. The proposals focus on the need for tightly controlled immigration that focuses on foreigners with technological skills in specific sectors or industries.
Several proposals would also make some level of fluency in Japanese a prerequisite for being allowed to work in Japan.
Most of the proposals recognize the need for social assistance to foreign workers and their families in the form of language lessons and access to education for their children. But none addresses the issue of legal protection against acts of discrimination.
“You can’t talk about a truly effective policy for bringing in more foreign laborers without including the need for an antidiscrimination law that offers them legal protection once they settle in Japan,” said Masao Niwa, an Osaka-based human rights attorney and a leading advocate for such a law.
The U.N. agrees with Niwa. Last year, Doudou Diene, the U.N. special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, released a report on the situation in Japan that urged the government, at the highest levels, to officially and publicly recognize the existence of racism and xenophobia in Japanese society and to take specific legal actions to combat it.
“The Diet should as a matter of urgency proceed to the adoption of a national law against racism, discrimination and xenophobia,” the report said.
Last month, Diene visited Japan to follow up on his report and attended the inaugural meeting of a group of NGOs pushing for the elimination of racial discrimination in Japan. The meeting was led by Tokyo-based International Movement Against all forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), which has a liaison office with the U.N. in Geneva and consultative status with the U.N. Economic and Social Council.
The new network includes representatives from the descendents of the “buraku” feudal outcast class, Ainu, Okinawan, Korean and other minority communities, and one of its activities will be to lobby politicians and government officials.
In the coming months, it is expected to decide on the most effective way of getting out its message to politicians, bureaucrats and business leaders.
“The network will push for human rights legislation outlawing discriminatory acts against not only foreigners but also ethnic and social minorities. We’re also calling for an independent human rights commission. The current one, attached to the Justice Ministry, is not as effective as it needs to be,” said IMADR Secretary General Hideki Morihara.
The nearly 90 human rights groups nationwide that support an IMADR-drafted antidiscrimination bill know they face an uphill battle getting the legislation passed. Although some opposition party politicians, notably the Democratic Party of Japan’s Toru Matsuoka, an Upper House member and longtime IMADR supporter, are supportive, the ruling bloc is not.
Politicians and bureaucrats opposed to a law against discrimination often cite Article 14 of the Constitution as being sufficient legal protection. Part 1 of the article says “all people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status, or family origin.”
Japan has also ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which forbid racial discrimination.
However, when Japanese officials cited Article 14 in their defense to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2000, the committee members expressed doubt that Japan’s current legal system offers adequate and equal protection against specific individual acts of discrimination.
“Court rulings in discrimination cases are often vague and contradictory. Rather than clearly rule what legal discrimination is or cite the international conventions that Japan has ratified, the courts prefer to simply declare certain behavior as being outside socially acceptable norms,” said lawyer Niwa.
Those opposed to antidiscrimination legislation, especially for current and future foreign workers in Japan, said that because there is no nationwide consensus on how to accept such workers and because Japanese attitudes toward foreigners are often ambivalent, it’s best to lay the social groundwork first.
“Rather than new laws, what we need first is a change in social attitudes toward foreigners,” Taro Kono said last July, when he was senior vice justice minister, not long after his ministry released a report on the future of foreign workers.
But Niwa argued that there is no time to waste.
“A change in social attitudes is needed. But you can’t first wait for society to change and then enact laws,” he said. “You have to do both concurrently.”