Last month, I was asked to take part in a public panel discussion on the recently released Harrison Ford blockbuster “Crossing Over.” In the film, Ford plays an L.A. Immigration and Customs officer with a conscience, increasingly disturbed by the human consequences of his job.

My first impression was that the film would be a hard sell in Japan. America is a country founded on immigration, and is said to be host to some 12 million illegal immigrants. In Japan, on the other hand, legal foreign residents make up just over 1.7 percent of the population, while the number of over-stayers was estimated at only 113,072 as of January 2009. Thus, in contrast to the situation in America, where immigration reform is a highly contentious issue, few Japanese even noticed far-reaching revisions to the Immigration Law that passed this July. In short, what could a Japanese audience hope to get from the film?

Like the 2006 film “Crash,” “Crossing Over” is made up of a series of small but interconnected human dramas. It focuses on what the Japanese call ninjō, meaning “heart” or “humanity.” This is clear from the accompanying Japanese pamphlet, which proclaims, “Even (immigration) inspectors have ninjō.”

The implication is, of course, that most inspectors lack this “human feeling.” Thus, although the immigration situation in Japan and America may be very different, the two countries do have something in common: Good, honest, hardworking citizens fall victim to a system that lacks ninjō. In other words, taken at the human level, “Crossing Over” can be seen to have a message even for a Japanese audience.

Anyone, for example, can empathize with the tragedy of a family torn apart by forced deportation. In the film, it is a Bangladesh-born high school student who is deported together with her father, while her mother and younger siblings are allowed to stay in America. Earlier in the year here in Japan, there was the case of 13-year-old Noriko, born and brought up in Japan, who was given temporary permission to remain in Japan while her parents were sent back to the Philippines. Before that, 18-year-old Maryam, who came to Japan in 1991, was allowed to continue her studies in Japan on condition that her mother, father and Japan-born younger sister returned to Iran.

Since in all these cases those deported were illegal immigrants, some might argue that the individuals concerned got what they deserved. Indeed, it could be said that the fact that the youngsters concerned were granted special permission to stay illustrates compassion on the part of the justice minister.

Certainly, public opinion tends to show little sympathy for so-called illegals, who are frequently seen as a threat to public security. For example, in a 2006 Cabinet Office survey, 84.3 percent of respondents thought public safety had worsened over the past 10 years, with the largest number (55.1 percent) putting this down to “a rise in crimes by foreigners visiting Japan.”

In recent years, this “foreign crime” (gaikokujin hanzai) discourse has become so widely promulgated by the media that it has come to drive policy, specifically the targeting of foreigners by the police and immigration inspectors. Thus, 2003 saw the implementation of a five-year plan to half the number of illegals known as the Kyodo Sengen. The resulting increase in arrests can be used as “proof” that non-Japanese are more likely to commit crime: In this way, the image, to some extent, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In reality, as the experienced researcher or NGO volunteer will report, “illegals” tend to keep their heads down and concentrate on earning a living and raising a family. Yet, the popular discourse on illegal immigrants invariably paints them as vicious criminals. The media is generally happy to play on this fear of foreign crime in general and of rising numbers of illegal immigrants in particular. Both, however, are myths. Numbers of illegal migrants (the majority of whom have simply overstayed their visa) have halved in the last five years, and “foreign crime” statistics — despite excluding permanent residents and including all short-term visitors — consistently reveal the crime rate for non-Japanese to be lower than for Japanese, even when victimless visa crimes are counted.

Even if one does accept that migrants who fail to respect local laws should expect little sympathy from the system they have abused, a little more ninjō may be expected for legal foreign residents. However, even (general) permanent residents in Japan have to separate from their (Japanese passport-holding) family each time they re-enter the country in order to be photographed and fingerprinted. For very young children traveling alone with a non-Japanese parent, being forced to split up at immigration can be quite a harrowing experience.

Recent changes to the Immigration Control and Refugee Law — to be implemented within the next three years — give little hope that the system will become less bureaucratic and more human. While there are some provisions — such as permit-free re-entry — that will make life easier for legal residents, failure to report a change of address or other personal details within three months will lead to revocation of residence status. For “illegal” residents, the revisions, which at root are about increased central government scrutiny and monitoring of non-Japanese, will inevitably result in more deportations.

Bureaucratic systems, in whichever country they are based, tend to lack flexibility and to rely on precedent. However, it can be argued that, due to the nature of Japanese society, such traits are particularly prominent in the Japanese bureaucracy. As the derogatory Japanese expression “oyakusho shigoto” suggests, ninjō is not a word that is easily associated with the world of red tape and officialdom.

There are some signs this might be changing. One sign of bureaucratic softening relates to naturalization, which in recent years has become a much more straightforward process. In 2008, for example, 15,440 applied for Japanese citizenship and 13,218 were accepted. These figures would inevitably increase if Japan were to recognize dual nationality; many permanent residents, this author included, would welcome the opportunity to contribute more fully to Japanese society if they didn’t first have to give up their original citizenship. Given Japan’s growing need for jinzai (human resources) in order to remain internationally competitive, it is no surprise that more and more politicians are calling for the Nationality Law to be revised.

In 2004, the justice minister announced a more flexible and “humanitarian” stance toward over-stayers. Specifically, the minister said he would apply more discretion in granting special resident status (zairyutokubetsukyoka) in cases where deportation would result in hardships, such as the breakup of families. The Immigration Bureau’s home page explains how “worried illegal migrants” who appear at their local immigration office and fill out the relevant forms (shutto shinkoku) will be allowed to “go home” without first being detained and may even, in special circumstances, be given leave to remain in Japan (see http://www.moj.go.jp/NYUKAN/nyukan87.html ).

In America, where “Crossing Over” is set, the issue of amnesty for illegal immigrants is highly contentious and unlikely to become law any time soon. In Japan, however, despite some areas for concern, there are signs that a more flexible and compassionate “case by case” system may be slowly and quietly being adopted.

It is still too early to say, but it’s possible that Max, the L.A. immigration inspector with ninjō played by Harrison Ford, might soon be casting an envious glance in Japan’s direction.

Chris Burgess lectures in Japanese and Australian studies at Tsuda College. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

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