For the first time in Japan’s postwar history, we have a viable opposition party in power — one that might stick around long enough to make some new policies stick. In my last column for 2009, let me suggest how the Democratic Party of Japan could make life easier for Japan’s residents, regardless of nationality.

My proposals can be grouped into four categories: immigration, policing, human rights protections and public relations.

1) Immigration

Despite Japan’s looming demographic disaster — you know, the aging society and population drop due to low birthrates and record-long life spans — we still have no immigration policy. No wonder: The people charged with dealing with non-Japanese (NJ) — i.e. the Ministry of Justice’s Immigration Bureau and sundry business-sector organizations — just police NJ while leeching off their labor. Essentially, their goal is to protect Japan from the outside world: keep refugees out, relegate migrant workers to revolving-door contracted labor conditions, and leash NJ to one- to three-year visas. For NJ who do want to settle, the Justice Ministry’s petty and arbitrary rules can make permanent residency (PR) and naturalization procedures borderline masochistic.

This cannot continue, because Japan is at a competitive disadvantage in the global labor market. Any immigrant with ambitions to progress beyond Japan’s glass ceiling (that of either factory cog or perpetual corporate flunky) is going to stay away. Why bother learning Japanese when there are other societies that use, say, English, that moreover offer better lifetime opportunities? It’s time we lost our facile arrogance, and stopped assuming that the offer of a subordinate and tenuous life in a peaceful, rich and orderly society is attractive enough to make bright people stay. We also have to be welcoming and help migrants to settle.


1) We need a new immigration ministry, independent of the Ministry of Justice, to supplant the Immigration Bureau. It would decide clear, public standards for:

• what kinds of immigrants we want;

• how we can give immigrants what they want; and

• how to make immigrants into Japanese, both in law and in spirit.

2) We need to loosen up a little. This would mean introducing policies often standard in countries with successful records of assimilating immigrants, such as:

• less time-consuming and arbitrary standards for awarding PR and citizenship;

• faster-track PR and job-finding assistance for graduates of our schools and universities;

• dual (or multiple) nationality;

• citizenship granted by birth in Japan (not just blood);

• equal registration as “residents” (not merely as foreigners on separate rosters to police and track);

• equal access by merit to credit and loans (most credit agencies will not lend to NJ without PR);

• stable jobs not segregated by nationality (and that includes administrative-level positions in the civil service);

• qualifying examinations that allow for non-natives’ linguistic handicaps, including simplified Japanese and furigana above kanji characters;

• visa programs that don’t split families up;

• periodic amnesties for long-term over-stayers who have been contributing to Japan in good faith; and

• minority schools funded by the state that teach children about their bicultural heritage, and teach their parents the Japanese language.

It’s not all that hard to understand what immigrants need. Most want to work, to get ahead, to make a better life for their children — just like any Japanese. Recognize that, and enforce equal access to the fruits of society — just like we would for any Japanese.

2) Policing

As in any society, police are here to maintain law and order. The problem is that our National Police Agency (NPA) has an explicit policy mandate to see internationalization itself as a threat to public order. As discussed here previously, NPA policy rhetoric talks about protecting “citizens” (kokumin) from crimes caused by outsiders (even though statistics show that insiders, both in terms of numbers and percentages, commit a disproportionate amount of crime). This perpetual public “othering and criminalizing” of the alien must stop, because police trained to see Japan as a fortress to defend will only further alienate NJ.


To make the NPA citadel more open and accountable, we must:

• create clear guidelines for the NPA to stop racial profiling in basic interactions, and moreover create an agency for complaints about police that is not managed by the police;

• amend laws (particularly the Foreign Registry Law; NJ should also be covered by the Police Execution of Duties Law, which forbids searches without probable cause) so that NJ are no longer more vulnerable than Japanese vis-a-vis random street investigations;

• make NPA manuals public (to see how police are being trained to deal with NJ), then revise and retrain so that police see their mandate as protecting everyone (not just citizens);

• hire non-native speakers as police to work as interlocutors in investigations;

• create “whistle-blower status” to protect and shelter NJ who provide evidence of being employed illegally (currently, over-stayers reporting their exploitative employers to the police are simply arrested, then deported to face reprisal overseas);

• take refugee issues away from the Justice Ministry and give them to a more flexible immigration ministry — one able to judge asylum seekers by conditions in their countries of origin, and by what they can offer Japan.

3) Human rights protections

Once immigrants become minorities here, they must be protected from the xenophones found in any society. O


• Grant the Bureau of Human Rights (or an independent human rights bureau within the proposed immigration ministry) enforcement and punitive powers (not to mention create an obligation to make the results of their investigations public).

• Strengthen labor laws so that, for example, abusive and unlawful contracts are punished under criminal law (currently, labor disputes are generally dealt with by time-consuming civil courts or ineffectual labor tribunals).

• Create and enforce laws upholding the spirit of pertinent United Nations treaties, including the Conventions on Civil and Political Rights, the Rights of the Child, and the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

• Most importantly — and this underpins everything — create a criminal law against racial discrimination. Include criminal penalties to stop all those places we know so well (businesses, hotels, landlords, etc.) enforcing “Japanese Only” rules with impunity.

Of course, some of these proposals are practically impossible to adopt now, but we had better get the public softened up to them soon. The smart migrants won’t come if they know they will remain forever second-class residents, even if they naturalize. Their rights are better protected in other countries, so that’s where they’ll head instead of our fine shores.

4) Public relations

This is the easiest task, because it won’t involve much tax outlay. The government must make clear statements, as Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama did last month at an APEC summit, indicating that immigration is a good thing for Japan, and stress the positive contributions that NJ have made so far. The media have focused too heavily upon how NJ can’t sort their garbage. Now it’s time to show the public how NJ will sort us out for the future.

We are about to start a new decade. This past one has been pretty rotten for NJ residents. Recall the campaigns: Kicked off by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s “Sankokujin Speech” in 2000, where he called upon the Self-Defense Forces to round up foreigners in the event of a natural disaster, we have had periodic public panics (al-Qaida, SARS, H1N1, the G8 Summits, and the World Cup), politicians, police and media bashing foreigners as criminals and terrorists, the reinstitution of fingerprinting, and increased NJ tracking through hotels, workplaces and RFID (radio-frequency identification) “gaijin cards.”

In other words, the 2000s saw the public image of NJ shift from “misunderstood outsider” to “social destabilizer”; government surveys even showed that an increasing majority of Japanese think NJ deserve fewer human rights!

Let’s change course. If Hatoyama is as serious as he says he is about putting legislation back in the hands of elected officials, it’s high time to countermand the elite bureaucratic xenophobes that pass for policymakers in Japan. Grant some concessions to noncitizens to make immigration to Japan more attractive.

Otherwise, potential immigrants will just go someplace else. Japan, which will soon drop to third place in the ranking of world economies, will be all the poorer for it.

Debito Arudou coauthored the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants.” This article with links to sources can be found at www.debito.org/?p=5295. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

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