Human rights in Japan: a top 10 for ’09


They say that human rights advances come in threes: two steps forward and one back.

2009, however, had good news and bad on balance. For me, the top 10 human rights events of the year that affected non-Japanese (NJ) were, in ascending order:

10) Mr. James

Between August and November, McDonald’s Japan had this geeky Caucasian shill portraying foreigners to Japanese consumers (especially children, one of McDonald’s target markets) as dumb enough to come to Japan, home of a world cuisine, just for the burgers.

Pedantry aside, McDonald’s showed its true colors — not as a multinational promoting multiculturalism (its image in other countries), but instead as a ruthless corporation willing to undermine activists promoting “foreigner as resident of Japan” just to push product.

McD’s unapologetically pandered to latent prejudices in Japan by promoting the gaijin as hapless tourist, speaking Japanese in katakana and never fitting in no matter how hard he shucks or jives.

The firm wouldn’t even fight fair, refusing to debate in Japanese for the domestic media.

“Mr. James’ ” katakana blog has since disappeared, but his legacy will live on in a generation of kids spoon-fed cultural pap with their fast food.

9) ‘The Cove’

Although not a movie about “human” rights (the subjects are sentient mammals), this documentary (www.thecovemovie.com) about annual dolphin slaughters in southern Wakayama Prefecture shows the hard slog activists face in this society.

When a handful of local fishermen cull dolphins and call it “Japanese tradition,” the government (both local and national), police and our media machines instinctively encircle to cover it up. Just to get hard evidence to enable public scrutiny, activists had to go as far as to get George Lucas’ studios to create airborne recording devices and fit cameras into rocks.

The film showed the world what we persevering activists all know: how advanced an art form public unaccountability is in Japan.

8) Pocket knife/pee dragnets

The Japanese police’s discretionary powers of NJ racial profiling, search and seizure were in full bloom this year, exemplified by two events that beggared belief.

The first occurred in July, when a 74-year-old American tourist who asked for directions at a Shinjuku police box was incarcerated for 10 days just for carrying a pocket knife (yes, the koban cops asked him specifically whether he was carrying one).

The second involved confirmed reports of police apprehending NJ outside Roppongi bars and demanding they take urine tests for drugs. Inconceivable treatment for Japanese (sure, sometimes they get hit for bag searches, but not bladder searches), but the lack of domestic press attention — even to stuff as egregious as this — shows that Japanese cops can zap NJ at whim with impunity.

7) ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ (tied)

Accused murderer Tatsuya Ichihashi and convicted embezzler Nozomu Sahashi also got zapped this year. Well, kinda.

Ichihashi spent close to three years on the lam after police in 2007 bungled his capture at his apartment, where the strangled body of English teacher Lindsay Ann Hawker was found. He was finally nabbed in November, but only after intense police and media lobbying by her family (lessons here for the families of fellow murdered NJs Scott Tucker, Matthew Lacey and Honiefaith Kamiosawa) and on the back of a crucial tip from a plastic surgery clinic.

Meanwhile Sahashi, former boss of eikaiwa empire Nova (bankrupted in 2007), was finally sentenced Aug. 27 to a mere 3 1/2 years, despite bilking thousands of customers, staff and NJ teachers.

For Sahashi it’s case closed (pending appeal), but in Ichihashi’s case, his high-powered defense team is already claiming police abuse in jail, and is no doubt preparing to scream “miscarriage of justice” should he get sentenced. Still, given the leniency shown to accused NJ killers Joji Obara and Hiroshi Nozaki, let’s see what the Japanese judiciary comes up with on this coin toss.

6) ‘Newbies’ top ‘oldcomers’

This happened by the end of 2007, but statistics take time to tabulate.

Last March, the press announced that “regular permanent residents” (as in NJ who were born overseas and have stayed long enough to qualify for permanent residency) outnumber “special permanent residents” (the zainichi Japan-born Koreans, Chinese etc. “foreigners” who once comprised the majority of NJ) by 440,000 to 430,000. That’s a total of nearly a million NJ who cannot legally be forced to leave. This, along with Chinese residents now outnumbering Koreans, denotes a sea change in the NJ population, indicating that immigration from outside Japan is proceeding apace.

5) ‘Immigration nation’ ideas

Hidenori Sakanaka, head of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute (www.jipi.gr.jp), is a retired Immigration Bureau mandarin who actually advocates a multicultural Japan — under a proper immigration policy run by an actual immigration ministry.

In 2007, he offered a new framework for deciding between a “Big Japan” (with a vibrant, growing economy thanks to inflows of NJ) and a “Small Japan” (a parsimonious Asian backwater with a relatively monocultural, elderly population).

In 2009, he offered a clearer vision in a bilingual handbook (available free from JIPI) of policies on assimilating NJ and educating Japanese to accept a multiethnic society. I cribbed from it in my last JBC column (Dec 1) and consider it, in a country where government- sponsored think tanks can’t even use the word “immigration” when talking about Japan’s future, long-overdue advice.

4) Chipped cards, juminhyo

Again, 2009 was a year of give and take.

On July 8, the Diet adopted policy for (probably remotely trackable) chips to be placed in new “gaijin cards” (which all NJ must carry 24-7 or risk arrest) for better policing. Then, within the same policy, NJ will be listed on Japan’s residency certificates (juminhyo).

The latter is good news, since it is a long-standing insult to NJ taxpayers that they are not legally “residents,” i.e. not listed with their families (or at all) on a household juminhyo.

However, in a society where citizens are not required to carry any universal ID at all, the policy still feels like one step forward, two steps back.

3) The Savoie abduction case

Huge news on both sides of the pond was Christopher Savoie’s Sept. 28 attempt to retrieve his kids from Japan after his ex-wife abducted them from the United States. Things didn’t go as planned: The American Consulate in Fukuoka wouldn’t let them in, and he was arrested by Japanese police for two weeks until he agreed to get out of Dodge.

Whatever you think about this messy case, the Savoie incident raised necessary attention worldwide about Japan’s status as a safe haven for international child abductors, and shone a light on the harsh truth that after a divorce, in both domestic and international cases, there is no enforced visitation or joint custody in Japan — even for Japanese. It also provoked this stark conclusion from your columnist: Until fundamental reforms are made to Japan’s family law (which encourages nothing less than parental alienation syndrome), nobody should risk getting married and having kids in Japan.

2) The election of the DPJ

Nothing has occasioned more hope for change in the activist community than the end of five decades of Liberal Democratic Party rule.

Although we are still in wait-and-see mode after 100 days in power, there is a perceptible struggle between the major proponents of the status quo (the bureaucrats) and the Hatoyama Cabinet (which itself is understandably fractious, given the width of its ideological tent).

We have one step forward with permanent residents probably getting the vote in local elections, and another with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama saying at the APEC Summit on Nov. 14 that Japan should “create an environment that is friendly to (NJ) so they voluntarily live in Japan.”

But then we have the no-steps- anywhere: The Democratic Party of Japan currently has no plans to consider fundamental issues such as dual nationality, a racial discrimination law, an immigration ministry, or even an immigration policy.

Again, wait and see.

1) The ‘repatriation bribe’

This, more than anything, demonstrated how the agents of the status quo (again, the bureaucrats) keep public policy xenophobic.

Twenty years ago they drafted policy that brought in cheap NJ labor as “trainees” and “researchers,” then excluded them from labor law protections by not classifying them as “workers.” They also brought in nikkei workers (foreigners of Japanese descent) to “explore their Japanese heritage” (but really to install them, again, as cheap labor to stop Japan’s factories moving overseas).

Then, after the economic tailspin of 2008, on April Fool’s Day of last year the bureaucrats offered the nikkei (not the trainees or researchers, since they didn’t have Japanese blood) a bribe to board a plane home, give up their visas and years of pension contributions, and become some other country’s problem.

This move, above all the others, showed the true intentions of Japanese government policy: Non-Japanese workers, no matter what investments they make here, are by design tethered to temporary, disposable, revolving-door labor conditions, with no acceptable stake or entitlement in Japan’s society.

Bubbling under:

Noriko Calderon (victim of the same xenophobic government policies mentioned above, which even split families apart), Noriko Sakai (who tried to pin her drug issues on foreign dealers), sumo potheads (who showed that toking and nationality were unrelated) and swine flu (which was once again portrayed as an “outsiders’ disease” until Japanese caught it too after Golden Week).

2009 was a pretty mixed year. Let’s hope 2010 is more progressive.

Debito Arudou coauthored the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants.” Twitter arudoudebito. 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