Last month the Japanese government took baby steps toward an official immigration policy. Ten ministries and several specialist “people of awareness” (yūshikisha) held meetings aimed at creating a “coexistence society” (kyōsei shakai) within which non-Japanese (NJ) would be “accepted” (uke ire).
This is a positive change from the past two decades, when Japan cultivated an unofficial unskilled labor visa regime that a) imported NJ as cheap work units to keep Japanese factories from going bankrupt or moving overseas, and then b) saw NJ as an inconvenient unemployment statistic, fixable by canceling visas or buying them tickets home (JBC, Apr. 7, 2009).
Yes, we’ve seen this kyōsei sloganeering before. Remember the empty “kokusaika” internationalization mantra of Japan’s ’80s bubble era?
But this time the government is serious. Sponsored by the Cabinet, these meetings are considering assimilationist ideas suggested by local governments and ignored for a decade.
Why? Attendees acknowledged that Japan needs NJ to revitalize its future economy.
Unusually, their discussions were open to public scrutiny (www.cas.go.jp/jp/seisaku/kyousei/index.html) Thank you. And here scrutiny comes . . .
The good news is that the meetings’ heart is in the right place. A fuller analysis of the materials can be found at www.debito.org/?p=10271, but what they’re getting right includes:
• State-supported Japanese language education for all NJ.
• State-supported education for all NJ children (so they don’t wind up as an illiterate unskilled underclass).
• More multilingual information online and in public access areas.
• Proper enrolment for NJ in Japan’s health, unemployment and social welfare systems.
• More assistance with finding NJ employment and resolving unemployment.
• Some attention to “cultural sensitivity” and “mutual respect” issues (not just the one-way gripe of “how NJ inconvenience us Japanese on garbage day”).
• Better coordination between all levels of government for more comprehensive policies, etc.
Bravo. But there are some shortcomings:
First, definitions. What do “coexistence” and “acceptance” mean? Just letting people across the border? Gated communities? Official recognition of ethnic minorities and domestic “foreign cultures”? Acceptance of ethnic differences as “also Japanese”? Or repressing and overwriting those “foreign cultures” (a la the Ainu, Okinawans, Koreans and Taiwanese in Meiji Japan). Without making the terms of discussion clear, we can’t see ultimate intentions.
Second, hard-wired in the proceedings is a narrative that “offsets” and “others” NJ. We have the standard embedded policy invective of “our country” (wagakuni — but isn’t Japan the country of all its residents?), with the issue couched negatively as “the foreign laborer problem” (gaikokujin rōdōsha mondai). If NJ are not treated as intruders, then they are “guests” (as opposed to just human beings) being indulgently granted something from above.
Third, the ministries are considering vague “environmental preparations” (kankyō seibi) before more NJ get here. (But wait, aren’t NJ already here? Or are we somehow wiping the slate clean?)
OK, fine — semantics. But then you read how each ministry’s proposal further betrays an odd predisposition toward NJ:
The Justice Ministry complained that they can’t “administer” (kanri) NJ properly once they cross the border. But with upcoming reforms to NJ registration systems ferreting out more visa miscreants, that’s fixed, they added. Phew. Not much else was proposed.
The health ministry suggested making some important improvements to welfare and employment systems. But nothing too legalistic — after all, discrimination against NJ as workers is already forbidden (kinshi) by law (as if that’s made much difference so far). They also heralded the preferential treatment for “high-quality” (shitsu no takai) NJ from now on through a new “points system” (critiqued as problematic in my March 6 column).
The Cabinet talked exclusively about assisting nikkei — NJ of Japanese descent. Never mind residents from, say, China or the Philippines; bloodlines take priority.
The education ministry recycled old ideas, saying that we need to teach NJ the Japanese language and, er, not much else — not even any antibullying proposals.
Nothing at all from the attending ministries of foreign affairs, finance, trade and industry, transport and tourism, or forest and fisheries.
The most useless report was from the National Police Agency, who, with a single page of statistics cooking up a NJ crime rise (despite a dramatic fall across the board (JBC, April 3)), advocated more policing, much like the Justice Ministry did. (Funny thing, that: Are the police invited to every policy meeting on the treatment of Japan’s residents, or only for policies concerning those inherently untrustworthy NJ residents?)
The biggest problem was the lack of diversity. As this article went to press, all attendees were older Japanese men (OK, two women), with approximately the same socioeconomic status and life experience. Not one NJ attended.
Thus everyone relied on third-party “reports from the field” (genba de), as if NJ are exotic animals studied from binoculars in their habitat. Not even the token Gregory Clark (who never misses an opportunity within these pages to claim how open-minded the Japanese are because they plonk him on blue-ribbon panels) was shoehorned in.
If the people for whom this policy is being created are not present at the agenda-setting stage, the inevitable happens: blind spots.
Here’s the major one: Where is the legal apparatus (hō seibi) to back up those “environmental preparations”?
For example, where is a proposed amendment to the Basic Education Law (to remove the conceit of kokumin, or Japanese national) to ensure that Japanese schools can no longer refuse NJ children an education?
Where is a proposed punishment for the employer who treats his NJ workers unequally, such as by not coughing up their required half of social insurance payments?
What about that law against racial discrimination? Again, these meetings are a well-intentioned start. But I think the outcome will still be policy failure. For there is still no discussion about making NJ feel like they “belong,” as “members” of Japan.
Academic Yumiko Iida (a Japanese, so no claims of cultural imperialism, please), in her award-winning research about Japanese identity (see www.debito.org/?p=10215), argued that there are four things any viable nation-state must create to make its people feel like “members”:
1) A shared memory of the past (i.e., a national narrative) that links them all.
2) A sense of community, with moral obligations attached to it.
3) A world view that makes sense.
4) Hope for the future that other people share.
Consider how NJ are denied these things:
1) NJ have little presence in Japan’s history (remember the old saw, “Japan merely borrows ‘things’ from overseas and then uniquely ‘Japanizes’ them”) so, as these meetings indicate by their very attendance roster, NJ are forever an exogenous force to Japanese society.
2) As discussed on these pages (JBC, June 5), NJ are systematically othered, if not completely ignored as even a minority community within Japan, and that will naturally discourage a feeling of moral obligation to Japan.
3) A world view that does not acknowledge the existence of entire minority peoples cannot possibly make sense to those peoples.
4) Hope for the future in a Japan in decline is a hard sell even for Japanese these days.
The point is, if this policy discussion is to go beyond political theater, the GOJ must now use the dreaded word “immigration” (imin). It must also prepare the public to see immigrants as members of Japanese society — as minority Japanese.
This committee has not. It had better start.
In this era of unprecedented opportunities for world labor migration, Japan must be more competitive. Above all, it must lose the arrogant assumption that people will want to come to Japan just because it’s Japan.
Japan must seriously think about how to be nice — yes, nice — enough to NJ so that they’ll want to stay. And that means making them feel equal in terms of importance and inclusion — as though they belong — with everyone else.
So you want to create public policy that reflects, not dictates, what NJ need? Then listen to those of us already here. The government has admitted you need us. Treat us as an exogenous force at your peril.
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