Issues | JUST BE CAUSE

Tweak the immigration debate and demand an upgrade to denizen class

by Debito Arudou

Crucial to any public discussion is defining the terms of debate. However, often those terms must be redefined later because they don’t reflect reality.

One example is Japan’s concept of “foreigner,” because the related terminology is confusing and provides pretenses for exclusionism.

In terms of strict legal status, if you’re not a citizen you’re a “foreigner” (gaikokujin), right? But not all gaikokujin are the same in terms of acculturation or length of stay in Japan. A tourist “fresh off the boat” has little in common with a noncitizen with a Japanese family, property and permanent residency. Yet into the gaikokujin box they all go.

The lack of terms that properly differentiate or allow for upgrades has negative consequences. A long-termer frequently gets depicted in public discourse as a sojourner, not “at home” in Japan.

Granted, there are specialized terms for visa statuses, such as eijūsha (permanent resident) and tokubetsu eijūsha (special permanent resident, for the zainichi Korean and Chinese generational “foreigners”). But they rarely appear in common parlance, since the public is generally unaware of visa regimes (many people don’t even know foreigners must carry “gaijin cards”!).

Public debate about Japan’s foreign population must take into account their degree of assimilation. So this column will try to popularize a concept introduced in the 1990s that remains mired in migration studies jargon: denizen.

“Denizenship,” as discussed by Tomas Hammar of Stockholm University, is a mid-step between migrant and immigrant, foreigner and citizen — a “quasi-citizenship.” In his 1990 book “Democracy and the Nation State,” Hammar talks about three “entrance gates” for migrants to become citizens: 1) admission to the country, 2) permanent residency, and 3) acquisition of full citizenship.

Denizens have passed the second gate, having become resident aliens who have been granted extensive civil and social citizenship rights — including national and/or local suffrage in some countries.

Although denizens lack the full political rights of a citizen, scholars of international migration note that countries are increasingly giving denizens faster tracks to full citizenship, including relaxation of blood-based nationality (e.g., in Sweden, Holland, Switzerland and Germany), official guidance in naturalization procedures after obtaining permanent residency (e.g., United States), greater tolerance for dual citizenship (e.g., Mexico) and some electoral rights (e.g., European Union).

A similar discussion on denizenship has taken place in Japanese academia, thanks to Atsushi Kondo (1996), Chikako Kashiwazaki (2000) and Akihiro Asakawa (2007) et al., all of whom rendered the term in katakana as denizun, translating it as eijū shimin (permanent “citizens,” so to speak).

Perhaps this will come as no surprise, but their extensive research highlighted the comparatively closed nature of Japanese immigration policy. Japan has been an outlier in terms of citizenship rules, going against the trend seen in other advanced democracies to enfranchise denizens.

For example, Japan has an intolerance of dual nationality, high hurdles for achieving permanent residency, arbitrary and discretionary rules for obtaining full citizenship, few refugees, and strict “family” blood-based citizenship without exception for future generations of denizens (which is why Japan is still home to hundreds of thousands of zainichi “foreigners” 60 years after their ancestors were stripped of Japanese citizenship).

Essentially, Japan does not recognize denizenship. This was underscored during recent debates on granting local suffrage rights to permanent residents (gaikokujin sanseiken). Opposition politicians stated clearly: If foreigners want the right to vote, they should naturalize.

Sadly, steps to humanize the debate, by incorporating the perspectives of long-term residents themselves, were not taken, creating a tautology of disenfranchisement. The antireformers eventually won the debate, retrenching the binary between “foreigner” and “citizen” and obscuring the gray zones of long-term residency.

There are long-standing systemic issues behind this entrenchment. As Kashiwazaki notes: “The system of naturalization is not designed to transform foreign nationals promptly into Japanese nationals. Restriction on naturalization corresponds to the government’s stance on border control, namely that Japan does not admit immigration for the purpose of permanent settlement.”

As discussed on these pages numerous times, the fire wall keeping foreigners from ever becoming settlers is maintained by Japan’s revolving-door visa regimes, strict punishments for even slight administrative infractions that “reset the visa clock,” and a permanent “police the foreigners” credo from a Justice Ministry not configured for immigration or integration.

This has a long history. As Japan’s “Immigration Bureau” has argued repeatedly after it designed the postwar rules on any foreign influx (here in 1959): “Since Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, policies of controlling both population growth and immigration are strongly called for. It should therefore be a government policy to severely restrict the entry of foreigners into Japan. Particularly because there are undesirable foreigners who would threaten the lives of Japanese nationals by criminal activity and immoral conduct.”

After a high water mark of “internationalization” in the 1990s, Japan’s conservatives in the 2000s (backed up by periodic official “foreign crime” and “visa overstayer” campaigns to scare the public) managed to stem the tide of liberalization seen in other advanced democracies, turning Japan into an immigration Galapagos increasingly reactionary towards outsiders — even as demographics force Japan’s decline.

Like the people it represents, denizenship as a concept remains invisible within Japan’s public discourse, oblivious to how foreigners actually live in Japan. Categorically, people are either gaikokujin or nihonjin. Rarely if ever are the former termed eijūsha, eijū shimin, imin or ijūsha (immigrants).

Let’s tweak the terms of debate. If you’re planning on living in Japan indefinitely, I suggest you get your neighbors warmed up to the fact that you as a non-Japanese (let’s at least avoid the dislocated, transient trappings of the generic word “foreigner”) are not merely gaikokujin. You are jūmin (residents). And as of 2012, most of you now have a jūminhyō (residency certificate) to prove it.

Then spread the word through the grass roots, such as they are. Upgrade your status and mollify the binary. Or else you’ll just be stuck in a rhetorical limbo as something temporary and in transit. Not good for you, not good for Japan.

Debito’s most recent publication is “Japan’s Rightward Swing and the Tottori Prefecture Human Rights Ordinance” in The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus (japanfocus.org/site/view/3907) Twitter: @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Pages of the month. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5