The empire strikes back: the top issues for non-Japanese in 2013


Welcome to JBC’s annual countdown of the top human-rights events as they affected non-Japanese (NJ) in Japan. Last year was more complex, as issues that once targeted NJ specifically now affect everyone in general. But here, in ascending order, are six major events and five “bubble-unders” of 2013 for your consideration:

11. Marutei Tsurunen, Japan’s first foreign-born Diet member of European descent, loses his seat (see “Ol’ blue eyes isn’t back: Tsurunen’s tale offers lessons in microcosm for DPJ,” JBC, Aug. 5).

10. Donald Richie, one of the last of the first postwar generation of NJ commentators on Japan, dies aged 88.

9. Beate Sirota Gordon, one of the last living architects of the liberalizing reforms within the postwar Japanese Constitution, dies at 89.

8. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto takes a revisionist stance on Japanese history regarding the wartime sex-slave issue and reveals his camp’s political vulnerability (“By opening up the debate to the real experts, Hashimoto did history a favor,” JBC, June 4).

7. Tokyo wins the 2020 Olympics, strengthening the mandate of Japan’s ruling class and vested construction interests (see “Triumph of Tokyo Olympic bid sends wrong signal to Japan’s resurgent right,” JBC, Sept. 1).

6. Xenophobia taints No. 1 cleanup

The Fukushima debacle has been covered better elsewhere, and assessments of its dangers and probable outcomes are for others to debate. Incontrovertible, however, is that international assistance and expertise (despite this being an international problem) have been rejected due to official xenophobia.

Last January, The New York Times quoted Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director of the Environment Ministry and the man in charge of the cleanup, as saying that foreign technologies were somehow not applicable to Japan (“Even if a method works overseas, the soil in Japan is different, for example”), and that foreigners themselves were menacing (“If we have foreigners roaming around Fukushima, they might scare the old grandmas and granddads there”). Nishiyama resigned several months later, but Fukushima’s ongoing crisis continues to be divisively toxic both in fact and thought.

5. Japan to adopt Hague treaty

As the last holdout in the Group of Eight (G-8) nations yet to sign this important treaty governing the treatment of children after divorces, both houses of the Diet took the positive step in May and June (after years of formal nudging by a dozen countries, and a probable shove from U.S. President Barack Obama last February) of unanimously endorsing the convention, with ratification now possible in 2014.

As reported on previous Community pages, Japanese society condones (both in practice and by dint of its legal registration systems) single-parent families severing all contact with one parent after divorce. In the case of international divorces, add on linguistic and visa hurdles, as well as an unsympathetic family court system and a hostile domestic media (which frequently portrays abducting Japanese mothers as liberating themselves from violent foreign fathers).

The Hague treaty seeks to codify and level the playing field for negotiation, settlement and visitation. However, Japanese legal scholars and grass-roots organizations are trying to un-level things by, among other things, fiddling with definitions of “domestic violence” to include acts that don’t involve physical contact, such as heated arguments (bōgen, or violent language) and even glaring at your partner (nirami). Put simply: Lose your temper (or not; just seethe) and you lose your kids. Thus, the treaty will probably end up as yet another international agreement caveated until it is unenforceable in Japan.

4. Visa regimes get a rethink

Two years ago, domestic bureaucrats and experts held a summit to hammer out some policies towards foreign labor. JBC pointed out flaws in their mindsets then (see “In formulating immigration policy, no seat at the table for non-Japanese,” July 3, 2012), and last year they ate some crow for getting it wrong.

First, a highly touted “points system” for attracting highly skilled workers with visa perks (which JBC argued was unrealistically strict; see “Japan’s revolving-door immigration policy hard-wired to fail,” March 6, 2012) had as of September only had 700 applicants; the government had hoped for 2,000. Last month, the Justice Ministry announced it would relax some requirements. It added, though, that more fundamental reforms, such as raising salaries, were also necessary — once again falling for the stereotype that NJ only alight in Japan for money.

In an even bigger U-turn, in October the government lifted its ban on South American NJ of Japanese descent “returning” to Japan. Those who had taken the repatriation bribes of 2009 (see “Golden parachutes for Nikkei mark failure of race-based policy,” JBC, April 7, 2009), giving up their accumulated welfare benefits and Japanese pensions for an airfare home, were now welcome to return to work — as long as they secured stable employment (as in, a one-year contract) before arrival. Good luck with that.

Again, what’s missing in all this is, for example, any guarantee of a) equal protection under labor and civil law against discrimination, b) equal educational opportunities for their children, and c) an integration and settlement program ensuring that revolving-door visas and tenuous jobs do not continue forever. But the Abe administration has never made a formal immigration plan one of its policy “arrows”; and, with the bigger political priorities discussed below, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

3. Hate speech turns murderous

This was also the year that the genteel mask of “polite, peace-loving Japan” slipped a bit, with a number of demonstrations across the nation advocating outright hatred and violence towards NJ. “Good Koreans or bad, kill them all,” proclaimed one placard, while another speaker was recorded on video encouraging a “massacre” in a Korean neighborhood of Osaka. An Asahi Shimbun reporter tweeted that anti-Korean goods were being sold on Diet grounds, while xenophobic invective (even rumors of war with China) became normalized within Japan’s salacious tabloids.

It got so bad that the otherwise languid silent majority — who generally respond to xenophobia by ignoring it — started attending counterdemonstrations. Even Japan’s courts, loath to take strong stands on issues that might “curb freedom of speech,” formally recognized “hate speech” as an illegal form of racial discrimination in October, and ordered restitution for victims in one case (a Zainichi Korean school) and a year of actual jail time in another (for harassing a company that had used a Korean actress in its advertising).

However, leading politicians offered only lukewarm condemnations of the hatred (Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called it “dishonorable,” months after the fact) and no countermeasures. In fact, in April, Tokyo’s then-governor, Naoki Inose, slagged off fellow Olympic candidate city Istanbul by denigrating Islam — yet Tokyo still got the games.

Meanwhile, people who discussed issues of discrimination in Japan constructively (such as American teacher Miki Dezaki, whose viral YouTube video on the subject cost him his job and resulted in him retreating to a Buddhist monastery for a year) were bullied and sent death threats, courtesy of Japan’s newly labeled legion of anonymous netto uyoku (Internet rightists).

This political camp, as JBC has argued in the past two annual Top 10 lists, is ascendant in Japan as the country swings further to the right. With impressive victories:

2. LDP holds both Diet chambers

In July, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party accomplished its primary goal by chalking up a landslide victory in the Upper House to complement its equally decisive win in the Lower House in December 2012. Then, with virtually no opposition from the left, it got cocky in its deceptiveness.

Shortly after the election, Deputy PM Taro Aso enthused aloud about Nazi Germany’s policymaking tactics, advocating similar stealth for radical constitutional reforms before Japan’s public realizes it. Later it became clear that LDP reform proposals (excising, for example, “Western” conceits of individuality, human rights and a demystified head of state, and replacing them with the duty to “respect” national symbols, the “public interest” and “public order”) might be too difficult to accomplish if laws were actually followed. So off went Abe’s gaijin-handlers on overseas missions (see “Japan brings out the big guns to sell remilitarization in U.S.,” JBC, Nov. 6) to announce that reinterpretations of the Constitution’s current wording would resolve pesky postwar restrictions.

Meanwhile, Abe was being rebranded for foreign consumption as a peace-loving “ethnic nationalist” instead of (in JBC’s view) a radical historical revisionist and regional destabilizing force. Not only was his recent visit to controversial Yasukuni Shrine repackaged as a mere pilgrimage to Japan’s version of Arlington National Cemetery, but Japan’s remilitarization was also portrayed as a means to assist America and the world in more effective peacekeeping operations, as seen in Abe’s “human security” and “proactive peace policy” neologisms.

As always, a liberal slathering of “peace” talk helps the munitions go down. Just pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. For curtains are precisely what are being drawn with the passage of:

1. The state secrets law

In a country where most reforms proceed at a glacial pace, the Act on Protection of Specified Secrets took everyone by surprise, moving from the public-debate back burner to established law in mere weeks. We still don’t know what will be designated as a “secret,” although official statements have made it clear it would include information about Fukushima, and could be used to curtail “loud” public rallies by protesters LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba likened to “terrorists.”

We do know that the punishments for leakers, including journalists, will be severe: up to 10 years’ jail for leaking something the government says it doesn’t want leaked, and five for “conspiracy” for attempting to get information even if the investigating party didn’t know it was “secret.” It’s so vague that you can get punished for allegedly “planning” the leak — even before the leak has happened or concrete plans have been made to leak. Although resoundingly condemned by Japan’s media, grass roots and the United Nations, it was too little, too late: Stealth won.

The state secrets law is an unfolding issue, but JBC shares the doomsayers’ view: It will underpin the effort to roll back Japan’s postwar democratic reforms and resurrect a prewar-style society governed by perpetual fear of reprisal, where people even in privileged positions will be forced to double-guess themselves into silence regarding substantiated criticism of The State (see the JT’s best article of the year, “The secret of keeping official secrets secret,” by Noriko Hama, Japanese Perspectives, Nov. 30).

After all, information is power, and whoever controls it can profoundly influence social outcomes. Moreover, this law expands “conspiracy” beyond act and into thought. Japan has a history of “thought police” (tokubetsu kōtō keisatsu) very effectively controlling the public in the name of “maintaining order.” This tradition will be resuscitated when the law comes into force in 2014.

In sum, 2013 saw the enfranchised elite consolidating their power further than has ever been seen in the postwar era, while Japan’s disenfranchised peoples, especially its NJ residents, slipped ever lower down the totem pole, becoming targets of suspicion, fear and loathing.

Debito Arudou’s updated “Guidebook for Relocation and Assimilation into Japan” is now available as a downloadable e-book from Amazon and other outlets. See www.debito.org/handbook.html. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause usually appears on the first Thursday of the month but Jan. 2 was a newspaper holiday. Send comments to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Steve Jackman

    In regards to foreign workers, Debito writes in point 4 above, “Again, what’s missing in all this is, for example, any guarantee of a) equal protection under labor and civil law against discrimination”. In my opinion, the unequal and unfair application (or, rather, lack thereof) of Japanese labor law to foreign workers in Japan is the biggest problem facing foreign residents in Japan. My comment here is about highly skilled professional workers who come to work in Japan.

    In theory, Japanese labor laws are supposed to cover and protect foreign workers, the same as Japanese workers. However, in reality and in practice, Japanese companies show a blatant disregard of Japanese labor laws for such things as discriminatory and illegal dismissal of employment, when dealing with their foreign workers. They do this with the comfort of knowing that foreign workers in Japan have little recourse against their Japanese employers for violating Japanese labor laws.

    The Japanese government, the Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare, and the Japanese legal system including the courts and lawyers, are all complicit in letting Japanese companies discriminate, violate workers’ civil rights, and ignore Japanese labor laws, when it comes to foreign workers. This encourages and emboldens the Japanese employers to further mistreat their foreign workers, with a total disregard of the country’s labor laws.

    Since Japanese companies know that they cannot get away with illegal dismissal of their Japanese workers, they are all too keen to illegally dismiss their foreign workers at their whim for no reason, even when the foreign worker happens to be a regular full-time permanent seishain employee. Hence, the fact that Japan’s labor laws have strict protections against illegal dismissal of Japanese workers actually ends up hurting and making things worse for foreign workers, by placing an extra burden and added uncertainty on them.

    The right to a livelihood and to make a living is the most basic necessity for anyone and is a basic right. This is especially important for foreign workers, since they do not have a safety net in Japan. Also, in many cases they have uprooted their families and their lives elsewhere to come to Japan in the hopes of creating a long term future here. However, it is not possible for them to do this, if they do not have basic employment security, and if Japanese companies and the legal system is allowed to violate and circumvent the country’s labor laws, when it comes to foreign workers.

    Japan needs to fix this problem immediately, if it wants to attract foreign workers for the long term, and if it wants to protect its image as a developed country with a fair legal system where the rule of law prevails.

  • Steve Jackman

    I do not know your level of experience in Japan, but as I stated my comment applies to highly skilled foreign professionals working in Japan.

    I have had experience with many Japanese companies in Japan over many years, mostly at a pretty senior level. I have never seen a Japanese company provide any meaningful training to their foreign employees. The reason they usually recruit foreign workers is because the worker possesses certain specialized skills which the company needs for a set duration or a particular project.

    As soon as the company’s immediate needs are met, they treat the foreign worker as a disposable worker and a burden on the company, even when, the company is the one who actively sought and courted the worker to come and work there.

    The honorable and ethical thing for Japanese companies to do would be to honestly tell the foreign worker that they are only needed on a temporary basis, but the companies know that skilled top talent would likely not work there for the lower Japanese salaries. So, they dangle the carrot of stable and secure employment in front of the foreign worker. However, as soon as the company has sucked the skills, expertise and hard work out of the foreign worker, and after they have used him to train the Japanese staff in his speciality, they use highly unethical and illegal methods to push him out of the company. By the way, I have seen Japanese companies exploit their foreign joint venture business partners in Japan the same way.

    Japanese companies prefer and practice a revolving door employment system for foreign workers, since they do not want them to hang around long enough to make it to the ranks of senior management. They have a basic and ingrained mistrust of non-Japanese employees. Who knows what they may do, or the dark company secrets they may expose, if foreigners make it to senior management (think Michael Woodford at Olympus).

    Finally, please do not make this issue about Debito Arudou, as you have done in your response to my comment. This problem has nothing to do with him. Kindly debate the point on its merits, and not on personal attacks on the author of the article.

  • Steve Jackman

    Ms. Amy Wong, I assure you that your experience as a woman and a foreigner working at a traditional Japanese company is anything but typical, and it is contradicted by leading world organizations which track Japan’s treatment of women and foreign workers.

    As far as gender equality for women is concerned, the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report ranks Japan at 105th among 136 countries.

    In regards to treatment of foreign workers in Japan, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights conducted a study in Japan in 2005. This study concluded that, “The Japanese labour law which provides for its application without any discrimination based on nationality is often not implemented”, “the majority of the foreigners working in Japan have no job security”, “The Special Rapporteur noticed that the manifestations of such racial discrimination and xenophobia are manifold”, and “All surveys and indicators point to the fact that minorities live in a situation of marginalization and economic and social vulnerability, in the fields of employment, housing, marriage, pensions, health and education. Such inequalities vis-à-vis the rest of the Japanese society should urgently be addressed”.

    So, Ms. Wong, you see my comment is not based on some “bad experience” I may personally have had as you seem to think, but on well documented research by respected global organizations on the way women and foreign workers are treated in Japan

    • Amy Wong

      It’s nonsense to say things like foreigners are discriminated against in areas like health insurance compared to Japanese Nationals, isn’t it?

      This kind of behaviour of quoting endlessly from United Nations reports is another trait you share with Debitou Arudou I’m afraid.

      Either you are exaggerating for dramatic effect because you have a hysterical nature or you actually believe that middle-class Western professionals are suffering ‘oppression’ in Japan. Fair to say that’s stretching the truth a little, I think most people would agree.

      I can’t believe you when you say that Japanese have an ‘ingrained’ distrust of foreigners because in my entire career I have never found that to be true. Quite the opposite in fact.

      I really wish it were possible to discuss the issues without this ridiculous hyperbole permeating English language forums in Japan.

  • Toolonggone

    Ms. Amy Wong.

    There are plenty of labor issues that will affect workers in Japan today whether it is foreigners or Japanese nationals. Lots of employers are taking advantage of workers status–i.e., senior seishain, haken, or part-timer, and harassing them with menial labor, lower pay, or even overtime work without pay(like notorious Black Corporation). And the current PM is trying to make a law that will allow corporate employers to fire workers without legitimate reasons or even legal due process. It’s undeniable fact that labor dispute is one of the most serious problems Japan is facing now. Working women are still being frowned upon by male-dominated CEOs and even some unsympathetic female commentators like Yoshiko Sakurai.

    You seem to have an issue with an author. Let me make this clear. Debito is NOT the representative or leader of local/national union. Many issues are addressed by people other than him. It doesn’t really matter if he’s involved or not. Your personal view on the author doesn’t change the reality nor will make foreign workers feel better than they are now.

  • Toolonggone

    There is a clear difference between what Mr. Jackman believes and what Ms. Wong thinks what he believes. I’m not so sure if Mr.Jackman has ever made an argument on Japanese people, in general, which Ms. Wong suggests he does. Oh, well, I’m not into that, so I’ll defer to their opinions.

  • 6810

    Hopefully that’s just sarcasm. Otherwise you might want to invest a little more time in studying the history of Japanese scripts.

  • Chiisai (Paul) Sakanashima

    Since the beginning of human history, people have been getting hired
    and fired from their jobs, that is nothing new. If foreign workers (NJ)
    don’t like the idea of finding a job in Japan with the chance of “being
    used” and then getting laid off, then maby they should consider looking
    elsewhere for work. Nobody has to go to Japan. Think of it this way–if
    person A were to go to Japan, work, then get terminated from their job,
    they might become disgruntled, angered,even develop a hatred for the
    Japanese. Then lets say person B comes to Japan for the same reason, and
    then the same thing happens to them in Japan, only this time person B
    has a different attitude toward Japan than person A did, the outcome
    would be the same. Person B would go on with life and move on. Would
    Japan care? No! Either way, it is what it is! With that being said,
    Japan is by far not the only country in the world that does this, the US
    is a classic example for the same, and it happens all the time there.
    So then, why is it that we don’t hear anything when this goes on in the
    States? Thank you, no one cares!

    This may sound bias
    and if it does, I don’t care! You will find that the Japanese are the
    friendliest, most kind people you will ever meet, they have culture that
    predates the western world and Meso America. They have the cleanest
    streets in their towns and cities, (you could eat off their sidewalks)
    Japan hosts the highest standard of living the world has ever seen as
    well. Life expectancy is higher than any other place in the world too.
    Japan is the most highly advanced technological country in the world
    when it comes to the computer age. The one thing that I have seen, the
    Japanese strive for perfection when they wake up in the morning. I could
    go on and on…you get the picture.

    Both of my
    parents are foreign born; they came to the USA back in the 1950’s to
    better themselves, and in those days, you would not get hired by anyone
    if you didn’t know the English language in America! Now things have
    changed, any language suffices in today’s world which is fine. I think
    the United States is finally opening up to the fact that English is not
    the only language spoken in the world. The people of Japan have every
    right to hire and fire anyone it likes, legal or not, foreign or
    domestic, nationals without reason or reservation.

    people believe that the issue is lack of trust on the part of the
    Japanese people toward the foreigner. However, I don’t think trust has
    anything to do with anything here, if that were so, the foreigner would
    not make it past the gate at the airport, (or seaport for that matter)
    from where they make their landing. Many people have come up to me and
    said that Japan has very strict policies regarding to whom they let in
    and to whom they do not. More power to them! Do you see them with an
    illegal alien problem? No, you do not. I rest my case. Thank you for reading this.