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Japan’s ‘no immigration principle’ looking as solid as ever

by Chris Burgess

Special To The Japan Times

Hidenori Sakanaka’s message is very clear: Only immigration can save Japan. Sakanaka, a former Justice Ministry official and director of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, proposes bringing in 10 million migrants over 50 years. In making his case for opening up the country, he cites a mountain of demographic evidence, specifically the declining and aging population and the shrinking workforce.

Sakanaka’s proposal is perfectly logical and rational, but what he fails to understand — and this is rather surprising given his bureaucratic background — is that policymaking is rarely based on logic. In fact, policy is often discursively driven: Elite prejudices and public perceptions play a key role in shaping the policymaking process. The result is often policy that can appear irrational, or even contrary to the national interest.

I was recently invited to speak with Sakanaka at a symposium titled “Immigration Nation Japan?” In contrast to Sakanaka’s unbridled optimism, I argued that Japan has little prospect of becoming a “migrant nation” anytime soon. My argument centered on the still-dominant and pervasive discourse of “homogeneous Japan,” which manifests itself in the policymaking domain as the “no-immigration principle.”

A central tenet of Nihonjinron — a popular genre of writing on national identity — is that the Japanese are a homogeneous people (tanitsu minzoku) who constitute a racially unified nation. While Nihonjinron has been thoroughly discredited in academic writing, it remains deeply rooted in popular discourse. The official report of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, for example, described a disaster that was “made in Japan,” and identified its major causes as groupism, insularity and a reluctance to question authority.

Of course, the fact that Japan is relatively homogeneous — it is one of the few industrialized countries not to have experienced a tremendous inflow of international migrants in the postwar period — adds a veneer of believability to the discourse. Thus, comments by politicians on Japan’s homogeneity — such as then-communications minister Taro Aso’s 2005 “one culture, one civilization, one race” pronouncement — are eminently uncontroversial in Japan, since they reflect (and in turn reinforce) a popular and widely held perception.

One aspect of the homogeneous-people discourse that has relevance for the migration debate is the notion of the Japanese as harmonious and peace-loving. Thus, when the then-education minister called Japan “extremely homogeneous” in 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he saw no problem in the remarks since he was “referring to the fact that we (the Japanese public) have gotten along with each other fairly well so far.” The implication is that bringing in foreigners may disrupt the “traditional” harmony and cooperation that characterizes Japanese society, leading to a perception of foreigners as criminals.

Interestingly, the “foreign crime” discourse (which is by no means found only in Japan) seems to have weakened in recent years. A 2006 Cabinet Office survey found that 84.3 percent of Japanese felt public security had worsened, and the top reason given was that “crimes committed by foreigners had increased.” However, the same survey in 2012 found similar anxiety over public security but far fewer pointing the finger at foreigners. A major reason for this weakening of the perception of foreigners as criminals is certainly the drop in the foreign population since 2009. However, with the first rise in the foreign population in five years in 2013 — coupled with the first rise in foreign crime in nine years — the foreign-crime discourse looks set for a comeback.

The no-immigration principle is an institutionalization of the homogeneous-people discourse. The principle basically states that Japan does not accept migrants. Indeed, the M-word (imin in Japanese) is markedly absent in legal, media and popular discourse, where it is replaced by euphemisms such as “entrants” and “foreign workers.” On the policy side, this means that it is necessary to do as much as possible to prevent foreigners in general from staying long or settling down. Tessa Morris-Suzuki argues that this principle has remained relatively unchanged since the first Nationality Law of 1899, which aimed to a) prevent an influx of unskilled labor, and b) restrict access to Japanese nationality.

The failure of immigration reform to date demonstrates the persistence of the no-immigration principle. Debate on the possibility of allowing in foreign manual workers first emerged at the end of the 1980s but resulted in nothing more than the enlargement of (skilled) visa categories and the introduction of two “backdoor” labor sources (Nikkei Latin Americans and trainees). The second reform debate from around 2004 saw a number of revolutionary proposals — including Sakanaka’s — but all of these came to nothing. The only change was a more restrictive “entertainer” visa policy and the inclusion of health workers in economic partnership agreements struck with Southeast Asian nations.

With the economy picking up and population forecasts making increasingly stark reading, one might expect cracks to be appearing in the no-immigration principle. Certainly, opinion polls show the Japanese public to be increasingly worried about the effects of the declining population. However, when asked what should be done to secure the labor supply, the top two answers in an April Yomiuri poll were to increase the rate of working women and encourage more elderly to work. Only 37 percent said more foreign workers should be accepted, and only 10 percent of those said manual workers should be brought in. The bottom line is that the no-immigration principle continues to be broadly supported by the Japanese public.

Which brings us to Abenomics. A November 2013 Fortune article pointed out that the one thing missing from Japan’s master plan was immigrants and immigration reform. Certainly, Abe’s new growth strategy is full of talk of cultivating “global human resources,” but this is concerned only with attracting highly skilled foreign professionals. Even then, the hurdles are set impossibly high: A new points-based system introduced in 2012 attracted only 17 foreigners in its first 11 months due to overly strict criteria, particularly regarding income. And Abe himself has bent over backwards to avoid the M-word: In a joint meeting of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy and the Industrial Competitiveness Council in April, Abe stressed that we should be careful not to mistake the “utilization” of foreign workers in nursing care and housekeeping for immigration policies.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics is another case in point. While every effort is being made to make Japan more tourist-friendly, demand for construction workers is being met through an expansion of the technical internship (trainee) program to allow longer stays — until fiscal 2020. Such moves make Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe’s recent statement that human plurality and diversity should be the basis for the games sound very hollow.

In sum, we may wonder at the resilience of Japan’s no-immigration principle — and the nation’s ambivalence to globalization in general. Is it related to what Paul Gilroy has called (in the context of postwar England) postimperial melancholy, a mentality that still clings to an idea of the nation as a self-enclosed entity, a homogeneous center? Japan’s nostalgia for and failure to come to terms with its colonial legacy suggest there may be something to this. But whatever the reason, what is certain is that immigration reform proposals such as Sakanaka’s — together with acceptance of the M-word — are for the time being nothing but pie-in-the-sky.

Chris Burgess lectures in Japanese and Australian studies at Tsuda College, Tokyo. He would like to thank all the participants in the April 25 “Immigration Nation Japan?” symposium for their insightful contributions and stimulating discussions. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp