Tackle embedded racism before it chokes Japan

by Debito Arudou

Japan has a dire problem it must address immediately: its embedded racism.

The country’s society and government are permeated by a narrative that says people must “look Japanese” before they can expect equal treatment in society.

That must stop. It’s a matter of Japan’s very survival.

We’ve talked about Japan’s overt racism in previous Just Be Cause columns: the “Japanese only” signs and rules that refuse entry and service to “foreigners” on sight (also excluding Japanese citizens who don’t “look Japanese”); the employers and landlords who refuse employment and apartments — necessities of life — to people they see as “foreign”; the legislators, administrators, police forces and other authorities and prominent figures that portray “foreigners” as a national security threat and call for their monitoring, segregation or expulsion.

But this exclusionism goes beyond a few isolated bigots in positions of power, who can be found in every society. It is so embedded that it becomes an indictment of the entire system.

In fact, embedded racism is key to how the system “works.” Or rather, as we shall see below, how it doesn’t.

Consider some of these exclusionary social structures in Japan:

• Registry systems exclude noncitizen residents from equal legal and social standing with their citizen counterparts.

• Important laws, including those governing primary education for children in Japan, are only applicable to “citizens,” fostering a noncitizen underclass.

• “Nationality clauses” exclude noncitizens from employment opportunities far beyond the most sensitive government jobs that require security clearance.

• Taxpayer-funded sports leagues (with mottoes like “Sports for all”) overtly refuse or restrict “foreign” participants.

• Japan’s visa regimes, as fellow columnist Colin P.A. Jones has repeatedly pointed out, systematically deny noncitizens equal constitutional protections.

• Even the Constitution itself clearly states (in the official Japanese-language version) that all Japanese “nationals” (not “residents” or “people”) are equal before the law. And of course, that all-important law in the criminal or civil code forbidding racial discrimination still doesn’t exist.

• Meanwhile, the country’s blood-based citizenship laws ensure that people with Japanese blood (including noncitizens) receive preferential treatment for life in Japan. That is, of course, as long as they “look Japanese.” If not, see above.

I could cite more examples, but the point is that they add up to an exclusionary system that embeds the fundamental processes of racialization — i.e., differentiation, othering and subordination.

How is an exclusionary narrative created and enforced? The same way it is in all nation-states: Design an imagined community with a sense of “us” and “them”; draw borders both in terms of territory and between peoples; create laws and statutes explicitly granting privilege to the in-group (usually citizens) and subordinating the out-group (noncitizens). If you want equal treatment in a society, become a citizen.

But Japan goes further by adding physical appearance to the mix. This normalizes racial profiling regardless of citizenship.

For example, it is common procedure for Japanese police to target “foreign-looking” people on the street for invasive questioning. “Foreign-looking” Japanese have been detained and interrogated for lacking paperwork that only foreign nationals must carry at all times. Public prosecutors and criminal investigators are trained that “foreigners” (however determined) have no human rights. Japan’s justice system even has an extrajudicial track — the Immigration detention network — without domestic criminal justice oversight for “foreigners.”

Even when being processed by the same criminal justice system as Japanese, foreigners are often treated with greater suspicion, suffer harsher treatment as criminal suspects and enjoy less protection as criminal victims. And, again, if you don’t “look Japanese,” you are more likely to be singled out and subjected to extra scrutiny.

Emboldened by the public criminalization of foreigners, prominent figures have relative free rein to express racist views. Take former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s argument that foreigners commit crimes because they are foreigners, or former trade minister Takeo Hiranuma’s suggestion that citizens with “foreign roots” are somehow disloyal, to name but two. Yet all this is so normalized that these officials were able to brush off any controversy and even get re-elected.

Finally, Japan’s exclusionary narrative is disseminated and normalized through its media. Japanese are constantly fed a mantra about their country’s uniqueness and, therefore, by definition, how Japanese are different from non-Japanese. It’s one thing to be made to feel special (national narratives have precisely that role), but it’s another to constantly infer that foreigners are merely temporary guest workers (if not criminals, terrorists, etc.) and can never really belong in Japanese society.

And, again, how do you tell who is a foreigner? Display them in print and broadcast with “foreign” physical features (off-color hair and eyes, big noses, etc.) so they don’t look like “us.”

It’s been very effective. Government opinion polls have in the past indicated that a near-majority of Japanese (non-citizens were not surveyed, naturally) did not agree that foreigners should get the same human rights as Japanese in Japan. Why? Because they are foreigners. Axiomatically. The logical loop is thereby closed.

Now, devil’s advocate: Why should anyone care? This is Japan. Shouldn’t Japan organize itself as it likes, even if that means “foreigners” are treated as second-class noncitizens?

Well, you should worry if you care about Japan and your loved ones within. Japan has entered its third decade of economic stagnation. According to the International Monetary Fund, among the club of rich developed countries, only Japan’s gross domestic product per capita has shrunk year-on-year on average over the past 20-odd years (1993-2011, the most recent year for which data is available).

Japan as a nation has never suffered from such a sustained period of economic malaise. Pretty soon there will have been as many years of economic stagnation as there were of the “Japanese miracle’s” postwar high-speed growth.

Further, according to the government, the proportion of Japan’s total population that is elderly (aged 65 and up) will reach 36 percent by 2050. This will affect Japan’s food security most distinctly: By 2030, three-quarters of all of Japan’s farmers will be that age too, and by 2040 an estimated 896 Japanese cities, towns and villages will be extinct.

Who will man the countryside and feed the people? How many people of working age will be able to pay into the top-heavy pension system? As Japan’s society continues to gray into economic insolvency, it’s only going to get worse.

Do you think you, or anyone in Japan, will see a real return on your Japanese pension investments? Now, do you still not care?

Policymakers may offer salves and snake-oil solutions, such as more women or robots in the workforce. But women are aging too, and robots don’t pay taxes or pensions. No matter what, this situation is unsustainable.

You’ve heard all this demographic doomsaying before. But the news is that it’s not going to change until Japan takes the fundamental step of abandoning the embedded racism that dictates who is considered a Japanese.

The only thing that will keep Japan from getting old and decrepit is the influx of a younger labor force. Since Japanese citizens, with their incurably low birthrates, can’t accomplish this, the only alternative left is immigration and intermarriage.

But if those new entrants (including, again, Japanese citizens who don’t “look Japanese”) are not guaranteed equal treatment in Japanese society, there will be an underclass of people perpetually discriminated against.

Once people realize (as Chinese, Filipinos, Indonesians, Brazilians and Peruvians have) that the Japanese government is only importing people temporarily to exploit them, they won’t continue to come. Moreover, many talented Japanese with international roots, facing alienation on a daily basis, are not going to stay. Even if both groups do, they won’t make (or be able to make) the same contributions to Japanese society as people who are welcomed, respected and prosperous.

You know, somebody ought to write a book.

Well, guess what: Somebody has. Everything above is substantiated within my new academic textbook, “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination” (Lexington Books), on sale in a few days.

“Embedded Racism,” based on my doctoral research, describes how Japan’s racism is an intrinsic part of its national identity, how it “works” in Japanese society to stratify people, and how people justify it — and even deny that it is racism at all, arguing that it is merely an essential means of social ordering “unique” to Japan. They are wrong. It’s still racism, only more subtle and embedded than most.

In short, the most urgent problem facing Japan today is not economic; it is attitudinal. It is the incorrect belief that you can spot a Japanese on sight. Even if you keep a firewall of equal treatment between “Japanese” and “foreign” (as most societies do), the fact that Japan still sees Japanese citizenship in racialized (not legal) terms means that far too many Japanese are going to be alienated and subordinated.

Until Japan takes the first steps of removing bloodline-based and phenotypical conceits behind nationality and citizenship, Japan will continue to strangle itself demographically and, by extension, economically, politically and socially.

Thus, if not properly analyzed and addressed, Japan’s embedded racism will be its undoing.

Debito Arudou’s “Embedded Racism” is available from Amazon, or directly from the publisher with 30 percent off. See www.debito.org/embeddedracism.html. Twitter: @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears in print on the first Monday Community Page of the month. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp