Something landmark happened late last year. Japan’s government undertook a nationwide survey of discrimination toward Japan’s long-term non-Japanese (NJ) residents.

The Foreign Residents Survey (FRS), drawn up in 13 languages, was randomly mailed last November to 18,500 NJ residents. It was widely dispersed — to about 500 names per local government.

Good. We need hard data about the breadth and depth of discrimination to deal with it. However, previous government surveys analyzed in this column (e.g., “Human rights survey stinks,” Zeit Gist, Oct. 23, 2007) had serious methodological problems. And afterwards, thanks to attention in The Japan Times, they were amended. Many thanks.

So how is the survey this time? Much better. But it still needs work due to an enormous blind spot.

Although commissioned by the Ministry of Justice (which should raise red flags, since the MOJ treats foreigners not as people to help assimilate, but rather nuisances to police and control), the FRS specifically asked how NJ felt they were being treated in Japanese society, whether they had experienced discrimination in their daily lives, and what actions should be taken to stop it.

This alone is a seismic shift, given how completely Japan’s policymakers exclude NJ from even the most basic things. Just Be Cause (Jul. 3, 2012) noted how Japan’s policies toward NJ are created — without a trace of irony — without ever consulting NJ. Registered foreign residents are even excluded from official population tallies!

All previous national Cabinet surveys about discrimination in Japan reflected this bias. For example, they only surveyed — yes, again unironically — Japanese about discrimination towards foreigners. And they used leading questions casting doubt upon whether discrimination really happens to NJ.

Surveys even portrayed human rights as “optional” for foreign humans, finding that fewer and fewer respondents believed NJ should have the same human rights as Japanese. This bias was so overt that in 1998, the United Nations bluntly opined that “human rights standards are not determined by popularity polls.”

Other surveys that asked NJ about their experiences had only been conducted by local governments. Thanks, but this made the findings impossible to generalize, and they still had flawed methodologies. A common one was offering answer options that passed racism off as “cultural differences” (meaning that discrimination is partly the foreigner’s fault for being different). And no options ever suggested laws against racial discrimination.

So with this background in mind, let’s analyze the FRS (archived in full at www.debito.org/?p=14298). It opens with an explanation of its purpose: Enhancing efforts “to overcome prejudice and discrimination against foreigners.” Great. But again, no mention is made of “racial discrimination.”

Then comes the first question, and it’s an odd one— not about discrimination at all, but NJ interactions with local Japanese. Answers range from being married to/working with Japanese to having no interaction with Japanese at all. (I guess they live in a terrarium.) Why is this an issue? Does this enable answers to be discounted because it’s the foreign resident’s fault for not getting out more? Unclear.

Fortunately, the next section brings up an everyday example of discrimination: apartment refusals. And the FRS rightly shies away from the most common excuse for ignoring racist landlords (“NJ have no guarantors, sorry”) and offers explicit choices of refusal “because I am a foreigner” or “the property I was looking at said ‘No foreigners.’ ” It also offers an open-ended response section, and with enough space to write sufficient commentary. Good.

Next is discrimination in employment, with yes/no answers for foreigners getting denied a job, paid lower wages, getting laid off or having worse working conditions with a lack of promotions. Again, ample space for commentary.

Then it asks about access to services: “Have you ever been refused entry or service at a store?” Good, but then you have to explain specifics in a tiny space (impossible when circumstances matter), within a time frame limited to the past five years.

The same goes for a subsequent section, which asks about very specific discriminatory experiences under a spectrum of “often,” “occasionally,” and “never.” These include: prejudices and being bullied at work or school, harassment due to an unusual name or lack of Japanese-language ability, being stared at, being avoided in public spaces, not being accepted by local residents, being ignored when speaking to people, having your Japanese partner’s relatives oppose your relationship, having relatives tell you not to teach your children about your foreign culture, being teased about your country of origin or culture, and having relatives pressure you to take a Japanese-style name. Not bad. These options clearly reflect a wide consultation with NJ.

Next come specific expressions of discrimination: Have you heard or seen xenophobic demos or street propaganda? Options are: seeing them online or in person, seeing them in the media, and hearing about them from friends or relatives. And how did you feel about this? A choice between five negative and two neutral reactions is then offered.

The survey then specifically focuses on online harassment, with very elaborate questions about the method of targeting and the NJ reaction. Providing ample space to elaborate, the government clearly is angling for some data for policymaking.

As they are regarding NJ children’s education. Questions are very specific about their coping language level in class, loss of foreign language ability, lack of school guidance for parents, bullying, access to Japanese high school and college, and the lack of school staff specializing in multicultural education and human rights.

Bravo on that. In a country where compulsory education is only legally guaranteed for citizens, these are crucial concerns to avoid an illiterate NJ generational underclass, which has already emerged in Japan (ZG, July 17, 2007).

The most important section in this survey is the one that canvasses NJ opinion about measures to eliminate discrimination and prejudice. Naturally, this is where jejune platitudes of “promoting cultural awareness and mutual respect” and “exposing Japanese to foreigners” get optioned in; these are meaningless when it comes to deterring bona fide racists and haters.

However, the FRS committee seems to have learned something from meaningless past surveys. Along with the “enhance consultation systems for foreigners who face discrimination,” it also offers this option: “Share accurate information with Japanese about the legal status, rights and living conditions, etc., of foreign residents.”

Double bravo. In the National Police Agency’s haste to fabricate foreign crime waves (ZG, Jul 8, 2013), a counter-narrative about what positive things NJ offer Japan really does not happen.

And finally (and I want to hug somebody for this), the FRS offers the option “Develop laws and regulations prohibiting discrimination against foreigners.”

Finally, you listened! And now that I’ve got your attention again, FRS committee, please put in next time: “Punish discriminators with suspended business licenses, fines — and incarceration if necessary.” Oh, and call it “racial discrimination” already.

Excellent work. However, I will suggest one significant improvement for this survey: recognizing causation.

The FRS’s most problematic section is the one asking if you’ve ever been verbally insulted or discriminated against to your face.

Their preset options for the discriminators are — and these are important — your Japanese partner and/or relatives, work colleagues and/or clients, teachers or students or their parents, friends, neighbors, civil servants or “public transport workers,” store or restaurant workers, strangers or others (fill in).

Fine, but interpersonal interactions are not the only source of discrimination in Japan.

As I discuss at length in my book “Embedded Racism,” racism is a structural, systemic issue. It is embedded in Japan’s very laws, the interpretation and enforcement of those laws, jurisprudence, government public policies and media messages.

These structures constantly reinforce a narrative that a “foreigner” is a matter of physical appearance and bloodline. And anyone who looks, acts or in any way seems “different” from “Japanese” is not to be trusted or treated the same as “Japanese.”

That clearly goes far beyond legal status. And it’s visible, when people who have Japanese citizenship but look different are still insufficiently protected from discrimination.

Thus, the government, by legitimizing and normalizing this narrative, is a primary agent of discrimination.

However, the assumption in this survey is that the public is the perpetrator, and therefore the government has to step in to protect foreign nationals from the natives. Wrong.

For example, the FRS does not offer options for, oh, police racial profiling and random street checks of “gaijin cards,” diffident treatment at Hello Work unemployment agencies, lack of official assistance with unequal labor contracts for foreign workers, arbitrary visa amendment/cancelations at Immigration without the right of appeal, or fruitless consultations with the MOJ’s Potemkin Bureau of Human Rights.

The government sets the rules, and people follow them. Because the people have long been told that it’s not only OK, it’s even standard operating procedure to treat foreigners differently axiomatically because they are foreign. The government must also take responsibility for its role in the system. It hardly ever has.

If a survey is to be truly meaningful, it must not only measure symptoms of discrimination, but also bore down to root causes. So, government, survey thyself!

Next FRS, then. Until then, I look forward to seeing the results of this one, which are scheduled to come out this month. Watch this space.

Debito’s latest book, “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination,” is out now. Twitter @arudoudebito. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

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