Every January, Just Be Cause takes a look at how things went for the non-Japanese residents of Japan (NJ) in the previous year.

While not everything made this year’s list — there were the false claims of “foreigner fraud” of the national health insurance system, and fake news of NJ crime in the wake of the Osaka quake in June — the issues that did, ranked in ascending order, may portend how our community is treated in 2019 and beyond.

10) Brazilians snub new visa

In March, the Justice Ministry announced a new visa program to attract fourth-generation descendants of ethnic Japanese, the children of more than 300,000 Brazilian- and Peruvian-Japanese who had previously worked here under a “returnee visa” regime in the 1990s.

During the 2008 recession, though, many of those “returnees” lost their jobs and were paid by the government to expatriate, forfeiting their pensions and other investments. They left in droves.

The March reboot unabashedly offered by the government aimed to bring back young workers — for up to five years — as long as they had sufficient linguistic skills, a job offer and family support already in Japan. As of October there were zero applicants. Looks like the jig is up.

9) Naomi Osaka’s victory

A talk worth having: Naomi Osaka holds her trophy at the women
A talk worth having: Naomi Osaka holds her trophy at the women’s final of the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York. | AP

Tennis player Naomi Osaka’s win at the U.S. Open finals in September inspired pride in Japan due to her Japanese (and Haitian-American) roots. It also generated discussion on what makes someone “Japanese.”

Japanese society stresses uniformity. Citizens with foreign roots or experience tend to be categorized as hāfu (half-Japanese) or kikokushijo (returnees) and face discrimination as a result. But when those same people succeed on the world stage, patriotism takes over and they’re usually claimed as Japanese.

There are exceptions to every rule: Beauty queens Ariana Miyamoto and Priyanka Yoshikawa were both criticized for not being Japanese enough to deserve the Miss Japan title. In sports, however, if Osaka and other mixed-race athletes such as basketball player Rui Hachimura or sprinter Abdul Hakim Sani Brown are able to keep winning they may be able to make some headway on who exactly is “Japanese.” If they keep winning.

8) The courts rule against hate

Lee Sin Hae, a special permanent resident Zainichi, has been publicly defamed in hate rallies for years by Zaitokukai, an anti-Korean hate group. She sued them in 2014 for hate speech, and racial and gender discrimination.

Her ordeal came to an end last year, however, after Japan’s Supreme Court upheld lower court rulings against Zaitokukai, making Lee’s case another example of how recent hate speech laws have legally actionable consequences.

It also matters because her victory was grounded in “racial” discrimination, not “ethnic” or “cultural.” Criticized as the only major developed country without a criminal law against racial discrimination, Japan has regardless argued to the United Nations that it doesn’t need one. Lee’s win defies that claim.

7) A small step in Setagaya

Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, one of Japan’s first governmental bodies to recognize same-sex marriages, passed an ordinance last March protecting racial, ethnic and sexual minorities against discrimination and hate speech.

Unfortunately, the ordinance lacks criminal punishments for offenders. But the ward can investigate claims, get the mayor involved and provide evidence for lawsuits.

It’s a positive step. Municipal assemblies have in the past gone in the opposite direction by passing alarmist resolutions — like the one against suffrage for NJ permanent residents passed by Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, in 2010 — or passing and then retracting resolutions due to a bigoted backlash — as happened with Tottori Prefecture’s antidiscrimination ordinance in 2005. That didn’t happen in Setagaya.

6) The Immigration Agency

Due to a record influx of NJ tourists and workers, the government announced last August that the Immigration Bureau would be upgraded to agency status, complete with 500 new staff.

The change falls short, though, since critics point out that the bureau’s current role under the Justice Ministry’s auspices is to police NJ, not encourage them to become permanent residents or citizens.

If Japan wants to get serious about its looming demographic disaster — a shrinking taxpayer workforce due to an aging society and low birthrates — it needs to import people and encourage them to stay. To do that, the government needs to create a dedicated Immigration Ministry that is separate from the Justice Ministry. This upgrade to an Immigration Agency, which is set to happen in April, is one step closer.

5) Central surveillance

That said, last year it was announced the Justice Ministry will be given even more power to track NJ.

Remember the remotely readable RFID-chipped Gaijin Card from 2012? How about the facial-recognition devices that arrived in 2014 that now specifically target NJ at border entry points? Or, the 2016 proposal to use NJ fingerprints as currency in order to “enable the government to analyze the spending habits and patterns of foreign tourists”? Now the Justice Ministry plans to nationalize records on NJ employment, taxes and marriage.

The NJ community has generally fared better under local governments, which have been more sympathetic to the complex lives of individual residents. Shifting their responsibilities to the central authorities not only removes the flexibility but also increases the burden on rural NJ residents, who will have to travel farther and more often just to stay current on their registrations.

4) The tourism backlash

Crowded house: People walk along Matsubara-dori street on the approach to Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, a popular tourist spot.
Crowded house: People walk along Matsubara-dori street on the approach to Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, a popular tourist spot. | BLOOMBERG

Last year, overseas tourists (mainly from other Asian countries) reached 31 million, becoming a major economic driver.

This milestone came with backlash: Media screeds about Chinese littering, a “Chinese only” hotel in Sapporo, separate “foreigner” taxi stands at JR Kyoto Station and a “Japanese only” tourist information booth at JR Beppu Station.

The worst of the anti-tourist sentiment came with the passing of a minpaku (private lodgings) law in June. While tamping down on rental website Airbnb, an American service mostly used by overseas tourists, we saw a lot of coded xenophobia.

In Tokyo, Chuo Ward warned that letting “strangers” (meaning foreigners) into apartments could be unsafe, and Shibuya Ward only permitted home-sharing during holidays so that “children wouldn’t meet ‘strangers'” on the way to school. NHK Radio even implied the Islamic State group might use Japanese homes as terrorist bases.

Being ungrateful for tourist money is one thing, but treating people as a threats after campaigns to get them to visit? Tourist numbers are expected to hit 40 million for the 2020 Olympics, let’s hope the levels of xenophobic fearmongering don’t reach as high.

3) Japan Times’ new wording

In June of 2017, The Japan Times made news when it was announced that it had been bought by media firm News2U. Last November, the paper made news again when it published an editor’s note that it would reword some historically controversial terms.

According to the paper’s top brass, the description of “comfort women” would be amended to “women who worked in wartime brothels, including those who did so against their will, to provide sex to Japanese soldiers,” while “forced laborers” would become “wartime laborers” due to varying experiences and recruiting patterns.

Pundits have long tracked efforts by the government to pressure local media and textbook companies, here and abroad, into portraying the country’s past in a more exculpatory light. To many, the rewording looked to be yet another win for them in that campaign despite a message from the executive editor that denied any external pressure.

I myself have previously praised The Japan Times as the only sustainable venue left with investigative NJ journalists, NJ editors and independently thinking Japanese writers, bravely critiquing government policy without capitulating to misguided concerns on the far right that they were “anti-Japan.” This development is worrying and disturbing.

2) Carlos Ghosn’s arrest

Bad year: The arrest of Carlos Ghosn, former CEO of Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors, brought the eyes of the world down on Japan
Bad year: The arrest of Carlos Ghosn, former CEO of Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors, brought the eyes of the world down on Japan’s justice system. | BLOOMBERG

In November, Carlos Ghosn, former CEO of Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors, was arrested for allegedly underreporting taxable income.

Still in detention, Ghosn is facing what anyone arrested in Japan could face: 23-day cycles of interrogations and re-arrests in which they can be deprived of amenities like sleep or lawyers until they confess.

The arrests of the Brazilian-born Ghosn and American Greg Kelly highlight the different treatment NJ receive under Japanese law. Did underreporting income etc. play out the same way for the leaders of Olympus, Takata, Kobe Steel or other Japanese executives?

Jurisprudence works differently for NJ in that suspects are treated harsher and victims aren’t taken as seriously. Uncertified translation services, secondary detention for visa violations while in jail — all of these contribute to the fact that incarceration rates for NJ are four times that of citizens.

But for Ghosn, prosecutors argued that certain statutes of limitations do not apply because he was often overseas. Thus in Japanese jurisprudence, even time passes differently for NJ!

Fortunately, the Ghosn case has drawn overdue attention to the justice system, long decried as “a breeding ground for false charges” and “tantamount to torture.” But if it had happened somewhere like China, the outcry would probably have been stronger and sooner.

1) New categories of visas

Departing from decades of official policy, last year the government announced two new visa categories that would allow around 345,000 unskilled NJ workers into industries such as nursing, food service, agriculture, hotels, and construction and maintenance. In theory, one of the visas offers paths to renewal and permanent residency.

The government denied this was a new immigration policy, but it is clearly shoring up Japan’s labor force against its impending demographic crisis. It also acknowledges what is currently happening in certain industries, like convenience stores, where NJ workers are becoming normalized.

This matters. One way that minorities become less threatening to society is by becoming “normal” — as co-workers, indispensable helpers, purveyors of addictive cuisine, neighbors or even friends.

My cynical side doubts this will happen soon. As we’ve seen before, the government can revoke visas if it looks like NJ will reach a critical mass. Widespread labor abuses in the technical trainee and interns program also remain unresolved.

One thing’s for sure: The normalization of NJ will not happen without numbers, and that’s what this new visa regime allows.

To end on a positive note, last year the rigorous Pew Research Center surveyed several countries about attitudes toward international migration.

One question, “In your opinion, should we allow more immigrants to move to our country, fewer immigrants, or about the same as we do now?” saw positive responses from Japan that were the highest of any country surveyed — 81 percent saying “more” or “the same.”

I was surprised, since the word “immigration” (imin) has been considered taboo in the past. So I asked Pew directly for the Japanese translation. Sure enough, it was rendered as “Imin no kazu” (immigration numbers).

Personally, I’ve never seen this before. And it could possibly mean that changing policies and attitudes toward “immigrants” may result in a sea change in attitudes toward NJ residents within our lifetimes.

Debito Arudou’s latest book, “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination,” is now available in paperback. Twitter: @arudoudebito

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