For over a decade, Just Be Cause has recapped the previous year’s biggest human rights and human rights-related issues that have affected the non-Japanese community in Japan.

With the start of a new decade upon us, I thought it would be appropriate to mix a little of what was going on in 2019 and connect it to the broader topics that came up during the 2010s. Some are victories, some are losses — some are dangerous losses — but all of the entries below (in ascending order) are at the very least highly relevant to all of us.

10) Otaru onsen, 20 years on

In September 1999, several international couples (including myself) tried to take a public bath at an onsen (hot-spring bath) in Otaru, Hokkaido, but were met with a “Japanese Only” sign rather than friendly customer service. The people who looked insufficiently “Japanese” (including myself and one of my daughters) were refused entry, while those who did (including a Chinese foreign resident) were allowed in.

The same onsen refused me entry again even after I became a Japanese citizen, and a group of us took them to court. The case, which went all the way to Japan’s Supreme Court, found the onsen guilty of “discriminating too much,” while the city of Otaru — which was also sued for not enforcing the United Nations Convention on Racial Discrimination that Japan had ratified in 1996 — was found not liable.

Twenty years later, “Japanese Only” signs are still posted in places and Japan is still not living up to its international treaty commitments, with no national law protecting non-Japanese communities from racial discrimination.

9) Diversity in sports

This year’s Rugby World Cup saw less media-generated “hooligan” xenophobia than the FIFA World Cup hosted jointly by Japan and South Korea in 2002. Instead, Japan’s Brave Blossoms embraced the ethnic diversity of its team to the extent that its “One Team” mantra became 2019’s buzzword of the year. (Now all we need are Japanese reporters brave enough to actually talk to the non-Japanese members of the team.)

In sumo, meanwhile, Mongolian-born wrestler Hakuho, a newly minted Japanese citizen, achieved a record-breaking 43rd victory. This came despite all the media focus on Kisenosato, the only native Japanese promoted to the top rank of yokozuna since 1998, who seemed to have been shoehorned in despite lackluster credentials and dropped out last January after only two years.

Finally, tennis sensation Naomi Osaka, the half-Japanese and half-American-Haitian athlete who bested Serena Williams in 2018 and became the top-ranked player worldwide, gave Japan another reason to be proud. That said, the celebratory mood was tainted after a whitewashed version of Osaka popped up in an online ad for Nissin noodles. With the rise of other diverse Japanese athletes, such as basketballer Rui Hachimura and runner Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, it’s time for the Japanese media to treat them with the respect they deserve and stop the reflexive editorial chauvinism.

Modern role model: Tennis star Naomi Osaka signs autographs for fans in September last year. | KYODO
Modern role model: Tennis star Naomi Osaka signs autographs for fans in September last year. | KYODO

8) Schoolhouse blues

The “hair police” have targeted mixed-race students in Japan for years, forcing them to dye their naturally brown hair black and straighten any natural waves or curls. In 2017, one student in Osaka Prefecture fought back claiming emotional damage.

Thanks in part to non-Japanese students who have been raising awareness on this issue — without the support of the Japanese media — last year other oppressive school rules came to light, including denying students’ freedom of assembly or travel, the option to wear warmer clothes in winter and even their choice of underwear color. Challenges by activists in Gifu and Osaka prefectures resulted in official reviews and revisions. This was the year that people started to listen to the young people who are standing up for their human rights against blind regimentation.

7) New visa categories

From April, the Japanese answer to a rapidly aging and shrinking workforce was to import labor via new visa regimes. The problem is that these new arrivals are not welcome to stay, and that comes straight from the mouth of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: “We are not adopting a policy on people who will settle permanently in the country, or so-called immigrants.”

One-upping Japan’s prior decades of “revolving door visas,” some applicants are now told not to bring families or marry and have children with Japanese. Meanwhile, many of the conditions faced by non-Japanese workers remain so awful that workplace disappearances continue to rise. Official countermeasures still tend to punish the escaper and not the employer.

As noted in last year’s roundup, however, people are staying away — visa slots that number 47,550 and 345,000 available slots received a mere 219 and 895 applicants at the time of writing. That’s what happens when you reward those who contribute their most productive working years solely with the promise that they’ll get the boot.

6) State-taught Japanese

In June, the Diet unanimously approved a law that says local governments are legally responsible for teaching Japanese to non-native speakers — specifically children, students, salaried workers, low-skilled workers and refugees. Although merely a set of guidelines without penalties for violators, the law is still a step in the right direction.

Previously, all the authorities cared about was if non-Japanese residents showed up to work, not whether or not they were learning how to communicate. That’s why many employers made no provisions for language study, and non-Japanese people had to instead depend on the unreliable private sector for language education at their own expense.

Making language education the express purview of the government has great potential to enable non-native speakers to have more control over their lives and better contribute to their communities.

5) Issues of parental rights

One of Japan’s worst-kept secrets is that after divorce, the noncustodial parent very often loses all contact with their children — no joint custody, no visitation rights. This is an outcome of the koseki, Japan’s outdated family registry system, where cut ties means cut legal access.

This system has negatively affected all classes of people in Japan — even former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. The first people to draw embarrassing international attention to this situation were non-Japanese divorcees in Japan, who pointed to the Hague Convention on Child Abduction (which Japan has signed but barely enforces) as a justification for access.

Emboldened, last year Japanese parents joined in, suing the national government for the constitutional right to joint custody, finally demanding reforms to an absurd system that inflicts immeasurable trauma upon children and parents in Japan regardless of nationality.

4) The tourism boom

A lot of records were set in 2019. After a dip some years ago, the population of non-Japanese residents in this country, as of June, reached a record high of 2.8 million. Foreign tourists also hit record numbers in June, even before the Rugby World Cup.

Predictably, this resulted in a lot of bellyaching by pundits who decried the problem of “overtourism” and the disruptions it was forcing on locals. As newly legalized Airbnb-styled private rooms for rent (minpaku) increased eightfold last year, there were reports of Japanese police unlawfully targeting anyone foreign-looking, including non-Japanese residents, as national security risks.

The dilemma remains: If Japan’s official policy is to increase the annual tourist influx from 40 million in 2020 to 60 million by 2030, it needs to better prompt the public and the authorities with the right attitude of treating tourists as contributing guests, not imposing invaders.

3) Ghosn’s great escape

Former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn, arrested in 2018 on what has been called “thin legal soup,” has drawn international attention to another of Japan’s worst-kept secrets: the “hostage justice” system of lengthy and tortuous police interrogation of suspects, with their release contingent upon confession.

Last year, it became clear that the crimes that Ghosn is accused of (underreporting income for tax purposes) were reportedly not only being done for years by other companies, but even by Ghosn’s replacement, Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa. So far the only ones arrested have been the foreigners: Ghosn and his associate, Greg Kelly.

After being denied contact with his wife for months and his trial possibly pushed to 2021. Ghosn somehow managed to escape to Lebanon at the end of 2019. Now, with more media access without threat of arrest, he is in a good position to further expose how Japan’s criminal justice system violates human rights, especially for non-Japanese.

Ghosn but not forgotten: Carlos Ghosn attends a shareholders meeting in 2008, which was likelier a happier time than the one the now former Nissan boss is going through currently. | REUTERS
Ghosn but not forgotten: Carlos Ghosn attends a shareholders meeting in 2008, which was likelier a happier time than the one the now former Nissan boss is going through currently. | REUTERS

2) Foreign kids called ‘low IQ’

In a shocking expose, the Mainichi reported in September how schoolchildren of Brazilian and Peruvian ancestry were being judged as “low-IQ,” thrust into “special education classes” and put to work digging potatoes instead of learning math.

How were IQs determined? Via tests using culturally grounded questions about shogunates and festivals. One school’s vice-principal defended this segregation by alleging that second-language learners “slow the learning progress of the Japanese students.”

When compulsory education is only legally guaranteed to Japanese citizens under the Basic Education Law, odd things happen. Here, a lack of second-language proficiency was deemed an intellectual disability (yet try saying your Japanese students are dim because they can’t speak English, and see how long you remain an educator), not to mention child labor laws being violated. But this is not in fact news. The government has been aware for more than a decade that with high rates of non-Japanese children dropping out of school, an uneducated non-Japanese underclass was emerging in Japan. With this revelation in the Mainichi, it seems the Japanese education system simply doesn’t care.

1) ‘Gaikokujin shimin

Topping last year’s list of issues causing concern are two words that popped up in policy papers written up by the city of Nagoya: gaikokujin shimin. The term can be roughly translated as the rather confusing “foreign city residents/citizens,” with “gaikokujin” being a “foreign person” and “shimin” being the word for “resident of a city.”

At first glance, “gaikokujin shimin” appears to be an attempt to include the non-Japanese residents of Nagoya as part of city planning. However, Nagoya’s official definition is: “Those with foreign roots and foreign cultural backgrounds, including foreign nationals with addresses in Nagoya, those who have obtained Japanese nationality and children born from an international marriage.”

So anyone with foreign “roots” (the term is written in katakana) or backgrounds — including those who are Japanese citizens — would be a gaikokujin. It’s vague enough to allow for many different outcomes: Are you married to a Japanese person and your children were born here? They’re foreigners. Did you live overseas for a chunk of your life before returning to Japan, your place of birth? That could be the background of a foreigner. How far do roots go back? If you go back far enough, I’d say the majority of the country could very well be foreigners.

Words matter. The terms the majority uses to define those in the minority matter. And gaikokujin shimin, possibly one of the most alienating governmental classifications in today’s community of developed countries, is a term that’s gaining currency nationwide. A quick internet search found that it is also in use in the cities of: Saitama and Kawaguchi in Saitama Prefecture; Hiroshima; Izumo, Shimane Prefecture, Yonago, Tottori Prefecture; Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture; the western Tokyo suburb of Hachioji and many more.

A term such as “tabunka-teki shimin” (multicultural residents) or perhaps “kokusai-teki shimin” (international residents) would be more accurate and inclusive. Turning everyone who isn’t considered “pure Japanese” into “foreigners” is poor policymaking and an enormous step backward from internationalization.

These bureaucrats need to step outside and take a look at how diverse Japan is becoming. In February, the country saw legislation passed that recognized the Ainu as an “indigenous” people. Though several activist groups continue to criticize the law for not going far enough, it still means that Japan is now officially a multiethnic country.

This article was edited on Jan. 7 to remove an erroneous mention of Shinjiro Koizumi’s relationship with his father, Junichiro Koizumi.

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