“May you live in interesting times,” goes the famous curse. By that standard, 2020 was captivating. One thing affected everyone worldwide: COVID-19. And in Japan, our international community was hit particularly hard by public policy regarding its containment.

There were many other issues worth mentioning, however. For example, the Education Ministry announced an increased budget for language support in schools for non-Japanese children next year — a promising sign. However, Japan’s continued mistreatment of those kept in immigration detention centers, and an officially acknowledged incident of “hate speech” in Kitakyushu that went unpunished, were also steps backward from the goal of an inclusionary society.

We don’t have space for them all, so below are the top five issues I feel were of greatest impact to Japan’s non-Japanese residents in 2020, in ascending order.

5) Black Lives Matter in Japan

Around the same time of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, video of Tokyo police officers roughing up a Kurdish resident made the rounds on social media. As a result, several Japanese groups organized a demonstration against police brutality in Japan.

While some non-Japanese joined the demonstration and held Black Lives Matter signs, a Tokyo chapter of Black Lives Matter later organized its own marches in June, largely to show solidarity with the enormous wave of protests in the United States.

Speaking up: People march in support of Black Lives Matter in Tokyo in June. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Speaking up: People march in support of Black Lives Matter in Tokyo in June. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Japanese media on both the coverage in the U.S. and in its own backyard was lacking in Black voices, however, and nowhere was this more apparent than at NHK after the station aired a racist cartoon that peddled stereotypes about Black people in a show that was meant to explain the issue to younger Japanese viewers. NHK later apologized.

Hopefully, the swell of interest in fighting for the rights of minority groups in Japan won’t dissipate in 2021. A majority of people in Japan — many in positions of power — still continue to allege that “monoethnic Japan” doesn’t have racial discrimination because it doesn’t have racial diversity. That’s simply not true, as was illustrated by a notable commercial.

4) Diversity brought to you by Nike

It was a bit ironic, given its history of being connected to child labor and sweatshops, for Nike to use images of biracial kids to sell products in an advertisement that came out in November.

Fortunately, it was a good ad that addressed an important social justice issue concerning minorities in this country. It depicted Japanese kids of non-Japanese descent experiencing bullying at school, and the takeaway was that these children exist and shouldn’t put up with racism.

Sadly, media analysis missed the mark by focusing too much on the xenophobic response by what is likely a vocal minority on the internet. Still, the net effect was the ad counteracted a narrative that Japan is one big homogeneous family devoid of any racial issues. It’s just a bit unfortunate that Nike’s answer is that such victims of prejudice become star athletes (what about all the bookworms out there?), especially since the world of Japanese sport isn’t necessarily a safe haven.

3) Mixed signals in the world of sport

This was the year tennis champ Naomi Osaka, a Japanese-Haitian-American, became the highest paid female athlete in history. Embraced by Japan (and occasionally whitewashed in its advertising), she visibly and vocally joined the Black Lives Matter movement, even successfully delaying a tournament in protest.

Although she did not advocate for her fellow visible minorities in Japan, Osaka, along with Iranian-Japanese baseballer Yu Darvish and Beninese-Japanese hoopster Rui Hachimura, pushed back on the attitude that “athletes should keep their mouths shut on social justice issues and just play.”

Meanwhile, other sports organizations counteracted this good news. The Japan Olympic Committee dropped an Ainu performance from the 2020 opening ceremonies, and the Japan Rugby Football Union classified its naturalized Japanese citizen players as “foreign,” in direct violation of Japan’s Nationality Law.

2) COVID-19’s ‘foreign’ clusters

The blame game started off small. When COVID-19 cases first emerged, there were initial snipes that blamed China for manufacturing what one politician called “Wuhan pneumonia.” As the virus spread, signs popped up on some Japanese businesses banning non-Japanese customers. Sensible contact tracing found infections in clusters, which, in some cases, were identified as “foreign clusters.” And from there things escalated.

Helping out: Volunteers at a Buddhist temple organize care packages for Vietnamese people living in Japan during the state of emergency in April. | KYODO
Helping out: Volunteers at a Buddhist temple organize care packages for Vietnamese people living in Japan during the state of emergency in April. | KYODO

The government earnestly convened a panel on effectively communicating and caring for foreign workers, but their nods to cultural differences were misinterpreted by Japanese media. Instead, news outlets focused in on the idea that foreign clusters spread coronavirus because foreigners crowd together in close quarters due to cultural norms. Closer to the truth, however, is that many immigrants live cheek-by-jowl due to low wages. As one Nepalese resident pointed out to The Japan Times, “The idea that foreigners tend to ignore mask-wearing or social distancing is just untrue.” It’s a shame that media sensationalism got so bad that it undid well-intentioned government policy.

1. Problematic policy on the border

It has been said that the pandemic has laid bare the character of governments around the world, and what it has shown about Japan is troubling. First, there was the Diamond Princess, the “floating petri dish” cruise ship stranded in Yokohama whose rescue was so bungled by health authorities that foreign governments had to swoop in to extricate their citizens.

What was really ill-advised, though, was the closing of the border in April to anyone who wasn’t Japanese — a move that separated Japan from other advanced industrialized countries as non-Japanese permanent residents were also blocked from returning here.

That meant residents weren’t able to get back to their families, jobs and commitments in Japan. And the policy had the additional effect of eliminating the “right of return” for those non-Japanese residents already here, leaving them unable to visit sick or dying relatives abroad.

Though the government made some allowances for “humanitarian” reasons, the unequal implementation of the directive left a lot of people’s fates in the hands of individual border agents. Even when these border controls were later reconsidered, it was announced that foreign business travelers, tourists and Olympic athletes would be given priority.

Thus 2020 was the year it became clear that foreign residents don’t “belong” in Japan, regardless of whatever lives they have made and how much they have contributed to Japanese society. When push came to shove — and it did thanks to COVID-19 — even a permanent resident of Japan has no more status than a tourist.

Debito Arudou’s most recent work is “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination” (Lexington Books). For more information, visit www.debito.org.

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