The human face of migration to Japan


FOREIGN MIGRANTS IN CONTEMPORARY JAPAN, by Hiroshi Komai, translated by Jens Wilkinson. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2001, 230 pp., AU$44.95 (paper)

The Japanese economy has been in all but permanent recession for more than a decade. Yet, the number of foreign migrants has not diminished. What seemed during the high-growth period of the 1970s and ’80s to be a phenomenon entirely driven by the insatiable demand for labor has turned out to be more complex. It is not just high wages that draw people from other countries to Japan, and those who come are not always in transit — many are here to stay.

The presence in Japan of foreigners who have begun to form resident communities can no longer be overlooked. Where are they from? What are the motivations that brought them to Japan? What are their life plans? How do they live? What does their presence mean for Japanese society and its future evolution?

“Foreign Migrants in Contemporary Japan” addresses these and other related questions, providing a systematic overview of the conditions under which foreigners live in this country. Author Hiroshi Komai, a professor of sociology at the University of Tsukuba, specializes in migrant studies and has written several books on the subject. This is his second available in English, competently translated from the 1999 original by Jens Wilkinson and, to this reviewer’s knowledge, the most up-to-date and comprehensive account of the subject available in a Western language.

The strength of the book is that it relies on a firm command of all extant surveys, both by governmental agencies and interested scholars, without reducing the problem of foreigners in Japanese society to ciphers and statistical data. Komai has a point of view and does not try to hide it. With this book, he hopes to contribute “to transforming Japan into a society of multicultural coexistence.”

Although the number of officially recognized non-Japanese nationals resident in Japan has not yet reached 1.5 percent of the total population, Komai’s goal may one day be realized, because, notwithstanding the sluggish economy, overall immigration is expected to keep increasing, albeit at a slow pace. To understand why this is so, it is necessary to consider migration to Japan within the context of globalization, not as an isolated phenomenon. It is also necessary to realize that migration movements the world over are driven by more than economic factors alone. Komai does both.

Most foreigners in Japan, he tells us, are working, “but few came to Japan specifically to work.” This contradicts the common stereotype that foreigners in Japan seek nothing but material riches. There is too little understanding in Japanese society, Komai argues, of the diversity in the life plans of these foreigners.

A famous adage comes to mind here that for some time characterized the situation of foreign laborers in Germany: Workers were called, but people came. In Germany, a massive influx of foreign workers began in the 1960s, two decades earlier than in Japan. Not surprisingly, therefore, Japan is now experiencing some of the problems that have been on the social-policy agenda of Germany and other Western European countries for some time: issues of access for foreigners to housing, health care and schooling, to name but a few.

Although these are general issues, they cannot be dealt with in a general way. For foreigners in Japan are not a single, homogenous group, but a number of diverse groups, each with its own history and its own concerns and posing different challenges for Japanese society. Komai distinguishes “old-comer foreigners,” that is, Chinese and Koreans who came to Japan up until the end of World War II, from “newcomer foreigners,” who arrived thereafter. Among the latter he identifies different ethnic groups, on the one hand, and different “motivational groups” (groups defined by a common reason for coming to Japan) on the other. In addition to migrant workers who can be classified as “money seekers,” he identifies a number of categories of foreigners who came to Japan with expectations other than earning money.

“Pseudo-exiles” are one such group, comprised of people who left their home country because they were dissatisfied with the living conditions there. Post-revolutionary Iran is a prime example here, Myanmar another.

Another group are what Komai calls “people in search of self-actualization.” Originating from various countries, they are not primarily attracted to Japan for economic reasons. Among second-generation Japanese-Brazilians, for example, there are many “returned migrants” who have moved back and forth between Brazil and Japan more than once because of family links and community relations, or because living in Japan agrees with them.

In addition, there are several other groups, such as war-displaced people from China and their descendants; “Asian brides” (mostly Filipinas) who were brought to Japan to marry Japanese men in depopulated rural areas; trainees used as disguised labor; and students who found work or love or both and decided to stay.

The lesson to be learned from Komai’s detailed and careful observations is that the problems that Japanese society and government will have to come to terms with are as much social and cultural as economic. How to deal with visa overstayers, unemployed foreigners and children with limited Japanese proficiency are questions to which “deportation” is no longer a valid answer.

It is time, therefore, to learn more about the actual living conditions of ethnic communities in Japan, in order to formulate and implement suitable policies. With his own attitudinal surveys about conflicting values, mutual prejudices and points of friction, Komai contributes a great deal to this end. More than that, he points the way toward a new policy of openness based on a recognition of civil rights. Long-established ways don’t change overnight, but there is no denying that certain adjustments will be inevitable.

Komai proposes four principles to guide such adjustments: (1) respect for human rights; (2) achieving equality between foreign and Japanese residents; (3) establishing multiculturalism; and (4) taking appropriate international measures.

This is a very ambitious agenda that no doubt will meet with stiff resistance from conservative politicians and large parts of Japanese society. Spelling it out so clearly is an important contribution to public discourse about foreign migrants in Japan.