Is Japan an “immigrant country”? For many of us, the instinctive response to this question is “no” — and for legitimate reasons. Yet in her book “Immigrant Japan,” Gracia Liu-Farrer argues that Japan is already such a country — one “that provides foreign nationals multiple legal channels to enter and legal paths and institutional frameworks for permanent settlements.” Japan is also, however, a place where millions of immigrants face constant challenges, torn on the issue of whether they belong here or not.

Immigrant Japan, by Gracia Liu-Farrer
276 pages

Liu-Farrer is a former Chinese national and opens the book by sharing her experience of naturalizing as a Japanese citizen. This book is the result of two decades of research and draws on interviews with 178 people who entered Japan as adults and 51 children of immigrants aged between 15 and 33 years at the time of their interviews. While the majority are Chinese and Korean — the largest immigrant communities in Japan — there are also people from the Philippines, Vietnam, Brazil, Europe and the U.S., among others. Through the narratives of her interviewees, Liu-Farrer elucidates the lives of these migrants, their reasons for moving to Japan, working experiences and the educational paths the children of immigrants have navigated.

Once a closed country, Japan has been moving in the direction of becoming an immigrant country, and despite the challenges people face when coming here because of rigid, bureaucratic attitudes in certain situations, the convenience and safety of everyday life often outweigh the negatives. This makes the country an attractive destination for some, with many staying longer than they originally planned.

Author Gracia Liu-Farrer
Author Gracia Liu-Farrer

On the other hand, there are grounds to argue that Japan still has a way to go until migrants feel welcomed and accepted in society. A 27-year-old Korean student who goes by the pseudonym An tells the author, “Japan cannot be called an immigrant country … In the end, isn’t it because they need labor that Japan accepts foreigners? It is not like they really like foreigners and want you to come.”

Last year, the government came under heavy criticism for barring the re-entry of all foreign nationals, including long-term residents, for six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while Japanese citizens could come and go freely. A wealth of stories of separated families has tarnished Japan’s reputation as a welcoming destination for immigrants, leaving many with scars from their traumatic experiences and questioning their feelings toward the country.

Japan being an ethnonationalist society, with racial purity and cultural homogeneity at its center, and discourses of “unique Japaneseness” referred to as Nihonjinron, might seem grounds enough to negate any claim to immigrant country status. But recently, countries that were in the past more welcoming to migrants are tightening border controls. As the author reflects on the immigration issues in countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, she notes, “Throughout modern history, none of these immigrant countries have extended their unconditional welcome to everybody.”

The book is expansive in scope, and Liu-Farrer judiciously covers the migrant experience. Scholars in the field as well as general readers will find her results instructive and enlightening.

Japan may be an immigrant country from a certain perspective, but Liu-Farrer suggests that many foreign nationals still don’t feel a part of the social fabric of the nation. “What kind of society Japan becomes depends on how it acts at the time when immigration is inevitable for economic sustainability, mobility has become a way of life, and the world is increasingly connected through technologies.”

While immigrants to Japan may find themselves nodding in agreement with An’s point above, sentiments expressed by Neal (pseudonym), a 30-something Vancouver native and 8-year Japan resident, will probably also ring some bells. “In Japan, every day I find something that makes me smile and say “God, I love Japan,”’ he says. “Whether it’s a good deal, some quirky clash of West and East or some spectacular service, I feel glad in some small way each day.”

Life in Japan might be a love story for some, but as Liu-Farrer’s book demonstrates, for many, the relationship is more like a marriage, reassuring and comfortable at times but nonetheless beset with challenges. And when the honeymoon is over, both sides need to understand and adjust to make it work.

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