Staff writer One sector of Japan’s immigrant community comes into view every Friday at around noon, when people wearing white caps walk into a single story prefabricated building in the city of Isesaki, Gunma Prefecture. This is Isesaki Jame-e Mosque — a sanctuary since 1995 for about 500 Muslims living in this industrial town with factories run by small and medium-size firms. Shafiqur Rahman, a 39-year-old imam from Bangladesh who leads all the sessions at the mosque, said more than 100 people, mainly from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, visit the facility every Friday to pray and to meet their compatriots. “I come here to meet my people and to exchange work and living information. Friday evening is the most relaxing time in my life here,” a 29-year-old Pakistani man said. The 90 million yen facility costs 300,000 yen per month to maintain, with all this money raised from the local Muslim community, Rahman said. “Some have overstayed visas and have no insurance or any social benefits. But many still have a strong wish to stay here permanently,” Rahman said. The population of foreigners living in Japan, both legally and illegally, is estimated to be around 1.8 million, and experts predict the figure will gradually increase in the next 10 to 20 years. Takashi Miyajima, a professor of sociology at Rikkyo University, estimates Japan’s foreign population will reach between 2 million and 2.5 million in the next 10 years. Miyajima said that as Japan’s population ages in the early 21st century, some industries will experience labor shortages. “In order to maintain economic strength and welfare standards, Japan will need to import workers to make up for the problem,” he said. Indeed, the number of foreigners has steadily grown in the past few decades, implying that the immigrant population is already beginning to play an indispensable role in the economy. The number of long-term foreigners registered under the the Alien Registration Law had grown to about 1.51 million, or 1.2 percent of Japan’s entire population, by the end of 1998, according to the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau. This includes some 543,000 ethnic Koreans and Chinese with permanent residency, leaving the number of “newcomers” who have arrived in recent decades at a record 939,000. In addition, as of last January, more than 276,000 foreigners had overstayed their visas. The Immigration Bureau also assumes that an increasing number of illegal immigrants have entered the country in recent times. Hiroshi Komai, a sociology professor at Tsukuba University, said the foreign population will steadily increase regardless of the economic conditions in Japan. “Even in the era of protracted recession we are experiencing today, the number of foreigners living here has remained at a high level. This implies that Japan, Asia’s largest economy, is still an attractive place for people from developing countries to work,” he said. He said the strength of the nation’s economy when compared with other economies in the region will ensure Japan remains an attractive place for immigrants. Yasuo Kuwahara, a professor of labor economics at Dokkyo University, pointed out that the predicted population expansion in the rest of Asia will also contribute to continued immigration. He noted that China is a likely source of future immigrants, as that county’s population is expected to reach 1.6 billion by 2040 from today’s 1.2 billion. Kuwahara warned that Japan will need to enforce strict immigration policies together with concerted diplomatic efforts if the tide of immigrants is to be restricted to a desired level. All experts agree that Japan needs to establish legal and social systems that will restrict the number of immigrants to a level that is both beneficial to Japan and the source countries. Kuwahara said Japanese need to pay attention to rising immigration if they are to have an accurate perception of the effects the phenomenon will have on the country. Komai said he believes increased immigration levels will have a positive cultural effect on Japanese society. Komai conducted research into the cultures and values of nine of the largest ethnic groups in Japan in 1997, finding evidence of distinctive cultural features that are generally missing in Japanese society. According to the research, Chinese are more independent, Brazilians more tolerant toward other cultures and Koreans and Americans more antiauthoritarian. The study also revealed that Japanese are more conformist than any other ethnic group. “In an era of drastic change, we need something more than conformist values, and the cultural traits of foreign residents can help us move ahead both economically and culturally,” Komai said. Miyajima reasoned that immigrants give Japanese the opportunity to interact with other cultures, which helps to mature society. “With the arrival of foreigners, more and more Japanese have become involved in diverse volunteer activities to help their integration into society,” he said. Kaneko Hasegawa, 58, from Chiba, who voluntarily teaches Iranians and Filipinos, said she has acquired a sense of global citizenship through her one-year teaching experience. “Through communicating with my students, I have developed more cosmopolitan views, which have in turn enabled me to see my country more objectively. And that has given me a sense of pride in being Japanese,” she said. An idea of the future of Japanese society can be obtained by looking at communities that have already experienced a considerable influx of immigrants. Kobe’s Nagata Ward is an example. In this community, residents established an FM radio station in 1996 that features multilingual programs. The station’s motto is “Bring messages to the world of the multicultural community, in which different people are connected by mutual respect.” The station airs programs in eight languages, including Korean, Vietnamese, Portuguese and English. Kim Joosa, 34, a third-generation Korean resident of Nagata Ward, said he started working at the station to try to create an ideal community where foreigners with diverse backgrounds could live without discrimination from mainstream Japanese. “The media are the most effective tool for that purpose, because they can present both current and ideal situations in this community to the public,” he said. Japan’s ability to successfully assimilate foreign populations is still uncertain, considering the homogeneity of the culture and the country’s limited experience with immigration. Komai, however, is optimistic. He said negative sentiment toward foreigners has not surfaced so far, even though the country is in recession. “I believe that Japanese people are not xenophobic — they just aren’t used to communicating with people from different cultures. I have become confident that people here can accept more foreigners,” he said. Others disagree with Komai’s assessment, saying foreigners can bring social unrest by refusing to assimilate or by committing crimes. Miyajima said if many foreigners are deprived of social rights and of upward mobility on the social ladder, as is the case today, then they could become a threat to social cohesion and stability. In order to create a harmonious society, positive action to assist immigrants must be provided, he said, noting immigrants face certain disadvantages that must be overcome. “Society must provide a system designed for immigrants, from school curriculum to job training, taking their cultural characteristics into account,” he said. The costs of such a system will be offset by the benefits the country gains from their contributions to society, he said. Komai believes Japan’s immigration policy is overly strict and inhumane when compared with other developed countries. He has called on the government to correct this problem. “As a democratic nation, Japan can no longer ignore the fundamental human rights of foreigners,” Komai said, adding that continuing to do so would be tantamount to exploitation. At the same time, immigration authorities must be careful in opening doors for unskilled foreigners to avoid the risk associated with excessive migration flows, he said. Shoko Sasaki, an official at the Immigration Bureau, attributed the difficulty of the immigration policy to the ambivalence of its nature. That is, for the country’s benefit, it must accept certain types of immigrants and also strictly exclude others. She said the policy is delicate because it involves such issues as international politics and human rights. “To implement consistent immigration policies, a public consensus on the future of immigration and the policies needed to realize this must be found,” she said. The Justice Ministry referred to public opinion when compiling new guidelines for a new immigration policy that starts this year. “The public comments were divided almost 50-50 between those tolerant and those intolerant of accepting foreigners, possibly implying that people are uncertain about foreigners’ future in the country,” one ministry official said. The national debate over the issue of immigrants has apparently lost its momentum since the bubble economy, when Japan saw influxes of unskilled workers. “It is certain that we must continue to discuss the issue to draw a future blueprint of the country,” he said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.