Pluralism Japan’s answer: immigration expert

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Japan’s leaders need to confront the reality of the rapidly thinning labor force and acknowledge that a more ethnically pluralistic society can help ward off the looming demographic crisis, a British expert on immigration policy says.

“I profoundly believe that (Japan) can’t function as a society without migration,” Phil Wood, who describes himself as an “urban therapist,” said in a recent interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo.

While Europe over the years has adjusted its way of dealing with migrants, Japan has stubbornly clung to a restrictive immigration policy, Wood said, noting Japan’s situation is acutely reminiscent of how European cities more than 30 years ago saw migrants only as “guest workers.”

“Many places in Europe began by thinking that they could simply invite foreign workers to fulfill short-term contracts and then they would say goodbye,” Wood said. “That was a very naive idea and it failed very badly.”

Wood, whom the Independent newspaper in Britain called “an internationally renowned urban strategist,” has been a leading advocate of the Intercultural Cities (ICC) Program, a joint pilot initiative started in 2008 by the Council of Europe and the European Commission.

The program was launched to encourage cities to eliminate discrimination and promote cultural diversity as an opportunity, not a threat. Under the program, experts evaluate cities’ various policies on immigration and hold frequent conferences on related themes.

In France, immigrants were pressured to relinquish their former identity to fit in with the majority in what is known as an assimilation policy, while some other countries have alienated immigrants from mainstream society, according to Wood.

To prevent this sort of mistake, the ICC program stresses the importance of fostering cross-cultural interaction, based on the belief that “cultures thrive only in contact with other cultures, not in isolation,” according to the Council of Europe.

Currently, 21 cities across Europe, including Berlin, Oslo and Geneva, have signed up for the ICC program. There are 33 million foreign residents in 27 EU nations (not counting the 28th member, newcomer Croatia), accounting for 6.6 percent of the total population. In Japan, the number of registered foreign residents stood at 2.07 million in 2011, or 1.6 percent of the population.

In Barcelona, Spain, for example, where prejudice against migrant communities had a long history, an “anti-rumor” campaign kicked off in November 2010 to root out malicious gossip associated with foreign residents. The city hired and trained “anti-rumor” agents, who are tasked as they go about their daily routine with rectifying misguided complaints and misinformation about migrants.

In Japan, the government has introduced a “point-based” immigration system that grants highly skilled professionals, such as researchers and business managers, permanent residency status after a minimum stay of three years. But Japan has yet to officially take in menial workers, only accepting them on a short-term basis or under the pretext that they are being trained to become professionals.

Underlying the situation is an instinctive suspicion about foreigners, Wood said. Whenever people in any culture find their life invaded by changes that strike them as unsettling, it’s “human nature” to seek a scapegoat, and foreigners are often the easiest target, he said.

This is why many national-level politicians try to present themselves as playing hardball with foreigners, a strategy they know is guaranteed to win votes, Wood explained.

Asked about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s nationalist tone in his policy push, Wood said, “It makes me very sad.” Judging from his campaign speeches, Abe is deflecting the public from weighing the truly important issues, he said.

“Whether an island or rocky outcroppings somewhere in the sea is called Korean or Japanese . . . it’s going to mean nothing to the quality of life of the people of Japan and Korea,” Wood said regarding the row over the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan.

Busy with the problems that impact daily life, politicians at the local level don’t have the luxury of such bombast, Wood pointed out, adding that this pragmatic mindset is what led to successful efforts like the program in Barcelona.

In a country whose population is estimated to plummet to about 90 million — two-thirds of the current level — by 2050, Wood believes the demographic crisis should be higher on the government’s policy agenda.

“If the Japanese government continues to fail to address these issues of population and aging and to have a proper debate about whether migration could be providing one of the answers to these problems, then that will become a ‘democratic’ crisis in the future,” he said.

Regarding the recent outbreak of nationalist-fueled hate speech in Shin-Okubo, Tokyo, an area with a heavy concentration of ethnic Koreans, Wood believes the neighborhood could learn a lot from the ICC initiative.

Rightist groups have been particularly belligerent against Korean residents over the isle row, including one that earlier reports said formed during Abe’s first prime ministership.

“Japan is a democracy based on the rule of law. You’ve adopted those principles. I think within that framework of rules of the law, perhaps there is a need for a new law (to ban verbal discrimination). That will give more clarity,” he said.

  • Ron NJ

    “Japan is a democracy based on the rule of law.”
    Sounds like Mr. Wood needs to read up on Japan a bit more.

  • JS

    The point system to attract qualified workers is going to be quite ineffective if once these workers get to Japan, they encounter racism, discrimination and harassment in their jobs and housing.

    The government needs to first ensure that foreign workers in Japan are afforded basic civil and human rights. The Japanese institutions, such as the police, businesses, legal system and courts need to ensure that they deal with foreign residents with respect, dignity and fairness. Foreign residents should be treated fairly based on Japanese laws, their civil rights should be protected, and laws (including Japanese employment laws) should be upheld and applied fairly in the case of foreign residents and workers.

    Unless, Japan can make these changes to its institutions, it will not attract and hold on to the type of foreign workers it wants under the points system. In the end, countries attract the immigrants they deserve.

  • Look at every single country that has open its doors to immigration and multiculturalism to get in skilled labour and all are now having major problems. A few in Europe have now said multiculturalism was a mistake that cannot be turned off.

    Japan does not need to open it doors to outsides for skilled labour, it needs to encourage Japanese to have larger families.

    • JS

      There’s a right way to do immigration and a wrong way. A lot of the problems with mass immigration to Europe from former colonies are unique to Europe due to its long colonial past. Many of these immigrants from former colonies have not integrated well into European society due to their socio-economic backgrounds and lower levels of education and professional skills. But, one should be careful not to draw broader conclusions about the effects of immigration from this. The European experience certainly does not apply to Japan.

      In contrast to the European model, the American model of immigration and assimilation is a much better one to follow. Immigrants have had a tremendous positive impact on the American economy, business, the arts and society overall. Just considet the following in regards to immigrants in the US:

      Various studies have documented the entrepreneurial nature of immigrants. About a quarter of the technology and engineering companies started in the U.S. between 1995 and 2005 had at least one foreign-born founder, according to researchers at Duke University and the University of California, Berkeley. In Silicon Valley, more than half the companies had a foreign-born founder. (Source: Bloomberg)

      According to another study, more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies operating in 2010 were founded by immigrants or their children — including some of the most well-known brands, from Apple and IBM to Disney and McDonalds. The companies noted in this study had combined revenues of $4.2 trillion — more than the GDP of most countries. (Source: Harvard Business Review).

      • Sorry but there is no right way of doing immigration. And you are complete wrong when to comes to mass immigration to Europe.

        The immigration problem is Europe is the movement of citizens between counties with in Europe and also new countries joining the EU. Under the EU law all citizens have free movement between states, so you have large numbers of people from the poorer states flooding in to the richer states, taking job away from the natives of them states.

        Example of this is the UK, where the Polish and Eastern Europeans have flooded in to the point of overload. A lot of them are now living off of British Welfare and are not working, the number of immigrants have also put the national health system under pressure to the point that it is now on the verge of collapsing.

        Not only has the movement between EU states cause immigration problems, but the influx of immigrants from the Middle East and Northern Africa has now caused culture problems between the EU native populations and the immigrants.

        France for example are having riots every second week just about between immigrants and the native French population.

        German also have had a number of riots between immigrant and the native German population.

        The UK have immigrants calling for the country to become a islamic stated and follow islamic laws and calling for the beheading of the native British population if they refuse to conform to islam. Some parts of London are now so dangerous that even the police refused to enter the areas and these areas are now claiming to be under islamic laws.

        Another major problem in the UK at the moment is gang rapes of native British girls in their early teens by gangs of immigrants. Over the past year close to 60 men have been jailed for gang rape and all have been immigrants to the UK.

        Australia has also opened its door to ‘Multiculturalism’ to get in ‘Skilled Labour’ and it has now been seen as a huge mistake.

        There is now daily occurrence of drive by shooting between immigrant groups in some cities, Sydney being the worst effect as immigrant from Asian and Africa take potshots at one another and taking out native Australians in the cross fire.

        Australia also has had rioting between the native Australian population and immigrants that are trying to change the country. Australia has also had a number of gang rapes by immigrants on native Australia teenage girls.

        In Japan already we have Chinese, Koreans and Brazilian, and they have really not assimilated in to the Japanese population. They seem to keep to themselves in their own little communities and most of the foreign crime is carried out by members of these 3 groups of immigrants.

        Another problem with immigration whether people like to face the fact or not is the chance of terrorism. You only have to look at the attacks in Spain, the UK, the USA, German and France to name but a few, all attacks have been carried out by immigrants and we are not talking about uneducated immigrants there has been ‘Professional like Drs’ involved.

        2 of the Fortune 500 companies you have stated uses ‘Slave Labour’ to make money.

        Apple might be designed in the USA, but they are produces in China by people working for under US$1 a day.

        McDonald’s have been sued another of times around the world for underpaying their staff, they are getting taken to court again in Australia for paying under the national minimum wage.

        So Apple and McDonalds are really not good examples of companies created by immigrants.

      • James

        Nicholas, I disagree. As JS states, you can look at countries like the US, Canada and Australia as good examples of multiculturalism – healthy, dynamic, pluralistic societies where migrants have vastly enriched the social and economic fabric of the country. I think that the reason that Europe has experienced greater problems with migration as compared with the US and Australia (for example) is because – like Japan – European countries have tended to be more culturally and racially (a loaded word, I admit) homogenous. When you introduce migrants from another culture or cultures into a largely homogenous society, the migrants usually feel like outsiders and thus are often alienated and the original inhabitants often feel uneasy, too. Places like the US and Australia – which are societies of migrants – have no really homogenous culture and thus migrants don’t feel as alienated. Given Japan’s relative homogeneity and cultural conservatism, I have little hope that migrants will be well accepted.

      • James .. Australians are calling for a end to multiculturalism because of the trouble happening there because of immigrants .. I know I am an Australian and get daily reports from the family about how Australia is going down the toilet because of the problems created by multiculturalism. Australians are calling on the government to stop all immigration and deport immigrants that are causing trouble.

        Maybe in the USA there is no problems because immigrants know the most in the US are packing heat and if they start something they are likely to end up stopping a bullet!

        I for one do not want Japan to open the door to mass immigration. Because even now though the number of immigrants is low as soon as one foreigner does something wrong everyone is painted with the same brush, so if Japan opens the door to mass immigration and trouble starts like in Europe and Australia you can bet all foreigners here are going to be in for it, just look at what has been happening with the Anti-Korea protests of late.