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.

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