Human brotherhood is a beautiful ideal. We’re all human. Differences of skin color, body odor, facial features, language, culture, religion, citizenship and so on veil — but only lightly — our shared humanity. They have fueled hatred, and continue to, perhaps more so of late; but they need not, and one day will not. Japan can point the way.
Among the more eloquent spokesmen for that ideal is Hidenori Sakanaka, former director of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau and current executive director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, which he founded in 2005. Why not, he has been saying since then, welcome 10 million immigrants to Japan by 2050?
It’s a hard sell. Japan hypes its warmhearted omotenashi (hospitality) toward foreign visitors. Foreign residents are another matter. No Japanese government has ever been voted out of office for strictly limiting their numbers. Human brotherhood does not, on the surface, seem a Japanese forte.
Sakanaka, writing in the weekly Shukan Kinyobi, argues otherwise. For him it’s a question of national survival. One possible interpretation of figures released earlier this month by the government’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research is that Japan is dying of demographic anemia.
Few nations die natural deaths. But how far can depopulation go before the vital forces wane irrecoverably? Japan over the next half-century, says the National Institute, will lose on average 780,000 people a year. It estimates a population in 2065 of 88.08 million — down from 127 million in 2015 and 128 million in 2008, the year it peaked. Sakanaka fears “a future of despair” — “villages dying one by one,” ancient traditions along with them.
A more immediate problem is managing the nation’s rapid aging. People aged 65 and over are expected to comprise 38.4 percent of the total population in 2065, up from 26.6 percent in 2015 and 10 percent in 1990. Who will care for them? Who will generate the productivity, the cultural vitality, the children, that a living society needs?
Immigrants, says Sakanaka.
He swims against the current. Geographically isolated from birth, politically isolated from the early 17th to the mid-19th centuries by a rigidly enforced exclusion policy aptly named sakoku (closed country), psychologically isolated even today by a racial and cultural homogeneity that many consider worth preserving, Japan has been the despair of international bodies struggling to find homes for a swelling global tide of refugees.
Sakanaka acknowledges this. He emphasizes it, writing of Japan’s “1,000 years of sakoku.” He acknowledges, too, that the Western nations once held up to Japan as models of generous accommodation of immigrants are now turning inward, erecting sakoku walls of their own. Terrorism counts for much in this, as does fear of native cultures being swamped by foreign cultures, native labor markets by foreign labor, native freedom by foreign anti-freedom, native tolerance by foreign intolerance, native law and order by foreign crime and disorder, and so on.
Can this trend be bucked — by the very nation that has embodied it for “1,000 years”? Not easily, and yet: “Ten years ago, when I proposed that the country be open to immigration,” Sakanaka writes in Shukan Kinyobi, “those who agreed with me numbered roughly zero. But in April 2015 an Asahi Shimbun poll showed more than half of respondents to be pro-immigration. The atmosphere with regard to immigration has changed dramatically.”
Not really, counters Tokyo Metropolitan University professor Kiyoto Tanno. “I think, the current environment being what it is,” he argues in a separate Shukan Kinyobi piece, “that immigrants are best advised not to come here.” Circumstances are such, he says, that “if they do come, they won’t be happy.”
That is unfortunate, in his view, because Tanno, like Sakanaka, believes Japan would be the better for a foreign infusion. He doubts it’s equipped to receive one, however. He sees the foreign workers here — numbering 1.08 million as of October 2016 — being treated more as commodities than as human beings. Legal restrictions of their length of stay and occupational mobility constitute, in effect, a cynical invitation to meet Japan’s temporary labor needs and then go home. The U.S. and the EU, he says, are more flexible in that regard.
True, says Sakanaka — but present shortcomings need not thwart future improvements. It’s his institute’s mission to design and promote them, and the key one seems to be: “All immigrants to be treated the same as Japanese.” Equal opportunity, equal working conditions, equal freedom, equal pay for equal work, equal taxation, equal pensions, equal access to social welfare.
The dominant language would, of course, be Japanese, which immigrants would have to learn — preferably, to some extent, before coming, which would require more and better language instruction in the home countries. But culturally, diversity would reign. Out with homogeneity.
Would cultures clash? Creatively, yes; antagonistically, no. “People of different cultures, different religions, different faces,” Sakanaka writes, “would come together — all of them Japanese, all of them stimulating one another.”
Why shouldn’t it happen? It should, but it rarely seems to. Sakanaka admits as much. In the U.S., cradle of “freedom”; in France, whose revolution enthroned “liberty, equality and fraternity”; in the West as a whole, “anti-Islamism and racial discrimination are poisoning European culture.”
Sakanaka suggests reasons. Europe generated ideals but Christian monotheism — “only my religion is right, all others are wrong” — hindered their flowering. The U.S., historically “an immigration society,” was built partly on slavery, “the New World’s original sin.” Japan has its faults, but religious exclusivism and mass enslavement are not among them. A less tainted past can, Sakanaka hopes, make for a more humane future.
Is this visionary, or practical? Or both? The current microcosm of a future multicultural Japan might be Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo district, whose large (by Japanese standards) immigrant population includes Koreans, Taiwanese, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians. Other neighborhoods harbor other communities — Chinese in Ikebukuro, Burmese in Takadanobaba. Journalist Keiichi Kanda, reporting for Shukan Kinyobi, discerns among ordinary Japanese little repugnance but not much cordiality either — more a cautious, or shy, holding aloof, their feelings hovering, perhaps, between Sakanaka’s brotherhood and the grim alternative emerging elsewhere: the poisoned melting pot.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”
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