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Japan grapples with its new arrivals

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Special To The Japan Times

Given its current popularity in certain U.S. political circles, it was inevitable that the word “fake” would eventually find traction in Japan. The September issue of the monthly magazine Bungei Shunju applies it to the headline of an article by journalist Miyu Suzuki titled “‘Fake refugees’ being forced on Japan.”

What sort of numbers are we talking about? In 2016, 10,901 individuals applied for refugee status here, a sharp increase over the 7,586 applicants in 2015, and a rise of over tenfold from 2007, when the total was fewer than 1,000.

Gaining approval, however, is like winning the lottery: in 2016, only 28 people were accorded refugee status.

“Certainly, the number is small,” says Shigeo Ogata, public liaison officer at the Immigration Bureau’s Detention Center. “However, even those applicants who don’t qualify as refugees may be eligible for teijūsha (long-term resident) status on humanitarian grounds, which allows them a one-time stay of up to five years, without extension. In 2017, this was granted to 917 people. It accords them exactly the same conditions as refugees.”

However, Ogata concedes that more people are abusing the system. Even those whose applications are refused can reapply, and since a review takes six months or longer, they are permitted to work while the decision is pending, unlike those in Japan on tourist or study visas.

“I’d say right from the start, a majority of the refugee applicants come to Japan intending to work,” Ogata says.

The Yomiuri Shimbun of June 30 reported that immigration authorities were mulling a crackdown on abusers of the system, with the aim of discouraging the growing numbers of applications, but according to an immigration official, the details were still “under review” and no decision has been made as to when it will go into force.

Suzuki then takes the JR Saikyo Line to Toda-Koen station in Saitama, just across the Arakawa River from Tokyo, where she visits a mosque named Madina Masjid Toda.

Separated by a curtain from the space for worshippers is a room filled with futon bedding and storage trunks stacked in the corners.

This is where members of the congregation, unable to rent apartments, temporarily reside. Mostly visa overstayers, they had previously been detained at Ushiku in Ibaraki Prefecture or some other facility, but are on “temporary parole” and have been taken in by the mosque.

Even those who are not bona-fide refugees suffering from political or ethnic persecution, etc., have compelling stories to tell, and Suzuki is not entirely without empathy toward their plight. Her main objection is the ambiguous way the government is dealing with it.

“As the world’s attention is focused on the refugee problem now more than ever,” she concludes, “Japan must seriously consider how it should confront the issue.”

While Japan has no immigrant ghettos per se, the presence of a large foreign population is indicative of other problems in society, some of them economic. Nikkan Gendai (Aug. 15) reports that of the 300 pupils at the No. 1 Takahama Elementary School in Maihama New Town, close to Tokyo Disney Resort, 40 percent are Chinese nationals. A decade ago the figure was 20 percent.

The phenomenon sheds light on the deterioration of aging high-rise public housing developments around the capital. A 50-square-meter 3DK unit, consisting of three rooms and a dinette-kitchen, sells for as little as ¥6.9 million. As the five-story apartments are not served by elevators, a unit on the fifth floor may be even cheaper.

According to Masato Mitsuboshi, a writer who covers real estate and investment, Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese and other nationalities have been moving into the developments in large numbers.

“I expect to see the same thing happening in Tokyo in the near future,” he says.

Tokyo has about 80 of these suburban “new towns,” which were erected to provide affordable housing for the second baby boom from the early 1970s. With names like Hikarigaoka, Itabashi and Minamitama, their decaying buildings are depreciating in value and face slumping demand. This in turn is impacting new building startups, which have begun declining as demand for Olympic-related construction has drained off workers. But when the athletes depart their Olympic Villages in August 2020, another 5,650 units will be dumped on the market. Will there be more foreign buyers to suck up the bargains?

Sunday Mainichi (July 30), meanwhile, blows the whistle on kankō kōgai (tourism pollution), which it claims is reaching “crisis proportions.”

A California woman, who had visited the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, posted on a U.S. travel site that “Even on a weekday morning, it was as mobbed as Tokyo’s Takeshita Dori.” (For the uninformed, that’s a popular shopping street in the Harajuku area famous for attracting hordes of young people.)

She also complained about the security guards at the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, who “rush visitors through.” “And it’s unpleasant that shooting of group photos has been prohibited.”

With a year-on-year increase of 17 percent in the first five months of this year — and up by more than threefold from a half decade ago — the surge in visitors has resulted in a windfall, with tourism expenditures (including domestic travel by Japanese) last year reaching the figure projected for 2020 four years ahead of schedule.

However, major tourist sites are having difficulty absorbing the burgeoning number of visitors, and the crush has been impacting the lives of local residents. Tomohiro Okada, an economist at the Kyoto University graduate school, notes that from two years ago, during the autumn sightseeing season at Kiyomizu Temple, ambulances couldn’t access the street. “Local residents who commute to work or visit the hospital on Higashi Oji Street (a major north-south thoroughfare) say they can’t board the buses because they’re so crowded.”

The situation in Tokyo and its environs is much the same. The Enoden, a picturesque tram that skirts the coastline between Fujisawa and Kamakura, was said to be so mobbed with tourists — who had learned of it through manga — that during the late April holiday period it was impossible to get into the station, resulting in a wait of at least one hour to board. To deal with the overcrowding, the railway from May began experimenting with special “local resident certificates” that allow holders direct access to trains without waiting in lines.

As tourist numbers continue to swell, tour destinations find themselves confronting the law of diminishing returns.

“The strategy for promoting tourism may have been to increase income and boost employment,” observed Okada. “But if it makes a neighborhood unlivable, the disadvantages will begin to outweigh the advantages.”