National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Doors to foreign workers no longer slammed shut

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

There’s no such place as Imizustan. Warabistan is equally fictitious. “Stan” means “homeland” in ancient Persian — hence Pakistan, Afghanistan and so on. A substantial Pakistani community in Imizu, Toyama Prefecture, spawned the nickname Imizustan. Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, hosts a growing community of Kurds. “Warabistan” rolls easily off the tongue. Its coinage was only a matter of time.

Three years ago, German-born, Harvard-based political scientist Yascha Mounk was surprised to see German anti-immigrant activists brandishing Japanese Rising Sun flags as they marched in protest against their country’s liberal immigration policies. He asked them why, he recalls for the Asahi Shimbun in an interview published last month, and was told: “Japan is a closed country that keeps immigrants out. That’s the wise choice.”

Wise or not, it’s no longer a choice. Japan’s aging population and shrinking workforce have seen to that. The immigration law amendment adopted earlier this month, flawed though many observers hold it to be, bows to a widely perceived necessity. There are other views, but the prevailing one is: either open the country or sink into economic decrepitude.

What’s in the open now has been unfolding quietly beneath the surface for years. One way or another foreign nationals have been seeping into this “closed country,” some legally, others not — finding jobs, starting families, building communities. As of November, the foreign-born population was 2.56 million — small by global standards but larger than ever by Japan’s, and growing rapidly, at a pace of 7.5 percent a year. No prefecture is growing anywhere near that fast, the Asahi Shimbun points out. Most prefectures are losing, not gaining population. The foreign-born workforce, numbering 1.28 million today, will approach 1.8 million by 2025, the government forecasts.

It’s an evolution that will raise many questions, not least among them a very general one: Can human beings live together? Common humanity unites us. Differing cultures, tastes and circumstances divide us. Which is the stronger force?

A photograph in a recent issue of the bi-monthly magazine Sapio suggests one answer. It shows a neo-Nazi demonstration in Stockholm. Immigrants in the millions have overwhelmed European liberalism, to the point that the word “Nazi,” in some circles that seem to be expanding, is animating and hopeful rather than diseased and terrifying.

Anti-immigrant sentiment in Japan so far is limited and muted, but not absent. Sapio lists some simmering fears: that immigrants will drive down wages, flout customs and manners, break laws, be exploited as quasi-slave labor, be a drain on medical insurance and welfare systems. Justified or not, these are among the grievances fueling European and American nativism. Japan is not immune to them.

Or is it something more elemental? In a recent issue of the weekly Spa we read of a family altercation sparked, most unwittingly, by a 4-year-old girl. Speaking of her friends at nursery school, she mentioned a Korean girl. Her grandfather exploded: “Japanese children are on nursery school waiting lists but Korean kids can get in!”

Once launched, there was no stopping him. He “knows” foreigners — “lazy slackers” — of whom he fumes: “If they come to Japan en masse they’ll sap Japan’s work ethic, drag Japan down.”

His son, the girl’s father, gaped open-mouthed — the more so to discover a new penchant in the old man for hate literature and, via the smartphone he’d bought initially to take videos of his granddaughter, anti-foreigner hate websites.

He is one example, Spa claims, of a growing trend. Foreign nationals are an easy target for post-retirement pent-up energies. They can be an easy target for discontent of all kinds.

But they needn’t be, as Imizustan and Warabistan show. The Pakistani community at Imizu got off to a bad start, Sapio says. In the 1970s and ’80s, a thriving Japanese economy drew them and, at first, welcomed them. Then as now, workers were needed. Their numbers grew. The welcome chilled. Imizu Pakistanis coalesced around the used car business. Sources of friction were petty but cumulative — mid-street parking, abrupt driving manners, that sort of thing. In the summer of 2000, nationalist sound trucks circulated, vociferating full-blast against the foreign presence. In May 2001, someone shredded a Koran — a deliberate affront to Muslim sensibilities.

“But all that’s settled now,” a Pakistani used car dealer assures Sapio. It was early days. Mutual understanding takes time. “The important thing,” he says, “is communication.” Kids are a good bridge. Pakistani kids born in Japan know the language, attend Japanese schools, make friends, bring families together. Food is a common irritant between cultures. One culture’s delicacy is another’s taboo. Islamic dietary laws put school lunches out of bounds. Schools cooperate, permitting Islamic kids to bring lunch from home. They send parents daily menus, enabling them to prepare something sufficiently resembling the school fare to spare kids embarrassment.

In Warabi, Sapio finds, you can walk the streets imagining you’re anywhere but in Japan. Signs are multi-lingual. Restaurants exude non-Japanese odors. Dress is eclectic. Foreign workers staff the small foundries that stoke the local economy.

Kurds are said to be the world’s largest ethnic group without a national homeland. Some 30 million live — often tensely, sometimes dangerously — in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Two thousand or so found their way to a distant harbor: Japan. Among them is a 22-year-old Turkish Kurd called “J.”

He arrived seven years ago, age 15, to join his father, who’d been granted refugee status. “There’s no future for a Kurd in Turkey,” he says. “You can’t speak Kurdish in public, you’re bullied at school, if you’re caught campaigning for Kurdish independence you may be arrested and tortured.” His worst fear was being conscripted and forced to fight fellow Kurds.

Japan presented milder problems — difficult enough, however. He enrolled in junior high school but soon dropped out, unable to follow the lessons — but the factories were hiring; he got by. A Kurdish acquaintance recently opened his own factory and has promised him a better job. The future, closed at home, seems open here.

The Turkish restaurant where Sapio talks to him seems a haven of harmony in a fractious world. What if Turks and Kurds do clash over politics — as they did, for example, somewhat violently, at the Turkish Consulate in Shibuya during Turkish elections in 2015? Three were injured, two arrested. Some day all that will blow over. “He’s a good fellow,” says the Turkish owner of his Kurdish chef. “Among Turks, Kurds, Japanese — there are good people and bad people.” It’s a well-worn cliche that would solve a lot of problems, if given its due.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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