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From a ban on new foreign arrivals to a campaign against efforts to let non-citizens vote, a series of developments in Japan is raising new concerns about xenophobia in Asia’s second-largest economy.

Lawmakers in the Tokyo suburb of Musashino overruled the local mayor last week and rejected a bill that would’ve allowed residents of other nationalities to vote on some issues. The decision came after several prominent Liberal Democratic Party legislators launched a campaign against the plan, with Masahisa Sato, a former deputy foreign minister, warning on Twitter that “80,000 Chinese people” could move to the city and influence its politics.

Last month, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government initiated new border controls that ban new entries by foreign nationals due to concerns about the omicron variant of COVID-19. Separately, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo issued an unusual warning Dec. 6 about suspected racial profiling of foreigners by local police — an allegation the government has denied.

The incidents are feeding worries that Japan is souring on immigration as it approaches a third year of pandemic-driven border closures and economic upheaval. The government’s ban on arrivals by foreigners who lack existing residency status was backed by almost 90% of respondents in one media poll.

“It’s not only in Japan that the pandemic fanned xenophobic sentiments, but this is a country with a long-standing tradition of insular nationalist conservatism,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University. “Already before COVID, nationalism was exploited by some politicians to divert public attention away from real domestic ills that they did not want to deal with. But since last year, there has been an excessive, unscientific, and inhumane focus on ‘offshore measures,’ such as the entry ban, by the Japanese government.”

While the island nation of 125 million has long been known for its hurdles to immigration, the government had warmed to overseas labor in recent years because of the need to offset a shrinking workforce. The number of foreign workers in Japan more than doubled to 1.7 million in the seven years leading up to 2020 — many of them in the construction and service industries.

A worker wearing a protective mask assists travelers arriving at Narita Airport in November. | BLOOMBERG
A worker wearing a protective mask assists travelers arriving at Narita Airport in November. | BLOOMBERG

A poll by public broadcaster NHK carried out in March 2020 — before the pandemic took hold in Japan — found that most respondents favored more immigration. The Tourism Agency still maintains a target of attracting 60 million foreign visitors in 2030.

The ban on foreign entries also runs counter to the LDP’s stated goal of bolstering Tokyo’s status as an international financial center by luring away global companies concerned about Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong. The number of foreign citizens living in Japan fell 2% to 2.8 million in June, compared with six months earlier, according to the Justice Ministry.

The response to Musashino Mayor Reiko Matsushita’s proposal to let some 3,000 non-citizens vote in local referendums illustrates the political forces against increased immigration. Matsushita told broadcaster TBS before the vote that she wanted “to make diversity into a strength and realize a multicultural society” in the city of 150,000.

“We’ll create a system whereby people have an opportunity to express opinions on important issues regardless of their nationality,” she said.

Non-Japanese aren’t permitted to vote in any local or national elections, by contrast with several countries in Europe, including the U.K. and Ireland. New York city this month also approved a measure allowing non-citizens to participate in local elections.

Masahisa Sato | GETTY IMAGES / VIA BLOOMBERG
Masahisa Sato | GETTY IMAGES / VIA BLOOMBERG

Japan narrows the path to enfranchisement for immigrants by banning dual citizenship. Still, two other Japanese districts have ordinances similar to the one Matsushita proposed, while more than 40 allow foreigners to vote in referendums under certain circumstances.

Besides Sato, who denounced the proposal as “no good,” a group of about 70 LDP lawmakers urged parliamentary action to prevent such efforts from advancing in the future. “It is the people of the country, not foreigners, who have the right to make decisions,” the group said in a statement.

Kishida’s top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, declined to comment on the controversy.

Meanwhile, with omicron infections soaring globally and Japan’s daily COVID-19 deaths in the single digits, Kishida has little incentive to ease the border measures. He frequently mentions that the country’s clampdown on entry is the most severe among Group of Seven nations and told reporters last week that existing border controls would stay in place for the time being.

Thousands of overseas students who were scheduled to study at Japanese colleges are in limbo, some suffering severe financial losses as they wait for the borders to reopen.

“Japanese society’s discrimination against foreigners certainly existed before the entry ban,” said Atsuko Nishiyama, a lawyer representing a South Asian woman who is suing the Tokyo Metropolitan Government over alleged police harassment. “But I’m concerned Prime Minister Kishida’s message about banning foreigners will be taken as a stamp of approval by those who seek to set them apart and exclude them.”

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