LONDON — Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s recent remarks suggesting that many foreigners in Japan are criminals and could cause trouble in a time of crisis have inevitably aroused fears abroad that Japanese rightwing politicians are continuing to pander to popular prejudice and have their eyes on re-election rather than the long-term national interest. Of course, Ishihara may have been misreported or his remarks taken out of context, but to foreign observers his comments are the sort of remarks to be expected from Japanese nationalists of the old school who have failed to understand the lessons of the history of the last century or to appreciate the problems facing Japan’s aging society in the 21st century.

The working population of Japan will soon steadily decline and there will be fewer and fewer people to look after Japan’s senior citizens. Objective economists reckon that Japan will need an increasing flow of immigrants to meet the demand for labor notwithstanding the development of modern technology and labor-saving devices.

It will not be easy for Japanese society to overcome prejudices against foreigners and peoples of different races. It might be thought that people of Chinese or Korean origin would be most easily absorbed, but one look at the continuing discrimination in Japan against people of Korean origin shows that this view is incorrect. White and black people, of course, stand out in any group of Japanese and it is very difficult for a white or black to be accepted in Japan as “one of us” even if he or she speaks Japanese and understands Japanese culture.

For my part, I will never allow anyone to refer to me in my hearing as a “gaijin” which in English means an “outsider”: I immediately say I am a “gaikokujin,” a person from a foreign country. The difference may seem small but it is psychologically important. I may be the only foreigner in a group in Japan and at times I forget that I am a “gaikokujin,” but I suspect that my Japanese acquaintances never quite forget that I am a foreigner.

Yet if Japan is to prosper and cooperate fully in the world of the 21st century, it will be necessary for Japanese to make the psychological leap of thinking of themselves first as human beings and only secondarily as Japanese. This means above all getting away from sterile arguments about what makes Japanese different from other peoples and instead concentrating on what makes Japan and Japanese similar to other countries and peoples.

I am well aware that we in Europe also need to do a good deal of self-reflection over racial and nationalist prejudices. Britain has on the whole been receptive to refugees from Europe, although there have been times in our history when prejudices have led us to turn people away who could have brought benefits to our country or who were suffering persecution.

At present, some tens of thousands of refugees from Eastern Europe have been seeking asylum in Britain. Some of these have doubtless made their way to our shores in search of a better life, i.e., they are economic migrants. Some have undoubtedly been smuggled in and a few are almost certainly undesirables. The immigration service have been overwhelmed and a huge backlog has developed in the vetting of asylum seekers. Some “illegal” immigrants have taken to begging to supplement the limited handouts from British social services. A few beggars have behaved aggressively.

Some of those involved have been Gypsies from Romania and the Czech Republic, where they have suffered discrimination. Gypsies, or “Travelers” as they prefer to be called in Britain, are said to number 2 to 3 million worldwide. They maintain their own language and traditions and probably originated in India. Sadly there remains a fairly deep seated prejudice against them in many parts of Europe. Such prejudice is not similar to that in Japan against a section of disadvantaged Japanese.

The problems associated with such asylum seekers have been picked on by the popular press in Britain and by the opposition to criticize the British government’s handling of immigration issues. Under such pressures, our illiberal Home Office and home secretary have seemed to pander to popular prejudices. Unfortunately, there are still far too many British people who suffer from an island mentality and are antiforeign as a result of prejudice and a narrow education.

Despite these prejudices, the dangers of racism are generally much better understood in Britain than in the past, and racist remarks and attitudes are rightly condemned. The recent libel case brought by so-called historian David Irving against a U.S. historian and a major trans-Atlantic publisher (Penguin Books) underlines this point.

Irving, who has written in defense of Nazism and appeared to deny the Holocaust, was sharply criticized for his attempt to deny the facts of history. He argued that such criticism destroyed his reputation and amounted to a serious libel. After hearing all the arguments Irving’s case was dismissed by the senior judge trying the case in London who condemned him as a perverter of the truth and a racist. He now rightly faces a huge legal bill.

European fears about a revival of racism and ultranationalism were recently aroused by the electoral gains made in Austria by the rightwing Freedom Party led by Joerg Haider, the governor of Carinthia. The European Union is based on the upholding of democratic principles, freedoms and human rights, and when Haider’s party was taken into the Austrian coalition government many Austrian politicians found themselves ostracized in EU circles.

Sadly the world is full of double standards. We stand up for human rights in Kosovo and Myanmar, but are unwilling to do anything to support the oppressed peoples of Chechnya and Tibet. The argument is that there is nothing effective we can do to force a change of attitude on the Russians or the Chinese, but it is easy to suspect that economic or trade reasons have made our governments look the other way.

Ishihara is apparently populist and ultranationalist. Fortunately he is not a member of the Japanese government. But if people like him were eventually to become an influential force in Japanese government this would, I fear, undermine Japan’s democratic credentials. Other governments might then have to reconsider their attitudes toward Japan. In the next election, I hope that Japanese voters will make it clear that they want to see a liberal and democratic Japan survive and flourish and will reject populists and ultranationalists.

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