First of two parts

A work of fiction can be a catalyst to thought, illuminating a real situation more clearly and intensely than any other document.

“Snow in Autumn,” a 1931 novella by French author Irene Nemirovsky — originally titled “Les mouches d’automne” — is one such work of fiction, beautifully encapsulating as it does the migrant experience for the first (displaced) generation and the second (assimilated) one.

The book portrays a family of Russian emigres in France (like Nemirovsky’s) after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The original title, which means “The Flies of Autumn,” suggests how out of their element many first-generation immigrants are. But the circumstances, dilemmas and challenges of any migration, in virtually any era, are strikingly similar: Russians in France, Germans in Australia, Chinese in America, Brazilians in Japan . . . in a sense, migrants are all in the same boat, though some may have dibs on the upper cabins from the outset.

But wherever and whenever, the greatest task confronting the first generation is adjustment. There are new standards of behavior and new codes of social intercourse to wrestle with: Learn them, adapt to them at least in part, or be condemned forever to the lot of the querulous outsider.

And it is here, in the realm of the querulous outsider, that the plight of the immigrant in Japan comes in.

This country is in serious denial over its dwindling population and what the effects will be on its future welfare. The population is getting long in the tooth and short on vitality. All projections indicate that the proportion of people aged 65 or older will increase as the total population falls from its current 126 million to below 100 million by 2050.

Many Japanese people — none moreso than seasoned politicians, ripened bureaucrats and wizened TV talk-show commentators — are clinging to a citadel view of Japanese culture entrenched behind its ramparts of ancient cliches erected to repel, at all costs, pernicious outside forces.

Today, despite Japan having the world’s most advanced mobile phones, the slimmest TV screens and the most eco-friendly cars, the ways of thinking when it comes to opening up Japanese society to the outside world are mired in the sticky muds of the past.

No phrase better describes this than shimaguni konjo. When I first arrived in Japan in 1967, this little phrase was bandied about like a flag on Culture Day. It means “insular mindset,” and it was proffered as a neat explanation of — and an excuse for — Japanese provincialism and racism.

“We are an island nation,” it said, “and we have our insular and unique ways of doing things. We cannot escape our geography . . . and our history.”

Shimaguni konjo is now an obsolete phrase. But that doesn’t mean that what it stands for is also past tense.

What keeps shimaguni konjo alive and kicking is the country’s insular approach to immigration. This week and next in this column, I will be looking at this issue in Japan and why the country needs to rethink and redevelop its attitudes toward immigration.

Koreans and Chinese

A brief glance at Japanese government statistics reveals that there are about 2 million foreign nationals living in Japan. But who is concocting the definition of “foreign national” in the first place?

The equivalent Japanese term, gaikokujin, includes an enormous number of resident, non-ethnic Japanese, primarily Koreans and Chinese. Most countries would not classify these people as “foreign nationals,” especially as about half of the 2 million so-called foreign nationals living in Japan were born here.

In order for the issue of immigrants to be discussed properly, the Japanese must first redefine their categories. The only sensible distinction relevant to the issue is: native born and foreign born.

There’s nothing wrong with breaking down native-born people into ethnic groups for purposes of study and policy determination. But they are not migrants. Lumping all non-ethnic Japanese, despite their birthright, into one group is the most blatant proof that the insular mindset is still a potent force in Japanese social policy.

Controlled immigration would go a long way to ameliorating a number of problems in Japan.

First, an influx of young men and women would restore some balance to the scales of ageing, and would likely up the birthrate as well.

Second, non-Japanese immigrants might choose to live in provincial cities or rural areas suffering from depopulation, giving those districts a much-needed shot of youthful adrenaline.

Third, skilled and unskilled jobs could be taken up by new immigrants, who are generally eager to assimilate into a country’s workforce as quickly as possible.

So, where’s the big debate on immigration? (Or indeed, where’s the big debate on anything in this country?)

Discussions on immigration here tend to have irrationality and fear as their operating principles. Terrorism and crime are whipped out as a coverup for plain old prejudice against foreigners. If you want to see the insular mindset at work against the forces of rational argument, just ponder a statement made by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2005.

“If (foreign labor) exceeds a certain level, it’s bound to cause clashes. . . . A labor shortage doesn’t mean that we should just let them in.”

Listen to it: ” . . . just let them in.” Koizumi was framing the issue to suit his bias. Either we protect the status quo of a harmonious, one-big-happy-Japanese-family Japan, or the society as we know it will be rife with clashes between Japanese and non-Japanese residents. Japanese society — and news — thrives on calumny; and this sort of opinion merely fans the tired flames of rumor.

In Irene Nemirovsky’s “Snow in Autumn,” the first generation of Russian emigres in France flitted around like flies surviving past their time. But in that story, their children felt liberated, animated and passionate about making a new life for themselves in their adopted country . . . or, more correctly, the country that adopted them.

If shimaguni konjo is to die as an attitude, as well as an expression, it will require Japanese people to take a long view of their country, to see its future in terms of the ideals of a society decades from now, when the children of immigrants will be full-fledged, assimilated Japanese citizens. If progress is about anything, it is about escaping the isolation of geography and the shackles of history.

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