Second of two parts

What is a practical vision for Japan in the coming decades?

Is it the same old — and, given the age of its movers and twitchers, “old” is the right word — country with a view of itself as an ethnically pure enclave on the edge of Asia?

Or is the Japan of the future a vibrant and open society, integrated into the Asian community of nations and able to communicate its people’s wishes, desires and aspirations clearly and explicitly?

These questions are at the core of the immigration issue in Japan.

In this column last week and this, I am looking at immigration in its broad perspective, as a catalyst for growth and change in Japan. Given the steady ageing of this society and what looks like an irreversible drop in the birthrate, a policy of controlled immigration on a substantial scale would seem to be a way to restore balance to the population and provide avenues for Japanese people to communicate with the outside world.

Back in 1982, when I was working (as assistant director) on the film “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” director Nagisa Oshima said something to me that was very insightful about the way Japanese people relate to non-Japanese.

“We are all too polite sometimes,” he said. “Take the way we relate to Koreans. We pretend that we are not prejudiced, but we are. We avoid the entire issue. What we need is to be able to get our mutual prejudices out into the open, even if it means calling each other names to clear the air.”

To allow in migrants or not?

The debate these days, when it does appear in the media, centers on issues of terrorism and crime, behind which prejudice against foreigners is easily masked. And yet, there was a time when Japan had an empire and it included foreigners. With the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki on April 17, 1895, Taiwan became part of that empire. In 1910, Korea was annexed by force. This made Taiwanese and Koreans citizens of Japan, so technically the people from those countries who migrated here up to 1945 were not “foreign nationals.” Their migration was internal migration.

At war’s end in August 1945, there were an estimated 2 million ethnic Korean-Japanese living in Japan. Those people were stripped of their Japanese citizenship, however, when the Allied Occupation ended in 1952. Nonetheless, many remained in Japan.

Today there are approximately 600,000 ethnic Koreans living in Japan, and they are counted as foreign nationals. (There are also about 300,000 naturalized ethnically Korean Japanese.)

As I pointed out last week, the issue of immigration is only muddled by the categorization of all non-citizens as foreign nationals, wherever they were born. The only sensible distinction in this context is native-born people and non-native-born. The ethnicity of Koreans or Chinese people who were born here — and, in many cases, have parents born here — is irrelevant to the discussion of present and future policy on immigration. They are not migrants.

When the Japanese economy was booming in the late 1980s, there was pressure on the government to ease restrictions on migrant workers. In 1989, the government did, in fact, revise its visa regulations, allowing for a flow of skilled immigrants. Many unskilled laborers were also admitted as trainees in primary industries.

Prejudicial beliefs reinforced

Nikkeijin, or foreign nationals of Japanese ancestry, were also encouraged to apply for visas to migrate to Japan. As a result, there are an estimated 300,000 Brazilian nikkeijin living in the country today. This policy has had a very positive effect overall on Japanese society, enriching the cultural identity of the Japanese, as these immigrants contribute to the economic and social life of the nation.

But the policy of basing immigration on a tenuous notion of what the Japanese view as “race” only reinforces their prejudicial belief that, somehow, Japanese blood symbolizes a unique national characteristic. Actually, blood means nothing. Take a Japanese infant and raise it in Brazil or New Zealand or Armenia, and you have an adult who is indistinguishable in character from any other citizen in those countries. (Whether they will be accepted as such by the established citizens of those countries will depend, of course, on the level of tolerance there.)

Once immigrants are living here on proper visas they have the right to apply for naturalization; and, in fact, according to the Justice Ministry, about 15,000 people a year choose to become citizens. But, Japan does not recognize dual citizenship. This means that anyone granted citizenship here automatically loses their former citizenship. This is a sacrifice that many will not make lightly.

At present, the population of the United States is approximately 12 percent foreign born. Recent estimates by the Pew Research Center, as reported in the New York Times on Feb. 11, indicate that this will rise to about 15 percent sometime between 2020 and 2025.

But it is not meaningful to compare a traditional society like that of Japan to one that is based on migration, like that in the United States. Japan has to find it own ways to open the gates to foreign-born citizens.

And what are those “own ways”?

Not counting native-born, non-ethnic Japanese, there are fewer than 1 million foreign nationals living in Japan. A good number of these, probably more than 200,000, are foreign workers on expired visas. First, there needs to be an amnesty for the foreign-born workers on expired visas. This would only recognize the reality of their presence here anyway.

Second, a policy of regulated migration should be instituted to bring in 100,000 foreign nationals annually for the period of a decade. These immigrants should ideally be young and skilled, and they should be given lessons in Japanese language and customs at no cost to them for a year. This is an investment well worth making.

Third — and this seems to be happening already — Japanese universities should markedly increase the number of foreign student admissions, offering full scholarships to the best and the brightest, particularly from the developing world. During the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), Chinese students flocked to Japanese tertiary institutions to learn how a traditional Asian society was modernizing. Japan has a great deal to teach the developing world in how a non-Western nation can deal with development without forfeiting its traditional culture.

Nagisa Oshima was right. The air needs to be cleared on the issue of the way Japan relates to outsiders. With the Internet dominating the dissemination of information, a more open and universal view by Japanese of their society is bound to take hold. When it does, Japanese people, I believe, will come to realize that living among foreign-born nationals can, on balance, enrich, enliven and energize an entire nation.

It will also open avenues of communication with the world that will be increasingly critical to Japan’s prosperity in the decades ahead.

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