Barring the people needed

by Gregory Clark

The Calderon affair — the expulsion of a Filipino couple who entered Japan illegally but whose Japanese-fluent daughter was born and raised in Japan — is seen as an indictment of Japan’s confused immigration policies. And rightly.

On the one hand, Japan says that with its birthrates at record lows, it needs more people — childbearing females especially. Yet it is busy expelling just the kind of people it says it needs.

The confusion has been around a long time. At the height of the clampdown on illegal foreigners five years ago I got to see the Shinagawa holding center for visa overstayers and others turning themselves in voluntarily. Most of the about-to-be deported were young, fit-looking and attractive people, the majority female. Many were good Japanese speakers. Some had children playing in Japanese with other children.

As a member of the Justice Ministry’s immigration reform consultative committee at the time, I tried to ask the immigration officials present what they thought about expelling just the kind of people Japan needed for its population buildup. Blind incomprehension was the kindest response I got. Later, on the seventh floor of the same building where illegals caught by the authorities were being held in tatami-floored cages, I got an answer.

“These people have broken the law,” I was told indignantly. “They have to be punished and expelled.”

But why not amnesty for those who are clearly well-behaved and of benefit to Japan, I asked.

Amnesty? That would just encourage more lawbreakers, they said.

Japan is not quite the heartless antiforeigner hell of some outsiders’ imagination. Provided you obey the rules, visa and residency restrictions are far from draconian. Few nations allow foreigners full ownership of land as Japan does. The effort to provide English- language signs and material for foreigners is impressive. Access to many institutions is open, welcomed even, although this does not stop a small group of overly sensitive foreigners from complaining loudly, and legalistically, every time some damage-suffering bar manager, shopkeeper or bathhouse owner feels that he or she has to keep out badly behaved foreigners.

True, there are times when the Japanese sensitivity to foreigners goes to excess. There was the newly opened Ibaraki golf course back in the “bubble days” that went out of its way to promote a Canadian theme. Maple-leaf-splattered brochures carried photos of attractive Canadian youths who would serve members. But the fine print at the bottom said “no foreigners accepted as members.”

On balance, though, the sensitivity factor works more to our advantage than not, which is why so many foreigners find spouses and jobs here, and some even find themselves appointed to policymaking committees. Many other Asian nations, South Korea for example, are more nationalistic and more overtly antiforeign than Japan. But because we know where they’re coming from, we accept it. Japan is more unpredictable so we complain.

Much is made of the low numbers of refugees accepted by Japan. But the problem here is pure Catch-22. To apply to be a refugee, you have to be physically in Japan, and to be in Japan you should have a valid visa. If you have a visa saying you came to study or work and then turn around and say you really came to apply for refugee status, ipso facto you have been skirting the law. Even so, the authorities seem reasonably tolerant in trying to help the few who do qualify as genuine refugees.

True, Japan has been notoriously reluctant to bring in people directly from refugee camps abroad. But here Japan does have a problem. As with the Vietnamese who came in the 1980s and the Brazilian nikkei who came under a generous immigration policy earlier, assimilation of unskilled, less-educated people into Japan’s difficult culture, economy and language is not easy.

The authorities are right to be wary of foreign, mainly East Asian, crime gangs taking advantage of Japan’s weak anticrime precautions.

But why use that to justify the harsh attitudes to those like the Calderon family? Foreigners who have stayed in Japan illegally to work are usually the people least likely to want to commit crimes.

In the Justice Ministry immigration committee, we heard a lot about the problems the United States and Europe have had with their relaxed immigration policies. It is a good point. Convinced of their cultural strength, many Western nations have greatly overestimated their ability to absorb culturally alien foreigners, and now pay the price. But can Japan opt out entirely?

With population decline already hurting the economy, it has no choice but to bring in migrants. Amnesty for “good” visa overstayers and others like the Calderons would have been a start.

To get around the committee concerns, one or two of us suggested a points-based immigration policy similar to that used in Canada and Australia, with particular emphasis on the language ability that would ease assimilation. I also urged automatic work visas for students, Chinese especially, able to graduate from Japanese universities.

And while Japan has a fine culture, some careful foreign input might make it even better — the well-educated Indians currently shaking up math education in Japan, for example. But those and other ideas got little more than the courtesy of mild consideration. Japan seems happy in its cultural isolation, and still thinks it can survive without a sensible immigration policy.

Postscript: Ironically, Emily, the wife of former Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama, is the daughter of an Australian Occupation-era sergeant, Jimmy Beard, who was able to remain in Japan because he was married to a Japanese national. Indeed, he was forced to remain since at the time Canberra was busily barring entry to Japanese married to Australians.

Later, the ex-sergeant and his family were cruelly satirized by Australian author Hal Porter, who was paid by Canberra in the early 1960s to write about postwar Japan. Porter saw mixed marriages in “racist” Japan as doomed to failure. Meanwhile, Emily’s sister, Margery, who has since married into the Bridgestone Tire family, now works tirelessly for Japan-Australia cultural relations.

Gregory Clark is vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net.