My favorite sushi restaurant is in the former Tsukiji outer market in Tokyo. It is a small sushi bar with only one counter table that can accommodate a maximum of eight seats. I will not disclose its name and location since I am afraid it would become more difficult to make a reservation. That’s where I often entertain close friends from abroad.
The sushi they serve is supreme. Of course, it is not cheap but the price is reasonable considering the top quality. I always enjoy not only the cuisine but also conversation with the oyakata, the master chef of the restaurant. Last weekend I went there with my family. Oyakata is a bit older than me and we started talking about our ages and careers.
A prodigious chef, he has been serving sushi for more than a half century. He said, “You shouldn’t say you are already 70. I am always telling myself ‘you are just 70’ when making sushi.” He went on, “After these long years, you shouldn’t say ‘you had enough’ in life.” This made sense to me as I’ll be 70 in five years.
“Oyakata,” I said, “I became 65 this year and I plan to leave the front-line next year.” He asked why and I said, “If I continue my project till I get sick or die without handing it over to the younger generation, the project will not survive.” I also said, “However, Oyakata, if I retire, I cannot come back here as often as I want.”
“Why not?,” Oyakata asked me and my answer was, “Ordinary businesspersons enjoy your sushi here on their companies’ entertainment expense accounts. After retirement, however, most of them will have to come and enjoy your sushi out of their own pocket while living a humble pension life. Don’t you know that?”
“Oh, okay, then I will start serving ‘pension’ sushi for them instead,” Oyakata murmured. I replied, “Oyakata, you can’t charge them much!” He then said, “What about $20 per person?” “No, no, that’s too expensive. I would say $14.98 or less,” I replied. Then my wife finally opened her mouth and said, “Can you maintain this quality at $14.98?”
The conversation went on forever, but what I was increasingly concerned about was the future of Japan. Our population is shrinking. How can we maintain our current standard of living while our working-age population declines and we suffer from a labor shortage? There is, of course, no silver bullet for this.
Last week, Diet deliberations started on a new bill to amend the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act of 1951, introducing a new visa system for foreign workers in Japan. Opposition parties accused the Abe administration of providing insufficient data and rushing ahead with revising the law in haste.
Public opinion is divided over the concept of “immigration.” Conservative opponents claim that immigration would: a) eventually change the state of the nation and destroy the culture/tradition of Japan; b) deteriorate public safety and increase social costs; c) cost Japanese workers jobs; and d) increase social security costs by covering foreign workers’ medical and nursing services.
Proponents of immigration, whether they call it accepting immigrants or increasing foreign workers, support the bill as: a) a remedy for the ongoing labor shortage; b) a substitute for the shrinking population; and c) the ultimate means of ensuring Japan’s continued and sustainable economic growth.
The following is my take on this endless and fruitless debate:
1. Japan was the fourth biggest recipient nation of foreign workers in 2016. According to the International Migration Outlook 2018 by the OECD, the 2016 inflow of foreign population into Japan was 427,600, trailing Germany’s 1,720,200, the United States’s 1,183,500 and the United Kingdom’s 454,000 foreign workers. Japan, hosting 1.3 million foreign workers of various ethnic and cultural heritages, is already becoming a multi-ethnic society.
2. Debate on the definition of immigration is meaningless. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his justice minister testified in the Diet that his administration “will not introduce the so-called immigration policy, which is to maintain a nation by accepting, without term limits, a certain mass of foreigners with their families.”
Opposition parties counterattack the administration by asking whether the new visa policy assumes that Japan will be a multicultural/racial nation or a nation with all foreigners assimilated into the one Japanese society. Such a question, however, will never be discussed in the Diet, because the new policy is not an immigration policy.
3. Where does Japan go from here? Experts in Japan are learning lessons from the European experience after World War II. Some nations accepted foreign immigrants as they are but would not integrate them into the traditional indigenous society. Others required foreign immigrants to give up their own religion and culture, and to be fully assimilated into the secular society.
Neither methods have worked well in Europe. It is much easier to globalize economic systems, but it is still very difficult to globalize the minds of human beings. By the same token, it must be much easier to grant visas for foreign workers to work and stay in Japan, but it would be difficult to assimilate them into Japanese society.
Having said that, many foreigners here have been assimilating into traditional Japanese society. For example, of the 10 sumo wrestlers who have become yokozuna (grand champions) in the extremely traditional sport since 1990, six are foreign-born — two from Hawaii and four from Mongolia, to be more precise.
Nonetheless, there is strong opposition in Japan to the concept of immigration itself. At least for the time being, lawmakers may not discuss the issues of immigration in depth. As such, Tokyo must continue its “trial and error” approach to immigration, granting more visas to foreign workers or whatever you call it.
What’s wrong with a genius sushi master chef in Tsukiji outer market being born somewhere in Southeast Asia? As long as he inherits the traditional taste and modern development of Japan’s sushi culture, he is already a Japanese and not a foreigner anymore in our rapidly changing society.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.
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