Commentary / Japan

On migrants and belonging

by Shaun O'dwyer

It was a textbook print of John Constable’s painting of Salisbury Cathedral that first sparked a young V.S. Naipaul’s fascination with England, if we believe the semi-autobiographical testimony in his novel “The Enigma of Arrival.” Naipaul’s narrator is a dispassionate but still sympathetic outsider who, in middle age, lives out his boyhood longings, insinuating himself into the life of a crumbling Wiltshire farm estate over a decade.

Naipaul’s novel is a melancholy meditation on place, belonging and change, chronicling the farm’s decline, the lives of neighbors who move in, depart or grow frail and die, and of the narrator’s maturing observations of English life beyond his youthful infatuation. It is, finally, a monologue on his reconciliation with his past and his restless transnational identity.

“The Enigma of Arrival” also testifies to the “great movement of peoples” and “cultural mixing” that transformed the United Kingdom after 1950 — and Naipaul had been in the vanguard of this movement as a Trinidadian scholarship student at Oxford.

As a migrant in Japan I have found his book insightful, especially now this aging nation is contemplating accepting more migrants, and contemplating what that means for more nationalist understandings of national identity.

Naipaul knew how attractive such understandings could be. Indeed, sometimes he also clung to a romantic conviction in the continuity of life and belonging in his adopted Wiltshire landscape, that the English people living there were mystically rooted in its ancient downs and track ways through intimate connection with the ancestors buried beneath their feet.

There is one similarity between Naipaul’s postcolonial affinity for Englishness and my own more superficial attraction: a cherished boyhood picture of a rural English church — in my case, of the ancient church of All Saints in Brixworth town, Northamptonshire. During a trip to the United Kingdom last year I found time to visit Brixworth, on an unseasonably warm April day.

Once I walked over a rise and left more recent commuter neighborhoods behind, I found a typically old English village with Georgian era cottages and pubs. All Saints was itself imposing, seemingly a classic English parish church, somewhat roughly built with uneven courses of recycled Roman brick along its exterior. Those Roman bricks give some idea of its antiquity. It was likely constructed under the patronage of eighth-century Anglo-Saxon King Offa in an imperial continental style, with few substantial modifications since the 11th century.

If any ancient English monument was to be a candidate for a romantic ideal of continuity, this now obscure church should be a front-runner with its 1,200-year career as a house of worship, even though the rituals of its current Anglican congregation would be unrecognizable to eighth-century Anglo-Saxon Catholics. But I was in for a surprise when I entered the building; someone playing modern, secular music on a piano.

The pianist was a longtime Russian resident of the town, practicing for an upcoming music festival in the church grounds, and I was happy to hear that she had been playing Australian-themed compositions by a noted composer living in Brixworth. In my imagination it seemed that she, the music and its German-English composer could just as rightfully take their place in the life of this ancient building, no matter how embedded it might seem to be in some ancient ideal of Englishness.

Months after my return to Japan from this trip, revisions to Japan’s immigration law gave me reason to revisit those musings on belonging, identity and inclusivity. In December, the Diet passed laws creating two new categories of work visa status for lower- and semi-skilled migrant workers. It also outlined a path to permanent residency for those semi-skilled workers who upgrade their work and language skills. Up to 345,000 people are expected to migrate to Japan to work under these visas in the next five years. These immigration reforms are a response to workforce aging and employee shortages in key industries.

As a Japan resident and parent to children of an Australian-Japanese marriage, I welcome immigration reforms that will boost the economy and ultimately broaden what it means to be “Japanese.” Yet like others, I worry that there is still a lack of social infrastructure to support more migrants. There is a risk that new migrant workers from East or Southeast Asia will be corralled into a growing economic underclass — as Naipaul’s Indian grandparents were in Trinidad — to be exploited, racially stigmatized and denied a fair chance at making Japan their home.

There is also a concern that these immigration reforms could provoke a backlash, what social psychologists call “the authoritarian dynamic” that emerges when more conservative citizens perceive a communal threat. That dynamic could be triggered by what they believe are intolerably large incursions of migrants different from themselves in appearance and values, and then exploited by opportunistic populists much as it has been in Europe.

In such circumstances, the dark side of romanticism of place and belonging emerge, in sectarian, racialized myths of national identity that “simplify and sentimentalize the past,” as Naipaul put it — myths which he was himself susceptible to.

Mindful of these dangers, there are some strategies by which Japanese and foreign advocates for migrants can argue for their rights to work and belong in Japan. One is what we could call “the exemplary migrant” argument.

First, advocates can argue that migrants have often supplied the hybrid cultural inspirations for what are now distinctive national beliefs, symbols and arts. In the sixth to eighth centuries, Korean migrants heavily influenced the development of Japan’s Yamato Kingdom, and their descendants married into its royal family. They introduced Buddhism along with the skills to build Japanese temples such as Horyuji in Nara Prefecture, much as, at the same time, smaller numbers of Italian and Frankish migrants were bringing the skills to promote Christianity and to build stone churches in Anglo-Saxon England.

Second, migrants can enlarge and enrich a nation’s cultural self-image: Writers like Naipaul and the Nagasaki-born Kazuo Ishiguro have done so for the English, and the 19th- century folklorist Lafcadio Hearn did so for the new nation-state of Japan. They may even become custodians of its cultural heritage, as practitioners who carry on previously dying national arts.

Third, through great acts of self-sacrifice migrants and their children may earn their right to belong, like the nisei Americans who fought so courageously as GIs in Europe during World War II.

Such an argument can be criticized for promoting a “model migrant” myth that only a few can live up to. Few can be great artisans, innovators or novelists for their adopted nation, few may be interested in perpetuating its traditional arts, and opportunities for grand self-sacrifice are, thankfully, rather rare. Moreover, the assumption that migrants earn their right to belong through self-sacrifice could easily become a rationale for their exploitation.

The exemplary migrant argument can only comprise part of a reasonable advocacy for migrants’ rights. Another, more practical argument is a “civic contribution” argument for migrant belonging. In this view, migrants can earn their right to belong by possessing skills and characteristics that help them to fit into their adopted country: job skills or aptitudes that are in demand in Japan, some minimal level of language ability and sufficient assets to support themselves and their families.

Some will remind me of the moral dimension to this argument. Good migrants obey the law, make some effort to assimilate linguistically and socially, and play some role in Japanese neighborhood and civic life. They do not resent it if their children decide to completely assimilate into their new country, and nor do they retreat into a myopic, grievance-driven identity in which the only injustices that matter are those afflicting their in-group.

Yet the imperative to assimilate yields a less acknowledged dividend. Migrants who do so can become more aware of their civil and constitutional rights, more confident in exercising them and more apt to recognize — and support diverse fellow residents and citizens as bearers of these same rights.

This civic notion of belonging rejects romantic imaginings of nationality as an organic community, rooted in an ancestral homeland. But there is a more humane romanticism that can be imagined here, threading a narrative of continuity through the accommodation of diverse migrants into a nation’s life.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University.