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Monday, April 30, 2012

Fact-checking Japan's critics


The better U.S. media now use fact-checkers and truth meters to debunk outrageous claims by politicians. Maybe Japan should do the same toward its critics.

High on the truth-meter treatment list would be the never-ending claims that Japan is a racist society. One of the more egregious was the claim by the Dutch journalist, Karel van Wolferen, who once wrote that special schools existed to make sure that returnee children be "re-molded" into good, obedient Japanese.

True, special schools do exist to help children who have lived abroad readjust to the education system here. But they are few and hard to enter. They are also very popular with parents who want an international education for their children — the exact opposite of racism.

Claims by the same journalist that Japan operated as a pernicious system seeking world economic domination seem rather sick today. But no matter; he has been replaced by another of prominence who says that Japan has indeed had great economic success but is sneakingly hiding it to lull us all into false confidence.

Yet another truth-meter candidate is the claim that the recent repatriation of Indonesian nurses and caregivers for failing Japanese-language proficiency tests was a plot to exploit their cheap labor.

Not only does the claim defy common sense — why go to all the trouble to bring these people all the way to Japan and train them just to send them back a few years later? — it is also denied by the facts, as it was Indonesia, not Japan, that requested the nurses be allowed to go to Japan under its recent EPA (Economic Partnership Agreement) with Japan.

Then we have the absurd claim that new regulations using a points system to offer easier entry for skilled foreigners, even if they lack Japanese language ability, is in fact a plot to make sure that they will be so frustrated by their inability to speak Japanese that they will eventually want to go home. This in a nation where even humble clerks go out of their way to help ignorant foreigners fill out forms, find directions and generally enjoy a hassle-free life here in Japan?

True, Japan's attitudes to foreigners can be complex at times. As a former member of several Justice Ministry committees to consider immigration policies I had a closeup view for some years. Some conclusions:

(1) Japan does realize the need for more relaxed policies for foreigners.

One reason is what it sees as a lack of skills in key areas — mainly IT, software, business management and international experience ("internationalization," as they like to call it). It also wants to counter foreign criticism, especially over its asylum policies that can be more flexible than most critics realize. But committee consideration of calls for large-scale immigration policies to match population decline ran headlong into claims that labor-saving technology, delayed retirement and more female workplace participation would save the day.

(2) There were genuine concerns about assimilation problems.

Partly they came from conservative-minded committee members worried about cultural differences. But there was also a genuine disappointment over the failure of hopes that Nikkei Latinos, mainly Nikkei Brazilians, brought to work here would integrate easily — a policy based partly on guilt for having encouraged past generations of Nikkei to emigrate but also on a very mistaken belief that somehow blood and facial appearance would allow easy integration of working-class Latinos into Japanese society.

(3) There was genuine concern about the problem of foreign crime in Japan.

Anti-Japan critics who play up statistics proving foreigner crime is less than Japanese crime ignore the fact that while most foreigners here are reasonably educated and crime averse, there is a small minority who come here deliberately to commit crime in this relatively crime-defenseless society. Japan has had every right to clamp down on these people, and to some extent it has succeeded.

To mix these two very different situations in a bid to criticize Japan should ring more than a few bells on the truth meter.

True, Tokyo had gone overboard in its assumptions that all visa overstayers were crypto-criminals. But we were at least able greatly to improve treatment of those who turned themselves in.

To get round these and other problems two of us on the committees — the economist Iwao Nakatani and myself — tried to advocate a points system similar to that of Australia and Canada for selecting immigrants, with a special emphasis on education levels, professional qualifications and/or ability in Japanese.

While our proposal quickly went into the "too hard" basket, fortunately it is now being revived, though not without flak from the more persistent anti-Japan critics.

The Japanese attitude to foreigners operates at two very different levels. One is what I call the respect versus dislike level, and for a long postwar period the respect factor dominated. It may since have faded somewhat as Japan lost its former inferiority complexes and with the rise of the nationalistic rightwing.

But on balance, most Japanese seem still to have a genuine interest in foreigners, especially those coming from nations seen as culturally advanced. Efforts to exclude foreigners who cause harm — badly behaved foreigners in high-class Japanese bathhouses, for example, or light-fingered foreigners in weakly-guarded Japanese jewelry and convenience-store shops — hardly add up to anti-foreign racism.

On the contrary. They can be highly justified at times, even if hard to implement. But at another level, attitudes can be very self-centered. A good example is the way it is taken for granted that children unable to get organ transplants in Japan should go abroad. Nationwide appeals for funds tug at emotional heartstrings.

Few seem to realize that in order to save the life of that Japanese child, the life of a foreign child needing the same transplant could be sacrificed. Those who argue that Japan should change the laws and attitudes that prevent these transplants at home are still few.

As in so many areas, foreign and trade policy included, it is assumed there is one world for Japan and another for the rest of us. It is at this more ethnocentric level that Japan needs to "internationalize."

Gregory Clark is a longtime university-based resident in Japan. A Japanese translation of this article can be found on www.gregoryclark.net


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