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Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2001

Japan must open the doors if it is to survive


JAPAN AND GLOBAL MIGRATION: Foreign Workers and the Advent of a Multicultural Society, edited by Mike Douglass and Glenda Roberts. London: Routledge, 2000, 306 pp., 63 British pounds.

Japan's demographic time bomb is ticking away. In the coming decades, the nation faces a labor shortage and insolvency in pension and health programs unless drastic measures are adopted.

To address the labor shortage and the problems of too few workers supporting the costs of retirees, some advocate integrating Japanese women more effectively into the labor market and facilitating the inflow of more foreign workers. Resistance to such pragmatic policies remains robust since they challenge myths and prejudices embraced by many Japanese.

The editors of this book assert that "the dissonance between the objective conditions that will continue to bring high levels of immigration to Japan and the prevailing perception in Japan that this intrusion of foreigners has a limited time horizon can partly be attributed to a number of myths prevalent in Japan." Chief among those myths is the belief that Japan can do without immigrant workers and can continue to marginalize those who are allowed to enter on precarious terms.

Given the impending labor shortage and the structural transformation of the Japanese economy, the authors maintain that Japan will have no option but to facilitate immigration and accommodate these workers and their families as permanent residents on far more favorable terms than currently prevail.

It is not well understood among Japanese just how indispensable immigrant workers are in key sectors of the economy and how they will become even more important to a range of economic activities related to information technologies due to the dearth of Japanese graduates with the requisite skills. In addition, "as Japanese society ages and population growth falls below replacement by the end of next decade, the growth in demand for personal health and other services can only be met by immigration."

A widespread aversion to greater immigration is based on the erroneous belief that foreigners are more likely to commit crimes. The media and government fan prejudice by distorting and sensationalizing the record. Sometimes frenzied reporting about "gaijinhanzai" (crimes by foreigners) contributes to a social hysteria not borne out by national crime statistics. In fact, most crimes committed by foreigners involve visa-related offenses. Overstayers accused of crimes are often deported without having a chance to defend themselves.

As part of a larger mosaic of institutionalized discrimination, the courts routinely mete out far harsher sentences to foreigners.

The Japanese government faces formidable obstacles as it tries to stem the flow of immigrant labor both because of strong demand within Japan and the supply of eager workers from surrounding countries where wage levels are far lower. In addition, the nexus of the labor recruiting business and the underworld makes enforcement problematic.

Moreover, "citizen groups and nongovernmental organizations are emerging in sending as well as receiving countries to, in effect, keep doors open for immigration. In championing the causes of social injustice and basic human rights for foreigners in Japan, they are challenging immigration policies, legal procedures and police practices that are oriented toward sealing off Japan's borders, and the many forms of discrimination against migrants which keep them in the most vulnerable, low-wage, high-risk situations."

Two excellent chapters by Keizo Yamawaki and Michael Weiner remind us that Japan has long been a country of immigration. Their evocation of the history of this sustained inflow of foreign workers clashes with popular images of racial purity and exclusion. Weiner argues that throughout the post-1945 era migrant labor has played a crucial role in Japan's economic growth. Regrettably, antediluvian policies, inclinations and "a legal framework which criminalizes undocumented foreign workers have all contributed to the perpetuation of a system which both discriminates against, and assists in the exploitation of, foreign labor."

The cherished myths of Pan-Asian solidarity have been exposed by the crass treatment most Asians endure while working or studying in Japan. John Lie points out that many Asian migrants come from relatively high-class backgrounds and some have advanced degrees. However, the discourse in Japan is infused with an implicit cultural superiority. It is widely assumed among Japanese that they "are more advanced, or better, in terms of culture and civilization than foreign workers." In the hierarchy of nations and cultures, other Asians are placed below Japanese, while Westerners are accorded high status, which explains the variations in treatment that different "gaijin" can expect.

David Pollack's excellent chapter on the 1991 manga "World Apartment Horror," also made into a film in 1992, probes the inconsistencies and humor of multiculturalism in Japan. A yakuza is sent to oust a group of foreigners from the building they live in so that a lucrative real-estate deal can be sealed. "In his comic attempts to rout the Asians from the tenement, he ends up appearing almost endearingly ineffectual, a sort of anti-Superman; less powerful than a Pakistani, less intelligent than a Taiwanese, less compassionate than a Filipino, less spiritually potent than an African. Indeed, he is less industrious and imaginative than any of them and amounts to little more than a punk hood with a bantam strut." The sad reality of multiculturalism Japanese-style is, "As long as Asian immigrants of either sex remain intentionally unrecognized by the Japanese government, and thus inevitably allowed to fall under the alternative domination of organized crime, they can be controlled, marginalized and kept easily disposable."

On a more hopeful note, Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu concludes that "Japan is being challenged to become more civilized by moving from policies of forced assimilation to respect for diversity and personal choice. Mythologies of racialism and nationalism that insist on homogeneity as an ideal are being demolished and recognition is being given to the existence and contributions of the variety of individuals who comprise society."

Among Japan's migrant workers, women have an unenviable position. Mike Douglass asserts that "Japan appears to be the only country in the world for which the vast majority of women have been legally and illegally recruited for a single purpose: sexual services." This situation contrasts with the situation in other countries where migrant women workers are distributed among a variety of occupations.

Douglass argues that the channeling of foreign women into sexual services reflects patriarchal attitudes and the gender bias that adversely affects all women in Japanese society. The limited opportunities available to foreign women outside the sex industry "are a reflection of a long history of the sex trade in Japan that has relied on class-stratification to provide poor women for the pleasure of middle- and upper-class men."

Douglass argues that coming to terms with anticipated waves of women migrants and their natural desire to seek careers outside the flesh trade means that Japan must first improve the status of Japanese women.

Keiko Yamanaka focuses on the post-1990 surge in immigration by the descendants of Japanese who emigrated to Latin America. These "Nikkeijin," mostly from Brazil, were encouraged to come to Japan by a reform in the immigration law that enabled them to receive renewable work visas because of their ancestry. Many found jobs in manufacturing plants and established small communities with their own newspapers, stores and restaurants. They were viewed as more ethnically acceptable immigrant workers while the returnees sought to strengthen ties with their imagined homeland.

However, expectations and intentions on both sides proved ill-fated as, "The Nikkeijin found themselves regarded as aliens and treated as secondary citizens by the Japanese, while the Japanese found the Nikkeijin to be disturbingly Brazilian and therefore foreign." The blatant discrimination encountered in the workplace and the systemic exploitation by job brokers soon cured the Nikkeijin of any notions of "coming home" and undermined their self-perceived ethnic identity. Unhappy in Japan, but lacking economic security at home, many of these peripatetic workers have found a balance by circulating back and forth between where they can earn a living and where they can enjoy their lives.

The editors and contributors deserve applause and a wide readership for such an intelligent and comprehensive volume on this critical subject. It is a pity, therefore, that it is priced out of the reach of most readers.

Jeff Kingston teaches history at Temple University Japan.


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