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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

THE ZEIT GIST

A way forward?

New immigration proposals are a step in the right direction


Last month, Diet member and Senior Vice Minister of Justice Taro Kono publicized a new action plan for immigration.

Entitled "Regarding Future Acceptance of Foreigners" ("kongo no gaikokujin no ukeire ni tsuite"), it offered several policy propositions for Japan's future as an international society.

News photo
Foreigners hold placards during a workers' rights demonstration in Tokyo in March. Inset: Taro Kono AP PHOTOS
News photo

This column will summarize the proposal and offer a critique.

The seven-page plan (available at www.moj.go.jp/NYUKAN/nyukan51.html) offers eight sections on: Increasing the quality and qualification of imported foreign workers; immigration and naturalization procedures; assimilation and secure working conditions; law enforcement; and international exchange.

It encourages a less random intake of low-wage "nikkei" laborers, in favor of people with higher degrees of skill and qualification. It proposes the influx come from countries with more established guest worker systems, and go into job markets designated as needing foreign labor.

It requires workers have some degree of Japanese ability, with periodical evaluations. Continued employment would be contingent upon language improvement.

Likewise, children of foreign workers would have compulsory education, requiring attendance in school for continued residency of the family.

Pointing out the contributions of foreign residents to Japanese society, and the shortcomings of Japan in offering them secure jobs, the plan says the government should find out more about foreign residents' livelihoods.

Fortunately, it goes beyond mere platitudes to offer concrete prescriptions: Give foreign residents equal pay for equal skill levels of work. Cover them equally under pension and social welfare plans. Assist long-term foreign residents in staying longer.

It even recommends loosening requirements for permanent residency and naturalization.

But all is not carrots. Sticks: Immigration should rationalize its application and registration system. Government bodies dealing with foreigners should coordinate information. And foreigners of all stripes (including permanent residents) should be tracked more efficiently.

For example, foreigners (and their employers) should inform the government whenever they change jobs. This would help nip overstaying in the bud.

Sagely, however, the plan demands punishing companies and "schools" that create and/or employ overstayers. It specifically mentions revising the "Entertainer Visa" category, and cracking down on abuses in the water trades.

It concludes with old "kokusaika" chestnuts: increased tourism, exchange student programs with scholarships, and working holidays.

Quite frankly, when I started reading this document, I braced myself for the typical policy rhetoric of "man the barricades, save our country from the alien hordes!"

After all, one of its recommendations, which made headlines last month, is to limit foreigners to 3 percent of the total population (excluding "zainichi" Japan-born generational foreigners, such as the ethnic Koreans and Chinese).

But I have to admit, I found a lot of things to cheer.

The first is the proposal's tone. Instead of portraying immigration as a threat, the tack was more "protect and serve those who are here now, adjust filters for future intake, and recognize foreign labor's contributions to Japanese society."

Activists have been clamoring for these things for decades. Looks as though they're finally getting through.

For example, in Section Seven, "Providing the Basis for the Livelihood of Foreigners" ("gaikokujin no seikatsu kibon no seibi"), it brings up the need to "guarantee rational rights" ("gouriteki na kenri no hoshou"), particularly in terms of housing and living environment ("juukyo tou seikatsu kankyou").

Not bad. Although it's unclear whether this means creating any antidiscrimination laws, it's better than having these issues not mentioned at all.

It even advocates recognizing the zainichi generational foreigners as residents, the same as Japanese (although it stopped short of saying that foreigners should get a "juuminhyou" -- residency certificate -- the same as Japanese).

But let's not get too Pollyanna. Plenty of proposals are problematic, and if not thought through, will ultimately undermine the effectiveness of future policy.

For example, the language requirement. I basically agree with the compulsory education of immigrants. Anyone who lives in Japan should become as fluent in Japanese as possible. The alternative -- functional illiteracy and a lifetime of limited communication with society -- will severely limit one's ability to control their fate.

However, who provides and evaluates this language education? If it is the employer, alarm bells. Any nasty boss could report "insufficient Japanese" to Immigration as a means of sanction or firing (something I have personally experienced).

Standards should be made clear even at this early stage. I recommend free government language classes and independent evaluation (such as through the "nihongo kentei shiken").

On the compulsory education of foreign children, what systems are in place for those who face bullying at school and cannot for psychological reasons attend?

Will whole families be kicked out of Japan just because their kids got a raw draw of classmates or teacher?

I suggest the Ministry of Education offer educational alternatives (by accrediting more ethnic schools), and promote counseling (with ethnic counselors) for children who have trouble fitting in.

On that note, let's hope these proposals will avoid bad habits. Education was used as a weapon a century ago, such as with the "douka seisaku," where "Japanization" was an attempt to eliminate cultures (such as Ainu, Okinawan, and Korean). With recent moves to enforce patriotism in Japanese schools, it is unclear how multiculturalism can coexist.

It's probably better if the government ensures all children have an education, not force all children to have specifically a "Japanese education."

Also, we must keep a flinty eye on the new policing proposals.

As the Community Page has frequently pointed out, the National Police Agency has used any policy drive regarding foreigners as an excuse for bent laws, public denigration, racial profiling, snitch Web sites, even forensic research based upon racist premises (Jan. 13, 2004).

A clearer system of civil-rights checks and balances must be established to stop police overstepping their authority, encouraging xenophobia and harassment under the pretense of law enforcement.

And of course, the arbitrary 3 percent foreign population cap is sky pie.

Not only does it apparently assume that current foreign residents will not reproduce, but it also flies in the face of the enormous pressures on Japan, both economic and demographic, to reckon with a future of immigration in the first place.

Japan's multiculturalization will happen, but neither as a tsunami nor in a way so conveniently calculated. And not within the political lives of current politicians.

So lose the cap and stop making sops to the sweaty heads, or you might just undo all the good intentions.

Have your say

The Justice Ministry is accepting opinions on the immigration proposals from the public until July 15.

E-mail nyukan42@moj.go.jp with your views (and cc. them to community@japantimes.co.jp). You can also contact Taro Kono directly via www.taro.org

GOT A STORY FOR THE COMMUNITY PAGE? TELL US AND GET CASH. E-MAIL: community@japantimes.co.jp



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