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Sunday, March 18, 2007

COUNTERPOINT

As London shows, assimilation is what migration's about


Special to The Japan Times

LONDON -- I have been coming to this city every few years for more than four decades, and this visit, of 10 days' duration, has, in some ways, been the most startling. Not that the mid-Sixties weren't. The Beatles, with every challenge to staid British routine that they personified, were in the ascendancy then, as was the miniskirt -- ever higher and higher. But the new London of 2007 is no less revealing and provocative.

London is today the multiethnic, multicultural capital of Europe, as is evident to any visitor who travels the city from corner to corner. There is a national debate going on in Britain -- a persistent and serious one in the media, on the streets, in pubs and in living rooms and Parliament. It is a debate as to which model to follow: multicultural (ethnic groups retaining their customs and traditions) or integrationist (ethnic groups assimilating into "British" categories of mores and manners).

When all is said and done, though, these models or paradigms, or whatever you call them, are merely ways of organizing and labeling ideas. The fact is that Britain is a multiethnic state, and the intercultural assimilation is flowing fast and furious both ways. Nowhere is this rich mix of cultures seen more than in London itself.

It is estimated that London's population will increase from now on by about 600,000 people per decade. According to a recent study conducted by the University of Leeds, the dominant component of population change has been migration from abroad, which represents a full 65 percent of the total. It is also estimated that 10 to 15 percent of the GDP of Britain is attributable to this immigration. One migrant a minute is arriving on these shores. Applications by asylum seekers are now running at 70,000 to 80,000 a year, three to four times higher than a decade ago.

If you compare the origins of today's migrants with those of previous decades, you find that the percentage of European- or Irish-born has gone down by a factor of about a half. Government statistics also show that migrants to the United Kingdom born in Africa or Asia are younger than those from Europe.

Huge Polish migration

In 2001, 53 percent of the foreign-born population in Britain identified themselves as "white." (The currently huge Polish migration to Britain accounts for a good part of this. There are 600,000 Poles in this country now. There is even a Polish newspaper in Scotland called Gazeta z Highland, and in London some areas have road signs in both English and Polish.)

The wide-ranging debate that is going on here covers every aspect of immigration, from housing, education, work and healthcare to issues of discrimination, persecution, faith and crime. From April 1 this year, migrants who wish to naturalize will need to take a test to demonstrate "sufficient knowledge of life in the United Kingdom" and of the English language. And this is as it should be, so long as this "sufficient know-ledge" does not attempt to demand the migrants' abandonment of their native way of life.

Here is the crux of the assimilation question. If a country is willing to accept migration and thebenefits and problems such a policy encompasses, then its native population needs to have the long vision of true cultural assimilation -- not the politician's instant vision of conformity and "unity."

And so, the native population needs to be tolerant of the friction that migration naturally causes as first-generation immigrants, generally thrust into the lower economic strata of society, come to terms with unfamiliarity and adversity -- and as disadvantaged natives come to terms with their new "different" neighbors.

If the native population of a city or country makes summary judgments as to the suitability of first-generation migrants after a short trial period, then society's toleration level drops and the newcomers are treated as unwelcome irritants. If, however, people realize that those migrants are contributing a huge amount to society in economic and social terms, and that the next generation will naturally solve the assimilation problem by blending into the mix, then both sides are in a win-win situation.

It is such long vision that Japan sorely needs.

As to what is "British" (or "Japanese," in a similar sense), I can think of no more appropriate rubric than one expressed by Sir Winston Churchill, in a very different context, at Harvard University in 1943, when he expounded on: "Common conceptions of what is right and wrong [and] a marked regard for fair play."

That should at least be our drawing-board ideal.

But back to London. The friction that one would expect with such a high inflow of migrants from diverse cultures is expressed in racist terms. It certainly exists on the streets, particularly in the south of the city. But at least it is out in the open now, not treated as it was in the past with winks, nods and sinister profiling. And when it does occur, its causes are related primarily to the economics of underclass.

Yet what strikes you in this city is a multiethnic society essentially at home with itself, with tens of thousands of mixed couples and ten times that again in multicultural friendships. This city's successes as the multiethnic capital of Europe are due to the fact that migrants are given a stake in the system here -- perhaps not always an equal one, although that is the sought-after objective.

Condescending smiles

Whatever the background or origin of the immigrant, this is all that is necessary to ensure that, in good time, assimilation will be a smooth process. Keep migrants at arms' length, smile condescendingly at them as you not-so-gently marginalize them, and you bring about a plague of unhappiness on both your houses.

There is still racism in Britain, but it is seen today as racism, not as a genteel form of stiff-upper-lip discrimination. What of Japan on this score?

Needless to say, the circumstances surrounding migration to Japan are necessarily different from those in Europe. But the fundamental question is the same: Do you desire a country that is open to the world, that sees diversity for the new ideas and energy and power that it bestows on you?

Taking refuge, as the Japanese presently do, in notions of racial exclusivity, nationalistic sloganeering and dated cliches of "beauty" and "love of tradition" adds nothing to the dynamism of a society.

Japan, now more than ever, needs to open its doors to significant, managed migration. What is society itself, if not the total gathering of our individual loves, ambitions, anxieties, setbacks and triumphs? What is social progress if not the process by which ideas are converted into dreams, dreams that can be followed in immensely diverse ways by all of the marvelously diverse individuals who comprise it? Such are the thoughts rushing through my head these 10 days in London, surrounded by people of every background on Earth.

How I would dearly love to hear a prime minister of Japan or a Tokyo mayor someday say, as the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, did in September 2006: "London's emergence as a world city includes the arrival of people from abroad over many generations, to work, find refuge from persecution, join family and friends, and make a better life. In the 21st century more than ever before, this process is a key determinant of London's social and economic development."

Brave, relevant -- and yes -- Mr. Prime Minister Abe, truly beautiful words for the "world" city of Tokyo and the world power, Japan.



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