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Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2007

THE ZEIT GIST

The blame game

Convenience, creativity seen in efforts to scapegoat Japan's foreign community


Special to The Japan Times

We live in interesting times. With the shortage and high cost of domestic labor, the Japanese government has brought over record numbers of cheap foreign workers. Even though whole industrial sectors now depend on foreign labor, few publicly accept the symbiosis as permanent. Instead, foreigners are being blamed for Japan's problems.

A poster released by Ibaraki Prefectural Police
A poster released by Ibaraki Prefectural Police implores citizens to cooperate with efforts to prevent foreigners from illegally entering and staying in Japan. IBARAKI PREFECTURAL POLICE PHOTO

Scapegoating the alien happens worldwide, but Japan's version is particularly amusing. It's not just the garden-variety focus on crime anymore: Non-Japanese are being blamed for problems in sports, education — even shipping. Less amusing is how authorities are tackling these "problems" — by thwarting any chances of assimilation.

Labor and crime

Japan has brought over a million foreigners for "training." However, these government-sponsored programs have been so badly managed, creating harsh conditions exempt from Japan's labor laws, that Kyodo (July 2) reported that nearly 10,000 non-Japanese "disappeared" from workplaces between 2002 and 2006.

You'd think we'd get more stories in the media about why non-Japanese would want to escape this system. The broken promises of training in useful skills? The labor for less than the minimum wage and no social safety net? Instead, we get the biannual media geyser on criminality.

In past columns (Oct. 7, 2003, for example), we discussed how the police keep fudging statistics to exaggerate foreign crime, and how the media offers little analysis, mitigation, or comparison with the more significant rise in Japanese crime. A classic example of absurd doublespeak appeared in a Mainichi article (Feb 8), headlining a "decrease" in foreign crime in English, yet an "increase" in Japanese. But now the blame game has spread to other sectors.

Military security

I had heard rumors that the Self-Defense Forces frown upon their soldiers having relations with non-Japanese. The Sankei Shimbun (June 27) verified them by reporting that Marine SDF officers with foreign spouses would be "removed from sensitive posts." This came after a security breach allegedly by an officer with a Chinese wife. Oddly enough, Japan Today (June 28) said, "the leak may have occurred by accident when the officer was swapping pornography over the Internet."

Regardless, the crackdown falls on all who consort with the alien by marrying them. Imagine the uproar in other international relations organs (such as the United Nations, the U.S. State Department — even the U.S. military, where international marriage is not uncommon) if official policy treated all international spouses as potential spies.

Bad sports

The Asahi Shimbun (May 25) reported that the All Japan High School Athletic Federation banned non-Japanese from the first leg of the ekiden running championships. This would "make races more interesting for fans." Having too many Africans on a team, their argument ran, was too much of a competitive advantage.

According to Keisuke Sawaki, a director of the Japan Association of Athletics Federations, "The differences in physical capabilities between Japanese and foreign students are far beyond imagination."

Discrimination, however, is within these limited imaginations. Hark back (Zeit Gist, Jan. 6, 2004, and Sept. 30, 2003, respectively) to the same "foreign blood advantage" excluding international kids from the Takamado English Speech Contests (name-sponsored by the Imperial family) and the Kokutai National Sports Festival (funded by our taxes). In a followup, Asahi (June 29) described how ekiden restrictions then spread to relay marathons, basketball and table tennis. Limiting foreign students would keep the events from becoming "dull."

Dull? I would think open competition would give athletes the incentive to try harder in the spirit of fair play. But I don't think these organizers really understand what "being sporting" is all about. To them sports are great, as long as Japanese win.

Take a look at sumo, with their more open rules: The June "banzuke" listing shows that a full third of top-ranked wrestlers are not Japanese. Then again, perhaps the organizers have.

Anyway, blame foreigners for being born stronger than us Japanese — self-deprecation justifying exclusion.

Educational woes

July 17's Zeit Gist discussed the accusation that secondary school "hair police" tamp down on non-Japanese kids born with the wrong hair color or texture. Now, according to the Sunday Mainichi (July 8), foreigners are disrupting the natural odor as well. Citing an "education insider" depicting international marriages as moneymaking unions, foreign mothers allegedly scrimp so much to send money back home that children lack basic hygiene. Japan's classrooms are apparently infested with stinky international children.

On that note, I'm surprised somebody hasn't, say, blamed non-Japanese for Japan's low level of English ability. Oh wait, somebody has: Kitakyushu University's Shinichiro Noriguchi wrote in the Asahi (Sept. 15, 2006): "In particular, native speakers who have lived in Japan for more than 10 years tend to have adapted to the system and have become ineffective as teachers — this is also partly because their English has become Japanized and is spoken to suit the ears of their Japanese students."

Familiarity is "usan-kusai" (bizarre to the point of being suspicious), or just plain "kusai" (smelly), I guess.

Foreign crew cuts

The Asahi (May 22) reported that in ocean-going vessels operated by Japanese firms, non-Japanese account for more than 90 percent of crews. However, to secure "stable maritime transportation," the Ministry of Transport announced tax breaks for companies who increase Japanese crews on their ships. For what if there were natural disasters, political turmoil, or other emergencies in the foreign crew's home countries?

"There would be too few people to operate (Japan's) ships."

Now there's a novel angle. Usually it's the presence of the alien that stokes fears. This time it's their potential absence. Seems non-Japanese are damned if they do, damned if they don't. Just bring up issues of self-sufficiency and security, and watch the political pork barrel sail through.

The 'solutions'

Let's see how the government intends to fix these "problems." At least four major policymaking entities are currently debating Japan's de facto guest worker program. The heaviest actor, the Ministry of Justice, wants an entire revamp; Justice Minister Jinen Nagase advocates a system where non-Japanese workers stay up to three years, after which they are out for good, regardless of skills or language proficiency acquired. So forget any "brain drain" into Japan. Make the revolving-door system clear and keep unskilled foreigners pounding sheet metal and cleaning pig sties. And pray the quality of worker we underpay and overwork doesn't stick around or commit any crimes.

How does this system offer any incentive to factories to actually train their workers? And can policymakers seriously assume that quality foreign workers will come to Japan just to be a factory cog?

Along with this head-in-the-sand approach comes a renewed manning of the defenses. Applied, of course, only to "illegals" and "terrorists."

Unfortunately, in practical application, virtually all non-Japanese ultimately fall into that category. Last June, the Osaka Ikuno Police released new flyers (complete with crescent-moon-faced blond "gaijin") erroneously claiming rises in crime and overstaying. They asked employers to be on the lookout not only for illegals, but also for forged passports and fake marriages. How bosses would become crime watchdogs and marriage counselors remained unclear.

The Ibaraki Prefectural Police were even more reactive, issuing a flyer showing seven riot police subduing one foreigner. Headline: "Stop them at the shores!" Nothing rallies the public like the threat of invasion.

As for non-Japanese in higher value-added jobs, you'll get yours come November. According to Immigration, "foreign visitors" re-entering Japan will have fingerprints and other biometric data taken every time. Exempt is anyone under 16, the Japan-born "Zainichi" foreigners, diplomats and people on "official government business." This means even you "foreign visitors" who happen to be long-termers or Permanent Residents will be separated from your Japanese families to go through the "alien line." Refusal to comply means rejection at the border without right of appeal.

Why override the decades of protest that succeeded in getting fingerprinting abolished in 1999? According to Immigration's hilariously hammy video (nettv.gov-online.go.jp/prg/prg1203.html), this antiterrorist measure is for the "safety of foreign visitors," even though all terrorist activities here (from the Aum cult gas attacks on down) have been committed by Japanese. Associating non-Japanese with terrorism is presumptuous and historically inaccurate. What about fingerprinting Japanese too in the name of safety? No can do. The government tried the Juki Net ID system years ago to widespread protest, with the Japanese judiciary ruling it unconstitutional in 2006.

What is the end result of this blame game? Even the most earnest assimilator gets knocked on the head. Asahi reported (June 29) that in Fukuroi, Shizuoka Prefecture, a Brazilian of Japanese descent tried to buy land for his house. Locals then panicked, said his presence "would invite crime to their neighborhood," and successfully blocked his bid.

Lovely. Blame foreigners for their alleged crime, then bar them from ever assimilating their way out of it.

We are not amused.

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