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Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2007

THE ZEIT GIST

News photo
ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS MACKENZIE

The myopic state we're in

Fingerprint scheme exposes xenophobic, short-sighted trend in government


Special to The Japan Times

We all notice it eventually: how nice individual Japanese people are, yet how cold — even discriminatory — officialdom is toward non-Japanese (NJ). This dichotomy is often passed off as something "cultural" (a category people tend to assign anything they can't understand), but recent events have demonstrated there is in fact a grand design. This design is visible in government policies and public rhetoric, hard-wiring the public into fearing and blaming foreigners.

Start with the "us" and "them" binary language of official government pronouncements: how "our country" ("wagakuni") must develop policy for the sake of our "citizens" ("kokumin") toward foreign "visitors" (rarely "residents"); how foreigners bring discrimination upon themselves, what with their "different languages, religions, and lifestyle customs" an' all; and how everyone has inalienable human rights in Japan — except the aliens.

The atmosphere wasn't always so hostile. During the bubble economy of the late '80s and its aftermath, the official mantra was "kokusaika" (internationalization), where NJ were given leeway as misunderstood outsiders.

But in 2000, kicked off by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara's "sangokujin" speech — in which he called on the Self-Defense Forces to round up foreigners during natural disasters in case they riot — the general attitude shifted perceptibly from benign neglect to downright antipathy.

As "Japanese only" signs and exclusionary rules proliferated, up popped the "cultural" excuses: Japan can't help itself (after all, it has an isolationist history and deep-rooted, unique concepts of racism); Japan is catching up with the West, and will change when the more internationalized youngsters grow up and take the reins; international marriages and foreign neighbors will ultimately clear up residual "gaijin allergies."

Meanwhile, high-profile anti-gaijin movements were converging and cross-pollinating: the Otaru onsens case of 1999-2005, the "beware of foreign criminals" police notices in banks and on public transport, the "anti-hooligan" push during the 2002 World Cup, the al-Qaida scare of 2005, the Gaijin Hanzai magazine on crime by foreigners in February 2007 and the "foreign crime is rising" (even when it isn't) police media campaigns every six months.

It's reached saturation point. In addition to October's new law requiring all employers to register their NJ workers with the government, last month Japan reinstated fingerprinting for foreigners at the border.

This time the weak excuses — about fingerprinting being merely a sign of the times — fell flat: Japan's program went further than the American policy it was modeled on, requiring fingerprinting every time almost any foreigner enters Japan — even Regular Permanent Residents. The government has also been unclear how long the biometric data will be stored or protected, or with which government agencies and countries — besides the U.S. — it will be shared.

More telling was Japan's officially-sanctioned defamation: When applying these policies solely to non-Japanese, government portrayed them as more likely to be criminals, terrorists, and carriers of contagious diseases.

Things might have been different in a society where the accused has the right of reply. But in Japan it's not a fair fight. Media blackouts on minority views are commonplace. And this time it became clear how officialdom manufactures "Team Japan vs. The World."

After little public debate over the years, fingerprinting was rammed through the Diet during the era of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's virtual omnipotence. When it came into effect on Nov. 20, debate was again stifled.

Nothing was left to chance that day. National broadcaster NHK's 3-minute segment on the 7 p.m. news show only parroted the government's line of protecting "citizens" from the outside world, with no airtime given to the protests outside the Justice Ministry. NHK's 6-minute segment in the 9 p.m. broadcast gave positive feedback from a couple of tourists, but no word from any NJ residents whatsoever. NHK's BS News at 10:50 p.m. didn't even bother to carry the story.

How can NHK ignore a story affecting well over a million NJ residents (and millions more if you include their families)? Why are foreigners paying NHK fees if they're not valued as an audience?

Other networks and newspapers carried news about concerns for human rights, the malfunctioning fingerprint machines, and angry tourists. But not one network had the presence of mind to interview a NJ resident or immigrant.

Then, right on cue, came vindication: Hours past midnight, the Nikkei, Sankei and Yomiuri dailies all released articles in time for their Nov. 21 morning editions: "Five foreigners snagged!" Huzzah for our new system!

Not so, actually. The Sankei Shimbun admitted they were snagged for odd passports, not fingerprints, which happens every day anyway. Thus this was not news. It was propaganda.

And man did people get mad as hell about it. Respondents to the Debito.org blog have finally gotten sick of contributing to Japan only to be constantly bashed. They are forming a nonprofit group to promote the interests of immigrants.

This shouldn't be necessary. Plenty of domestic avenues recognize the need for foreigners, and actively created policy to bring them here. Even Japan's largest business lobby, Keidanren, is partially responsible for the Trainee Visa regime that has doubled Japan's NJ population since 1990. Policymakers want foreigners here.

But scratch the surface. I recently attended a speech by a Keidanren foreign labor policymaker. I asked why Japan would import so many foreign "trainees" yet not take care of them. Why exempt their visas from Japan's labor laws and social safety net?

His answer was enlightening. He claimed Japan's labor protections are haphazard for everybody (which justifies full exemption for foreigners?), and that Japan's society is not wired for immigration. (So why import more than a million foreign workers? Just to exploit them as revolving-door work units?)

Now I get it. Policymakers just don't care. In their view, gaijin only come here to make money off the rich society we Japanese alone built, right? So once they get here, they're on their own, and should entertain no thoughts of planning to stay.

"Mottainai" — what a waste. Japanese officialdom would be well-advised not to squander the potential foreign workers offer Japan, whose aging society and withering labor force promises to price itself out of the international market. Policymakers know this, yet they make their own lame excuses about employing more robots, elderly, and women. Then they wonder why the birthrate keeps dropping. Complete policy incoherence.

The rot reaches the very top. I harbor no illusions about who makes policy in this country (the bureaucrats, of course), but let's take a look at our elected Diet members, since the public has some say in their existence.

Politicians are even further out of touch. No wonder, considering they are effectively a peerage masquerading as an elected legislature.

After the last election, 185 of 480 Diet members (39 percent) were second- or third- (or more) generation politicians ("seshuu seijika"). Of 244 members of the LDP (the ruling party for practically the entire postwar period), 126 (52 percent) are seshuu seijika. Likewise eight of the last 10 prime ministers, and around half the Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda Cabinets. When the average turnover of lawmakers per election is only around 3 percent, you have what can only be termed a political class.

As the party cream floats to the top, debates become very closed-circuit, intellectually incestuous, and even oddly anti-gaijin. For example, Justice Minister Kunio "friend of a friend in al-Qaida" Hatoyama was quoted by the Shukan Asahi magazine in October, "The Japanese place more importance on the value of life. . . . European civilizations of power and war mean their concept of life is weaker than the Japanese. This is why they are moving toward abolishing the death penalty." Then he approved three execution orders.

These isolated people (and our acquiescent media cartels) are simply unable to see anyone's interests but their own. They not only serve the country poorly — they are devastating it.

Crunch the data from the IMF World Economic Outlook for percentage changes in GDP per capita, at current prices between 1996 and 2006. A basket of 15 developed countries/mature economies (European, North American, and Antipodean) have all grown by an average of around 57 percent. Even the laggard, Germany, grew by nearly 23 percent. Japan, meanwhile, shrank by 1.47 percent. Since Japan's neighbors, China and South Korea, have grown by 131.9 percent and 51.3 percent respectively, Japan's future as the leader of Asia is in jeopardy.

Yet Japan clearly resists the forces or globalization by having, according to The Economist (Dec. 1), the lowest levels of import penetration, inward foreign direct investment and foreign workers in the OECD club of developed countries, not to mention the highest government debt, at 180 percent of GDP.

Japan even refuses to fulfill simple obligations as a developed nation, not only because it won't pass a law against racial discrimination. It won't even take people who would come here no matter how poorly they're treated. Despite being the third-largest donor to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Japan accepted only 34 asylum-seekers in 2006 (compared to 23,296 in the U.S. and 6,330 in Britain that year), and a total of only 1,975 since it signed the Refugee Convention back in 1951. Take our money, keep your aliens.

As Japan sinks into elderly obsolescence and threatens to retire to the economic backwaters, it needs more openness, not less. Yet our leaders insult NJ residents by calling them names and policing them further. Not to mention the purposeful xenophobes, capitalizing on a complicated world, who whip up public fear of foreign terrorism and crime. The nation is being run by people out of sync with Japan's present and future, who won't live to see the full extent of the damage they are wreaking anyway.

We cannot expect people like these to lead us to a world they cannot envision. Neither Japanese citizens, nor the international residents who plight their troth here, deserve this fate. At the very least Japan needs a change in leadership. Knock the LDP from its half-century in power, for starters.

As for the media, let's have a pro-gaijin campaign for a change. To paraphrase one of Japan's outspoken historical revisionists and xenophobes, the late Diet member Eto Takami, "we're doing good things too." Acknowledge that.

More information, including references, at www.debito.org/japantimes121807.html. Send comments on these issues and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp


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