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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

JUST BE CAUSE

Good news from grass roots


Reader Rodney in Vancouver recently e-mailed: "I've often found your articles informative and useful, but they tend to take a tone of complaint. Please tell us about some face-to-face, grassroots efforts that have helped make Japanese more considerate and respectful of those who are different."

Thanks. Yes, my essays sound like "complaints" because I focus on ongoing issues that need redress. That doesn't mean I don't see the good news too. Here are 700 words to prove that:

First up, the labor unions (i.e. the ones that let non-Japanese join, even help run). Their annual marches in March, for example, have made it clear to the media (and employers like Nova) that non-Japanese (NJ) workers are living in and working for Japan and that they are ready to stand up for themselves, in both collective bargaining and public demonstrations.

These groups have gained the ear of the media and national Diet members, pointing out the legal ambiguity of trainee visas, and systematic abuses of imported labor such as virtual slavery and even child labor. For example, Lower House member (and former prime ministerial candidate) Taro Kono in 2006 called the entire work visa regime "a swindle," and opened ministerial debate on revising it.

In the same vein, local NGOs are helping NJ workers learn the language and find their way around Japan's social safety net. Local governments with high NJ populations have begun multilingual services; Shizuoka Prefecture even abolished their practice of denying "kokumin hoken" health insurance to non-Japanese (on the grounds that NJ weren't "kokumin," or citizens).

These governments are holding regular meetings, issuing formal petitions (such as both the Hamamatsu and Yokkaichi "sengen") to the national government, recommending they improve NJ education, social insurance, and registration procedures.

Still more NGOs and concerned citizens are petitioning the United Nations. Special Rapporteur Doudou Diene has thrice visited Japan on their invitation, reporting that racial discrimination here is "deep and profound" and demanding Japan pass laws against it.

Although the government largely ignored Diene's reports, United Nations representatives did not. The Human Rights Council frequently referenced them when questioning Japan's commitment to human rights last May. That's how big these issues can get.

More successes from the grass roots: Separated/divorced NJ parents with no custody (or even access) to their Japanese children have drawn attention to Japan's unwillingness to abide by international standards against child abduction. After international media coverage and pressure, Japan announced last month it would finally sign the Hague Convention on Child Abduction by 2010.

Decades of civil disobedience by "Zainichi" Korean Permanent Residents led to the abolition of all fingerprinting of non-Japanese in 1999. Although claims of "terrorism and crime" led to Japan reinstating NJ fingerprinting at points of entry into the country in November, the Zainichis were granted an exception.

Last year, a viciously racist magazine on foreign crime entitled Gaijin Hanzai found its way into convenience stores nationwide (Zeit Gist, March 20, 2007). Internet mail campaigns and direct negotiation with store managers occasioned its withdrawal from the market, and even helped bankrupt the publisher.

And of course, there is the perennial campaign against "Japanese only" establishments, which often exclude any customer who doesn't "look Japanese." Following Brazilian Ana Bortz's 1999 court victory against a Hamamatsu jewelry store, I was one plaintiff in another successful lawsuit (2001-2005) against a public bath. The Otaru Onsens case has become, according to law schools, a landmark lawsuit for postwar Japan.

It's a long story, but here's the "face to face" for Rodney: Only one Otaru bathhouse got sued because we went to each one (and a number of others around the country) for long chats. One owner even became my friend, and, heartsick at what he was doing, took his "no foreigner" signs down. As did many other places when persuaded politely by us. (More in my book "Japanese Only.") These are the butterflies flapping up a storm, sweeping down barrier after barrier. Things are indeed getting better in many ways for NJ residents. And that's partly because we have shed our "cultural relativism" and "guestism," pushing more for our due in a society that needs us.

People are listening. Some steps forward, some back. But we shall proceed and succeed, as the above examples demonstrate.

Debito Arudou is a coauthor of the "Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants."A version of the above article with linksto these issues can be found at www.debito.org/japantimes060308.html. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments to community@japantimes.co.jp


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