A Japanese multicultural society still far off

Author: Chris Burgess, Tsuda College 

Earlier this year I was asked by a group of non-Japanese global business leaders to talk about Japan’s immigration situation. The participants were remarkably well informed about Japan’s ‘dire’ demographic state of affairs — its declining and ageing population — and were interested in how Japan was planning to handle a labour shortfall. They were incredulous when I explained that Japan has no plans to open its doors to migrants any time soon. For them this was economic suicide made possible only through some kind of cognitive dissonance. For a long-term resident of Japan, the interesting thing about this conversation was the disconnection between the sense of crisis felt by outsiders and the lack of action in Japan itself.

Indonesian nurses study Japanese culture in Jakarta before leaving to work in Japan. Nursing is included in a bilateral economic partnership agreement. (Photo: Crack Palinggi/Reuters).

That is not to say that there has been no discussion in Japan about immigration reform. Political committees and media commentators seem to be engaged in never-ending kentō (consideration) over whether or not to open the door to migrants, especially foreign manual workers.

A similar debate at the end of the 1980s resulted in Brazilians and others of Japanese descent gaining working rights in 1990. In 1993, Japan also extended the length of time that technical trainees were allowed to stay. These two groups continue to make up the largest source of ‘backdoor’ labour — ‘backdoor’ because even today Japan does not, in principle, accept blue-collar workers.

Japan’s ‘no immigration principle’ can be seen as an institutionalisation of the ‘homogeneous people’ conception of the Japanese nation that continues to play a key role in structuring its identity. The term ‘migrant’ tends to be studiously avoided or replaced by euphemisms such as ‘entrants’ or ‘foreign workers’. The implication is that foreigners should not stay long or settle down.

While some more revolutionary immigration reform proposals have emerged recently, such as establishing a guest worker program, the steps that have been taken are very much within the conventional framework. For example, the inclusion of health workers — nurses and caregivers — in economic partnership agreements with Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam attempted to address critical labour shortages in particular areas. But, again, the need to maintain the ‘no immigration principle’ saw strict conditions attached that resulted in many of these workers returning home after just a few years in Japan.

Other recent reforms — such as accepting foreign housekeepers in special zones, a ‘point system’ to attract highly skilled foreign professionals and further extension of the trainee system period to fill the construction worker gap in the run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — merely highlight the fact that the word ‘migrant’ remains taboo.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself has taken pains to avoid the ‘m’ word. In a joint meeting of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy and the Industrial Competitiveness in 2014, Abe stressed that ‘we should be careful not to mistake the “utilisation” of foreign workers in nursing care and house-keeping as immigration policies’.

Political caution reflects public sentiment. Two out of three Japanese are against accepting more foreign workers, let alone manual workers. Underlying this is what is known as the ‘foreign crime’ debate, the fear that allowing in greater numbers of foreigners will harm public safety. These fears have only been heightened in recent years by terrorist atrocities in Europe and other countries with high migration levels.

The continuing reluctance to open the door to migrants challenges the ‘multicultural Japan’ idea that is popular among some academics. The numbers suggest that Japan is neither becoming more ethnically diverse nor more ‘multicultural’. For example, 2009 saw the first fall in the foreign resident population since 1961, and even that was from a very low base of only 1.7 per cent of the total population. This figure also includes third- and fourth-generation Korean residents born and raised in Japan.

International marriage, another key marker of diversification, peaked in 2006 at 41,000 and is only slightly more than half that figure today. Japan continues to accept only a handful of refugees (27 in 2015) and this is likely to decline further after work restrictions were introduced in a recent revision of the refugee recognition system.

On the surface, these numbers would seem to contradict the growing visibility of Japanese-style multiculturalism known as tabunka kyōsei (multicultural coexistence). Tabunka kyōsei emerged in the mid-1990s when it began to be widely used by local governments and NGOs to refer to Japanese and foreigners living harmoniously together. In 2001, 13 municipalities formed the Committee for Localities with a Concentrated Foreign Population and called on the government to develop a coordinated and coherent integration policy. While the central government has been slow to respond, it has published a number of reports since 2006 and established committees to discuss tabunka kyōsei issues.

The main criticism of tabunka kyōsei is that it defines boundaries that reaffirm foreigners’ non-membership in Japanese society. By reinforcing cultural differences in the name of multiculturalism, the privileged position of the Japanese majority is maintained. ANU Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki calls this ‘cosmetic multiculturalism’, which celebrates diversity ‘but only under certain tightly prescribed conditions’.

Tabunka kyōsei is more concerned with social cohesion — converting foreigners into ‘law-abiding, locally-functioning well-adjusted residents’ — than empowerment Tomoko Nakamatsu suggests. Kikuko Nagayoshi finds that those with a strong ethno-national identity also tended to support Japanese-style multiculturalism. This suggests that tabunka kyōsei is not in opposition to, but rather is compatible with the belief in a unique and homogeneous ethnic national identity. Interpreting the popularity of tabunka kyōsei as evidence that Japan is becoming more multicultural is risky.

In sum, however unfathomable it may be to outside observers, Japan is not likely to become multicultural anytime soon. Despite some support for opening up, especially in business circles, many if not most Japanese seem resigned to a smaller economy if that is the price that has to be paid for maintaining social cohesion and public safety.

Chris Burgess is Professor at Tsuda College, Tokyo, where he lectures in Japanese studies.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Reinventing Japan’.

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14 October 2016 10:51 pm

The very fact that Japan has refused to allow 3rd and 4th generation Korean residents to become citizens confirms that the country is still a very closed one. Even when most of these Korean residents only speak Japanese and have little, if any, sense of affiliation with, let alone desire to live in, Korea they are still considered ‘outsiders’ who do not merit citizenship.

Thus, Abe and his cohorts continue to pursue limited policies aimed at boosting the birth rate of native Japanese women while also trying to get married women to work more. These policies are a recipe for failure. They will never be able to overcome the demographic dynamics that the country is facing. But he, his cohorts, and ultimately the Japanese public seem resigned to their fate.

Earl H. Kinmonth
17 October 2016 1:13 pm
Reply to  richard

Japanese-born Koreans do not want automatic citizenship. They have never asked for it and a large fraction is adamantly oppossed to automatic citizenship. Those oppossed to automatic Japanese citizenship assert that it would take away their last element of Korean identity.

Japanese law makes it very easy for anyone born in Japan to acquire Japanese citizenship and makes it even easier for those with special permanent residence status to naturalize.

Many born in Japan Korea nationals have taken Japanese citizenship. Typically they are one-half to two thirds of all those naturalizing in a given year.

Furthermore anyone with a Korean national parent and a Japanese national parent automatically has Japanese citizenship.

There is doubtless more that Abe could do but he has done more than any previous prime minister and Japan overall is doing better than the Republic of Korea in having both a higher fertility rate and a lower suicide rate.

Oliver Mackie
17 October 2016 3:55 pm

Yes, the second poster is correct, the first incorrect. Korean Special Residents can naturalize at the drop of a hat, if they wish to. But many do not. Indeed, their special status, different from other permanent residents, was created at their behest.

If you have completed further education and have a job offer, Japan is currently one of the easiest countries to immigrate into.

Yoshimichi Moriyama
19 October 2016 3:27 pm

About six hundred and fifty thousand Koreans chose to remain in Japan after 1945. A lot of those who went back to South Korea tried to come back to Japan.
There were a lot of orphans in devastated Hiroshima. Koreans took care of and brought up orphan girls, as in some other cities, as investment. When the girls grew up, they were made to make money as prostitutes.

According to Sonfa Oh/Getting Over It: Why Korea needs to stop bashing Japan, no professional historians of South Korea say Korean women or girls were kidnapped or forced by Japanese to engage in prostitution with Japanese soldiers; rapes per a hundred people are forty times as frequent in South Korea as in Japan, also according to the book.

Jamie Coates
22 October 2016 12:17 pm

Migration figures for 2015 (December) overtook those of 2009, although only by a small margin. Yes they took their first dip at this time, but this was mostly due to dips in Korean and Filipino figures, while Chinese, Vietnames and Nepalese numbers grew. It is also partly because of significant reshuffles in how the data were collected and tabulated over this period (for example the figures for Chinese migration look as though they fell in 2012 but that is because the MOJ started counting Taiwanese nationals as separate from the China category). In contrast, since 2010 policies that affect entry and right to remain have become more lenient, and greater efforts have been made to encourage new migrants. At the same time, there were significant changes within the East Asian context that would have affected the whole picture. What these kind of data, and these kinds of argument fail to explain are the reasons why people come to Japan. Japan’s policy solutions to this issue (including whether or not they identify as multicultural) are only a piece of the puzzle. Rather, if we consider the wider context of mobility in East Asia, we see that temporary movement is more affordable and attainable than ever before (particularly for PRC citizens) and that long-term migration strategies are in many ways less desirable among many groups that would have historically been immigrant settlers. In contrast, if we look at the total number of visitors to Japan, these figures have sky-rocketed over a similar period, suggesting that short-term movements have replaced migration to a certain extent. The question as to why people do not want to become permanent residents in Japan is an important question that you address here, but in some ways you confound it with the question as to why people enter Japan in the first place. People don’t always move somewhere thinking “I am going to live there forever”. The largest migrant population (Chinese) very rarely enter with long-term migration plans, but have consistently fallen into becoming permanent residents or citizens at a particular life stage (they start a business, have a kid etc.). In fact, the government has just introduced a new fast-track scheme for naturalization among highly skilled migrants, and anecdotal evidence shows that Chinese migrants are likely to take up this offer. Overall however, Japan is yet to create significant reasons for the wave of post-1980 migrants to want to stay long term. As you rightly suggest, the poor fit/failure of a multiculturalist approach is partly the reason why this is the case, but there are also other reasons which can only be partially addressed through policy solutions. The fact of the matter remains however, that the streets of greater Tokyo and Osaka are more diverse than they have ever been before (although other regions’ diverse populations are shrinking). Whether this will encourage a shift among everyday Japanese ideas about what Japan’s future holds is another question.

Ruy Gorbachev
25 September 2018 10:54 am

The reason Japan may seem closed to some foreign people is due many factors, none of which are due to prejudice, racism, or hate. Japan has always been Japanese. Never once has Japan been occupied and conquered by any other nation. Even after the US tested two different atom bombs on two non-militarized cities and burn the nation to the ground, Japan still remained Japanese. The Japanese government, and people, don’t want THEIR COUNTRY be overfilled by mass immigration and the problems that come with that like the rest of the world. The rest of the world has problems with drugs, guns, violence, terrorism, obesity, insufficient education, teen pregnancy, and the list goes on and on. These issues in Japan are very minimal and the people here don’t want people from other nations bringing that culture with them.
Because of the the past incidents of drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, prostitution, overstaying, violence, and the many other issues with visitors from other nations, Japan learned a valuable lesson and decided to put THEIR people first. Japan is still always the one of the front runners in giving aid to developing countries and helping countries ravaged by western war and natural disaster. Also, unlike the rest of the world, Japan has managed to hold on to their traditional culture, values, customs and heritage. It’s not because the people here are racist or prejudice. It’s because Japan puts their people, their country, and their culture first. And they should not have to open their borders just to appease the rest of the world. WWII is over. The wars in Korea, China and SE Asia are over. Japan no longer needs to apologize or give anything more. Japan has the right to strict immigration laws. They have the right to protect their country from drugs, violence, leeches, and terrorism. Japan should not have to support the citizens of the world. It is each nations OWN responsibility to support their people. And even through Japan is going through a tough time economically, they will bounce back, like always. Japan is is still the technology hub of the world. Japanese cars are still the best in the world. Japanese medical technology is still the best in the world. And because of that, they will always thrive on the global economical stage because there will always be customers in the west. And that has nothing to do with immigration laws. Japan’s immigration laws will always be (and should be) very strict in order to protect their people.