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.
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’.