A level playing field for immigrants

Despite Japan’s looming demographic disaster — you know, the aging society and population drop due to low birthrates and record-long life spans — we still have no immigration policy. No wonder: The people charged with dealing with non-Japanese (NJ) — i.e. the Ministry of Justice’s Immigration Bureau and sundry business-sector organizations — just police NJ while leeching off their labor. Essentially, their goal is to protect Japan from the outside world: keep refugees out, relegate migrant workers to revolving-door contracted labor conditions, and leash NJ to one- to three-year visas. For NJ who do want to settle, the Justice Ministry’s petty and arbitrary rules can make permanent residency (PR) and naturalization procedures borderline masochistic.

This cannot continue, because Japan is at a competitive disadvantage in the global labor market. Any immigrant with ambitions to progress beyond Japan’s glass ceiling (that of either factory cog or perpetual corporate flunky) is going to stay away. Why bother learning Japanese when there are other societies that use, say, English, that moreover offer better lifetime opportunities? It’s time we lost our facile arrogance, and stopped assuming that the offer of a subordinate and tenuous life in a peaceful, rich and orderly society is attractive enough to make bright people stay. We also have to be welcoming and help migrants to settle.

As in any society, police are here to maintain law and order. The problem is that our National Police Agency (NPA) has an explicit policy mandate to see internationalization itself as a threat to public order. As discussed here previously, NPA policy rhetoric talks about protecting “citizens” (kokumin) from crimes caused by outsiders (even though statistics show that insiders, both in terms of numbers and percentages, commit a disproportionate amount of crime). This perpetual public “othering and criminalizing” of the alien must stop, because police trained to see Japan as a fortress to defend will only further alienate NJ.

In other words, the 2000s saw the public image of NJ shift from “misunderstood outsider” to “social destabilizer”; government surveys even showed that an increasing majority of Japanese think NJ deserve fewer human rights!

Let’s change course. If Hatoyama is as serious as he says he is about putting legislation back in the hands of elected officials, it’s high time to countermand the elite bureaucratic xenophobes that pass for policymakers in Japan. Grant some concessions to noncitizens to make immigration to Japan more attractive.

Otherwise, potential immigrants will just go someplace else. Japan, which will soon drop to third place in the ranking of world economies, will be all the poorer for it.