Human rights in Japan: a top 10 for ’09

They say that human rights advances come in threes: two steps forward and one back.

2009, however, had good news and bad on balance. For me, the top 10 human rights events of the year that affected non-Japanese (NJ) were, in ascending order:

7) ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ (tied)

Accused murderer Tatsuya Ichihashi and convicted embezzler Nozomu Sahashi also got zapped this year. Well, kinda.

Ichihashi spent close to three years on the lam after police in 2007 bungled his capture at his apartment, where the strangled body of English teacher Lindsay Ann Hawker was found. He was finally nabbed in November, but only after intense police and media lobbying by her family (lessons here for the families of fellow murdered NJs Scott Tucker, Matthew Lacey and Honiefaith Kamiosawa) and on the back of a crucial tip from a plastic surgery clinic.

Meanwhile Sahashi, former boss of eikaiwa empire Nova (bankrupted in 2007), was finally sentenced Aug. 27 to a mere 3 1/2 years, despite bilking thousands of customers, staff and NJ teachers.

For Sahashi it’s case closed (pending appeal), but in Ichihashi’s case, his high-powered defense team is already claiming police abuse in jail, and is no doubt preparing to scream “miscarriage of justice” should he get sentenced. Still, given the leniency shown to accused NJ killers Joji Obara and Hiroshi Nozaki, let’s see what the Japanese judiciary comes up with on this coin toss.

6) ‘Newbies’ top ‘oldcomers’

This happened by the end of 2007, but statistics take time to tabulate.

Last March, the press announced that “regular permanent residents” (as in NJ who were born overseas and have stayed long enough to qualify for permanent residency) outnumber “special permanent residents” (the zainichi Japan-born Koreans, Chinese etc. “foreigners” who once comprised the majority of NJ) by 440,000 to 430,000. That’s a total of nearly a million NJ who cannot legally be forced to leave. This, along with Chinese residents now outnumbering Koreans, denotes a sea change in the NJ population, indicating that immigration from outside Japan is proceeding apace.

5) ‘Immigration nation’ ideas

Hidenori Sakanaka, head of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute (, is a retired Immigration Bureau mandarin who actually advocates a multicultural Japan — under a proper immigration policy run by an actual immigration ministry.

In 2007, he offered a new framework for deciding between a “Big Japan” (with a vibrant, growing economy thanks to inflows of NJ) and a “Small Japan” (a parsimonious Asian backwater with a relatively monocultural, elderly population).

In 2009, he offered a clearer vision in a bilingual handbook (available free from JIPI) of policies on assimilating NJ and educating Japanese to accept a multiethnic society. I cribbed from it in my last JBC column (Dec 1) and consider it, in a country where government- sponsored think tanks can’t even use the word “immigration” when talking about Japan’s future, long-overdue advice.

4) Chipped cards, juminhyo

Again, 2009 was a year of give and take.

On July 8, the Diet adopted policy for (probably remotely trackable) chips to be placed in new “gaijin cards” (which all NJ must carry 24-7 or risk arrest) for better policing. Then, within the same policy, NJ will be listed on Japan’s residency certificates (juminhyo).

The latter is good news, since it is a long-standing insult to NJ taxpayers that they are not legally “residents,” i.e. not listed with their families (or at all) on a household juminhyo.

However, in a society where citizens are not required to carry any universal ID at all, the policy still feels like one step forward, two steps back.

1) The ‘repatriation bribe’

This, more than anything, demonstrated how the agents of the status quo (again, the bureaucrats) keep public policy xenophobic.

Twenty years ago they drafted policy that brought in cheap NJ labor as “trainees” and “researchers,” then excluded them from labor law protections by not classifying them as “workers.” They also brought in nikkei workers (foreigners of Japanese descent) to “explore their Japanese heritage” (but really to install them, again, as cheap labor to stop Japan’s factories moving overseas).

Then, after the economic tailspin of 2008, on April Fool’s Day of last year the bureaucrats offered the nikkei (not the trainees or researchers, since they didn’t have Japanese blood) a bribe to board a plane home, give up their visas and years of pension contributions, and become some other country’s problem.

This move, above all the others, showed the true intentions of Japanese government policy: Non-Japanese workers, no matter what investments they make here, are by design tethered to temporary, disposable, revolving-door labor conditions, with no acceptable stake or entitlement in Japan’s society.