Will Japan Treat its Foreigners Better After the Earthquake?

Soon after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan on March 11, Haruki Eda, a Korean-Japanese man living in the United States, posted a blog for Eclipse Rising, a U.S.-based organization that works to support and fundraise for Japan’s Korean community.

“This havoc will no doubt transform Japanese society,” writes Eda, “but in which direction?” His is an ambivalence common to many who call Japan home, but have yet to find equal footing there.

In a nation of 130 million, Japan’s foreigner population numbers just around 2 percent, and has been, until recently, a largely invisible class whose presence went unacknowledged by the government and drew resentment from local residents. Korean Japanese, or Zainichi, make up the largest such group, many of them descendants of those who came to Japan following its annexation of Korea in 1910. Together with ethnic Chinese, these two groups constitute what is referred to as the “old-comers,” as compared to the “new-comer” wave of immigrants who began to arrive in the mid-to-late ’80s from Asia, Latin America and the Middle East to fill the growing demand for labor.

These immigrants are the most vulnerable population in the aftermath of the Tohoku Quake and tsunami that struck the Sendai region. An estimated 10,000 people have been found dead, with twice that number still missing, immigrants and foreign workers among them.

On the morning of the quake, volunteers were attending a series of lectures on how to assist children from non-Japanese-speaking households to enter the public school system. These volunteers, mostly foreign women from other parts of Asia who had married Japanese men, became the key lifeline to the region’s foreign residents soon after the quake, as panicked phone calls began to flood the center.

“The desire to run away from the wreckage and horror around them and seek safety and sanity was enormous,” said John Morris, who teaches at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University in the city of Sendai, near the earthquake’s epicenter. The urge to flee became more pronounced when embassies began to evacuate foreign nationals living in the affected areas, particularly after news emerged of damage to the region’s six nuclear reactors. “These women were trapped between their ties to their families in Japan and their ties to their parents and homeland,” he explained.

Many chose to stay, said Morris, to offer aid and solace to foreign residents and Japanese alike.

In years past, such groups have born the brunt of Japanese xenophobia, especially in times of crisis. Hwaji Shin, who teaches ethnic relations in Japan at the University of San Francisco, is a Zainichi and a survivor of the 1995 Kobe quake that measured 7.3 and killed some 6,500 people. She said that foreigners and immigrants were completely ignored by the central government in the aftermath of the Kobe disaster 15 years ago.

This time around, however, she noted, there seems to be far more awareness of their needs.

“I get the impression that the local government, central government and non-governmental organizations have been reaching out to the foreign population in the afflicted region better than they did in the 1995 Kobe quake,” said Shin.

Shin points to improved media coverage of foreign victims and the emergence of numerous government and NGO sites offering multilingual emergency services, including where to go for food and other necessities, as well as information on rolling blackouts, water safety and how to locate lost relatives or friends. She attributes the shift to “bitter lessons learned from past mistakes.”

Others are less optimistic.

Kyung Hee Ha with Eclipse Rising said that soon after the quake she began to see comments appearing on Twitter and other social networking sites directly targeting minority groups.

“Quickly after the earthquake and tsunami, xenophobic and racist comments and tweets about Koreans and Chinese exploded on the Internet,” she said. Such messages as “Koreans and Chinese are going to steal our land in the chaos,” or “Protect our women from the Korean rapists,” offer a sample of the vitriol that she said echo the anti-foreigner hysteria that fueled the mass killings of Koreans and Chinese immigrants following the Kanto quake of 1923.

Memories of the tragedy, and continuing discrimination against those who are not ethnically Japanese, inform the identity of foreigners residing in Japan today.

Still, Ha notes that hers and other organizations have worked to provide information to Japan’s foreign community. “While the majority of the Japanese national and municipal governments, as well as the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that owns the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, tend to have the most updated information only in Japanese and English, many NGOs are providing information in languages such as Korean, Chinese, Tagalog, Portuguese, Vietnamese and Spanish,” she said.

On the ground, meanwhile, foreign residents continue to provide emergency aid, despite Western media reports that they have all fled. Writing for an online forum of Japan scholars soon after the disaster, John Morris noted the presence of Pakistanis serving Pakistani food at a relief center, Filipina and Chinese women “working overtime to help people within their communities,” and a group of 30 men from a local mosque serving “hot food” to those displaced by the disaster.

Quoting a local news report on their activities, Morris said these men and women stayed behind “because it is their town, and they want to participate in their community.”