When China last surpassed Japan’s economic output to become the second largest economy in the world in 2010, reactions in Japan were mixed: while many celebrated the success of a fellow East Asian country and acknowledged China’s role in the development of their own economy, others regretted the regressive fall. Although the change in placement was due more to China’s relentless growth than any major shortcoming of Japan, it does serve to add to the world’s growing conviction that Japan may not possess the resources necessary to remain competitive in an increasingly globalized society. In the past several decades, the country’s population growth has slowly leveled out, peaking in 2005 at 127.7 million, and is expected to decline to 105 million by 2050 (Usui 37). This decline includes a distinct shift in demographics, for as the latest baby boom generation passes the age of sixty-five and women have fewer and fewer children than in the past, an increasingly large elderly population is becoming dependent on a shrinking working body. Currently, there are approximately three workers to support every elderly retiree; by 2025, that number is expected to fall to two, a far cry from the 11:1 ratio that existed in the 1960s (40-41). Still, although the numbers look bleak, by themselves they do not necessarily spell out Japan’s economic ruin. Rather, it is the addition of Japan’s strict immigration policy that severely limits its ability to compensate for this demographic shift with foreign workers that bodes ill for the country’s future global competitiveness. Indeed, “[t]he Japanese government, which adheres to the myth of Japan as an ethnically homogenous nation that is not and never has been a country of immigration, has one of the most restrictive immigration policies among advanced industrialized nations” (Tsuda 13). Although so far “Japan is an international anomaly in that it succeeded in its post-war industrialization and economic modernization without depending on foreign labor” (Brody 32), many believe that its restrictive policies are finally about to backfire. At the heart of the country’s strict laws is the cherished ‘myth of homogeneity’ that firmly believes in the value of a one-size-fits-all culture, language, and ethnicity. Within the context of this myth, then, this paper explores the research question, what role has Japan’s pure ethnic perception played in their immigration policy in the past and how will it affect its future role in world affairs? Because we live in a time that is rapidly becoming globalized, it is crucial to examine this question to understand the different future roles Japan has the potential to play and how the country should proceed to reach the most desirable outcome for both itself and the world as a whole.
The myth of racial homogeneity arose naturally because of Japan’s 200 year isolation period. Of course, after opening its borders again, the country’s past policies of separation were not immediately followed with strong movements to integrate foreigners into society or immediate globalize, so it has been relatively simple to maintain a culture of perceived ethnic “purity.” Today, the “Japanese national identity built around the notion of racial purity and cultural integrity developed in part because of Japan’s geographical isolation as an island nation and in part because of conscious political efforts to create a mythology of a ‘pure’ ethnic nation” (31). This idea mainly manifests itself in two ways: first, there remains today a strong societal value of homogenized behavior as well as culture. There is little emphasis placed on the individual, and people instead derive their worth and usefulness from their ability to work as part of a team. Uniforms are widely used in both early education and the adult workforce, and form is emphasized over function to acknowledge people’s commitment and duty to those around them. Second, “[e]thnicity, language, and culture are the keystones of Japanese self-image and national identity” (32), and the discourse surrounding each of these three elements necessitates discussion of the other two as well. During the colonial movement, for example, the government justified its exploits by emphasizing the unique superiority of the Japanese ethnic identity that was composed of several different Asiatic races and cultures (Shin 332). Because the Japanese language contains a similar mix of various Asiatic influences, this idea became bound up in both the language of the people and the nation’s domestic cultural practices as well. Today, the three elements are so closely intertwined that they are practically interchangeable, and each is still considered an integral part of the Japanese identity.
This myth of homogeneity has had profound influences on Japan’s immigration policy and foreign worker populations over the years. Although occupants of many different countries have had difficulty integrating into Japanese culture both culturally and lawfully, the two groups of Koreans and Nikkeijin have been particularly affected because of their relatively large numbers. First, during the colonial era, harsh policy made it impossible for many Koreans to continue their occupation as subsistence farmers, forcing them to search for employment in Japan instead (Mori 156). Most of the workers who came to the country were young men who intended to stay only long enough to save some money and therefore had little motivation to integrate into Japanese society or compete for high-level jobs. This population segment became more firmly established in the 1930s when Korean women were recruited for work in Osaka’s spinning industries and families began to take root. By 1940, the number of Koreans living in Japan exceeded 1.2 million (157-158). When the country had its independence restored in 1952, however, Japan denied this ethnic group citizenship status, even for those who had at this point resided in the country for decades as a result of the country’s colonial legacy. The Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act of the same year provided a limited avenue to citizenship, but then only as one of eighteen categories of foreigners that in many ways only served to reinforce their social status as ‘outsider’ (2). Even after the country’s 1990 Immigration Reform, which slightly improved foreigners’ integration into the cultural framework of Japan, some still make a strong argument that
[o]fficial immigration and immigrant policy in ‘ethnic citizenship regimes’ suggests that ethnicity is the critical factor in framing questions of membership [. . .] [E]ven those long-settled in the country like [. . .] the Korean minority in Japan, are discouraged, through restrictive policies on naturalization, from becoming citizens. They are, regardless of the length of their stay and intentions to remain in the country, always ‘foreigners’ since they are ‘unassimilable.’ It is ethnicity rather than language, culture, or even religion that bars these residents from full inclusion in society. (Brody 28)
While this argument does reinforce the strong Japanese connection between ethnicity, language, and culture, because it also contains the implication that it is possible to acquire at least the latter two – providing a small window for potential assimilation – it emphasizes the strength of the Japanese insider/outsider binary and how easily both of these factors are trumped by ethnicity. Debora Ortloff further explains that Japan’s immigration policy has “traditionally been based on jus sanguinis, the principle that one’s nationality at birth is the same as that of one’s biological parents. These boundaries of nationality and citizenship close the door to many long-term, non-national residents” (447), including not only the Korean population but also those of Chinese descent who also began their residency prior to WWII and in some cases, the small population of mixed ethnic descent.
Even those who did manage to naturalize continued to face discrimination in the workplace, including companies that blatantly refused to hire workers of Korean descent (Shin 226). This strong discrimination had the interesting effect of forcing many Koreans to hide their national background, for “[a]s a means of survival, many immigrants submitted themselves to cultural assimilation. Many used Japanese names, a legacy of Japanese colonial assimilation policy, to disguise their ethnic identity to avoid overt racism” (Shin 336). Today, some parents still shelter their children from the knowledge of their original ethnic descent in the hopes that ignorance will smooth the way for assimilation and integration. Although this technique has proven successful in many individual cases, overall it adds to the insider/outsider dichotomy, because “[t]he marginality of these colonial immigrants and their acculturation created an illusion of Japanese homogeneity which helped to reify the new Japanese national self-image as a homogeneous nation and justified the exclusionary structure of Japanese society” (336). If the only perceived way to become an insider is to renounce any remnant of non-Japanese ethnicity, even foreigners who do manage to naturalize will not be able to help bridge the divide between the two, simply because their naturalization will not be visible to either the individual or the government. Though unique because of its members’ long residential status in Japan, the Korean struggle for inclusion is representative of all foreigners’ hardships.
Nikkeijin – or foreigners of Japanese descent – though the literal opposite of long-term Korean residents in terms of ethnicity of belonging and homeland, have had remarkably similar experiences when attempting to naturalize to the country. These individuals began to enter in large numbers after the 1990 Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act in response to a growing need for foreign workers to fill in gaps left by the native population. In the past, Japan had explicitly prevented unskilled workers from immigrating to the country, and although the 1990 reform did not wholly change this stipulation, it did create a “back door” method through which unskilled workers could enter (Brody 41). Although this slight policy change allowed over 300,000 Nikkeijin to return to Japan, the majority coming from Brazil, little national effort was put forth to smooth the workers’ integration into the country. As these individuals began to enter in large numbers, two contradictory positions on their perceived role in Japanese society arose. First, there existed a widespread assumption that integration and transition for these individuals would prove simple, and there would soon be little difference between Nikkeijin and Japanese nationals. This idea ultimately proved false. Despite their ethnic background, many of the Nikkeijin were several generations removed from their Japanese origins, and although a number had enrolled in Japanese language classes back in Brazil, the language barrier proved a large obstacle to their assimilation (Ortloff 453). Japan did revise their “Lifelong Learning Promotion Law” in the same year as their immigration reform to promote adult learning, but they failed to provide any adjustments to cater to the needs of the newly-arrived foreign workers. As a result, even though Nikkeijin were not subjected to the racial discrimination and hiring bias that the Koreans suffered, because they were largely unskilled coming in and were forced to remain so because of the strict language and cultural barriers, they were restricted to the margins of society, filling no role but that of the manual laborer by which they had originally been tempted. Second, however, the 1990 Immigration Act that paved the way for the Nikkeijin’s migration exhibits calculated exclusion. The Act expanded the number of 1951 immigrant categories from eighteen to twenty-seven, and one of those added carried the exclusive label of Nikkeijin. As Shin argues, “[b]y creating a differentiated visa category exclusively for Nikkeijin, the Japanese state attempted to maintain its national self-image as a racially and ethnically homogenous nation” (338). Contrary to what was advertised to the foreigners, this “suggests that [the national government] view[ed] the Nikkeijin as short-term guest workers rather than residents” (Ortloff 458), a mindset only exacerbated by some of the Nikkeijin’s own personal beliefs that their stay in Japan was temporary (461).
Ultimately, neither one of these attitudes proved positive in welcoming and integrating the Nikkeijin into Japanese society. The former, that of assumed integration, was not only demonstrative of the Japanese government’s tendency to view “foreign workers strictly as labor power to be regulated and not as people with human rights and needs” (Tsuda 4), but in the specific case of the Nikkeijin, was a further indication of the extreme emphasis placed upon ethnicity in Japan and the perceived connection between ethnicity, culture and language. Because the Nikkeijin had Japanese roots, people presumed that their ethnic background would automatically fill in any cultural gaps and often refused to change their mind about the matter even as this assumption proved sadly false. The second attitude strongly reinforced the idea of Japanese ethnic purity. Arguably, under the ideas and ideals of the country, the group of people easiest to integrate into Japanese society would be foreigners of Japanese descent. To create an atmosphere where not even these individuals are welcome in the long term is to emphasize cultural purity as well as ethnic purity. The Japanese population in Brazil was large enough and existed for short enough a time that many people stayed within the bounds of the Japanese community and did not intermarry with Brazilians. Although theoretically this could have provided the opportunity for the Japanese government to see returners as still ethnically “pure,” they chose instead to focus on the different cultural influences – for WWII-era assimilation policies caused many to adopt Brazilian practices and beliefs – and in doing so, created an even stricter set of criteria for people to fulfill to be considered properly Japanese (Ortloff 453).
Even as developing solutions for ethnic and racial difficulties remained largely ignored on the national level, though, local movements have gained considerable precedence in the last several decades. Exemplary among these efforts has been the establishment of the “Committee for Localities with a Concentrated Foreign Population,” an organization that “unites sixteen cities in their efforts to deal with immigration issues” (Tegtmeyer Pak 68). Since its formation in 2001, the Committee has made deliberate efforts to emphasize the value of foreign workers’ contributions to Japanese society and to create potential avenues to nation-wide policy changes. Adult education programs are also developing on the local level to incorporate the needs of foreign residents, and, tellingly, there is a direct correlation between “the availability of adult education services” and “the degree to which foreign residents [. . .] have been accepted and incorporated into the existing social service and educational infrastructure” (Ortloff 460) because “where there are long-standing and dominant national languages, language proficiency is the first step toward political, economic, and cultural participations” (450). As one would expect, language acclimation largely affects residents’ comfort level in society, quality of relationship with fellow community members, and potential to rise higher in the workforce, so while these programs are still small, they have already had significant positive effects on individuals and communities.
In context of Japan’s economic status and rapidly aging population, though, critics, scholars, and politicians argue that these small, local efforts are far from what Japan needs to stay competitive on the global market. These carefully measured groups of foreigners brought in to work temporarily may stabilize the country for a time, but data analysts predict that if Japan’s economy and population continue to grow at a similar rate, there will be a labor shortage of 10 million workers in 2025 and 20 million in 2050 (Mori 92). To compensate, the same number of foreign workers would need to be brought in at the rate of approximately 400,000 workers per year. While this would certainly stimulate the economy and provide opportunities to both provide greater care for the elderly population and turn around overall population decline, the approach is highly controversial and would certainly transform current Japanese society more drastically than anything past changes have done.
However, there is also much debate over whether such a radical plan is even feasible in the current set-up of Japan. Because of the strong cultural values of homogeneity and the group over the individual, Japanese middle schools, for instance, are sites of incredible “assimilationist pressures and deculturalizing education for non-Japanese students” (Ortloff 449). Few bilingual schools exist (Brody 110), causing many foreign children to be sent outside of the country for education purposes, and those that do exist are usually either incredibly expensive or volunteer run. Adult foreigners report “language difficulty, isolation, and prejudice as their primary concerns at work” (64) and housing discrimination based on status and ethnic background is rampant. Further, “[f]oreigners, or gaijin, are seen as so completely outside of Japanese society that their rights have generally not been addressed in Japanese law” (6), and as a result, they hold very little political power. All of these issues are only “compounded in Japan by a general unwillingness to even acknowledge the substantial non-Japanese population, and by underdevelopment of research, education, activist, and political organizations to address and push for solutions for Japan’s foreign populations” (Ortloff 464). Of course, an influx of 20 million foreign workers would act as a natural catalyst to change, and no doubt currently marginalized segments of the population would gain much influence as their numbers increased. To what extent would the Japanese government start such efforts, though, and to what extent would foreigners have to demand that they be given rights? The answer remains unclear. Although the current Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has expressed interest in attracting more and diverse foreigners to the country, as of yet his words sound little different from the lip service that politicians have given the issue in the past. It appears that the nation stands at a crossroads: “The effects of the globalization of international economies, as well as the globalization of human rights norms, have caused a collision in Japan between traditional conceptions of membership and citizenship on the one hand, and new policy initiatives promoting ‘internationalization’ on the other” (Brody 1). It remains to be seen in which direction Japan will proceed and how they will strike a balance between tradition and modernity.
One final possibility does remain: if job conditions grow as dire as data analysts currently predict they will, there is a high likelihood that the events of the 1980s, when Japan last had a large shortage in the labor market, will repeat themselves: the country will experience large amounts of illegal immigration (3). Although more difficult to enter than most countries considering its island status, the prospect of people increasingly overstaying their visas is a tangible outcome of the current situation. Though certainly not the most desirable of options, especially considering Japan’s past history of extremely harsh treatment of discovered illegal foreigners, it is one of many possible turns of events that the government will have to consider when moving forward in the years to come.
Considering its strength throughout the years, it seems unlikely that the belief in the value of Japanese homogeneity will disappear anytime soon, even if large amounts of foreign workers are brought into the country. In the past, this conviction has driven the nation’s immigration policy, educational approaches, and behavioral norms. While preserving the perceived purity of Japanese blood is certainly desirable on several levels, especially considering the long and rich history of the people, it may finally be time to push past the boundaries of ethnicity and embrace the integrative aspects of globalization that appear to be becoming increasingly inevitable. Although as the Nikkeijin can attest, such integration will not be easy, and tensions and supremacy struggles are bound to arise, it may be the best option if Japan wants to continue to thrive on a global level.
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