BBC News, October 5, 2004
In the third of a special series on Japan, BBC News Online’s Sarah Buckley reports on how an ageing population is forcing people to reconsider attitudes to immigration. The name Sony summons visions of all things Japanese.
Yet its chairman, Iwao Nakatani, recently called for mass immigration, opening Japan to different faces and influences. Mr Nakatani is worried because Japanese are living longer, yet having fewer children. The result is a shrinking workforce which threatens economic growth. In recognition, the government is thinking of loosening its restrictive immigration policy.
But any changes may come as a shock to a nation where registered foreigners make up just over 1% of its population. Yoko Nakamura, a 52-year-old woman in Tokyo, said that living in Europe and Australia had shown her the advantages of Japan’s uniformity.
“Everyone has the same hair colour and the same eye colour. You feel maybe the guy next to you is feeling the same way, so it’s a good feeling to be homogenous,” she said. It is difficult to know how common this attitude is. Of those interviewed on the streets of Tokyo, as many were enthusiastic as alarmed about an influx of foreign workers.
For many foreigners living in Japan, however, discrimination is a real problem. Treatment appears to be determined by a range of factors—from socio-economic status to ethnic background.
Gemba, a Senegalese who works in a topless bar in the red-light district of Kabukicho, said: “Every day, I feel discriminated against. Japanese people don’t like foreigners.
“If you are inside a train, the Japanese will not sit close to the foreigners.” He said he had overheard people talking about him in Japanese as though he were stupid. But the situation is complex, affected by factors like profession, income and appearance.
Aarthi Muniswamy, an Indian IT worker from Chiba prefecture, said her nationality carried positive associations in Japan. “In some parts of Japan they think people from India are very brainy,” she said.
Faced with calls to relax immigration restrictions, the government has shown some flexibility. The immigration bureau is in talks with the Philippines about accepting Filipino care workers—badly needed to help look after Japan’s elderly.
The difficulty, however, comes when considering unskilled labourers, who are currently not allowed to work in Japan. And they are just the kind of people Japan needs most as its population ages, according to Tony Laszlo, director of an anti-discrimination organisation in Tokyo.
“In 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, you have to ask yourself who is going to be finding the holes in the tunnel and patching them up so people don’t die, who is going to be climbing the buildings to wash the windows, who is going to be building bridges and fixing bridges, and the answer is you don’t have these people,” he said.
Illegal labour could take up some of the slack. Japanese authorities say there are 250,000 illegal immigrants, the majority of whom entered the country on a temporary visa and over-stayed. Many of these people are thought to work as unskilled labourers. But the government wants to halve that number in the next five years, and it does not appear ready to legalise unskilled foreign workers.
Isao Negishi, assistant director to Japan’s immigration policy planner, argued that doing so would threaten Japanese people’s jobs in sectors like construction—an industry where work is currently scarce.
As the population continues to age, however, economic arguments against bringing in unskilled labour will weaken. Emotional arguments, though, will stand.
It is likely that any unskilled workers will come from countries which are geographically close—namely China and Korea. And of Japan’s neighbours, it is these countries who still hold the strongest grudge against Japan’s wartime behaviour. Mr Laszlo said that relations with Korea had improved markedly over the last two or three years. The 2002 World Cup, which Japan and
South Korea jointly hosted, helped ties, and there has been a recent upsurge in interest in South Korean culture.
China, though, continues to have delicate relations with Japan. The outrage sparked by a Japanese orgy in China last December, and the riots following Japan’s victory over China in the Asian Cup earlier this year, have scratched wartime era wounds. Hideko Yamamota, a 48-year-old Chinese woman born in Japan, said she had suffered discrimination.
“One of my teachers said: ‘Why should I help a Chinese person get a job?’ I was very upset. If there’s crime and you are there, then you are questioned by police.” In light of such testimony, Japan’s government faces a difficult choice between relaxing its immigration policy and possibly upsetting social stability, or jeopardising the country’s long-term economic success.