Japan’s Immigration Problem(s) 日本の移民問題

Saying that Japan has had a long history dealing with foreigners is an obvious understatement that hardly begins to express the complex and troubled relationship Japan has with cultural outsiders. Over the years, Japan has managed, somewhat, to distance itself from the image of an exclusionist society and present itself as a more cosmopolitan nation by opening its borders to foreign trade and allowing [limited] immigration. But as the Japanese birthrate decreases, Japan faces a crisis. Japan’s population is very much like a candle burning on both ends. The elderly population continues to increase and the birthrate is slowing down, shrinking the workforce. Since 2005, Japan’s population has been steadily decreasing and if nothing changes, it could drop by a third by 2050. According to a U.N. projection, Japan will need at least 17 million immigrants to remain a productive economy. That is roughly more than 400,000 foreign workers every year for the next forty years. Many policy makers, scholars and economic analysts believe Japan should revamp its immigration policy and use foreigners to buoy itself through the financial storm. Many wonder whether Japan will be able to maintain its status as one of the world’s most powerful economies and compete in different global markets if it does not take steps now to strengthen its workforce.

In 2005, former director of the Entry and Stay Division of the Japanese Bureau of Immigration, Hidenori Sakanaka, published “Immigration Battle Diary” (入管戦記) which outlined possible options and outcomes to Japan’s population crisis. He breaks down the situation into two plans he calls, “The Small Option” and “The Big Option.” The Small Option, simply, is to allow the population to decline at its current rate. And the Big Option is large-scale immigration so Japan can maintain its current position as an “economic powerhouse.” The repercussions of the two plans, over fifty years, would create two very different Japans. In one, Japan will lose its place as a financial leader and become a smaller self-sustaining nation of about 80 million people. In the other, Japan would have to accept over 20 million immigrants over the next fifty years to subsidize low population numbers and bolster slowing markets like forestry, farming and factory work. But essential to the success of the Small Option would be tighter controls of immigration laws to bar further numbers of “unskilled” and temporary laborers. And for the Big Option, the Japanese would have to accept immigrants as “friends” and social equals. They would also have to create frameworks in schools, workplaces, and homes to mentally ready citizens for increases in ethnic minorities.

Choosing a stance on immigration will obviously be good for Japan. It provides direction for how the society will remain or change in the upcoming years, but both of Sakanaka’s options pose risks to the current Japanese way-of-life. With the Small Option, Japanese industry would suffer greatly and citizens would face higher taxes and the loss of pension funds and other such benefits. In the Big Option, Sakanaka warns that there will be inevitable social clashes and rises in crime. Experts have observed this trend in other cultures around the world. At the center of both options is Japan’s relation to ethnic minorities. Sakanaka predicts that even though the Big Option would better suit a “dynamic Japan,” Japanese citizens are currently not ready to accept such large numbers of immigrants as permanent members of their society. Sakanaka believes the Small Option will maintain the status quo, but that Japan may have to go back to being a relatively closed society to stem the immigration pressures of neighboring countries like China, with its already large population. The most likely outcome of the immigration problem may be isolation, since Japan has not currently put enough structures in place to effectively and permanently integrate immigrants into its society.

One of the biggest myths of Japanese society that influences immigration policy is the notion of homogeneity. Japan, in fact, has long been a nation of influx. Since ancient times, it has integrated the food, scholarship and religion of different Asian nations to complement its culture. In a report from Japan’s Ryukoku University’s associate Professor Julian Chapple called, “Increasing Migration and Diversity in Japan” (2009) he notes the “Nihonjinron” (日本人論) discourse as one of the main obstacles in Japanese immigration reform. The “Nihonjinron” discourse asserts the uniqueness of Japan from not only other Asian countries, but from nations all around the world, and it has affected the way that Japan relates to ethnic difference socially and politically. Japanese identity is not only a national, but also a cultural one based on racial homogeneity and common customs. This idea of shared identity has shaped national consciousness. Although it may have helped Japanese define themselves as a people, it has worked to alienate others who seek to make a place for themselves in Japanese society.

Sakanaka notes that Japan faced a similar problem during the Meiji Restoration period (明治維新) when the end of feudalism fueled bitter arguments over whether Japan should welcome foreigners. Now, the question is one that needs an answer soon so that Japan can better prepare itself for the serious demographic, economic, cultural and even political challenges ahead. The transition to a “new Japan” is already in progress, but at least now Japan is more equipped than ever to deal with the problems of being a “migration nation” (Chapple). The percentage of foreigners is at an all time high of nearly 2% and the number of cultural “doubles” (often called “halfs” in Japan for having one Japanese parent) is increasing steadily. Although not receiving an official welcome mat, these foreigners are seeing changing attitudes. They have not been deterred by Japan’s lingering xenophobia and their numbers are increasing daily. Japanese immigration reform will be a large undertaking that will take the cooperation of its citizens and these immigrants. But as they live together and work together, they could change the fate of the shrinking island.




移民政策に深い影をおとす日本社会最大の謎の一つに「同質化」という概念がある。しかし実は日本は外からの流入によりできた国である。大昔から他のアジア諸国から伝来した学問、食文化、宗教を受け入れ、自己の文化を補完させてきた。龍谷大学の助教授ジュリアン・チャペル氏はその論文「Increasing Migration and Diversity in Japan」(2009年)の中で、「日本人論」が日本の移民政策を改革するうえで大きな障害になっていると指摘している。この「日本人論」だが、日本が他のアジア諸国のみならず世界中の国々と違う「独自性」を持ち、これが異なる民族への社会的また政治的かかわり方に影響をおよぼしているというものだ。日本人のアイデンティティは国レベルだけでなく文化レベルでも、民族的同質性と共通習慣をベースにできあがっており、このアイデンティティに対する共有概念がこの国民の意識を形作っている。日本人が自身を定義するうえでは有益な概念かもしれないが、日本に居場所を見つけようとしている人々にとっては、排他的概念として作用することになる。


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