Why are Japanese averse to immigration?
Small, seemingly insignificant events can sometimes precipitate great things. Konosuke Matsushita, the founder of Panasonic, established a multinational consumer electronics giant with nothing more than an improved light socket. The roots of automotive juggernaut Honda can be found at a small auto shop where its founder, Soichiro Honda, perfected his trade.
The Convention of Kanagawa in 1854 preceded the Meiji Restoration, which opened Japan up to the world and led Japan to become a major economic tour-de-force. Though it is often said that “the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world”, the hurricane – in the case of Japan – usually occurs on the same side.
Today, Japan is facing a tropical depression that may well transform into a full blown typhoon: the inevitability of expanding immigration. Japan has recently announced its plan to introduce a points-based immigration system that awards visa preference to skilled professionals. The shift in immigration policy is hardly uncalled for: whether found domestically or abroad, Japan will need workers to fill in the gaps left by the decline of its shrinking population.
Despite the new stance taken by the Japanese government, mass immigration remains unpopular among the Japanese notwithstanding the socioeconomic issues caused by the growing number of elderly.
Why does Japan oppose open immigration? What changes must be made to its immigration system?
In seeking answers and further clarification to the issue, I interviewed Jon Heese: a councillor in the city of Tsukuba and one of the few foreign-born politicians in Japan.
Based on your experience living in Japan, why do you think the Japanese are so averse to immigration?
There are no easy answers to that question, but I can list a few.
The first is fear. People fear change. Most Japanese are used to doing things a certain way. They are afraid they will have to change the way things are done to accommodate the newcomers.
When I was a young boy in Canada, we started to see immigrants from non-European countries filling the cities, with the perception that they were taking our jobs. Many in the older generation wore their racism on their sleeves. Now, most people have become accustomed to the diversity and acclimated to it.
The Japanese are no different. Young people in Tsukuba are so used to seeing visible minorities that no one pays attention anymore. But just go a few kilometres out of town and walk down the street and one constantly hears “Gaijin da,” from the kids. The adults are too polite, but I see them looking too. Probably because I’m so handsome (laughs).
There’s also the education factor. The Japanese have a long history of being brainwashed into fearing foreigners. Though one never hears the really racist epitaphs anymore (“yabunjin,” “kebunjin”), we now see police posters with foreign faces advising locals to watch out for strange activities. Chinese gangs are regularly blamed for break-ins in every newspaper. Many Japanese believe foreigners are more likely to commit crimes, in spite of statistics showing otherwise.
Finally, we have excessive nationalism. Many people born in a country are taught to love and honor their homeland. In my opinion, it’s as bad as religion. When new people show up and want to take a part of that for their own, it becomes hard for people who were born there to accept that someone not born there could love a place as much as them, much less deserve a part of it. If there were a war, will the “outsiders” fight and die for their adopted country? Can they be trusted?
What benefits do you see in increased immigration to Japan? Downsides?
The benefits immigrants bring are quite obvious in most open countries. Other than the factory and office work they do, immigrants also open their own restaurants, provide services like travel agencies, construction, repairs or import/export businesses. They are likely to maintain contact with their home country, sending and receiving market information.
Japan’s used car market, as an example, has a large contingent of foreigners who buy cars for export and parts. Given that many countries have a large Japanese presence in their auto market, used parts are in steady demand. Ten-year-old cars often have almost zero value in the Japanese used car market. Even good-condition cars with less than 100,000 km on the dial are regularly traded in for no money, given to the car dealer to get rid of.
Japanese auto dealers don’t have the foreign contacts to export these trade-ins. If a car can’t be sold on the domestic market, the Japanese dealers can sell it at auction. Foreign dealers can then purchase such cars cheaply and send them to a country where buyers are proud to drive a 10+ year old Toyota van.
Downsides: Any large influx of foreigners is going to cause cultural friction. Japanese is a difficult language to master, especially written Japanese. That said, Japan’s most likely immigrants are going to come primarily from China and Korea. The Chinese will have little trouble learning kanji. Even the Koreans study a certain amount of kanji in order to read the original Korean literary masters. Of course, the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia will also provide smaller numbers of immigrants. Mastering kanji will be a monumental task which is only likely to be achieved through their children.
Immigrants who can’t read are less likely to be able to participate in political and cultural activities. They are less likely to be informed of new laws or rules. They will have trouble communicating with the teachers of their children. They are less likely to achieve a position of respect in the Japanese community. I see these issues influencing many immigrants’ assessments of their situation in Japan. They feel left out or simply refuse to participate in the community.
If Japan decides to loosen immigration rules, my greatest fear is allowing the creation of ghettos. A Chinatown is one thing, but if there is little interaction between the communities, it is a recipe for trouble.
What kind of immigrants does Japan need?
Given the aging population, I would say health care workers, nurses and even doctors are going to be in great demand. For now, nurses are being groomed in Indonesia and the Philippines for the Japanese system, but since the demand is still not great enough, the nurses’ unions are pressuring to keep the foreign nurses out with tough demands for language skills. Time and need will eventually result in visa restrictions being largely changed in the health care sector.
Despite the recent shift in immigration policy, what do you think needs to be changed in the immigration system? Realistically, how long would it take for these changes to come into effect?
The number one change Japan will need to make to be taken seriously as a country ready for immigrants is to drop their single nationality policy. Many developed countries allow dual citizenship. Japan is fooling itself if they think they’ll be able to get enough workers without offering a real slice of the pie. Unfortunately, my guess is that the older generation of politicians will allow the country to suffer economic deterioration before they allow dual citizenship. I would guess that dual citizenship is at least 20 years away.
How should Japan deal with the influx of immigrants? Would it not lead to an over saturated job market?
Japan needs to let in 20 million immigrants over the next 20 years if they want to slow the demographic death spiral. There will be no shortage of jobs for the next two generations or more. The Japanese people have a strong interest in succeeding. As they have met similar challenges in the past, overcoming great odds, I am sure that they will do so in the future.