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Visible Minorities: A Despotic Bridge Too Far

SNA (Tokyo) — How bad does it have to get? I’m talking about Japan’s cruelty and meanness towards its Non-Japanese residents. How bad before people think to step in and stop it?

I think we now have an answer to that due to Japan’s recent policy excluding only foreigners from re-entry at its border, even if they’ve lived here for decades, as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Japanese re-entrants get let in after testing and quarantine; no other G7 country excludes all foreigners only.

Protests against this policy have been unusually mainstream, including institutions that have been for generations largely silent regarding other forms of discrimination towards foreigners in Japan.

You’re probably aware that Japan has long advertised itself as a “monocultural, homogeneous society,” denying that minorities, racial or ethnic, exist within it. But did you know that Japan still refuses to include Non-Japanese residents as “people” in its official population tallies? Or to list them on official family registries as “spouses” of Japanese?

Further, Japan’s constitution expressly reserves equality under the law for Japanese citizens (kokumin) in its Japanese translation. This postwar attempt to deny rights to the Korean minority complicates things for all Non-Japanese residents to this day.

Consider how Japan’s law enforcement system still willfully targets “foreigners” for special treatment and racial profiling, encouraged by a system of registration and random street identity checks that apply to Non-Japanese residents only.

With prosecutorial presumptions of guilt and lack of human rights for foreigners, more have been incarcerated as a percentage of the population than Japanese. That is what you get when a criminal justice system has a separate track for detention, incarceration, interrogation, and jurisprudence against foreigners, one so rigged that even a foreigner as powerful as former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn, despite a weak case against him, couldn’t buy, bully, or lawyer his way out of.

Then we get to Japan’s mass media, which still more often portrays “foreigners” at best as quirky outsiders and guests, at worst as terrorists, criminals, and vectors of disease. That’s before we get to the random expressions of racism and “othering” that are rife and largely unproblematized in Japan. Rarely does mainstream media salute Non-Japanese residents for their contributions to Japanese society, even as taxpayers.

Yet Japan still wants people to come work on temporary revolving-door visas, including so-called “trainees” hired without any labor rights. But when Non-Japanese residents stick it out and devote their lives to Japan, they get little encouragement to stay on permanently, naturalize, or otherwise become “Japanese.” The general expectation remains that foreigners are in Japan for a period of time to profiteer before they “go home.”

This happens despite foreigners being consigned to jobs on the margins of society, such as menial workers, entertainers, non-executive bureaucrats, healthcare workers, small-time businesspeople, and non-tenured educators. Where are the Non-Japanese licensed professionals in more influential fields like doctors or lawyers?

A handful of foreigners get promoted with great fanfare, but they remain statistical asterisks, not mainstream influencers. Positions of real power are reserved for Real Japanese, and foreigners are second-class subordinates. If not, suddenly it’s Nippon ja nai mitai (Japan is not the Japan we know). Quite.

So back to the opening question: Even with all this, how bad does it have to get before the mainstream begins to cry discrimination? The answer: Covid-19 bad.

Thanks to the re-entry ban last April, many Non-Japanese residents found themselves stranded overseas, separated from their Japanese families, lives and livelihoods, watching their investments dry up and visa clocks run out without recourse. Or perhaps found themselves stranded within Japan, as family members abroad died, and the prospect of attending their funeral or taking care of personal matters in person would mean exile.

Granted, the US government recently tried something similar when, on July 6, Immigration and Customs Enforcement unilaterally decided that all foreign students taking online classes only would have their student visas cancelled.

That lasted about a week. Prominent universities (such as Harvard and MIT), organizations of higher education, corporations, and individual state governments cried foul or filed lawsuits to moot this move. It worked. Even for a Trump administration this bigoted, the policy was dropped on July 14.

So who similarly advocates on behalf of foreigners in Japan, besides the usual activist groups and human rights agencies who get routinely ignored? It’s hard to imagine a Japanese university filing a lawsuit against the government.

This time, however, Japan’s mainstream media did speak up. For example, the Asahi Shinbun on June 8 ran an editorial calling the current policy “unreasonable” and “discriminatory.”

The Japan Association of National Universities, representing Japan’s flagship educational institutions like Tokyo University, also stepped in. It recently petitioned the Ministry of Education to promptly allow both old and new students and researchers to enter their universities after proper quarantines, and to resume issuing visas.

And in a blistering critique, the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan issued public statements for Japan to repeal the policy. This is quite a step, since the ACCJ in my experience cares more about unperturbed access to Japanese markets than messy issues of human rights. The ACCJ’s words are worth quoting at length:

Foreign nationals actively and positively contribute to Japan’s economy and society, and do not pose any greater risk than Japanese citizens re-entering Japan. The ACCJ statement expresses concern among our international business community that the prohibition currently in place is detrimental to Japan’s long-term interests… Such individuals, especially those with permanent residency (eijuken) and their accompanying family members or those who are immediate family members of Japanese nationals, and those with long-term working visas and their accompanying family members, need to be allowed to enter Japan under the same conditions as Japanese citizens to continue living and working in this country. Such foreign nationals are actively and positively contributing to Japan’s economy and society, and do not pose any greater risk than Japanese citizens re-entering Japan… At minimum, Japan should adopt the approach of other G7 countries to allow foreigners with established residency status and their immediate family members to depart and enter the country on the same basis as Japanese nationals.

So what was the tipping point? Perhaps it was when the Japanese government broke its own rules by unilaterally revoking the status of its lawful permanent residents; when it showed the world that it cares naught for the people it even grants permanent status to. Even with all the institutionalized discrimination for generations, a move this despotic shows just how much of an outlier Japan is among developed nations.

This might even be a bellwether. In recent years, we’ve seen a move towards authoritarianism in the world’s developed liberal democracies. As I have argued elsewhere, this systemic intolerance has its roots in Japan, which to overseas xenophobes represents a model ethnostate. Ethnic cleansers have in fact been copying many of Japan’s strategies and policies.

But even when an outlier like Japan, with a society so deferential to power and profoundly oblivious towards the treatment of its minorities, is seen to have gone too far, perhaps authoritarianism has finally crested.

We might be seeing the pendulum swinging back towards liberalism at last. It’s just a shame it had to go this far before it did.

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