Our Home Japan
SNA (Tokyo) — The time has come for foreign residents in Japan to rid themselves of self-marginalizing patterns of thought and to begin to embrace the notion that they live in Japan, work to the benefit of this country, pay their taxes, and thus have a claim on a certain set of rights.
This seems to be a rather obvious notion, but the fact is that a large proportion of foreign residents shy away from this conclusion, for a number of disparate reasons. Those few foreign residents who do assert that they should defend their rights in Japan are routinely faced with allegations of “white privilege” (if applicable) or they run into rampant whataboutism.
You know these arguments well: There may some problems in Japan, but what about the way they treat foreigners in X country? Don’t you know that things are much worse in Y country? If you don’t like it, why don’t you go back to Z country?
This is a twisted and counterproductive kind of logic. We can freely admit that Japan is preferable to many, probably most other places in the world. We can be thankful for the beauty and the many blessings of this land. But do graver injustices across the seas constitute some reason why we shouldn’t seek the betterment of the community in which we now live?
For their part, the ethnic Japanese majority has clearly been trapped in a rather schizophrenic pattern of thought about resident foreigners since at least the 1980s. They mostly make do by grasping tightly onto the fiction that foreigners are a transient community, guests who are here for a while, and then will leave. And since they are only passing through, not much thought is needed about their opinions or their welfare.
Certainly, that may be a fair assessment for a large proportion of foreign residents, but it has become less true in recent decades. Many long-term foreigners now have Japanese spouses and children. And if someone stays in this country for ten, twenty, thirty years, at some point they become as good as permanent fixtures, even if they do go somewhere else upon retirement.
Also, many officials within the Japanese government—even this conservative government—tacitly understand that the situation has changed, even if they maintain, in defiance of facts and logic, the old fictions about national homogeneity and foreign guestism.
Consider, for example, the current push by the Suga government to make Tokyo the leading financial capital of Asia. They understand that this encompasses the luring of many foreign companies to Japan, and with them a small army of foreign bankers, businesspeople, and entrepreneurs. This fact can be perceived, for example, in recent proposals to change tax policies for long-term foreign residents.
Other sections of the government, and wider sections of Japanese society, also understand (usually with regret) that now that demographics are causing the Japanese population to disappear at a rate of about half a million people per year, and with the birthrate continuing to be very low, that the only economically rational course is to increase foreign immigration. Only then can growth in the national economy be maintained and social security systems for the elderly kept safe from bankruptcy.
However, even most foreign residents in Japan don’t want to see this country overrun with outsiders who don’t respect the basic norms and customs of Japanese society. The doors should be opened widely enough to address the demographic crisis, but slowly enough that the immigrants have time to become acculturated to Japanese mores rather than ghettoized.
For certain, the current fantasy in conservative government circles is unsustainable—that they will somehow be able to squeeze out all the benefits of having a large community resident foreigners with none of compromises or challenges.
And, of course, multicultural interaction in Japan is not only a “social problem,” but also an opportunity for mutual discovery and for innovation.
One of the first examples that comes to my mind as a resident of Tokyo is the increasing number of truly excellent cafes, bakeries, and restaurants that have been appearing in recent years. Almost without fail, these small businesses are run by young Japanese who spent several years abroad before returning home with new skills and culinary enthusiasms. More than one of these venues uses the slogan “slow food” to describe their fare, which seems to mean taking care that every ingredient is fresh and wholesome. They are one of the true delights of living in this city at this time.
Beyond the joys of the taste buds, this blending of cultures can clearly be to the benefit of the ethnic Japanese majority, and in some respects they have already embraced it.
The next evolution may have to come from a transformation in the political consciousness of resident foreigners. There should be an appreciation of our collective value to Japan and the rights that we should enjoy as a result. This is not a claim to superiority or a demand for special privileges, but only an assertion that we should be part of a process of mutual recognition—that we can and should be a constituent in a dialogue about how to make Japan even better than it is now.
In turn, the only way this dialogue can take place is if some institution is created that can credibly represent the interests of foreign residents, despite the multitude of nationalities that would have to be involved. Once that institution is up and running, then the ball would be back in the court of the Japanese government, which would have to make their own decisions about how serious a dialog with the foreign community they are prepared for.
At any rate, it is long overdue that the narrative about resident foreigners in Japan be stripped from the hands of the political right. They are lost in an ideological fantasyland and have no credible or acceptable answers to offer to move this nation forward.
It’s time for a more progressive vision to spring us from the trap of self-marginalization. Whether it be for a limited number of years or until the end of our lives, Japan is currently our home and the community to which we positively contribute. No matter how bad things might be somewhere overseas, we should strive to make the beams of human rights, dignity, and innovation shine brighter in the land of the rising sun.
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