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Visible Minorities: Latest Visa Rules Could Purge Any Foreigner

SNA (Tokyo) — There’s an abbreviation I like to use at opportune times: SITYS. It stands for “See I Told You So.”

It’s opportune now because, even after political leadership has finally shed Shinzo Abe, the Japanese government has found new ways to discriminate against foreign residents of Japan. We thought 2021 would be better than 2020? Not likely. And I’ve been declaring that this could happen for decades.

Last February I talked about how government policy stupidly treated Covid-infected passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship like zombies to be contained, not patients to be tested and treated. The fallacy back then was that Japanese officials treated even Japanese citizens as badly as foreigners, bungling rescue efforts so thoroughly that foreign governments had to intervene.

Following that fiasco, the Japanese government policy became more sophisticated—and more racist. Last April, due to Covid, Japan revised its re-entry procedures to exclude all foreigners (including permanent residents) while letting in Japanese citizens traveling under the same conditions. In effect, policymakers assumed that Japanese were immune to Covid by dint of a passport.

After sufficient international outcry, the government eventually made some amendments, but they couldn’t avoid twisting already counterproductive policy into something closer to evil. Priority re-entry for foreigners would be given to foreign workers, businesspeople, and Olympic participants. Short-shrifted again were non-Japanese residents and taxpayers with legal visas, who faced paperwork overseas so arduous it was almost an entry ban all over again.

New year, new salvo of foreigner bashing: Last week, the Suga administration unveiled re-entry rules that permit non-Japanese residents to re-enter the same as Japanese, as long as they completed the same paperwork and fourteen-day quarantine.

Good, but here’s the wrinkle: If you are found in violation of any quarantine regulations, you don’t just get in trouble like Japanese by, err, having your name made public. You may lose your visa status and get deported from the country. You read that right.

This policy was in reaction to the discovery of the United Kingdom mutation of Covid within Japan this month. But like most policy created in times of shock, it has hasty assumptions: that a foreign variant meant that foreigners were somehow responsible. In fact, the Patient Zeroes who came back from England and went out partying instead of quarantining were Japanese.

This new policy is ironic. In addition to the past year of Japanese media blaming foreigners for creating “foreign clusters,” it also ignores the lazy government response to Covid. Nobody at the national level wanted to take the responsibility for declaring a blanket state of emergency. But since infections have now reached record numbers, here comes the crackdown—and once again foreigners are being disproportionately targeted.

Granted, the government is now threatening to mete out jail time and fines for Japanese who don’t cooperate with measures to reduce Covid’s spread. This has occasioned the perfunctory hand-wringing about the effectiveness of punishment in curbing infections and “infringing too much on personal freedoms” for Japanese. I see that as part of the healthy give-and-take of political debate, to make sure things don’t go too far. But where is the parallel debate about the “freedoms” of non-Japanese residents who are receiving unequal treatment under the law?

A Japanese getting a fine or a spell in the clink is one thing, but it’s incomparable to a foreigner losing their legal status gleaned after years or decades of residency, followed by deportation and permanent separation from their lives, livelihoods, and families in Japan.

We know that one of the reasons Covid became a pandemic is because of asymptomatic transmission. However, what if a person who doesn’t know they’re sick and hasn’t left the country gets linked to a cluster by contact tracing? If that somebody happens to be a foreigner, his or her life in Japan may well be over.

But here’s where my sentiment of SITYS comes in: We should have seen this coming. Essentially, Covid has become a means to purge foreigners from the Japanese ethnostate at last.

Think about it. The visa status with the largest number of foreigners is Permanent Resident. Not including the Zainichi generational foreigners born in Japan, as of last June they make up more than a quarter of all foreigners resident in Japan. In any other developed nation, these people are supposed to be allowed to reside here permanently (as the name itself suggests). As long as they stay put and don’t commit crimes, there’s really no way to get rid of Permanent Residents.

But as I have researched and argued for decades (I even did a doctoral dissertation about it, which became a book called Embedded Racism), foreign residents of Japan of any status don’t “count” as real residents, or even as human beings. Even Japan’s Supreme Court in 2008 explicitly ruled that basic “human rights” are predicated, not on being human, but on having Japanese citizenship. Full stop. That’s the law.

The new policy of last week has profound implications. Before, you had to be outside of Japan to be denied re-entry at the border. Now even foreigners inside Japan who haven’t travelled abroad can be accused of spreading disease and expelled summarily and permanently.

The political scientist inside of me could argue that this is no accident. One axiom of political science is that whenever new public policy is created, there are always winners and losers. But have you ever noticed in Japan that foreigners are almost always on the losing side? The systemic racism in Japan’s politics is so embedded that it’s actually a very pleasant surprise when non-Japanese residents are treated equally.

The most toxic effect of laws designed to be enforced unequally is the normalization of subordination—to the point where people expect it, and even justify it. Many critics, including some co-opted foreigners, argue that it’s the foreigners’ fault that they ever came to Japan and expected equal treatment, or for that matter any returns whatsoever for their contributions to society. Many even buy into the racist notion that “Japan is for the Japanese,” denying even their own right to be here.

Eventually, these foreign apologists wind up defending anything Japan does in order to stay, or find themselves being deprived of one thing of value after another until they just can’t take it anymore and leave.

This is a common tactic used by Japanese companies to compel to quit those misfits they can’t otherwise get rid of. Similarly, over the past year, the government has effectively crafted policies to get long-term foreign residents to quit Japanese society.

Thus, the denouement of 2020 is carrying on into 2021, where racist blanket bans on foreign resident entrants have mutated, like Covid, into a means to cancel anyone’s visa status. These policies, equal parts stupid and evil, have been a dealbreaker for many long-term foreign residents. Some, I know, are indeed quitting Japan. I foresaw all this as a possibility a long time ago, and now with Covid it has manifested in official policy.

I’ve warned before, and I’ll warn again: Without fundamental changes to Japan’s legal protections of non-citizens, including laws against racial discrimination, foreign residents are perpetually in the government’s crosshairs. And policymakers’ default mindset is that foreigners are a “problem” for Japan.

Some groups of foreigners have already been jettisoned en masse over the past century at opportune times—many postwar Koreans and Chinese, the Iranians, and the South Americans. Now is it the turn for Permanent Residents? If so, SITYS.

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