[This is part II of III in the East Asia and Immigration series. You can read part I here.]
Japan: A Door Half-Open
Many people have come to view the Japanese, who are hostile to mass immigration and political correctness, as the last defenders of the traditional nation state. Basically homogenous, hugely successful and harmonious, their country is seen as a beacon of hope and reason in a world that has gone insane.
So Japan’s recent decision to take in up to 345,000 foreign guestworkers in response to labour shortages came as a shock. Most controversially, the program holds out limited chances of permanent residency. Highly skilled migrants would be able to bring spouses and children, making them de facto immigrants. Magazines in Japan and overseas ran headlines like “Japan ends the immigration taboo.” The Davos crowd no doubt rejoiced. Some on the left in Japan joined them.
But ordinary citizens have reacted with foreboding. On my last visit to Tokyo, in early 2019, I saw small anti-foreigner demonstrations, for the first time in two decades of close familiarity with Japan.
The door officially opened in April. Let me jump straight to my conclusion: I don’t think the policy is going to change much. It is so modest a step that it does not really bear comparison with what is happening in the west. The country has already tried and failed to take in groups of migrant workers. There is no reason to suspect this staged five-year initiative will fare much better. It may even be shelved as soon as a token gesture has been made. Japan in any case will remain Japan. That’s my prediction.
History of exclusivity
Why is Japan so hostile to immigration? This has long been the world’s most nationalistic and exclusive developed society. It is partly a product of history: less the isolation than the centuries of militaristic government, which fostered a cult of “Japaneseness” underpinned by the native pseudo-religion, Shinto. However polite and kind Japanese are to each other and their guests—and they undoubtedly are—they have long treated groups of resident foreigners with a xenophobia barely fathomable to westerners.
Take the million-odd ethnic Koreans. Mostly born in Japan, they still need to apply for Japanese citizenship, and most take an assumed Japanese name to function in public life. Ethnic Koreans are indistinguishable from native Japanese. But anybody who uses an obviously Korean name in Japan is going to face job and housing discrimination.
For Japan is a members-only club, and minorities are kept out. (Other minorities are the Ainu, burakumin low-status Japanese and, to some degree, the Okinawans). A TV star in Japan and long-time resident, Jason Danielson, summed up the outsider experience: “I still cannot escape the feeling of being seen as an (anime) character, like a caged panda in a zoo. You can sense people saying, don’t come out of the cage.” This one quote alone explains why large-scale immigration is not going to work.
It is also why the government has waited so long to push it. Japan’s fertility rate is just 1.4, and I have clippings from as far back as the early 1990s predicting population collapse. Around this time, Japan tentatively took in Latin American immigrants of Japanese ancestry, a move which led only to the formation of one more troubled minority. Their behaviour, it turned out, was a bit too Latin despite their Japanese surnames.
Nearly half of the million or so guestworkers now in Japan are “technical trainees” and overseas students, working under strict conditions mainly at restaurants, building sites, farms and convenience stores. The overseas students can only work for a maximum of 5 years. These people are not immigrants. As for refugees, in 2016 Japan’s intake was 28. (And South Korea’s cumulative intake was less than 700 in 2017).
The government insists its decision to bring in up to 345,000 workers over the next five years (more than Britain takes in a SINGLE year) is only a stopgap measure to deal with labour shortages.
For the first time, general unskilled labour is being let in, chiefly in the care, restaurant and retail, construction, farming and certain factory sectors. There are sector quotas – care is the largest, at 60,000. But only highly skilled workers will be able to bring families with them. Access to the welfare system will also be limited to the minority with permanent residence; an uninsured sick guestworker will have to go home.
Japan’s welfare system generally is spartan and exacting. Healthy, working-age recipients of “livelihood subsistence” (seikatsu hogo), which does duty for housing, medical and other benefits, are viewed with contempt, and benefits applicants have to undergo humiliating asset investigations, including household property and bank accounts. It is really hard to scrounge in Japan. This means Japanese will do the kind of low-paid jobs unskilled immigrants target in Europe.
Another problem guestworkers will face is inability to rise in their jobs. Japanese organisations have long record of excluding non-Japanese from managerial jobs. It is difficult to even become a “formal” employee (shain) in most corporations. Foreigners are generally kept off the career ladder. This is partly due to the language problem. You need to study Japanese for at least 5 years before you can read and write it. But mostly, Japanese simply do not want foreigners in their workplaces, much less above them in the hierarchy.
Nor do they want them in their neighbourhoods. Private-sector estate agents will routinely refuse to deal with non-Japanese. Apartment-block rules and customs are complicated, and most foreigners cannot read the notices. Unruly behaviour like littering and making a racket is resented. There have been cases of foreign residents being driven out of block housing. They often get lumped together in blocks specially set aside for gaijin.
In sum, Japan’s guestworkers are likely to form a kind of coolie corps, largely segregated from ordinary Japanese in both their working and private lives. Only a minority will seek permanent residence, usually for marriage reasons. Most will make their money and go back. Their numbers will remain manageable. Japan will not become an “immigration country.” And nor will South Korea or Taiwan, which I look at in the next installment.