Multicultural Japan? Policy, Law and Society

A recent lecture in Sydney by Meiji University Professor Keizo Yamawaki reminded me that every country has its myths or somewhat warped perspectives concerning its own national identity. Australia’s include the idea that it was traditionally English at its core, even though many of its organising principles – egalitarianism, respect for the state, yet a certain larrikanism – were arguably Irish (Patrick O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia, 3rd ed 2000, UNSW Press, Sydney, p 21). Another was that Australia centres on rural communities and ‘the bush’, even in the case of its greatest sporting hero (Brett Hutchins, Don Bradman: Challenging the Myth, 2001, Cambridge UP). A related but debatable motif is that Australia can and should enlighten the world – be “better than the British”. Such thinking underpinned the Chifley government’s push to entrench human rights in Europe and the fledgling United Nations, and to promote a politically radical labour movement in Occupation Japan. Yet the latter policy also involved deeply pragmatic assumptions (Christine de Matos, Imposing Peace and Prosperity, 2008, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne). And the former push has failed to result, even now, in an enforceable Bill of Rights throughout Australia itself (Geoffrey Robertson, The Statute of Liberty: How Australians Can Take Back Their Rights, 2009, Vintage, North Sydney).
In Japan, one of the most persistent myths or over-exaggerations has been that of national homogeneity. Yet this is being increasingly undermined by new initiatives to bolster long-term immigration into Japan, building off a significant rise in foreign residents since the 1990s.

Still, as pointed out in March 2007 by a Japan-based lecturer in Japanese and Australian studies, Chris Burgess:
“In February, education minister Bunmei Ibuki called Japan ‘an extremely homogenous country’. Eighteen months earlier, [then] Foreign Minister Taro Aso [and current Prime Minister] described Japan as having ‘one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, and one race’.”
Such pronouncements fly in the face of intra-regional differences in Japan, longstanding and intensifying socio-economic disparities, and even significant ethnic and racial diversity – including the Diet’s own declaration (on 6 June 2008) that the Ainu were an indigenous people of Japan. Politicians continue to voice them, despite the evidence mustered by social scientists (Yoshio Sugimoto An Introduction to Japanese Society, 2nd ed 2003, Cambridge UP).
Yet new approaches are also emerging in Japan, including within other parts of the government. Despite or perhaps because of the “lost decade” of the 1990s, numbers of registered foreign residents in Japan have grown to over two million. They are approaching two percent of the overall population, rapidly aging and already in decline since 2004. Further, according to Professor Yamawaki’s paper for the 12th International Metropolis Conference hosted by Monash University in 2008, of these residents the proportion of de facto immigrants – permanent residents (over 800,000), their spouses or children, or other long-term residents – has grown to around two-thirds (“The Challenges for Japanese Immigrant Integration Policy”, 4(2) Around the Globe, Summer 2008, p42). Foreign residents are especially concentrated in Tokyo (more than 3 percent of its population) but also other cities in Kanto, as well as the Tokai (especially Brazilians) and Kansai regions (especially Koreans). Figures over the last decade show a decline in Korean residents and dramatic increases in Chinese residents, but also rises in Brazilians and the “other” category (including Australians!).
This provides a backdrop not only to developments in constitutional case law mentioned in my previous blog posting, but also government legislation and policy initiatives over the last few years in Japan. Traditionally, Yamawaki argues, the law has focused on rules governing the admission of foreigners into Japan. (These remain important, as shown by evolving developments regarding refugees, outlined in Osamu Arakaki, Refugee Law and Practice in Japan, 2008, Ashgate, Aldershot. Another example is controversial legislation this June abolishing the Alien Registration Law to concentrate information on foreign residents completely in the Ministry of Justice, rather than being shared with local authorities. )
But attention is also now turning to “integration” policy, arguably with more parallels to the approach in the European Union than that in Australia or Canada. Some local governments (eg in Kansai) had developed policy and ordinances mainly out of a concern for human rights, but from the 1990s (eg in Tokai) these had often been promoted under the catch-cry of internationalisation (kokusaika). Those in the latter tradition established networks such as the Council of Municipalities with Large Foreign Resident Populations (2001) and the Council for the Promotion of Multicultural Community Building (2004), with Miyage Prefecture being the first to enact an ordinance promoting multiculturalism (2007).
Rather like the development of Freedom of Information ordinances or consumer law, this bottom-up approach has led to some central government initiatives. Over 2005-6 the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications developed a Plan for the Promotion of Multicultural Community Building, requesting all major cities and prefectures to develop plans or guidelines. Then Prime Minister Koizumi’s Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy led to an inter-ministry study, resulting in “Comprehensive Measures for Foreign Residents” released in December 2006. These addressed education for foreign children (many, especially Brazilians, missed schooling or went to non-accredited schools lacking public funding), social insurance, and revisions of the registration system.
On 30 January 2009, in the wake of the GFC, the Cabinet Office outlined Immediate (Short-term) Support Measures for Foreign Residents – again covering education and better information, but especially employment and training measures, housing support, and “support for return home”. Various measures have since been added, including repatriation grants from the Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare for “displaced people of Japanese descent if they wish to return to their home countries”. This has been picked up by commentators world-wide, as it sounds rather like what some perceived as behind the original Gastarbeiter regime in Germany: foreigners should come to do the unpleasant jobs that locals are no longer interested in, until those are all that’s left during an economic downturn, and then they and their families should just go “home”. But the exodus from Japan has been limited compared to that from Dubai, for example, after the GFC. And while this highlights that severe economic downturns can impact negatively on immigration in the short run, longer-term economic problems (like those that have dogged Japan since the 1990s) can provide an impetus to attempt more far-reaching policy change.
Indeed, in June 2008 a group of 80 parliamentarians from the Liberal Democratic Party (the main conservative coalition partner), led by former Secretary-General Hidenao Nakagawa, proposed increasing foreign residents to 10 million within 50 years. Further, they focused on ways to encourage them to stay for the long-term, through greater opportunities for training and their families. The plan also proposed increasing refugees to 1000 per annum, and to raise foreign students from around 130,000 now to one million by 2025. The current Chief Cabinet Secretary, Takeo Kawamura, also established a group to advance a bill to support schools for foreign residents. Meanwhile, in early 2008 both the Secretary-General of the Komeito (LDP’s longstanding coalition party) and Ichiro Ozawa (recently retired as leader of the Minshuto, the main opposition party) were been keen to allow permanent residents the right to vote in local government elections.
These political manoeuvres are parallelled by the Cabinet Office’s “Portal Site on Policies for Foreign Residents” unveiled in April 2009 (with information in Japanese, English, Portuguese and Spanish – but not Chinese or Korean!). On the other hand, on 15 June 2009 an government expert panel proposed to PM Aso that Japan needed reform five areas to construct a “secure” society amid widening social and financial disparities: child rearing, education, medical care, pensions and especially employment – but with no mention of comprehensive measures to expand immigration.
As in many other parts of the world, including Australia, immigration politics and policy is in a state of flux – exacerbated by the GFC and the faltering world economy. But for the first time, immigration is starting to appear on the agenda in Japan, which is being forced to make difficult socio-economic choices amidst a declining and ageing workforce.

Author: Luke Nottage

Prof Luke Nottage (BCA, LLB, PhD VUW, LLM LLD Kyoto) is founding co-director of the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), Associate Director (Japan) of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney (CAPLUS), and Professor of Comparative and Transnational Business Law at Sydney Law School. He specialises in international dispute resolution, foreign investment law, contract and consumer (product safety) law.