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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (August 23, 2004)

Barbaric Immigration Policy

Gregory Clark (Vice President, Akita International University)

Japan's current campaign against visa overstayers is both puzzling and cruel.

Tokyo says the campaign aims to put an end to the upsurge in foreign crime. And Japan is right to be concerned about the crime problem. But the foreign gangs so active here are hardly likely to be walking the streets without seemingly valid visas or passports. If they can crack safes, forge credit cards, pick pockets or break into houses with such skill and ruthlessness, they will have little trouble getting false documents.

The average overstayer is someone who came to Japan to study or work, who found Japan more compatible than home, who has settled down, learned some of the language and is willing to do the menial work young Japanese now refuse to do.

The chances of these people wanting to turn to crime are close to zero. To be caught even without a seat belt fastened would put a quick end to the life they have worked so hard to create in Japan.

Overall, they do far more good for Japan than any possible harm. Many are crucial to the survival of small, labor-intensive industries here. They help overcome the Japan's growing problem of population aging and decline. Some even create small pockets of internationalization, opening the eyes of the Japanese around them to the world outside. Their remittances to their home countries represent a form of costless foreign aid.

Yet if caught, the deportation procedures they have to suffer are brutal. If caught by the police, they are incarcerated for an automatic three months in detention cells before being turned over to the immigration authorities who put them behind bars again for further detention and interrogation.

On deportation day they are handcuffed and roped together like cattle to be put on buses for forcible transport to airports and marched onto planes as common criminals.

The harsh detention and sufferings inflicted on former world chess champion Bobby Fischer, simply because of a passport problem imposed on him by others, provides good insight to the closed minds of Japan's immigration authorities.

That the same harsh treatment is meted out even to accidental visa-overstayers belies claims that current policies are needed to prevent foreign crime. Catherine Makino's May 18 article, "Students pay price in visa crackdown" -- about young people coming to Japan for university study of Japanese and things Japanese being arrested, incarcerated, strip-searched, forcibly deported and banned from Japan for five years simply because they mistakenly overstayed their visas by a few months or even days -- is both accurate and horrifying.

Some of the bureaucrats overseeing these barbaric policies will concede that the crime problem among overstayers is not as bad as claimed. But they will go on to say that the rules have to be obeyed. As one of them put it to me, it is a question of kejime: Japan cannot be seen to tolerate disorder and lack of discipline in its visa policies. Others mutter that overstaying itself is a crime, and should be subject to punishment, just like any other crime.

Yet the United States, hardly known for laxity to lawbreakers, tolerates close to 10 million undocumented foreigners, and is considering giving many of them amnesty. It recognizes their contribution to the economy, and the human suffering from forced deportation.

Meanwhile, Japan, with a much smaller proportion of illegals in its midst, refuses to consider any concession whatsoever. Even that bastion of Japanese conservatism, the Keidanren, gets nowhere with its calls for greater tolerance.

Taken together, it is Japanese bureaucratism at its worst. The immigration officials who are too afraid to go out and confront the foreign crime gangs are more than happy to gain brownie points and publicity by raiding small factories in downtown Tokyo or Osaka and arresting any harmless overstayers they find there. The fact that a factory may go bankrupt, that a family in Bangladesh or the Philippines may go hungry, and that they are creating bitter anti-Japan feeling in an individual who has worked here honestly for years, does not worry them in the slightest.

The same officials also do little about the other major source of foreign crime here, namely the Latin Americans (mainly from Brazil and Peru) allowed to remain permanently in Japan simply by virtue of some claim to Japanese ancestry.

Many of these people have low education and few skills; they are clustered in non-Japanese speaking ghettos close to the vehicle factories of Hamamatsu, Aichi and northern Gumma. Their children often drop out of the Japanese education system; many are now unemployable and turn to crime.

The officials who once naively thought that the principle of blood would guarantee quick assimilation into Japanese society bridle at the suggestion that their policies resemble closely the Australian "White Australia" policies -- which they used to condemn so bitterly -- that were also based on a racial "ease of assimilation" principle.

Australia has since had the good sense to move to the point system of allowing residence to people of any race who have the education, language, contacts and other qualities that promise easy assimilation. Japan should do the same, and if it did, so many of the people now being refused visas or deported with such gusto would be welcomed as useful migrants.

Japan needs an immigration policy much more than Australia. But the bureaucrats boasting about the numbers of visa overstayers deported do not even accept that a policy is needed, let alone think about the details.

(This article originally appeared in the August 22, 2004 issue of The Japan Times)

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