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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (December 21, 2004)

Price of Exclusivity Too High

Gregory Clark (Vice President, Akita International University)

"Nippon Chinbotsu" -- Japan Sinks -- was the title of a 1980s best-selling novel that predicted how massive earthquakes would push the Japanese islands below the waters of the Pacific. The drenched survivors would head for Australia.

Japan today faces a very different kind of chinbotsu. With the birthrate at 1.29 and still falling, the Japanese nation will begin to disappear in another century or so. The economy is already suffering. But official Japan still seems unwilling to think about the immigration policies needed to counter population decline.

For the past two years a Justice Ministry committee (on which I am a member) has been considering this and other immigration questions. In the final report, released Dec. 14, there are a few changes for the better -- making it easier for foreigners here to gain permanent residence, clarifying Japan's asylum policies, and so on. But the bureaucrats still say no to any policy that would allow large numbers of suitable migrants to enter Japan.

The report says any future labor shortage caused by population shrinkage can be met through improved technology and bringing more women and older people into the workforce. But this optimism ignores the dynamic nature of economies -- that the cuts in demand as population declines could easily push this already demand-starved economy further into a downward spiral. The ministry's analysis is static, as one might expect in a report drafted by elite bureaucrats with little economics background.

The other problem is more cultural, and understandable. Relative honesty and the lack of precautions against violent or calculated crime makes Japan a paradise for criminally minded foreigners. Japan does not need these people. Japan is also right to fear integration problems. Large areas of its society are vulnerable not just to foreigner crime but also the cultural insensitivities foreigners can inflict so carelessly. The would-be do-gooders who encourage court cases against Japanese shopkeepers, bathhouse owners or club managers who have suffered bad foreigner behavior and want to restrict foreign customers as a result are part of this insensitivity problem.

But with proper immigrant selection most of these crime and integration problems could be overcome. Some on the committee pushed for a point system to choose immigrants, similar to that used in Australia and Canada, with emphasis on education qualifications and language abilities. But the idea was eventually dropped. The bureaucrats still prefer to select people on a cumbrous case-by-case, category-by-category basis, with experienced Filipino hospital workers, for example, sent home after three years if they fail to pass a difficult nursing exam in written Japanese.

The Draconian policy toward visa overstayers was symptomatic. Most governments nowadays realize that crime-free visa overstayers make good candidates for residence permission since they are usually young and have already shown willingness to work hard and learn the language. Business groups here have sought amnesty for these people, pointing out the harm caused by leaving them in the legal shadows. Even Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, known for his visceral determination to rid the city of foreign -- mainly Chinese and Korean -- criminals, wants amnesty for "good" visa overstayers.

But the bureaucrats remain adamant. The idea of a U.S.-style amnesty system, even for the best-qualified of these people, was turned down. The one concession has been to allow some visa overstayers the right in theory to return to Japan in one year rather than five years if they turn themselves in and accept deportation.

At the very least, Japan should end its campaign to brand all visa overstayers as potential criminals. Sometimes the rhetoric becomes absurd, as when the former justice minister uses the foreigner crime problem to justify a cruel decision to imprison and then deport a well-educated Myanmar asylum seeker living with his children raised in Japan.

The idea that this kind of person, along with most other visa overstayers, would be out there robbing banks and breaking locks is too silly for words. But it's just this kind of talk that alarms the public, with public alarm then used as an excuse not to consider a sensible immigration policy.

Some figures I got from the police authorities are revealing. They show that almost 90 percent of foreigner crime in Japan is committed by people smuggled into Japan or who are in Japan with valid or seemingly valid visas. The crime rate for visa overstayers is minimal.

The only concession has been to make it easier for graduates from Japanese universities to stay on in Japan. There will also be some expansion of the working holiday visa scheme that has brought so many young Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians to Japan. But most Asians are still excluded. My proposal that the scheme be extended to Asians accepted for entrance to Japanese universities, so that they could spend time freely in Japan to earn the money and learn the Japanese they would need for their university studies, fell on deaf ears.

Suspicion of Asian, mainly Chinese, students runs high, despite the fact that most of the problems to date have been created by lax visa policies allowing large numbers of bogus or weak students to be brought in by suspect language-school operators. Relying on responsible universities to do the selection, and combining it with some kind of working holiday scheme, would do much to attract better-quality students -- something Japan badly needs if it wants to raise its image in Asia and influence the Asian elites of the future. But the bureaucrats seem quite unable to get their minds around that kind of idea.

The pledge to cut back heavily, from 8,000 to 800 annually, the numbers of women allowed into Japan on entertainment visas has its pros and its cons. It will help end the human-trafficking problem (women forced into prostitution), though stricter law enforcement would have the same result. There will also be a loss, since many of these women marry into depopulated rural communities. "Sinking Japan" needs all the marriages and children it can get, in the countryside especially.

Sensible immigration policies to encourage more deserving foreigners to come and stay in Japan may not produce overnight the numbers needed to prevent damage from a declining population. But it would be a start, and would do much to improve Japan's exclusivist image.

(This article appeared in the December 21, 2004 issue of The Japan Times)

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