Written by Aya Fujiwara

In June 2014, the Japanese Diet passed an act to amend the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act. (Ministry of Justice, http://www.moj.go.jp/nyuukokukanri/kouhou/nyuukokukanri05_00007.html) Its goal is to stimulate the Japanese economy, helping high-skilled labourers to work in Japan. According to the new amendment, skilled foreign workers who work in Japan for three years can get permanent residency and invite their family members.

The population of Japan is declining at a fast rate due to both low birth (approximately 1.03 million in 2013) and high death rates (approximately 1.27 million in 2013). In addition, Japan’s society is aging at an unprecedented rate. According to Kiyoto Tanno, Associate Professor at Shuto University, Japan is already depending largely on temporary foreign workers in many industries. Yet these foreign workers, he argues, lack concrete policies, which promote their rights and integration into Japanese society (12 June 2014, NHK, Kurôzuappu Gendai).

Thus drastic changes in its immigration policy are imminent. Yet the public response to the amendment is very negative. When the media leaked the government’s plan to open its door (allegedly to 200,000 people annually) – which has not yet been submitted to the diet— around March 2014, a group of volunteer citizens circulated petitions against the acceptance of immigrants. They insisted on the natural increase of the population, and urged the government to implement policies that help women with children (http://www.sakuranokai.org/). As of 16 September, 19701 people had signed the petition (http://www.change.org/p/首相官邸-内閣府-厚生労働省-経済産業省-法務省-自由民主党-年間20万人移民受け入れに断固反対します)More academically, Seiron, a journal, hosted an open discussion on the issue of immigration in Tokyo on 6 July 2014. All panelists criticized the open door policies severely, pointing to the possibilities of workplace conflicts between the Japanese and foreign workers, an increase of Chinese, and a rise in crimes committed by foreign workers (http://sankei.jp.msn.com/politics/news/140707/plc14070711300003-n1.htm).IMG_0577

These comments echo concerns that Canadians had in the early-twentieth century. While Canada is now known as a multiethnic nation, that has not always been the case. It required several decades for Canada to abandon its racist immigration policies and change the public mindset. Canadian policy makers were always concerned about the influx of racially “unassimilable” immigrants from Asia. Especially in British Columbia, where Chinese and Japanese immigrants tended to create ethnic clusters in Chinatown and Little Tokyo, politicians launched an anti-Asian campaign. For many years, several historians, including Ken Adachi, Masako Iino, Peter Ward, Kay J. Anderson, Ann Sunahara, and Patricia Roy, explored anti-Asianism before World War II. According to Ward (1978), the fear that Asians might outnumber “white” residents in the near future or replace Canadian workers at lower wages always existed in public discourses. At the same time, Kay J. Anderson (1991) has shown that Canadians often associated these foreign quarters with crimes, prostitution, and gambling. Assimilationist policies, coupled with Protestant missionaries’ ambition to turn immigrants into “good” Canadians, put immigrants into modernist categories – civilized and uncivilized.

On the one hand, Canadian politicians tried hard not to increase the number of Asian immigrants. Both the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants and the annual quota on Japanese immigrants were intended to limit the number of Asians in Canada. In 1923, Canada passed the Chinese Immigration Act, thereby prohibiting Chinese immigrants – except for certain categories such as diplomats, students, and children of Canadian citizens, from coming to Canada. Thus Chinese immigrants were predominantly single men who sent money back to their families at home. On the other hand, Canada tried its best to recruit “white” immigrants from Europe and the United States. Yet the reality was that Canada did not receive the immigrants they wanted.

Okinawan and Japanese immigrant families, Vancouver, BC. 1924 (Library and Archives Canada)

Okinawan and Japanese immigrant families, Vancouver, BC. 1924 (Library and Archives Canada)

Canada did not nurture a “mosaic” mentality overnight. After World War II, the Declaration of Human Rights promoted the awareness of fundamental rights regardless of race and ethnicity. The Canadian Citizenship Act also created a multiethnic nation in which ethnic peoples could exercise their rights as citizens. “Integration” of post-World War immigrants, mainly refugees, into democratic Canada, was encouraged. Yet, the racist immigration policies, which banned immigrants from Asian countries, remained until 1963. Since the late 1960s, Canada has matured as an ethnically and racially tolerant nation, with the passages of the Official Languages Act (1969), multiculturalism (1971), and the Charter (1982).

Needless to say, Canada is not necessarily a paradise for foreign workers and newly arrived immigrants and refugees. Discrimination still exists at various levels. At the same time, current Canadian immigration policies which is based on merit – age, professional skills, and education – caused disillusionment among highly-skilled immigrants who could not obtain employment in the field in which they were trained. Such problems will be a major challenge in Japan. As Risa Hagino and Takanobu Nakajima point out, the best immigration policies for Japan are not necessarily the best ones for immigrants. Thus, according to them, the idea of simply filling up the shortage of labourers by immigration would not work (http://www.rieti.go.jp/jp/publications/nts/14j018.html).

Still, does the road that Canada went through have some implications? The Japanese government’s amendment to the immigration law might not be too far-fetched, although it needs more follow-up policies and elaboration. Granted, the sudden increase of foreign workers and immigrants will cause public frenzy. Yet the government needs to work to convince the public that it is feasible and to provide immigrants with the ideal place to live.

First, the Japanese need to accept the fact that their nation has a great challenge ahead with the aging and declining of the population. Whether or not couples want to have more babies should be a personal choice and should not be enforced by the nation. Second, they must promote the awareness that a nation is not defined by blood and overcome the old-fashioned colonial ethno-racial hierarchy associated with certain national groups. An orderly and prosperous society will be built on the collaboration of hard-working and open-minded people who respect human rights and democracy. Third, Japan will have to accommodate immigrants so that they have a stable life and grow attached to the society. All people have the right to live with their family, and family migration is much healthier than individual moves. At the same time, the prospect of staying in one place for a certain length of time will allow immigrants to better envision their life plans.

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