Posted by: Staff | 11.30.2009

Immigration to Japan: Institutions of Discrimination Keep Hidden the Root of Internationalization?


As technology and economic markets become more dependent on international cooperation and connection, societies cannot dismiss the reality that this process of interdependent partnership will also instigate and diversify foreign worker migration patterns. Therefore, national and local governments need to be institutionally prepared to provide a full range of public services to these newcomers.  In Japan, these foreign workers are often viewed as completely different from the contemporary Japanese characterization.  Often, these minorities are confronted with a lack of institutional support and with discrimination.  Many have been forced to choose between either assimilating to the wider Japanese culture or reconciling oneself to the position of foreigner living on Japanese soil. 

            The late 1980s into the 1990s can be described politically as a period defined by messy involved party conflict and electoral competition on the national level in Japan, which created political discord and disengagement.  Japanese politicians struggled to preserve the era of affluence despite the nation’s economic stumbling along, and this was coupled with a collapse in the stock market and a banking crisis.[1] In consequence, the political environment of the 1990s was characteristically volatile for the incoming immigrants.  Nevertheless, high wages in Japan had become an economic liability, because the steadily rising prices of Japan’s manufactured goods eventually drove consumers to lower-priced competitors. While politically Japan may not have been prepared to handle the new influx of immigrants, economically these immigrants provided the means for renewed global competition since they would, as an accepted standard, be employed in the undesirable jobs of the Japanese manufacturing facilities for lower wages then the Japanese citizens themselves.

            The Nationality Law is a special concern to people of mixed nationalities.  In Japan, nationality is not conferred to an individual simply through birth on Japanese soil.  Those born in Japan to parents of non-Japanese nationals and any other foreigners can only become citizens through individual application for naturalization. Prior to 1985 mixed families were bequeathed complications in regards to the law.  For example, the difference in nationality laws between the United States and Japan led to some American-Japanese being born stateless. This resulted from conflicting gendered nationalities of the parents involved in which children of non-Japanese fathers could not acquire Japanese nationality while, in American law the children of men who had not resided in the United States for a minimum of five years after the age of fourteen could not acquire a U.S. nationality.[2] The nationality law is, in a sense, an institutional law of discrimination.  The law is based on an assumption that a person can properly be a citizen of only one state and that a state can protect only citizens who are duty-bound to it and no other.  Thus, if a foreign immigrant does not become a legal citizen and in a sense renounce their foreign nationality and identity, this immigrant is not entailed to national conveniences of public services, housing, or job security.

            The bureaucratic organization in charge of the naturalization process is the Ministry of Justice. This government unit administers the koseki, or family register system, which serves as a means of social control. For those immigrants assuming the identity of the Japanese, the koseki systematically reveals their multiethnicity.  This lack of pure “Japaneseness,”  generates social stigmatization which could lead to lost employment opportunities and broken marriage engagements.[3]  Thus, the koseki and the procedures of naturalization in which Japanese names are highly suggested to be confirmed onto the applicant is a state ritual whose purpose is to ethnically transform the applicant.

            Another area of explicit deficiency in assisting and acknowledging foreigners on a national level is in the Japanese education system. Unlike Japanese children, foreign children are not required to attend school.  The government has turned a blind eye to the growing underclass of uneducated children based on their status as foreign.[4]  Furthermore, the Ministry of Education had previously refused to accredit international and ethnic schools as legitimate educational institutions. Therefore, foreign students who graduated from these unaccredited schools were denied admission into Japanese universities and denied access to occupations in the upper-echelons of Japanese Society.  Moreover, foreigners are denied employment in particular job sectors including the government sponsored food preparation industry and firefighting. Also, foreigners are not permitted to sit civil-service examinations for promotion in certain regions because “foreigners cannot be permitted to have administrative duties over Japanese.”[5]

            In June 1990, the Japanese government announced the first rules governing workers without visas.  Employers using illegals who arrived after June 1 faced fines of 2 million yen and up to three years in prison. But of the workers, themselves the law said nothing.  By publicizing only the punishment to employers—and refusing , incredibly, to provide any translations of the rules—Tokyo maintained an apparently desired terror quotient at a comfortably intense level.[6]

            The local communities within Japan are now becoming the forerunners in Japan’s internationalization based on reception of foreign migrants since it is obvious that there is little consistency in policy agenda on a national level and little to no institutional arrangements have been established.  During the period of bubble economy, a huge number of Latin Americans of Japanese origins, Nikkei, were recruited to Japan and employed as manual workers. Because of their origin, they were expected to be and were regarded as “legal.”  This legal status is the most crucial factor affecting the immigrant’s acceptance into the local community.  The local presence of industries which employ these foreign workers also determine any form of institutional arrangements which have been established to assist the foreigners in securing housing, settling into the community, and accessing services.[7] The Nikkei, organized into company towns, were equipped with daycare facilities, education, welfare and other public services and thus were institutionally incorporated into the local society. Nevertheless, the presence of foreign workers is often ignored by Japanese residents who see the newly arrived foreign workers as the root of their deteriorating old community.[8]

            What Japan does about its foreign population will determine much about its future character. The foreign workers prying Japan open represent unavoidable economic demand. The presence of foreign workers will disrupt “culture,” “tradition,” and “history”, according to the ultranationalist vision. Nevertheless, the Japanese are coming to recognize that the embrace of otherness, like the embrace of their own past, is essential to an authentic internationalism; however, until this is actualized: “There is no basic law. There is no labor law. There is no immigration law. All that can be said is that Japan has officially acknowledged that foreign workers are here (Katsuo Yoshinari, Asian People’s Friendship Society).”[9]

[1] Allinson, Gary. Japan’s Postwar History. ( New York: Cornell University Press, 1997, 2004), 197.

[2] Murphy-Shigematsu. “Identities of multiethnic people in Japan.” Japan and Global Migration, eds. Douglass & Roberts. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000), 204.

[3] Murphy-Shigematsu, 207.

[4] Debite, Arudou. “The Coming Internationalization: Can Japan assimilate its immigrants?”

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] Smith, Patrick. Japan: A Reinterpretation. (New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., 1997), 285.

[7] Machimura, Takashi. “Local Settlement Patterns of Foreign Workers in Greater Tokyo.” Japan and Global Migration, eds. Douglass & Roberts. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000), 185.

[8] Ibid., 187.

[9] Smith, 285.


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