As regular readers will know, I’ve been in Japan for a significant portion of my adult life. I love this country and I love its people. I would go so far as to say that, overall, I feel more welcome and more at home in my adopted home of Osaka than I ever felt in my native Scotland.
Over the years I’ve heard numerous stories and read numerous blogs from various foreigners living in Japan claiming unjust, discriminatory and downright prejudicial treatment in some of their interactions with the Japanese. I have been lucky in that I have never really experienced direct discrimination here to any substantial level. Of course you get the weird looks from older residents sometimes. Children will sometimes stare and point at you, but it never really bothered me.
However, recent events and subsequent reports in the media have troubled me. For the first time since I came to Japan all those years ago, I find myself asking the troubling question: Is Japan a racist country?
A few months ago, a landmark court ruling was widely reported in the media. An elderly Chinese woman lost an appeal to the supreme court against her local city government who had chosen to deny her access to financial assistance, on the basis that as she is not a Japanese national, she is not entitled to these benefits.
To the layman observer this would seem like a clear cut case of discrimination. We working foreigners pay the same taxes as Japanese, so why can’t we enjoy the same benefits? But like so many things in Japan, it is not that simple.
Prior to this ruling, local governments were advised to use their own discretion when deciding if a foreigner should receive financial aid. Each candidate was assessed on a case by case basis. In light of this court ruling, lawmakers on the right of the political spectrum are now calling for the banning of foreigners from receiving benefits to be enshrined in law.
Thankfully, those supporting the motion are on what I would call the lunatic fringe of Japanese politics and the motion is unlikely to pass. Right wing extremists can be seen most weekends in Osaka’s Tsuruhashi area and Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo district spouting their anti-foreigner rhetoric against the largely ethnic Korean local populous. These same extremists can also be spotted driving around towns and cities across Japan in their distinctive black minivans, decked out in Japanese military regalia and playing “patriotic music”.
Political extremism is certainly not a uniquely Japanese problem. Indeed my own home town of Glasgow has well-documented problems of sectarianism propagated by prejudiced organisations such as the Orange Order. The UK as a whole is also currently experiencing a swing to the right of politics, with the emergence of anti-immigrant political parties such as the UK Independence Party and extreme fascist groups like Britain First. These people and the damage they can potentially cause, goes far beyond the realm of a few dozen masked goons telling Koreans to go home.
Immigration policy and the laws governing the settlement of foreign residents are also, I believe, far more lenient in Japan than they are in the UK. Lets look at myself as an example. I’m 30 years old, single and currently on a one-year working visa for Japan. The visa can be extended indefinitely provided I have a job. I have the freedom to change jobs at any time provided I inform the immigration bureau and change my visa type when required. After 10 years, I am eligible to apply for permanent residency. If I marry a Japanese national, I would then be able to obtain a spousal visa, allowing me to remain in the country indefinitely.
In the UK, it is drastically different. Obtaining a working visa is considerably more difficult, especially for those who live outside of the European Union. The process for becoming a permanent resident, or obtaining a UK passport, is long, convoluted and dependent on several intangible factors such as a person’s knowledge of UK culture, their commitment to the country and their willingness to integrate into British society. These factors are all impossible to quantify meaning that applications that may take months or even years to prepare can be dismissed at the whim of a single civil servant.
You would think perhaps it would be easier if a Japanese person were married to a UK national. Actually it is not. Under current UK immigration policy, which at the time of writing is subject to a challenge in the European Court on human rights grounds, any non-EU national cannot enter the UK to live, unless they and their partner collectively earn at least 26,000 pounds (4.5 million yen) per year.
Given the current economic stagnation in Europe, finding any kind of job at all, let alone a high-paying one is extremely difficult, especially as applicants must provide proof of this income prior to entering the UK. Expats like me are left with a stark choice, we have to choose between our country or our Japanese wife and kids, because under UK law, unless we are rich, we can’t have both.
Another bugbear of foreigners in Japan is the finger-printing of foreigners, be they tourists or residents, as they enter the country. Again, I disagree with this policy, and I think it is paranoia taken to extremes. However, Japan is hardly unique in taking this approach. Indeed if anything it is non-discriminatory in the sense that all foreign nationals have to undergo this check. The US follows the same procedure as do several other countries.
In my time in Japan, I have actually seen great steps forward. When I first started teaching here 8 years ago, there were almost no mixed race or foreign children in my schools. Each of the schools I work at now in Osaka have students from a variety of backgrounds. They interact well with their classmates and are accepted by their classmates and teachers. These are not the traits you would expect from a racist country.
I was proud, when I walked around Umeda in Osaka city centre a few weeks ago, to see ordinary Japanese people speaking out against and directly challenging the small band of extremists who were spouting their usual bile.
There are extremists in every country, and across the world history has shown that times of economic uncertainly often lead to a surge in right-wing extremism and reactionary politics. This is the case both in Europe and Japan at the moment. I’ve already expressed my dismay at the rise of right-wing reactionary politics in the UK.
These extremists do not speak for the majority of British people, nor do they speak for the majority of Japanese. Japan is a warm, welcoming and compassionate country. They may do some things a little differently here. But they certainly aren’t racist. Be respectful, accept differences where you find them, and remember that every country has a bigoted minority.
I’m proud to call Japan my home, the idiotic actions of a few bigots and the antiquated views of a few ancient politicians will never change that. So the next time someone asks me, “Is Japan racist?” I will proudly answer, no, it isn’t.