In the bustling Ueno district in central Tokyo, the streets smell like cumin-lamb skewers, shish kebab and kofte. A store advertises financial services in more than 20 languages, and the stores sell Korean snacks, Taiwanese bubble tea, and Punjabi curries. A group of young Senegalese men chats in Wolof at a nearby Kissaten, a traditional Japanese restaurant.
Scenes like this may be known in New York or Hong Kong, but they are far less common in Tokyo, a city traditionally not known for its cosmopolitan diversity.
That is starting to change. While Ueno has been relatively multicultural since the 1980s compared to the rest of Tokyo, the entire capital is becoming increasingly diverse. Similar neighborhoods will emerge across Japan in the coming decades as the nation pushes for radical immigration reforms. But even if immigration increases in this traditionally homogeneous country, Japan seems to be avoiding the organized extreme right-wing backlash that has been going through the West in recent years.
In Europe and the United States, immigration and national identity appear to be consuming all of politics. In Japan, despite its reputation as closed, homogeneous and xenophobic, a sharp increase in immigration was mostly shrugged. Although feelings against immigrants are widespread, they are not very profound or indicate a lack of substantial resistance.
Today there are almost 3 million migrants in Japan with a population of 126 million. That number is three times that of 1990. And since Japan is struggling with a rapidly aging population and shrinking local workforce, it is trying to increase this number further. In April 2019, Tokyo implemented a historic immigration reform and expanded its visa programs to allow more than 345,000 new workers to immigrate to Japan over the next five years. Low-skilled workers can live in Japan for five years, while foreign workers with special skills are allowed to stay indefinitely with their family members – suggesting that many of these workers could stay forever.
Immigration to Japan and the number of foreign workers in the country have increased steadily since 2013, when the government expanded a trainee program to attract hundreds of thousands of temporary migrants. In 2017, Japan tightened the immigration of skilled foreign workers with a new quick law. According to Naohiro Yashiro, an economics professor at Showa Women’s University in Tokyo, foreign workers are expected to account for 40 percent of the net growth in Japan’s highly skilled workforce over the next five years.
This growth in immigration in turn changes the image of Japan from ethnically homogeneous to moderately diverse. Among the 20-year-old residents of Tokyo, one in ten was born abroad. And Tokyo is no longer an outlier. Much of the migration takes place in small industrial cities across the country, such as Shimukappu in central Hokkaido and Oizumi in Gunma prefecture, where migrants make up more than 15 percent of the local population. In the mostly rural prefecture of Mie east of Osaka and Kyoto, foreign migration has reversed the years of population loss.
Despite this expansion, however, Japan has seen nothing like the populist backlash in Europe or the United States, where political polarization is increasingly driven by differing opinions on immigration and national identity. In fact, the recent immigration reform has hardly been reviewed by the media or in broader talks. "In general, there has been no major controversy regarding the law," said Yashiro.
Much of this can be traced back to the clear government message behind the reforms – and to the messenger. Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not base his support for changing immigration policies on humanitarian issues, but on pragmatic, demographic arguments. According to the United Nations, the world's population is expected to increase by 2 billion people by 2050, while the Japanese population is expected to shrink by at least 20 million. Meanwhile, the birth rate in Japan has dropped to 1.4 children per woman, while 28 percent of the country is over 65 years old. This means that the country's population has decreased by around 400,000 people annually.
Since unemployment has been consistently below 3 percent even after the pandemic in recent years, employers are increasingly alarming of the lack of workers. Last year, for the first time in the history of Japan, there were more jobs than the number of job seekers in all 47 prefectures in Japan. In a country that has long been known for its restrictive borders, immigration is now seen as the most obvious solution to this demographic challenge.
Rather than simply easing immigration restrictions as a whole, Japan has developed a unique tailored immigration program based on specific requests from workers from different countries. It's a kind of a la carte globalization, with Japan arranging workers in the 14 sectors where they are most needed, including nurses and caregivers, shipbuilders, farm workers, auto mechanics, and fisheries and construction workers.
"It is important to understand that Abe's government did not implement these reforms to change Japanese society, but to preserve Japanese society," said Eiji Oguma, sociologist and historian at Keio University in Tokyo, the largest Has spent part of his professional life researching and writing about immigration and Japanese identity.
Given that the recent bill provides qualified foreign workers with an easier way to apply for permanent residence and ultimately Japanese citizenship, this can do more than just support society.
"More workers will try to stay here permanently," said Oguma. "Even if the bill is not supposed to change Japan, it certainly has the potential to change Japanese society in the long term."
Whenever Japan's immigration policy is discussed, descriptions of Japan's long history as an isolated country that is isolated from the world soon follow. Historians of Japanese politics have argued that restrictive immigration policies and strict border controls were shaped both by the post-war occupation and by historical resentment towards foreigners.
The post-war U.S. occupation regime applied the Cold War logic, which required firm borders with Korea and China. In Borderline Japan: Post-War Foreigners and Border Controls, historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki argues that "the framework of laws and institutions that restrict immigration to Japan today was actually created during the post-war Allied occupation of Japan". In the decades after the war a new image of Japan emerged as an "independent, unique and ethnically" pure "nation", she writes.
Japan is moderately high in the global indices for acceptance and tolerance of immigrants. Nationalist and xenophobic right-wing voices protesting the new law have not gained momentum. In fact, most of Japanese society supports changing immigration policies. In a recent Nikkei survey, almost 70 percent of Japanese said it was "good" to see more foreigners in the country. “Nationalist anti-immigrant groups only make up 1-2 percent of the voters here. It's not like in Europe. And they haven't said anything about it yet, ”said Oguma.
It helps that the immigration reform was passed by Abe and his conservative government. Abe avoided calling the law "immigration policy" and instead marketed it as a pragmatic response to the demands of local business leaders.
A key factor in the new immigration policy are the bilateral agreements that Japan has concluded with countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, which enable them to send tens of thousands of caregivers to Japan each year. Both countries see this as a win-win proposal. Japan gets a much-needed workforce, the Philippines receives an increase in foreign remittances, and many workers will eventually return after learning new valuable skills.
The strongest support for the law came from the most conservative wing of parliament, and the opposition came largely from Abes Linken because of concerns about lack of regulation among employers that they fear could lead to exploitation. Many foreign workers are already forced to work overtime, receive less wages and risk having their passports and travel documents confiscated by employers. Maids and caregivers in the Philippines regularly report that they are terribly treated by clients who spit on them, beat them, and use racist insults. And the Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan activist group notes that some factories in the mostly rural prefecture of Gifu have set up separate bathrooms and changing rooms for domestic and foreign workers.
Foreign workers have been badly treated in Japan for decades. According to a recent analysis of government data by the Japan Times, participants in Japan's controversial trainee program die more than twice as often from work-related causes as their Japanese counterparts. Last year, the Abe government promised to set up 100 counseling centers nationwide to solve problems of abuse of migrant workers and trainees at work.
Some of these problems were anticipated when the new immigration law was passed in December 2018. Concerns raised in Parliament mainly concerned social inclusion and labor rights.
"How do we prepare for a living? How do we protect their rights as workers? What about your social welfare? What about your accommodation? What about your Japanese language education? None of this has been dealt with, ”Akira Nagatsuma of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan wrote in a comment.
This dynamic was common in the immigration debate in Europe and the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, when conservative companies frequently pushed for more immigrants and migrant workers, while unions raised concerns about labor rights and the pressure on wages.
Last year I visited the home of a Japanese television personality, his American wife and their Filipino maid Maria in Tokyo's affluent meguro district. Maria, who has asked not to share her surname, has been working for the family for a decade and lives in Kanagawa an hour away. A small enclave of Filipino migrants has settled there in recent years, and many more will follow, Maria predicts. The new immigration law will fundamentally change the Filipino community in Tokyo, she said.
“I have four relatives who are planning to move here to work now that they have passed the new migration law. My niece is a nurse at home, but has been unemployed for years, so she is moving here this summer, ”said Maria. "Many people in the Philippines are very excited because they know they can make so much more money here now."
In the past year, Japanese newspapers have published mostly optimistic reports about hundreds of nurses and nurses who have come to Japan from the Philippines. Maria got her permanent residence two years ago and plans to stay here forever. The legal process was lengthy and expensive, and the family in which she worked paid most of the legal fees. The new law is expected to make the application process for a permanent residence permit run more smoothly.
Maria lives with her husband, a maintenance worker at an international school, and her daughter, who works in a ramen factory. "I think I'm starting to feel that I belong here," she said. "I've been here for so long. People are generally nice. I occasionally experience bullying, but it's mostly older people. Never the boys. "
The widespread xenophobia in Japan is hardly a myth. In 2010, human rights experts in the United States called on Japan for racism, discrimination and the exploitation of migrant workers. Increasing immigration has not changed the country's notoriously strict asylum policy. In 2018, out of around 10,000 applicants, only 42 asylum seekers were admitted.
Most foreigners here can tell many anecdotes about occasional racism. Baye McNeil, an African American who has lived in Tokyo for two decades, said he experiences racism almost every day, "but it's still not as bad as it is in America."
A few years ago McNeil wrote a viral blog post about the so-called "Gaijin headquarters". "Gaijin" means "foreigner" in Japanese, and McNeil wrote that the locals refuse to sit there if he sits on the subway and a seat is available next to him.
"I usually hear people say in Japanese that sitting next to a black man is too scary," said McNeil.
Still, he said he preferred Japan's occasional xenophobia to America's structural racism.
"Racism here is more like being hit in a pillow fight."
The myriad examples of abuse and harassment at work point to a larger problem of social inclusion. Sooner or later, Japan could face a nationwide debate about what it means to be Japanese in the 21st century. Few countries that are undergoing demographic change can avoid these challenges.
Neighboring states leave room for pessimism. When South Korea took in 500 Yemeni refugees in 2018, there were storms of protest. Street rallies demanded the return of the Yemenis and called them "false refugees".
Global protests to support the US anti-racist Black Lives Matter movement have grown in importance in Japan. In early June, thousands of people took part in protests against Black Lives Matter in Tokyo, which has contributed to a nationwide debate about harassment of migrants and foreigners, as well as about races. However, the problem is far from being solved: when Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, who is biracial, tweeted her support for the protests, she was faced with a flood of online harassment.
Economist Yashiro said he expects much "social friction" in Japan in the coming years as hundreds of thousands of new migrants come to a country that is not used to diversity. But Oguma and other experts say that Japan is unlikely to see a nationalist backlash, let alone an organized political uprising.
What will it look like if a xenophobic game occurs at some point? Most experts say it is unlikely to take an organized political form. “Xenophobic nationalists are generally irrelevant in politics. If there is a backlash, it will most likely start as a local uprising against Tokyo, a populist uprising against the central government, just like in the EU, "said Oguma. "But I don't see it right now. The extreme right here is too atomized, every faction wants different things. So I'm not worried about an organized insurgency."
It is difficult to speculate about the political consequences of the COVID 19 pandemic. With massive economic spending and a robust, universal healthcare system, Japan has weathered the pandemic pretty well. Unemployment was 2.5 percent in April.
While there are occasional signs of increasing racial harassment of foreign workers combined with growing skepticism about globalization and migration, Japan is currently one of the few countries where resentment against immigrants is not the defining feature of politics.
Despite its reputation as isolated and xenophobic, Japan has become an outlier in world politics, showing that increased immigration is possible without a mass reaction.
Research for this article has been funded in part by the Sweden-Japan Foundation.