Color Blinded

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2004

A user's guide to racism in Japan.

by Tony McNicol

Racial profiling is old news in Japan, which makes us wonder: How will a country that so desperately needs immigrant labor adapt to a sudden influx of foreign faces?

I tend to avoid cycling past the police-box around the corner from my apartment these days. Not that I've broken any laws recently, but at about the same time I started researching this article about racial discrimination, I was flagged down by a policeman outside my local koban. He asked me a few perfunctory questions and I politely reminded him that this was the second time I'd been stopped at exactly the same place.

He let me go, sheepishly muttering something about preventing crime. But why, I wondered, should the police be so interested in me or my battered shopping bicycle?

I doubt I'm the only foreign resident to wonder whether their passport or the color of their skin now automatically marks them out as a potential miscreant. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has been quick to pin the blame on foreigners, particularly illegal immigrants and foreign students. In a speech last year, he argued that foreign criminals were taking advantage of "our low level of caution and lenient penalties" to target Japan: "a defenseless nation with lucrative opportunities." And this past December, Ishihara's warning grew more specific. "While foreigners are not the only factor behind the deterioration in Tokyo's security," he told the Japan Times, "they have introduced new kinds of crimes to Japan."

For people like Ishihara, immigration and internationalization seem to equal more crime. Last year's police white paper kicks off with a 30-page section referring to the "foreign nationals who have entered our country [and] are forming criminal gangs here, possibly linking up with domestic organized crime groups and crime syndicates based abroad."

The numbers
Crime has been increasing in Japan for seven years in the wake of the economic downturn. According to the National Police Agency's white paper in 2003, more than 2,850,000 crimes were committed in the preceding year, the highest number since the Pacific War. Arrest rates have slumped from 60 percent in the 80s to barely 20 percent now.

Crime committed by foreigners may be increasing -- but so is the overall number of foreigners. 27,258 arrests of foreigners (not including visa violations, which only foreigners can commit) were recorded in 2003. That's only about 4 percent of the total number of arrests in Japan. Critics of government policy and media coverage say that foreigner-related crime figures are rarely compared with Japanese crime figures, and that they mislead the public by stigmatizing non-Japanese.

The police certainly aren't hesitant to ask for money for various schemes to combat foreigner crime. The National Research Institute of Police Science is trying to develop a DNA test to identify the race of criminal suspects who leave DNA at crime scenes. According to a summary on the NRIPS website, the purpose of the ongoing four-year study is to deal with "the increasing number of brutal crimes committed by foreigners, which is accompanying economic and social internationalization in our country."

Foreign students living in Tokyo recently received fliers from a Kyoto-based work recruitment company looking for non-Japanese, Chinese or Korean volunteers to go to an unnamed laboratory in Roppongi to have their palms scanned for "security research development."

"I was suspicious because they didn't include any information about what the data would be used for," says Australian student Rocco Weglarz. "Maybe the palm readers on the streets here are paying for the research," he jokes. When contacted by J@pan Inc, the recruitment company refused to disclose the name of the security company or the purpose of its research.

In fact, despite anxiety about internationalization and an invasion of foreign gangsters, economic necessity means that many foreign workers have already got their feet in Japan's doors. Some economists predict that Japan will have to invite millions of foreign workers to counter its declining birth rate (see J@pan Inc, October 2003). A recent study by the World Economic Forum and Watson Wyatt Worldwide estimated that Japan would have to increase current immigration rates by 11 times to make up for its low fertility. If present trends continue, Japan's share of total global output could be halved by 2050.

Advocates of immigration worry that an atmosphere of prejudice and suspicion could discourage workers from coming to Japan. Likewise, Ishihara's pledge to "monitor international students in their study and part-time work activities" is unlikely to help plans to increase the number of foreign students -- even as educated Japanese-speaking immigrants are precisely the kind of people the economy will need.

One Tokyo group helping students from Korea, China and elsewhere says that prejudice against foreign students in Japan was rife well before recent scaremongering. Tokyo Alien Eyes, a not-for-profit organization (NPO), surveyed 57 real estate agencies in the city's Kunitachi district and found that 85 percent of them refused to rent to foreign students. The organization's founder Fumio Takano says that students face similar problems when looking for work.

Through a system of paid guarantors, and a work-agency system to match students to jobs, Tokyo Alien Eyes tries to help foreign students live and work in the metropolis. Takano is trying to change the most fundamental domestic prejudices. He shows me a poster telling people to call the police when they see a suspicious person. The poster is in three languages -- with Chinese taking up more than half the space.

When police posters warning of "purse-snatching 'bad' foreigners" appeared on subway walls in Tokyo's Nakano Ward, Takano paid a visit to the local constabulary. By December of last year, the offending posters had been replaced.

Effecting change
Takano hopes eventually to turn the NPO into a fully-fledged business -- not least because, working full-time and without pay, he's now living off loans and his savings. The NPO covers its costs by charging fees to students, landlords and employers. Since government schemes to provide accommodation for foreign students are so poorly publicized and inadequate, "even a small organization like this can do the same thing [just as well] as the government does," he says. "It's really business, just business. All those people need help; it doesn't matter if it is a company, or an NPO or the universities that help them."

The Japan Committee of the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) is pushing for legislation to protect all minorities in Japan from discrimination. Japan signed the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1995. But Japan is an extraordinary embarrassment among major developed nations: There is no civil or criminal law to make racial discrimination in Japan illegal.

Although the Japanese constitution says that "all the people" are protected from discrimination because of "race, creed, sex, social status or family origin," in practice the Japanese term used for people, kokumin, refers exclusively to Japanese nationals. Discrimination against non-Japanese has been explained away on the grounds that it is discrimination based on nationality, not race.

According to the IMADR's Nozomi Bando, a common assumption that all Japanese citizens are the same race allows the government to say that racial discrimination can't exist in Japan -- thus there is no need for legislation.

That doesn't wash with members of minority groups, many of whom are veterans of decades-long anti-discrimination campaigns. The IMADR itself was set up by a burakumin rights organization dating back to 1922. Once the "untouchables" of the Edo-Period caste system, the burakumin are still discriminated against today. Whether or not they can properly be called an ethnic minority, they are one of Japan's largest minority groups, comprising as many as 3 million people, according to the Burakumin Liberation League.

The IMADR also points to discrimination suffered by Japan's one million zainichi Korean and Chinese permanent residents. Writing in the IMADR's newsletter, the Association of Korean Human Rights in Japan links intense media coverage of the return of the Japanese abductees from North Korea in 2002 to Korean schoolchildren being harassed on the streets. According to the association, children on their way to Korean schools were identified by their distinctive uniforms and subjected to verbal and even physical attack. The association says that more than 400 incidents of harassment took place -- abuses that were rarely reported in the Japanese media.

The IMADR advocates the establishment of an independent body to safeguard human rights in Japan. "A law prohibiting discrimination is absolutely necessary [and] people who have been discriminated against need a body that can confirm and state their case," says Bando. "It's too tough to take everyday cases of discrimination to the courts. It costs too much time and money."

At present, claims of human rights abuses, including claims of racial discrimination, are handled by the Justice Ministry. The ministry can advise and warn the offenders -- but not take legal action. At best, agreement can be reached via the ministry to alter discriminatory action; at worst, say critics, it's just a thin cover for the lack of any real will to deal with racial discrimination.

The ministry is also responsible for the running of Japan's prisons, the subject of frequent human rights abuse allegations. Amnesty international's 2003 report on Japan describes notoriously complex and harsh rules, ill-treatment and torture. "The justice ministry would be ultimately responsible [for investigating claims of human rights abuse in its own facilities]. That's the problem. For example, if there was violence against a foreigner in a jail, up till now it was often kept hidden," says the IMADR's Bando.

Despite the difficulties of navigating Japan's time-consuming, opaque and expensive legal system, there have been a number of high-profile human rights court cases in recent years. Finding scant protection under current laws, some non-Japanese and naturalized Japanese have gone to the courts to try to establish legal precedent on racial discrimination.

When television journalist Ana Bortz walked into a Hamamatsu jewelry shop in 1998, she was surprised to find herself being quizzed about her nationality. After the owner learned she was Brazilian, she was told that the shop was trying to prevent crime, shown a sign saying "no foreigners" and then shown the door.

One year later, Bortz was awarded JPY1.5 million in damages. The judge ruled that Japan's ratification of the International Convention on All Forms of Racial Discrimination made the shop owner's actions illegal. Bortz's decision to take seek compensation has become an important test case.

Foreigners strike back
Probably the best publicized legal struggle has been that of Debito Aruhido, born in the US as David Aldwinckle and now naturalized as a Japanese citizen. Aruhido teaches at Hokkaido Information University. In 1993, a hot spring near Aruhido's home erected a sign banning all foreigners, after accusing visiting Russian sailors of ignoring bathing etiquette and offending other customers.

At the time, as a non-Japanese, Aruhido had little recourse under Japanese law. But after becoming a Japanese citizen in 2000, he and fellow plaintiffs, German Olaf Karthaus and American Ken Sutherland, took the hot spring owners to court. He also sued the local council for failing to meet its obligations under the UN convention.

Aruhido won compensation from the owners (who are now appealing), but lost his case against the city. With the help of 27 human rights lawyers from Japan's Civil Liberties Union, he is now appealing to the Sapporo High Court.

"If you are contributing to Japanese society, then you should have your rights recognized," Aruhido says. "We are not talking about the right to vote -- things that are guaranteed only to citizens. [But to be able] to spend money like anybody else, to enjoy public services that we pay for the same as anybody else."

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is a Professor of International Political Economy at Switzerland's IMD business school. A long-term Japan scholar and observer, he doubts that Japan will embrace multiculturalism any time soon. He calls Japan a "global outlier" as far as progress towards multiculturalism and action against racism goes. "I think most Westerners are totally ignorant of racism in Japan," Lehmann says. "It does not feature in the press, and there is no international campaign."

But even if the government won't legislate to protect minorities, Aruhido points out, the mix of ethnicity that you can find in other multicultural societies is already here. "Are you able to find Chinatowns in Japan? Yes. Are you able to find Koreatowns? In some sections, yes. Are you able to find pockets of different ethnicities? Of course. So I am pushing for legislation to protect the reality of what is already here. Things do change, you just have to keep pushing."

Since winning his case, Aruhido has received hate mail and, at one point, as many as 30 prank calls per day. He welcomes debate and discussion, but says that, surprisingly, "non-Japanese have been the most visceral [critics] of this whole thing. I was asked point blank by a reporter one day: 'Why do you as a foreigner believe it is necessary to do all these things?'"

"I told him: 'I am not a foreigner. I am a Japanese citizen.'"

Fundamentally, Aruhido believes that changing racist attitudes and cultural norms is a resident's obligation: "Anybody who wants to make a place a better place to live has the right, if not the duty, to do something to improve things for everyone."      @

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