Snippet: Reading sample from “Open Borders, Open Society? Immigration and Social Integration in Japan”

Open Borders, Open Society? Immigration and Social Integration in Japan

by Toake Endoh (ed.)


About the book

Is Japan prepared for an ethnically-diverse society? The volume examines the past and future trajectory of Japan’s immigration and integration policies and related institutions, taking a cross-disciplinary approach in social sciences. The authors highlight critical issues and challenges that the nation is facing as a result of the government’s inarticulate migrant-acceptance policy, e.g. in the fields of deportation, refugee policy, multicultural education and disaster protection. How can the situation be improved? The book investigates the changes and initiatives needed to build a resilient policy regime for a liberal, pluralistic, and inclusive Japan.

Reading sample from pp. 103-108


Chapter 3 Forty-Five Years of Multiculturalism in Japan: A Personal Narrative

F. Morris

I am an academic myself, a historian, but in this paper, I will write as an active participant in the development of multiculturalism in Japan through different phases of my life, which also correspond with different phases of multicultur­alism as it has developed and unfolded in Japan. As such, it is a paper written from the perspective of being the subject of scholarly research; a personal nar­rative, not a theoretical exploration of abstract possibilities.

By way of self-introduction, ethnically, I am a white Australian, and natu­ralised Japanese citizen. The Australia in which I was raised was still under the “White Australia” restrictive immigration policy, and while the final disman­tling of the system as immigration policy happened in 1973, the adoption and implementation of multiculturalism which was to change the very foundations of Australian self-identity only came into effect after I left the country.

I came to Japan on a scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Education after completing an undergraduate course in Japanese language and culture at the Australian National University, to study Japanese history at Tōhoku Uni­versity in April, 1974. When I arrived, I was twenty-one years old. When I came to Japan, I hoped to return to Australia, but as my life unfolded, I turned into an immigrant in Japan. In the forty-five years I have lived in Japan, I experi­enced it first as a student, and later as an academic employee, a father raising children, and an engaged member of local society. In this paper, I propose to suggest what might be learnt from this process of engagement for Japan’s pros­pects for becoming a multicultural society.


Knocking on Closed Doors Part 1: Challenging the Tertiary Education System

When I arrived in Japan, I had a basically functional level of conversational Japanese, and I had learnt (but not mastered) about 1,000 Chinese charac­ters. I lacked the breadth and depth of language required to read, much less even write academic Japanese. Notwithstanding, after spending two years as a research student, in 1976, I was admitted to the master’s course in Japanese history, and again in 1978, to the doctoral course.

At the time, it was the common understanding among Japanese national universities that foreign students could not be admitted to a doctoral course in the humanities, since no such student would be able to submit a thesis in Japanese within the time limit of six years which was the requirement for a doctoral degree by coursework. I fulfilled these requirements, and was award­ed my doctoral degree in September 1987. It was the sixth doctorate awarded by Tōhoku University Faculty of Arts and Letters after 1945. Today, it is not unusual to find more foreign than Japanese students in Japanese graduate courses, but my degree was the test case which proved that the ‘commonsense’ understanding that it would be impossible for a foreign student to submit an adequate doctoral thesis within the six-year time limit was not commonsense anymore, and opened up the doors in Japanese graduate schools to foreign students.

That much is now forgotten history, but what needs to be kept in mind here is that it was not I myself who changed the Japanese academic system, but my thesis supervisor and the majority of the faculty who voted to approve my thesis. I did take on the task of challenging the system, and the unspoken assumptions of the uniqueness of Japanese culture and language which lay behind it.1

However, I was only able to succeed in this undertaking because my supervisor and his colleagues were already aware of a need to change the existing system, and therefore to support me. They are the ones who actually changed the system, and proved that the supposed insurmountable barriers existed only in people’s minds, and not in reality.

For my part it was my first lesson in participating in the process of chal­lenging and dismantling a social system which people in Japan, both Japanese and non-Japanese, assumed to define a dividing-line between ‘Japanese’ and ‘non-Japanese.’ When challenging commonly accepted cultural and social pre­sumptions, the only way to succeed is to win co-conspirators to one’s cause, and most importantly, amongst the people who are in a position to change the existing system.

However, I would like to point out that it did not happen easily. It was to take many years before my command of academic Japanese was really func­tional. While still on the learning curve, time and time again, I had to face the reality of being considered second-class (or worse) simply because I could not express myself adequately in Japanese. Equally, I also experienced the sense of loss of my self-esteem because I did not have the social skills nor ‘common­sense’ of a young child, and repeatedly had to depend on others to achieve even simple tasks. Achieving a functional level of fluency in Japanese language and acquiring a mastery of social commonsense, in other words, the acculturation process commonly experienced by immigrants striving to become independent agents in their adopted society, did not come easily. On the other hand, any small victory in the long process of adapting became one step forward in recov­ering my independence and being able to speak for myself. Moreover, the most effective way to counter any negative experiences, was to prove to both myself and others that I could do as well as they.

While I did succeed in gaining a high level of acceptance within my depart­ment, it was a different story when I started to teach at a Japanese university.


Knocking on Closed Doors Part II: Challenging the Tertiary Employment System

In 1989, I was employed to teach theories of Japanese culture (nihonjinron) at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s Junior College (restructured as Miyagi Gakuin Wom­en’s University in 2000; for convenience, I will refer to the institution as a ‘uni­versity’). At this time, foreign nationals could not become permanent faculty members of national and public universities, as foreigners were excluded from permanent employment in all branches of public service. Miyagi Gakuin was a private institution, but the national system was seen as the proper model for employment in many private universities as well. Myself and three other non-Japanese nationals were hired together as faculty of a new Department of Intercultural Studies. While the university/college was keen to use us in publicising the new department, we were all hired as permanently temporary ‘contracted’ employees. New Japanese faculty could be placed on this kind of contract also, but only in highly exceptional cases. We protested to the univer­sity that this treatment was discriminatory, but the university countered that they had consulted with the university lawyer on our terms of employment and that there was nothing amiss nor irregular with our treatment. Some years lat­er, as equal opportunity for women began to gain ground in labour relations, the sophistry behind the university’s argument against our case began to be generally acknowledged, but in the early 1990s, this was not yet the case.

We approached the university faculty union for support. The union agreed to support our appeal for equal treatment, but we were not allowed to join the union to plead our case directly, since we were employed on a different status. Until 1993, when the university finally agreed to let existing foreign contract­ed faculty re-apply for newly created permanent positions, faculty members sympathetic to our cause doggedly negotiated with the administration to gain us equal treatment. While ‘all’s well that ends well,’ throughout this process, we, the ones with the greatest stakes in the process, were totally disenfran­chised and never allowed to speak for ourselves in public, nor even express ourselves directly to the committee investigating our case. The process itself was an insult to our integrity and intelligence, and while we were deeply grate­ful for the faculty members who unstintingly devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to bringing our case to a satisfactory conclusion, the whole process also left a bad aftertaste in our mouths, and a lingering feeling of being second-class “citizens” that took years to heal. However, in fairness, I must add that older Japanese faculty members had memories of having been in the same position as ourselves when the institution was still run as a missionary school, and only the US missionaries sent to teach at the university had permanent employment. Discriminatory employment practices were neither invented in nor are limited to Japan.

One side-effect of this experience of having to challenge again the arbi­trariness of supposedly objective barriers, in this case legal barriers, between ‘foreigner’ and ‘Japanese’ was that I became involved in a volunteer organisa­tion in Sendai which was founded just at the time that we had started to open­ly plead our case for equal treatment at Miyagi Gakuin. During the so-called Bubble Economy of 1986 to 1991, Japan experienced an over-heating of the economy which exacerbated the labour shortages hamstringing the Japanese economy. Some employers, facing bankruptcy because they could not meet production demand, turned to illegal foreign workers to fill the gaps in their workforce. The organisation I became involved with, with the unpreproposing title of ‘Foreigners’ Problems Study Group’ (hereafter ‘Study Group’), provided my initiation into the real world of these often-exploited foreign labourers, and another burgeoning social problem, the foreign brides of Japanese men.


Helping Others: Participating in an NGO

The Study Group was a loose coalition of Christians, sympathetic lawyers, spe­cialists (healthcare workers, a labour union officer, a real estate specialist) and a smattering of foreigners providing translation support. The lawyers set up a telephone hotline service for several days twice a year to gain publicity and let our activities be known to the general public. Given the high news profile of exploitation of foreign workers at the time, the hotline services drew media at­tention, and the publicity provided by these reports drew in even more phone calls from people seeking advice and help. For the first few years, at least, the Study Group provided essential legal and other support for foreigners, both la­bourers and foreign spouses, facing blatant exploitation and violation of even their most basic human rights, or sometimes more mundane problems as well.

However, by about 2000, the Study Group’s monthly lunch meetings had turned into almost exclusively social events, because people were not contacting the Study Group for help anymore. In part, this was because the government had rectified the most blatant inadequacies in the legal and ad­ministrative system that were the roots of many of the glaring infringements of foreigners’ human rights.

However, what probably affected the Study Group even more was a change in the attitude of the international associations of both Sendai City and Miy­agi Prefecture towards local foreigners with problems. In 1987, the Ministry of the Interior had issued a set of guidelines requesting all prefectural level governmental bodies to each promote “internationalization” within their ju­risdiction, and to institute an international association as an affiliated orga­nization of the prefecture.2

The portfolio of the international associations, as conceived by national and local governments, was basically to promote growth in regional economies throughout Japan, and in this perspective, foreigners were only conceived of as guests: the idea that foreigners might become mid to long-term residents was far off the agenda. At first, the two local internation­al associations located in Sendai (Sendai is the prefectural capital of Miyagi Prefecture) tried to ignore the increasing number of foreigners, both transient and resident, knocking on their doors for help with serious problems. As they gained more experience, the associations started to see the Study Group as a valuable partner to whom they could refer foreigners with any problems which they saw as lying outside their own purview. However, by around 2000, staff of both associations had started to face directly the reality of the international­ization of Japanese society that was occurring on their doorsteps, and to build up the networks of professional expertise and skilled volunteer translators nec­essary to do this themselves. People with problems were no longer coming to us because they were getting adequate and appropriate assistance from the local international associations, thereby effectively making the Study Group redundant.

This change in the self-definition of the portfolio of prefectural interna­tional associations did not happen all over Japan. In some areas, the interna­tional associations followed a similar path to those in Miyagi and Sendai, but in other regions, international associations were restricted to their original portfolios, and the resulting gap in providing support for foreigners in distress was taken up by volunteer organizations such as the Study Group. One crucial element determining what happened was the degree of autonomy which the local government bureaucracy either permitted or tolerated in its international organization. There exists a misconception that all international associations are the same, and that they all are committed to the white-washed version of ‘internationalisation’ emanating from Tokyo. This could not be further from the truth, and especially so in Miyagi Prefecture.

For my part, now that the Study Group had become effectively redundant, I started to look for a way to address the roots of problems facing foreign res­idents in Japan. As a university teacher, I was taking students on field trips to study multiculturalism in Australia, where I myself was introduced to how specific policies and services at the local government level were creating social cohesion and equality, and changing the insular society that I grew up in into a truly diverse and vibrant society. Furthermore, I was now a father of young children, and wanted to leave my children a society where they would not have to be ashamed of their faces. Up until this point, if anything, I had considered any form of government an antagonist: now I had to learn how to earn its trust.


1 The other side of this coin was that it was also a challenge to the state of the Anglo­phone-centric bias of Western Japanese studies prevalent at the time. In this respect, my challenge was a dismal failure.

2 Jichishō (1985).


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Open Borders, Open Society? Immigration and Social Integration in Japan

by Toake Endoh (ed.)