The Debate

Japan: Abe Misses Chance on Immigration Debate

Recent Features

The Debate

Japan: Abe Misses Chance on Immigration Debate

The silence of the Japanese prime minister following the recent “apartheid” controversy speaks volumes.

Japan: Abe Misses Chance on Immigration Debate
Credit: Tokyo via skyearth /

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has envisioned a Japan of restored hard power and global status. He has been unflinching in advocating bold economic policies and controversial security measures. But while the Japanese electorate may be on board – for now, anyway – with the prime minister’s invocations of Meiji-esque rebirth, Japan’s future cannot be built on the prejudices held by Abe’s 19th century counterparts.

Abe has successfully sold Japan’s voters on the first two-thirds of his Abenomics program. He has been altogether less decisive with the third component – structural reform. And he has been downright timid when it comes to an immigration overhaul to bring in foreign workers.

All of which has received only limited attention in the overseas press – at least until a column by 83-year-old writer Ayako Sono appeared in the Sankei Shimbun last month. In her piece, Sono advocated racial segregation for immigrants in Japan. Sono’s connections to the Abe administration, however tenuous, were an obvious target for foreign media agencies like The Telegraph and The Wall Street Journal.

Overseas, controversial statements made by someone with ties to a political leader – Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor, comes to mind – would normally warrant either a defense or a rebuttal. Abe has not deigned to speak about the piece, and even Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment, asserting only that the administration’s immigration policy is “predicated on equality, which is guaranteed in Japan.”

Yet in substance, Abe’s policy on immigration mirrors the prescriptions laid out in Sono’s column. Openly voicing concerns about foreigners settling in Japan, the prime minister has favored one-time three- to five-year working visas for immigrants to “work and raise incomes for a limited period of time, and then return home.” While Abe has never advocated physical segregation, Japan’s linguistic and cultural barriers – insurmountable to most in only a few years – may do the job anyway. Japan may not adopt an aggressive form of apartheid like the institution Sono praised so highly, but a more passive caste system based on a revolving door of migrants is easy to imagine.

As Japanese politicians often do, Abe confuses globalization with internationalization; the former refers to a more homogenous global society, while the latter denotes increased overseas engagement. If Abe views globalization as a Faustian bargain with the price of racial mingling and greater homogeneity, internationalization, with its clear demarcation of national boundaries, is a handsome alternative. In his February 12 address to the Diet, Abe emphasized national cohesion rather than the openness that globalization demands, as though airtight unity were a spacesuit protecting Japan in the void of the outside world. Sono’s column begins with a reminder of recent ISIL atrocities, appealing to Japan’s fear of otherness before making her case for segregation. Abe’s speech began with a similar juxtaposition, setting a xenophobic tone for the following address.

The media in Japan have ignored Abe’s silence in favor of Sono’s hullabaloo. Only foreign outlets have excoriated the writer; it took official protests from the South African government for her to walk back the article. On February 17, Sono released a statement claiming that she is not linked to the prime minister, and that she had been misinterpreted.

“I have never praised apartheid, but it could be said that the existence of places like ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Little Tokyo’ is good.”

But until the Japanese media start taking radicals to task for statements that offend all but Japanese citizens, there will be no progress toward either globalization or internationalization. In the wake of the recent anti-secrecy law, though, few appear willing to step up to challenge the sitting administration.

Ayako Sono can be dismissed as an ultra-conservative crank with a weekly column. The outrage over her pro-apartheid piece will wane, just as it did following sexist comments she made in 2013. But the larger policy questions concerning immigration will be decided by an aging, conservative Japanese electorate. Abe need only keep his mouth shut to ensure the tacit approval of a populace ambivalent about this conversation.

Only Japan’s voters can demand that immigrants be treated as more than “the help.” Unfortunately, as progressivism recedes with Japan’s endangered youth population, we can no longer expect that the public will come around in a few years. Someone needs to prime the public on the immigration issue before Japan’s demographic dilemma passes the point of no return. With toothless media and tight-lipped politicians, to whom should one turn?

The prime minister can only execute his office if he makes his positions known. Abe’s countrymen will look to him for guidance as the country enters uncharted waters. It will fall to the prime minister to inform the Japanese electorate of his opinions on the subject of immigration, opening the floor for informed debate.

If he fails to constructively engage Japan’s foreign population and the Japanese citizens who perceive his current rhetoric as anachronistic, Abe can only hope to extol the virtues of Japanese purity until the realities of time and trend relegate that concept to the annals of history.

Colin Moreshead is a freelance writer living in Tokyo, where he reports for the New York Times.