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Controlling the outsiders

August 25, 2009

One of the most interesting meetings we had in our last week here in Japan was with two representatives from the Japan Civil Liberties Union (JCLU) and the association to defend the rights of foreign migrant workers. One thing that has always been clear to me from being a gaikokujin (or more casually, just gaijin – foreigner) in Japan is how distinct is this status. I’m a white, western European and therefore at the top of the list of acceptability in foreigners in Japan, but even so I’ve had some interesting experiences, including having two police squad cars and 5 officers deal with the matter of my ‘suspicious’ bicycle (an experience that practically all resident foreigners have had at one time or another), and just the other day I was stopped at the train station by two plain-clothes police officers, who started off quite strong, but then backed down and started mumbling apologies about ‘looking for someone’ when they realised my (Japanese) wife was just behind me. It was pretty obvious that they were conducting an immigration sweep – i.e. just stopping anyone who ‘looked foreign’ to check their immigration status.

This gave me just a tiny taste of what life can be like here for those whose immigration status is problematic. And, as the campaigners told us, this is an increasing number of people who have come to Japan because of the wealth and opportunities and because, whisper it, Japan needs immigrants. Like so many advanced industrial nations, Japan is a hyper-ageing society, with an increasingly unbalanced population pyramid. There are not enough working age Japanese people to support the increasing number of retirees, and government schemes to encourage people to have more children simply haven’t worked. The problem is that successive Japanese governments have refused to recognise the implications. The rules now make provision for ‘skilled’ immigrants, but not for those who are ‘unskilled’ and it is actually those in this latter category that Japan needs. In practice this is demonstrated by the increasing numbers of foreign delivery and construction workers in Tokyo as well as those working in the shadier areas of the ‘night economy’ – doormen, bar staff, masseurs, prostitutes etc.. The same politicians who deny the need for immigrants are probably having their personal ‘needs’ serviced by Filipino or Vietnamese women and this hypocrisy colours all the mainstream political debate about the place of foreigners in Japan, especially in Tokyo where Mayor Ishihara has never disguised his nationalist views in this area.

So, whilst the politicians refuse to deal with reality, the police are enforcing the law as it is. We have spent some time, whilst we are here (and I have gathered data on previous visits) in the night city of Kabukicho in Shinjuku. This time I was taken out to bars in the old post-war neighbourhood of Golden Gai by Professor Tonoma, who formerly led both Shinjuku-ku and Tokyo city planning bodies, and we also talked to Shinjuku community safety officers, and to the Kabukicho Town Manager, who runs the day-to-day operations of the body trying to improve Kabukicho’s image, Kabukicho Renaissance.

Kabukicho of course is famous as the first place that the Tokyo police installed CCTV, ostensibly to deal with Chinese gangs, but according to what we learned from these visits and from talking to the campaigners, as crime has declined (as it has nationally – it’s probably nothing to do with the cameras), the cameras and intensive policing (raids etc.) have been used largely to curb illegal migrant workers. And the authorities seem to make no distinction between the gangsters and the mainly South-east Asian women who work in the bars and massage parlours. They are all visa-overstayers. There is no attempt to treat the women as people in need of help and support at all. Of course this all inflates the crime figures and makes it easy to paint what the police always term ‘foreign crime’ (whatever the exact nature or seriousness of the crime) as a growing threat, as it becomes proportionally a larger part of shrinking crime rates (which were already low by global standards to begin with).

Now there is a new threat to this already massively targeted population. The inclusion of foreigners on the jyuminhyo (residents’ registry), combined with the digitisation and networking of this registry through juki-net, means that the authorities will be able to correlate residency and immigration status much more easily – the residency information for foreigners will be linked to the Houmusho (Ministry of Justice), which has entry records, and now fingerprints and facial photos too, following post-9/11 reforms. Of course, resident skilled foreigners wanted to be in the residents’ registry. They argued that not being on it was itself a form of discrimination and meant further difficulties in terms of things like buying property. However the inclusion of foreigners now opens up new forms of discriminatory practice against those who are already the most disadvantaged in Japanese society, the kinds of foreigners who more high-status ‘official’ foreigners do not generally recognise as kin to them at all.

Japan’s surveillance society, like most, is therefore a profoundly uneven one. Every society has its Others, and surveillance is deployed both to distinguish those Others and to control them. In each of the cities I have been studying the Others are different populations. In London, the Others are (at the moment) the resident Muslim community (or more particularly, ‘radicalised’ young Muslims). Here the surveillance combines repression and ‘caring’ programs to bring the disaffected back into the mainstream. In Rio de Janeiro, the Others are the urban poor, the favelados. They are largely simply excluded – walls protect the rich in their homes, and now walls are being built around the poor communities. In Tokyo, the Others are foreigners, but there are gradations of Otherness, and effectively still aping the western ‘scientific racism’ that it acquired during the Meiji period modernisation at the end of the nineteenth century, Japan’s Others are poor Blacks and Asians (for many on the right here, the Japanese are not ‘Asian’ at all, but something unique). Just as the British state is struggling with the legacy of its particular colonial and post-colonial approach to immigration, and the Brazilian state with a history of years of differentiated citizenship, the Japanese state has still not yet really come to terms with the prospect of the mixing of people at all.

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