Migration is a trap that can erases the identity of a person without giving him or her a new one. Where in the world this invisible person might stand? This is a tricky question that might not have a readily available answer. In societies that claim to be easy melting pots of various nationalities, the ghettos stand side by side where people coming from different corners of the globe may co-exist keeping a safe distance from each other, but they hardly melt down to be an essential part of that adopted society in broader sense. And when things start going wrong, it is the dwellers of such ghettos who become easy victims. Take the example of Japanese living in the United States at the onset of World War II. Almost all of them were suddenly rounded up and were taken to special detention camps where most of them had to stay until the situation at the war front was stabilized and a peace deal was concluded.
Have we taken a big leap forward since such things happened is a question that remains unanswered, even though international migration in recent days has taken a massive step forward and countries in the West are virtually flooded with new arrivals, mostly from African and Asian continent. Some of those new migrants have integrated themselves so well that in politics too their footprints are becoming important milestones. Rishi Sunak or Kamla Harries might be cited as two such recent examples. However, looking at the situation of the migrant communities in the West from a broader perspective, these examples in no way can be regarded a dominant trend of our time. They are rather exceptions and their numbers too are just few drops of water in a river running deep and wide.
If this is the situation in the West, which is broadly seen as relatively migrant-friendly, although more out of necessity than their love for the suffering humanities of the South, what about the situation in Japan, a country that for very long kept her door firmly shut for people coming from outside? Japan in recent days is gradually opening that tightly closed door to allow migrants from other countries to come and settle in this largely self-sustained homogeneous society. And as the country is moving fast towards an aging society with a sharp decline in population, policy makers are now feeling the urgency of inviting outsiders, at least for the sake of keeping the economic machine running.
Japan first came to realize about this looming crisis back in 1980s when demographers and social researchers started voicing concern over the possibility of the approaching labor shortage. It was soon after that the country decided to invite second or third generation Japanese descendants from Latin American countries to fill-up the possible shortage. Many Japanese descendants from Brazil, Peru and some other countries of South America came to Japan during that early phase by taking the opportunity of open-door policy for people with Japanese blood connection. Many of them settled in communities where small factories are located. However, the economic crisis triggered by the global downturn of 1997 suddenly saw a rapid shrinkage in Japanese production lines and factories facing uncertainties approached the government to take steps that would ensure these new migrants to return to countries of their origin. In response to such calls from small and mid-size enterprises, the Japanese government started offering financial benefits to those willing to return, but imposed a strict condition that those availing the opportunity of getting financial benefits will not be allowed to return soon. So, a new shuttle migration started to take shape with a reverse trend. However, with the Japanese economy gradually returning to its normal shape once again, the issue of migrant workers too came to the limelight of economic discussion and Japan was again looking for new opportunities to attract foreign workers back to the country. And with that the country started witnessing a second wave of arrival of descendants of Japanese from Latin America. As in earlier case, this second wave of new arrivals too started settling down in industrial cities where demand for labor had been higher. A good number of these new migrants are now living in Gunma Prefecture, which is the location of many small manufacturing companies working as supply chains for big manufacturers like Subaru and Panasonic.
A recent visit to Oizumi Town of Gunma Prefecture provided a unique opportunity of witnessing the slow process of integration of foreigners in Japanese society, as well as problems they are facing in the process and the opportunities that are opening up for new expatriate communities. Oizumi Town has the largest proportional concentration of immigrant population in Japan with approximately 20 percent of town population currently registered as of foreign origin. The town has around 42,000 population and of this , roughly 8.000 are foreigners. Gunma Prefecture traditionally has a high proportion of foreign workers. As of December 2022, total population of the prefecture was around 1.93 million, of which there were around 56 thousand foreigners. Brazilians accounted for the highest proportion of foreigners with around 19 percent of the total, followed by Vietnamese with 18 percent. The prefecture also had 1,464 registered Bangladeshis who account for 2 percent of total foreign population. With the largest proportion of foreigners, Brazilians have a vibrant community concentrated mainly around Oizumi Town. There are several grocery stores and restaurants with signs in Portuguese language and many schools in the town are running special Japanese language classes for students of foreign origin Taking into account the presence of migrant workers belonging to the Japanese diaspora, the city has established an organization to promote employment of such workers, which is now working with the government to provide support and welfare for their integration into the community.
Outwardly all such efforts and activities look timely steps being taken to ensure creating a society where the idea of melting pot might spread its roots and turn the place into a desired destination for overseas workers coming to Japan. However, how the idea is reflecting in the society in real term is a different matter that can hardly be guessed by considering only such superficial perimeters. Speaking directly to the members of migrant communities is probably a more convincing way of getting a better idea and during our brief stay in Oizumi town, we had our that share as well.
Paolo Hirano is a third generation Japanese Brazilian who came to Japan with his parents in 1989 at the age of 10. He is living in Japan since then and now running his own company in Oizumi Town. He has firsthand experience of difficulties the expatriate community face in Japan in the process of their integration and had also witnessed various stages of changes in the mindset of Japanese population about the concept of acceptance of foreigners. Before coming to Japan and during his initial days in the country, Hirano never thought himself to be a foreigner as in Brazil they had always been identified as Japanese. But his perception of belonging started to change after he encountered Japanese people in this country who categorized him and other descendants of Japanese as Brazilian, not Japanese. However, he also feels that the society is gradually changing and acceptance of foreigners is becoming more common these days, particularly among the younger generation. In the past, he and his family faced various problems, including house renting. Though the situation is becoming much easier these days, Hirano feels the invisible barrier remains and as a result, in terms of sense of belonging, deep in his heart he considers himself as a chameleon, changing color according to the situation.
This is a paradox that many migrants are compelled to face in Japan where the perception of acceptance of foreigners remains a challenge, even though the society is trying hard to come in terms with the reality. And Hirano rightfully thinks that Japan has no other choice but to accept large number of foreigners and this reality will bring necessary changes more rapidly than what are now being imposed from the top.
(Tokyo, April 4, 2023)
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