Written by Griseldis Kirsch.

If Japan tries to appear homogeneous to the outside world, it also has a sizeable and increasing immigrant population. As an ageing society, Japan may well need foreign labour to fill vacancies, yet it is not necessarily consistent in its immigration policies: facilitating access for some visa categories while at the same time cracking down on immigrants.

Although Japan may want to attract immigrants from all over Asia, the vast majority now come from China. The Chinese have actually outnumbered the Koreans (which included the zainichi) in 2005, and currently, about 700,000 registered foreigners (out of approximately 2.4 million) are Chinese.

Yet Japan does not necessarily have a rosy relationship with China. Both powers vie for dominance in East Asia – and for a long time, economically at least, Japan held that position. However, China’s rise to global economic superpower has also enabled it to wield considerable influence in Asia. The Chinese continue to hold the Japanese to account for their past deeds in East Asia. The poor political relationship also influences the way Chinese citizens are seen in Japan. While during the time of China’s rise, China was looked at somehow nostalgically, undergoing in the same economic miracle that the Japanese went through in the 1960s, the resulting increased migration led to the stereotype of Chinese as untrustworthy criminals.

This stereotype was propagated by the media, and most visibly so in the Gaijin hanzai ura fairu (2007, translated: The hidden files of foreign criminality), one-off magazine that sparked outrage, up to the point of a boycott of stores selling the publication. The Chinese immigrants are thus all tarred with the same brush, whether students or spouses, they remain ‘Chinese’ and are, increasingly, subject to online abuse.

As the United States has also shaped post-war Japan to a great extent, there are differing perceptions of Americans in Japan, perceptions that are generally more favourable than those of Asian countries.

The Taiwanese residents of Japan are far less numerous. However, because of Taiwan’s history as a Japanese colony (1895-1945), perceptions are slightly different. The relationship with Taiwan, though unofficial, is slightly warmer than with China. However, this barely reflects on the Taiwanese residents of Japan and they tend to be subsumed under the Chinese. Organised criminality is attributed to the Taiwanese as much as the Chinese. Korean residents are treated in a similar manner, and particularly with the threat that North Korea and its missile tests pose, Korean residents face an increased amount of discrimination and abuse. Although Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan are culturally proximate, it seems to be even more necessary to delimitate oneself from ‘them’ because of that ‘closeness’.

On the other side of the dichotomy is the USA. Arguably, there is a visible power imbalance between Japan and its closest ally, the need to delimitate oneself from that Other is similarly necessary. Politically, the Japanese are in many ways dependent on the USA and Japan’s relationship with the USA defines its relationship with the rest of Asia. With North Korea’s rise to nuclear power right at Japan’s proverbial doorstep, and China equally being a strong military power, the protection by the USA is seen as one of the cornerstones of Japanese policy making. As the USA has also shaped post-war Japan to a great extent, there are differing perceptions of Americans in Japan, perceptions that are generally more favourable than those of Asian countries.

However, this Japanese fixation with the US has the downside of blending out all other ‘western’ foreigners in the Japanese perception, as the dominance of the USA has led to Americans being seen as pars pro toto for any other possible ‘Western’ nationality. However, immigration from the USA to Japan is minimal, as can be generally stated for western countries, and in 2016, there were no more than 53,705 US-citizens registered in Japan. That number, however, excludes those stationed on American bases around the country, so in Okinawa, where the largest contingent is placed, the number is much higher. And, albeit at extreme end, rape cases and helicopter crashes show that the relationship, in spite of the generally better standing of Americans in Japan, has its dark sides too.

Additionally, foreign criminality is seen as a bigger problem than it actually is and that also shapes perceptions of immigrants in Japan. Statistics and the way they can be ‘fudged’ is crucial in that respect, as visa crimes are included. Yet a violation of visa conditions (working without permit, overstaying, etc.) is a crime that only a foreigner can ever commit, therefore blowing the number of foreign criminals out of proportion. Furthermore, normally a foreigner committing a visa crime would be extradited, and issued a ban to enter Japan for six years.

Using an Other to make oneself different, and usually superior, is by no means limited to the Japanese alone. It is a general feature of modern nationalism; the Other needs to be appropriated in order to tell us who we are not, a project usually far more successful than telling us who we are – as the examples of Japanese minorities have shown.

Therefore, the encounter with the Other never happens on eye-level, and it will always be appropriated for the sake of the Self. Just what constitutes a relevant Other to delimitate oneself from is different across cultures, the mechanisms are the same.

Griseldis Kirsch is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Japanese Culture at SOAS. She is a member of the Japan Research Centre, the Centre for Cultural, Literal and Postcolonial Studies, and the Centre for Media Studies. She has been published in many journals and wrote the book Contemporary Sino-Japanese Relations on Screen, a History, 1989-2005. Image Credit: CC by Balint Földesi/Flickr.

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