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Fearing Foreigners

Japan is wary of outsiders and its new law doesn't help


Last week the Japanese Parliament, following U.S. precedent, passed a law which would require all foreigners above age 16 to be photographed and fingerprinted upon entering that country. The Bush Administration has taken much heat for supposedly violating civil liberties or committing acts of racial-profiling in the name of homeland security. Such controversies are by no means restricted to the U.S. it seems.

Supporters of the law cite its necessity in protecting Japan from terrorist attacks. They reason that as a steadfast ally of the U.S. and one of the few countries that dispatched troops to Iraq (and which still remain there), Japan has become a target for terrorists. Thus a law which screens entering aliens and puts their personal information in a database may be crucial to safeguarding Tokyo from the fate of Istanbul, Riyadh, or Bali. There is some merit to this argument, though Japan’s exclusively logistic and non-combat role in the War on Terror makes it far less (if at all) a terrorist’s target than the U.S.

The fingerprinting law, however, also raises many serious concerns, though slightly different from those surrounding U.S. homeland security laws. While the US law reflects security considerations of a global superpower that has (unduly) made itself a lightening rod to the world’s—and especially the Arab world’s—malcontents, such a measure has an entirely different meaning in Japan. Ostensibly focused only on terrorism, in Japan the law is really about xenophobia.

An ethnically homogeneous island-country that has been virtually cut off from the outside world for centuries at a time, Japan is a relatively insular place. Despite slight regional variations in dialect, climate, and food, it often exudes the sense of being one large, middle-class neighborhood, comfortably indifferent to what goes on outside its precincts.

As one can imagine, Japan has not always received foreigners with particular ease or enthusiasm. The country has some of the most restrictive immigration laws in the industrialized world. Citizenship is based on parentage, making naturalization an extremely arduous and exclusive process. Even those born and raised in Japan with foreign ancestors (often Korean) several generations removed are often not automatically considered Japanese nationals and face obstacles to fully integrating into Japanese society.

Most disturbing about Japanese wariness towards foreigners is a longstanding association of foreigners with crime and rowdiness. This stereotype was most tragically evinced following the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake, when rumors about Korean residents committing acts of sabotage led to mob violence and numerous fatalities. As recently as 2000, right-wing Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro warned of foreigners creating civil disorder in the aftermath of an earthquake. Though the vast majority of the public rejected the comments, they struck a chord with some.

Given this history, the new Japanese fingerprinting law cannot help but have some very unpleasant connotations. It could, in effect if not in intent, strengthen xenophobia and play into the hands of demagogues. The Japanese Parliament should rescind this law foremost because its benefits –curbing unlikely terrorist attacks– are less assured than the undeniable costs of a more discriminatory and insular Japan.

With its beguiling culture, intriguing history, and cutting-edge electronic innovations, Japan has much to offer the world. The world also has much to offer Japan, including an infusion of fresh ideas about how to reform an ossified politico-economic order largely unchanged since the early years of the Cold War. Indeed, within a few years Japan may desperately need foreigners not only to visit, but even to stay. With a plummeting birth rate, rapidly aging population, and lingering structural problems in the financial sphere, Japan’s prospects look bleak without the external boost to its labor force. Yet an immigrant influx, however unthinkable that might be today, may be Japan’s only hope.

Taro Tsuda ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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