A Multi-Cultural Future?

October 18, 2013 at 5:24 am

by Jean-Pierre Antonio

 Every country creates a portrait of itself through the promotion of certain images or traits. In the case of Japan the portrait is usually composed of several image/traits; an ancient and refined culture balanced harmoniously with advanced technology, love of nature’s beauty, cutting edge pop culture and fashion and genteel, old world charms. In addition, one could say that the people of Japan are hard working and in general, the culture is more-or-less uniform, as opposed to the immigrant rich cultures of the Americas. It may be though that over the last 20-30 years, the portrait of Japan has been quietly changing. Japan is very slowly emerging as a multi-cultural society.

Most people would probably doubt that Japan could turn into a genuine multi-cultural society. From the outside, the nation continues to project the usual images. Inside Japan it is a different story, one that begins in 1989, when the national government altered the Immigration Control Law to bring in low-cost labour for the struggling manufacturing industries. At the time, when the economy was still very strong, many young Japanese were shunning jobs known as 3K (kitsui/hard, kitanai/dirty, kiken/dangerous). They did not want to work in noisy, hot factories. They wanted to work in offices, or even take on short-term, seasonal jobs so that they could indulge their own interests, like snowboarding or backpacking in Asia. To remedy the situation the government created a special visa category for second and third generation descendants of Japanese immigrants, granting them the right to work in Japan for three years (renewable) to fill the thousands of vacant manufacturing jobs. It was intended to be a kind of guest worker program. The response from South American Nikkei was dramatic.

Japanese immigration to South America began in the early 1900s. Almost every country in the Southern Hemisphere became a destination but by far, Brazil was the first choice followed by Peru. In 2000, roughly 1,143,300 people with Japanese ancestry lived across South America and Mexico. The largest number in Brazil (1,300,000), followed by Peru (80,000 – 90,000). When the Japanese government granted the special Nikkei work visas, tens of thousands came to Japan. In 2000, the population of Brazilian-Japanese alone in Japan rose to about 254,000. They have mostly settled in towns with economies based on manufacturing, like Hamamatsu in Shizuoka, famous for Yamaha, Toyota-shi in Aichi, and Suzuka-shi in Mie ken, famous for its F-1 racing track and a large Honda factory.

The Case of Suzuka-shi

In 2012, about 1.6% of Japan’s population was foreign, however the true number is probably a little higher because of the increase in illegal immigrants. In Suzuka-shi, Mie prefecture, the foreign population is currently 3.6%, 0r 7,281 out of 198,598. This is more than double the official national rate. The peak, 5% of the total population, was reached in 2008/09, just when the world economy suffered, as it is known in Japan, the “Lehman Shock”. Compared to many medium and all large Canadian cities, these percentages do not seem very high. In Japan though, they represent a demographic revolution, putting Suzuka-shi, and other cities like it that host sizeable foreign populations, in leadership roles. As Japan’s low birthrate continues and the native Japanese population declines, more foreigners will likely be permitted to enter Japan to take over jobs. Lessons learned in Suzuka-shi and the other cities will help the rest of the country prepare for this future.

One interesting fact indicates that these foreign residents are not just transient, temporary residents. At the peak, in 2008 – 09, the foreign population in Suzuka-shi rose to 10,205. At that time, about 600 foreign youth were registered in the public school system. In 2013, despite a decline of almost 3,000 foreign residents, the number of foreign youth in the public school system has increased to 669. The foreigners who did leave Suzuka-shi after the economic difficulties began in 2008 – 09, were, more than likely, single and mobile individuals. The foreigners who stayed in Suzuka-shi include more families with children and these people have made a commitment to become permanent residents.


Why did the national government accept these foreigners, descendants of Japanese immigrants, instead of, for example, Asian immigrants? It was assumed that because these people are descendants of Japanese they would retain Japanese cultural traits and therefore, they would be more culturally compatible with mainstream Japanese society and so, cause less trouble fitting in. Japan is a highly organized society and communities do not favour those who do not follow the intricate rules of the organization. The problem was, it was an untrue assumption, and while many of the immigrants did retain some Japanese customs, they had also picked up over the decades many Latin American traits and customs. In families where Japanese immigrants had married with other ethnic groups the cultural connection to Japan was particularly weak. This has lead to social problems. As an example, take the simple act of throwing out the household trash.

Most villages, towns and cities in Japan recycle garbage. On one day the plastic is picked up and on another day non-burnable trash is picked up and on another day paper is picked up and then food waste is picked up. There is a schedule and each household must stick to the garbage pick-up schedule in their heighbourhood. It can be quite complicated and if you miss, for example, the pick-up of unburnable trash (glass, tin cans) you have to wait another week or two for the next pick-up day. You cannot just leave the trash at the drop off place so that it is picked up the next time. In addition, while the city is responsible for the pick-up of the trash, it is usually a group of people in the neighbourhood who are responsible for the cleanliness and order of the garbage pick-up spot. The Latin American Nikkei did not always understand this important relationship between proper trash disposal and good relations with neighbours and this has lead to friction in many communities. Of course, the cause of the problem was mostly language related. Many of the Latin American Nikkei come to Japan with very little Japanese language ability and many with none at all. There are frequent newsletters that go around neighbourhoods with important community news and most garbage pick-up spots have signs explaining the proper pick-up days for each kind of trash, but in both cases the language is strictly Japanese. For foreign residents neither is very helpful. In 2004 the Suzuka-shi administration agreed to post garbage pick-up information in Portuguese and Spanish at many of the garbage pick-up locations. It has helped and has shown that the city administration is beginning to show flexibility to make accommodations for the largest group of its foreign residents. In addition, the city’s International Relations Office provides advice and information to foreign residents in English, Portuguese or Spanish. For other languages translators can be found.

Perhaps the biggest change has come about in the public school system. The sudden increase in international students in the school system lead initially to serious class management problems. The Board of Education had not anticipated the special needs of students who do not speak Japanese or who do not understand the unique practices of the Japanese public school. In addition to regular teaching duties, teachers suddenly found that they were also expected to provide JSL (Japanese as a Second Language) lessons, but they had never received JSL training, there were no resources and they simply did not have enough time. The result was a great deal of frustration from students, parents, teachers and administrators. Nor was there guidance from the Ministry of Education in Tokyo. It is the responsibility of each city and its Board of Education in Japan to request aid for special needs. A request for special funds was finally made and in 2007/08 a team of educational specialists from Waseda University conducted a major research project in Suzuka. The team’s recommendations have lead to the present, improved situation.

Out of 36 public schools in Suzuka (elementary to high school), 18 have been designated as special schools where foreign students can get extra Japanese language instruction. The schools have permanent translators/teaching assistants and also have JSL classrooms where the foreign students spend part of their day. Nine additional schools have translator/teaching assistants who visit two or three times a week and there are also JSL classrooms. In all these schools, the goal is to provide enough Japanese language instruction for the foreign students over two years so that they can then study full-time with the Japanese students without the need for daily special care. Only four schools within the entire system provide no special instruction for foreign students and that is because those parts of Suzuka have very few foreign residents. The results over the past 5 years are an increase in the number of foreign students who complete junior high school and then who go on and complete high school. Some of these students have also gone on to enter university in the hope of entering the mainstream of Japanese society and breaking away from the manufacturing jobs of their parents. It is, perhaps, a typical pattern of immigrants everywhere.

Conclusion: Nobody can say for sure what exactly the future will bring, but by looking at numbers it is possible to predict what may happen. In Japan’s case the very low birth rate over the last 20 years has made it clear that major societal changes are coming one way or another. If Japan chooses to keep a tight lid on its immigration then the population will continue to decline causing all sorts of problems for the national pension and health insurance systems and manufacturing, to mention only the most obvious. The solution seems obvious. Let in even more foreign workers. If Japan makes this choice then it can look to places like Hamamatsu and Suzuka where changes have already begun. These cities can show the rest of Japan that with flexibility it is entirely possible to embrace a multicultural future.

I would like to thank the Suzuka-shi Board of Education and the Suzuka-shi International Friendship Association for their cooperation and help.