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Japan ousts foreign overstayers
By Hussain Khan

TOKYO - Japan, increasingly concerned about as many as 250,000 foreign workers who have overstayed their visas, is cracking down. In the month from September 19 to October 17, immigration forces and the Tokyo police caught 1,643 illegal foreign workers, the largest number recorded so far for a single month. Most were caught in Tokyo's 23 wards as well as the suburban areas.

On October 17, Justice Minister Daizo Nozawa announced a joint effort between Tokyo's metropolitan police force and the Immigration Department to attempt to catch and deport as many illegals as possible. Nozawa also vowed to simplify deportation procedures to get them out of the country faster, without handing them to police for deportation.

That Japan has had an uneasy relationship with foreigners goes without saying. It is a society that has been deeply distrustful of gaijin, as foreigners are known, regarding them as culturally inferior. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan remained a sakoku, a closed country. For centuries, no foreigners were allowed to enter Japan, and Japanese were forbidden from going out until US Commodore Matthew Perry famously forced open the borders in 1853.

This anti-foreign antipathy remains so deeply rooted in Japanese society that gaijin cannot rent a house easily without providing the name of a Japanese guarantor. Indeed, in many areas, landlords won't rent to foreigners even with a guarantor. Some Americans complain that they have been unable to rent apartments for as long as five years.

But as the population ages and the country's needs for labor have grown, it has grudgingly opened its doors to temporary workers - very grudgingly. The United Nations has estimated that because of its aging population, Japan could use as many as 600,000 foreign-born workers as immigrants per year. Nonetheless, only 0.2 percent of its population is foreign-born, compared to as much as 20 percent of Australia's and 18 percent in the US.

This poses endemic problems for Japanese society. The US, for instance, has long cross-fertilized its scientific and industrial communities with the foreign-born. The number of foreign-born winners of American Nobel prizes in the sciences and mathematics provides a dramatic example of such contributions by immigrants. It is arguable that the information technology revolution in Silicon Valley in the 1980s and 1990s would not have been nearly as dramatic without the contributions of Indian, Chinese and other immigrants.

Japan will have none of it. And as unemployment has grown during the country's long economic downturn, suspicion of foreigners has increased, driving foreign-born workers underground, as evidenced by the special campaign started to catch them in Tokyo and its environs. Of the September-October arrests, some 366 were Chinese, 326 Filipinos, 256 Malaysians, 166 Indonesians and the rest other nationalities.

Nor are Japanese authorities particularly gentle about carrying out their deportation procedures. The press has been giving special attention to the case of a 31-year-old West Asian woman whose forced deportation with her two infants is regarded as a particular example of official high-handedness.

The woman was detained for more than 15 months without being allowed to stay with her infants, who were forcibly taken from her and held in a separate child-care facility. Despite concerns on the part of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Japan, Amnesty International Japan and supporting such organizations as the Japan Association for Refugees, she was expelled from the country without a chance to appear in court on the day her lawyer Satoko Kitamura, was to appeal against the deportation order. Kitamura called the case "inhumane".

The Japanese authorities are unswayed. In the wake of the October 17 meeting, a joint communique was issued by immigration, police and the Justice Ministry declaring that:

1) A strong campaign will be carried out for catching and for forced deportation of all overstayed foreign workers.
2) At the time of entry into Japan, visa requirements will be checked and enforced strictly and eligibility for a temporary stay in Japan will also be tightened.
3) Employers of the overstayed foreign workers and the brokers involved in it will be dealt with more severely.

Last year more than 1,000 cases were dealt with directly by immigration without referring them for prosecution. This procedure will be expanded further to apply it to all overstayed foreign workers. The only exceptions will be those workers who are found involved in criminal activities.

According to Home Ministry statistics up to January last year, some 224,067 foreign workers overstayed their visas. Of those, 55,164 were Koreans, 29,649 Filipinos and 27,582 were Chinese. Indonesians were eighth with 6,393, but that was an increase of about 30 percent compared to their number of 4,947 a year earlier.

According to a report in the Japan Times, some 1,739 illegal passports, visas and other travel documents were confiscated at Japanese airports and ports from January to June, up 42 percent from the same period last year. The Justice Ministry said 853 passports were forged, 50 percent of which were held by Chinese nationals. According to the Immigration Bureau, 423 Chinese had bogus passports, followed by 81 Iranians, 77 Thais and 65 Filipinos.
A senior ministry official said immigration authorities were able to find more illegal documents because the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic led to a decrease in foreigners entering and leaving Japan, and allowed for better scrutiny.

To make immigration control more effective, Japan is planning to make use of biometric technology. In the next fiscal year, the Ministry of Justice has budgeted 48 million yen [US$439,000] for developing this technology with the cooperation of the private sector.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also planning the use of electronic passports in coordination with the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Group of Eight major countries, who are working to create international standards for the use of biometrics.

Electronic passports will contain integrated circuit chips with data about the passport holder using his fingerprints, palm prints, skull structure, retina, iris, voice and other biological characteristics. These biometric checks are to be installed in all immigration booths.

This growing stiffness over immigration has sparked growing debate in the letters columns of Japanese newspapers. One gaijin wrote: "The trouble with immigration is not that people will be a burden to the host society or take jobs from those living there. The trouble is outdated attitudes and racist government policies. There will always be a need for certain people to fill certain vacancies in society or to create new business opportunities. It is the onus of the host country to let immigrants work and pay taxes in society."

Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has been the most xenophobic leader advocating racist policies. Shintaro has offered additional forces to the immigration department to root out all overstayed foreign workers from Tokyo and its suburban areas. But he is not alone. In fact, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leaders in the run-up to Sunday's election made political capital out of the foreign-overstayer problem, playing on fears that the foreign-born are responsible for rising crime rates.

Nor are the dead immune. Saudi Arabian King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, for instance, sent US$700,000 some years ago for the purchase of a graveyard for Japan's Muslims. Despite the passage of several years, neither local Muslims nor the Saudi Embassy has been able to purchase land for the purpose. Either local Japanese jurisdictions do not allow the sale of such land for those purchases, even for dead foreigners, or local city governments won't give the necessary permissions.

In some outlying areas, if the dead are Japanese Muslims, they are asked to burn their dead, according to Japanese laws applicable to the country's own citizens, instead of burying them in graveyards.

Hussain Khan holds a master's degree in economics from Tokyo University and has worked in Japan as an equities analyst. He is an independent Tokyo-based analyst on current affairs and economic issues for various newspapers and magazines. E-mail

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Nov 11, 2003


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