|High court bolsters Japan's anti-immigrant image
By Matthew Rusling
TOKYO - Japan's highest court has reinforced exclusion of foreigners from
management in civil-service positions.
Japan's Supreme Court for the first time has bolstered this exclusion by
barring a South Korean woman from a management examination because she is not
Japanese. In a nation with a falling birthrate and rapidly aging population,
experts are saying that, should current trends continue, Japan will be left
with large gaps in the workforce in the not-so-distant future.
Experts are pointing to the need to plug such holes in the work force with
imported talent. This has observers forecasting the negative repercussions of
the high court's ruling and possible spillover into the private sector.
On January 26, the Supreme Court upheld the Tokyo metropolitan government's
decision to bar a civil servant from taking an exam for promotion to a
managerial position due to her South Korean nationality. In this landmark case
- the first-ever Supreme Court ruling on nationality-based promotion
discrimination - the court ruled 13-2 that barring a foreigner from a
public-sector management position would not violate the constitution. Plaintiff
Chong Hyang Gyun, the daughter of a Korean father and a Japanese mother, had
argued that the metro government's position runs contrary to constitutional
stipulations regarding equality and the freedom of individuals to choose their
Opponents of the ruling say it will have significant negative repercussions,
most notably barring foreigners from managerial posts in the public sector
without regard to the nature of the position or to the tasks involved. Others
speculate further that the ruling could cause vacant slots in the civil service
to go to less qualified candidates. Still other critics say it reinforces the
image of Japan as unwelcoming.
Historically, Japan-born ethnic Koreans, or Zainichi Cho-sen, as well as
other minorities in Japan, have tended to be excluded from many management
posts. Most Korean-Japanese are required by law to carry the same foreigner's
identification card that any temporary worker must carry, since being born in
Japan does not guarantee automatic citizenship.
Commenting on the case, Kim Ji-hea (asking that her real name not be used), an
office worker in her 20s and a Japan-born Korean, confirmed that she is
required to carry a foreigner's identification card. She rarely goes by her
Korean name, preferring to use a Japanese name, a practice not unusual among
Japan's Korean community.
"When I was in high school I felt I had to hide the fact that I was Korean,"
she said, but added that when she told some of her Japanese friends of her
Korean heritage, they were ambivalent. She and many other younger-generation
Korean-Japanese say they have experienced very few instances of discrimination
or animosity due to their heritage. At the same time, attitudes concerning
ethnicity and nationality among young people are changing and becoming more
Indeed, Japan-born Koreans are often upper-middle-class business owners. But
observers have speculated that this is a result of Japanese firms' reluctance
to hire Koreans, although statistics are not available to back up this
Official exclusion of foreigners from management and other positions is not
uncommon worldwide. Until recently, Germany did not allow second-generation
Turks to become German citizens. In South Korea, foreigners cannot apply for a
Korean credit card, nor can they buy a mobile phone unless it is registered
under the name of a Korean citizen. There are also certain restrictions on
foreign land ownership in South Korea, although most of them were done away
with after the Foreigner's Land Acquisition Act was revised in 1998 to allow
foreigners to purchase land with more or less the same rights and obligations
But at least in the legal arena, the Japanese Supreme Court's ruling paints a
picture of a nation moving away from instead of toward openness to outsiders.
Japan also has been criticized for its reluctance to accept asylum seekers. The
Japan Times reports that only 26 asylum seekers were granted refugee status in
2003. Figures for 2004 were not immediately available.
On January 18, two United Nations-recognized Kurdish refugees from Turkey
unexpectedly were put on an outbound aircraft a day after they showed up at an
immigration office in Tokyo to apply for an extension of their visas. They were
deported to Turkey the next day.
"Until now, the Japanese authorities have provided [the United Nations High
Commissioner on Refugees] with the possibility to seek durable solutions for
such refugees, including local integration or, in some cases, third-country
resettlement in accordance with the refugee agency's mandate. The refoulement
[return] of these refugees represents a disturbing departure from that
practice," said the UNHCR in a press release on January 18.
"Japan is a difficult country for foreigners to navigate through the legal
system," said Stanford University Japan scholar Daniel Okimoto. "From a
political standpoint," he told Asia Times Online, the Supreme Court's decision
"just reinforces negative stereotypes about Japan."
Such stereotypes, say experts, could have negative economic consequences.
Despite the fact that it concerns the public sector, the ruling has
nevertheless left observers wondering how it will be viewed in the private
sector. Some have speculated that the image of an exclusionist Japan could
cause the country to be viewed as a less-than-hospitable environment in which
talented foreign workers would choose not to live.
Some business leaders have said that foreign workers are not only wanted but
needed. Sony's chairman of the board, Iwao Nakatani, recently called for mass
immigration, saying that Japan's workforce is shrinking and that the percentage
of immigrants, which now stands at 1%, must increase tenfold to maintain the
current standard of living.
"Globalization, the IT [information technology] revolution and the rapid aging
of society are demanding that the Japanese open up their country to the world
and reform their closed and narrow community-oriented economic systems,"
Nakatani told the Australian National University in Canberra in August.
Currently, Japan's birthrate is so low that the Japanese have invented a word
for it - shoshika, which means a society devoid of children. The number
of people under 15 decreased from 27 million in the 1980s to 17 million in 2003
and, by 2050, is projected to sink to below 11 million.
Like most developed nations, Japan's demographic landscape is undergoing
drastic change. According to the National Institute of Population and Social
Security Research, 22 million of Japan's population of 127 million are over 65.
This, coupled with the falling birthrate, threatens to undermine the nation's
Matthew Rusling is a freelance journalist based in Osaka, Japan. He has
studied in Germany, worked as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe and lived
in South Korea. A native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he is a graduate of the
University of Connecticut.
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