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     Feb 8, 2005
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 occupation.

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 liberal.

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 suggestion.

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 as Koreans.

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 economy.

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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