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Letter from Japan — From the April 2017 issue

The Boy Without a Country

Tokyo’s painful exclusion of immigrants

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In 1853, during a period of Western conquest of new markets, Matthew Perry, a U.S. naval commodore, sailed into Tokyo’s harbor with a fleet of warships, expecting a trade treaty. Japan had no navy of its own, and when the shogun — the general — was forced to concede to American demands, many of his countrymen viewed the acquiescence as a humiliating defeat. A movement, backed by samurai leaders, quickly rose to oust him. Its slogan, “Sonno joi” (“Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”), expressed the idea that outsiders undermine Japanese strength and became a catalyzing philosophy of the new Japanese Empire. In 1863, Emperor Komei passed the Order to Expel Barbarians, which inspired a spree of attacks on foreigners.

Modern Japanese politicians echo sonno joi by advocating racial purity. “There are things Americans have not been able to achieve because of multiple nationalities,” Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone declared in 1986. “On the contrary, things are easier in Japan because we are a homogeneous society.” Shinzo Abe, the current prime minister, backs tough restrictions on immigration, because he considers it to be destabilizing. “In countries that have accepted immigration, there has been a lot of friction, a lot of unhappiness both for the newcomers and the people who already lived there,” he said in a 2014 television interview. This is likely the only time that Abe has even uttered the word “immigration” in public since he was elected in 2012. When asked about the subject, he usually responds with a discussion of “foreign workers,” as though immigration’s only conceivable form were a temporary labor arrangement.

About 2 percent of Japan’s residents are foreign-born, which is extremely few for an industrialized country. (In the United States, by comparison, immigrants make up 14 percent of the population.) The paucity of foreign citizens was ensured by law: after World War II, the country ratified a new, American-drafted constitution, and shortly after, the Nationality Act legally mandated citizenship by blood, stripping all colonial subjects of their Japanese status. A person could be a citizen only if his or her father was Japanese — mothers didn’t count.

At the time, more than 2 million Koreans who had been forced at the start of the war to work in Japan’s coal mines, shipyards, and factories lived on the mainland; they constituted the country’s largest foreign group. Under the Nationality Act, they had no voting rights, they could not hold government jobs, and police were instructed to closely monitor their communities. “They are not included in the term ‘Japanese’ as used in this directive,” a law-enforcement memo from 1945 explains, “but they have been Japanese subjects and may be treated by you, in case of necessity, as enemy nationals.” More than 600,000 Koreans remained in Japan, stranded in a second-class existence. They and their children are now, in the words of Erin Aeran Chung, the director of the Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship Program at Johns Hopkins University, a “highly assimilated, legally foreign community.”

In 1985, following international pressure, the Nationality Act was revised to allow Japanese mothers to pass citizenship to their children. A few years later, the country’s manufacturing sector was experiencing a labor shortage, and the government decided to fill the empty jobs by further loosening its restrictions, this time for members of the diaspora. The grandchildren or great-grandchildren of Japanese farmers who had gone in the late nineteenth century to search for gold in Peru or left a few decades later to work on coffee plantations in Brazil were invited to return as permanent residents. Many settled in cities along Japan’s industrial corridor, like Hamamatsu and Toyota. “There were suddenly large groups of foreigners in the streets,” Yasuyuki Kitawaki, a former mayor of Hamamatsu, told me. To this day, these residents are still not counted as citizens in the national census.

As this population was arriving, a literary cottage industry called nihonjinron (“the theory of Japaneseness”) began to flourish. The genre, a blend of anthropology, pop psychology, and management theory, attributed the superiority of the Japanese people to a national character of collectivism, a strong work ethic, and a minimalist aesthetic. Doing things the “Japanese way,” these books argued, was always best. And their success was ultimately based on race — literally, “Japanese blood.”

Yet not even Japanese excellence could insulate the country from economic disaster. In 1990, the stock and real-estate markets collapsed. Desperation and bitterness gave way to a proliferation of angry nationalist rallies, which have continued to the present day. Protesters took to gathering in the streets and harassing ethnic minorities, whom they accuse of taking away their jobs. Koichi Nakano, a political scientist who studies these groups at Sophia University, in Tokyo, told me, “These are basically spontaneous, rather fluid networks of haters.” Most are working-age men who have never managed to find secure employment; Nakano said that 37 percent of Japanese workers today have sporadic, temporary positions.

When I was in Tokyo, not long ago, on any given day I would see dozens of people carrying Japanese flags and shouting vague, violent threats in minority neighborhoods or outside foreign embassies. Nakano estimates that there are more than a hundred nationalist groups that convene across the country. They are not on the fringe: A leader of the group Zaitokukai, which has called for a large-scale massacre of Korean residents, has been photographed hobnobbing with a senior member of the Liberal Democratic Party, the current ruling party. Several L.D.P. officials have been photographed posing with the head of a neo-Nazi group in front of a Japanese flag. Even the more centrist members of the L.D.P. proudly refer to their country’s ethnic makeup as “homogeneous” — an impossible claim to make of a former colonial empire. Nearly half of Abe’s cabinet belongs to a group known as the League for Going to Worship Together at Yasukuni, a shrine in Tokyo that commemorates Japanese soldiers, including a number of convicted war criminals. Abe’s wife makes pilgrimages to Yasukuni, and Abe sends offerings on holidays.

One afternoon, I attended a festival at the Yasukuni Shrine. The entrance was lined with tens of thousands of paper lanterns emitting a warm, golden light. Visitors wandered around eating vanilla soft serve. I asked a man why the festival was so important to him. “Koreans!” he said, and thrust his middle finger into the air. “Fuck Chinese!” He wore a shirt with a Japanese flag and text that read japanese! be proud! you are the descendants of the yamato race.

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