80% of Japanese welcome foreigners of Japanese descent?

by Robert Moorehead

After the posting of signs alerting foreign shoppers that they’re being watched for crimes at Genky markets, the Cabinet Office has announced the results of a poll on Japanese attitudes towards foreign residents of Japanese descent (Nikkei Teijū Gaikokujin). (Here’s a link to English coverage in the Japan Times.) 1,883 Japanese people responded to the survey, out of 3,000 asked, completing short structured interviews. The results of the survey are encouraging, with 80.9 percent of respondents stating that they would accept Nikkei into their communities. However I wonder about social desirability effects, or the extent to which people are saying what they think will make them look good. Is this a case of tatemae over honne?

The survey asked respondents if they knew that there were Nikkei living in Japan, and how they knew this. Nearly 53 percent the respondents either knew that Nikkei were living in Japan, or had heard about it. 46 percent answered that they did not know that this group was living in Japan. The fact that Nikkei are concentrated in industrial regions of the country may account for the high percentage of Japanese who were unaware that this group is here. (At its peak in 2007, nearly 400,000 South Americans were registered residents in Japan. Much of this population is either of Japanese descent, or is a family member of someone of Japanese descent.)

Only 16.7 of respondents who knew of the existence of Nikkei in Japan (that is, about 9 percent of all respondents) knew or had worked with someone who was Nikkei. Nearly 73 percent had heard about this group on TV, and 48 percent had read about them in the newspaper. Having less than one out of 10 respondents actually know someone who is Nikkei means that the Nikkei remain vulnerable to negative depictions in mass media. The National Police Agency fuels this situation by continuing its inaccurate connection of foreigners with crime. Fear sells newspapers and funds budgets.

88 percent of respondents state the Nikkei need to learn the language, and nearly 92 percent state they need to learn Japanese culture and customs. More specifically, when asked how much of the Japanese language and culture Nikkei should know prior to coming to Japan, 46 percent responded that the Nikkei should know enough to be able to live independently (fujiyū shinai). Another 42 percent responded that they should know the bare minimum to get by in their daily living. 41 percent answered that the Nikkei should be familiar with Japanese culture and customs before coming, while another 50 percent think they should at least learn this after they arrive. These points seem fairly obvious. Economic security and social mobility in Japan require learning the Japanese language and culture, and the Nikkei are adapting. Assimilation happens every day, in many little ways, even by those who might be opposed to “turning Japanese.”

The survey then examines respondents’ support for government policies to facilitate this assimilation, including programs for Nikkei kids in school, interpreters at Hello Work employment centers, and skills training for Nikkei workers. The survey did not include any discussion of how much money respondents would want the government to spend on these programs. 87 percent of respondents stated that special policies to facilitate the integration of the Nikkei should be either maintained (nearly 60 percent) or increased (27 percent).

The most surprising result was that nearly 81 percent said that they were open to accepting Nikkei into their local communities. 30 percent said they would accept them, and nearly 51 percent replied that they were somewhat open to accepting them (“Dochirakatoieba, ukeiretai“). Nearly 13 percent said they would prefer not to accept Nikkei into their local communities.

So what does this mean? What does it mean to ‘accept’ Nikkei into your community? Can they rent an apartment in your building? Work in your company as something other than a manual laborer? Can they join your social groups? Can they marry your daughter? And what are the conditions of this acceptance? Are they welcome as long as they act Japanese?

On the one hand, I’m encouraged by the support for Nikkei in Japan. It’s certainly better than if they had said the opposite. But … I’m skeptical. South Americans in Japan, Nikkei and non-Nikkei alike, have told me very clearly that they do not feel included in Japanese society. Instead, borrowing some phrases from Eli Anderson’s The Cosmopolitan Canopy, they’re perpetually ‘on probation.’ In this provisional status, any misstep can be used against you as a sign of the fact that you’ll never fit in. You can enjoy a certain bonhomie with Japanese, but there’s always that chance that you’ll make a mistake with the language or do something else wrong—and those faux pas could out you as a perpetual gaijin (foreigner/outsider). There’s always the risk of the gaijin moment, in which a Japanese person calls you out on your foreign status by calling you gaijin (or the gaijin‘s dressed up cousin, gaijin-san) or posting signs in stores warning all customers that gaijin are being watched as potential criminals.

Scholars have noted that surveys are better at reflecting respondents’ public performance of attitudes about minority groups, than at accurately measuring people’s “real” views. We’ve become really good at hiding what we think, and instead we present a front stage image of ourselves that tries to make us look good. Survey techniques that pursue the issue with flexible follow-up questions reveal more negative views, as do in-depth interviews. In Japanese, these presentations of self are defined as tatemae (your front stage performance) and honne (your true beliefs). So to what extent do these questions reflect respondents’ real views? Ethnographic research on this topic reveals persistent barriers to the fuller integration of non-Japanese into Japanese society. People will often say they’re open to having other groups live in Japan, but when push comes to shove, foreigners remain on probation.

Hopefully government officials will use this survey to promote further initiatives to empower the Nikkei (and hopefully other non-Japanese) in Japan. Publicly conducting the survey, posting it on the Cabinet Office website, and releasing it to the press, may indicate that the government is testing public support for such initiatives.


5 thoughts on “80% of Japanese welcome foreigners of Japanese descent?

  1. I find this really interesting, and I especially I like the end where you wonder if this may single a change in government attitudes. Haven’t 50,000 Nikkei left Japan via the Japanese subsidized return airfare following the 2008 financial crisis? Those are the numbers I have seen, at least.

    Anyway, I think the best bet for greater understanding and cooperation will be the children of Nikkeijin workers. The numbers escape me at the moment, but in 2010 I believe there was roughly 300,000 Nikkeijin in Japan, but only about 200,000 workers or so. The rest are dependents (non working spouses and especially KIDS). These kids – from babies to college age – are growing up in Japan and adopting the customs and language faster than their parents. They may help facilitate better relations between Japanese and Nikkeijin as they grow into adulthood.

    • Thanks for the comment and question. Roughly 100,000 South Americans (or 1 in 4) have left Japan since the economic crisis hit in 2008, 70-80,000 Brazilians. The Japanese government offered subsidies for people to leave, with the stipulation that those who accepted the subsidy would be ineligible for the same long-term visa for a period of 3 years.

      The children are indeed integrating into Japanese society more deeply than their parents. Some of the children I worked with in my fieldwork are moving on to college, while others are in vocational school. Sadly some have also dropped out. In some ways, these children give me hope that Japan will be able to adapt, to accept all that these children have to offer. In other ways, I see the same barriers reproducing themselves. It’s important that we keep pushing for change.

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