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The wrong place

Looking in the wrong place: race & crime in Japan

(first posted 25 November 05)

There’s a section of the Japanese right wing which has been noisily complaining for many years about the high crime rate among foreigners. If you take visa violations out of the equation, it has been shown that foreign residents in Japan in fact have a far lower propensity to crime than the indignenous population. Bear in mind also that the only terrorist crimes committed on Japanese soil were carried out by Japanese citizens.

Therefore, the government’s plan to ‘tag’ foreigners can only be regarded as nothing but bare-faced racism. The plan is to replace the current “Gaijin card” (‘Certificate of Alien Registration’) with a chipped card containing data such as name, nationality, birthday, passport information, visa status, address, workplace, educational institution and such. Nothing terribly amiss there. Other than the chip, it’s no different from the present card.

The difference will be in the use of the card. I presently don’t have to take my card out of my wallet from one year to the next. The Japan Times is quoted, on Tuesday, as saying that this new card, however, will need to be shown and swiped when the holder goes to (for example and among others) a hotel, a government office, estate agent, a museum even. And where else? So essentially, the card will be no different from the tag attached to the ankle of parolled prisoners. Every movement will be tracked. For “protection and convenience”. (Whose?) Oh, and there’s the “voluntary” finger-printing too.

The Japanese themselves wouldn’t stand for it. In fact they didn’t – when the government tried, the populace along with local authorities, roundly rejected it. But the goals of the new scheme are “strengthening control of residency information, [… and the] ease and precision of collection, analysis, and practical use of data for Immigration,” and tracking illegal aliens. Immigration already has a couple of kilos of paperwork about every legal non-Japanese resident so how does the card make the system any more efficient? And illegal immigrants dodge some/all of this anyhow so how will they be any more trackable by a card they won’t carry?

And there’s the old argument of “If you keep your nose clean, you’ve nothing to fear.” Really? Well, who will have access to my information? Why does a museum I’m visiting need to know where I work? Or why does the government need to know I’m visiting a museum (for example)? I have nothing to hide, but that doesn’t mean my information’s open to all. The scope of this card will widen under this new plan. And if it widens further in the future? Will I have access to my own information? How easy will it be to correct anything that’s wrong?

The rabid right of political Japan (cf. governor of Tokyo, Ishihara and his constant and mindless racist soundbites, and also Koizumi’s new appointee as Foreign Minister, the ultranationalist and supremacist Aso) have stoked underlying xenophobia with irrational public statements designed only to inflame, and have fed the suspicion with which many non-Japanese in Japan are seen.

In terms of crime, it’s the gaijin population which statistically is the least of the threat to public order in Japan. I will carry the card, because I will have to. My point is, with the stated objectives being plainly false, what is the real motive behind this?

(followed on 8 December by the following post)

Perhaps the most infuriating thing about the Japanese media is their treatment of ‘foreign’-ness. From variety shows mocking foreigners simply for not being Japanese to the news media’s knee-jerk reaction to crime committed by non-Japanese, the fact is if you’re not Japanese, it can often be made into a stick for you to be beaten with.

Now this topic is central to the life of any non-Japanese resident of Japan and has been done to death in innumerable blogs and countless articles far more lucid than this, so I’ll try not to labour the point. But I find Japan’s treatment of race (and racism) shocking because it is so primitive. (Tamori et al doing impressions of a black tv personality that lapsed into impressions of a chimp, for example, on a lunchtime programme, prompted no outrage whatsoever.) No part of Japan of course is like the big racial mix of London, but this is 2005 and foreigners are no longer a rarity. This however hasn’t improved matters for many foreigners living in Japan. In fact, the media has stirred up prejudices and fears to makes things considerably worse. (Japan Today recently had a vox pop asking “Is crime committed by foreigners on the rise?” Can you imagine the reaction to that question being posed in England?)

Not Japanese then?And there was more of the same this week and last, when Juan Carlos Pizarro Yagi was arrested on suspicion of murdering a 7-year-old girl in Hiroshima. As soon as he was revealed to be Peruvian, all the news coverage switched irrevocably from the heinous nature of his crime and the pain of the victim’s family, to an investigation of his nationality and background. He had claimed to be of Japanese descent (the name Yagi), and this was reported early on, but when one tv company’s investigation revealed a person in a Japanese community in Peru hadn’t heard of him, this was later played down and he simply became “Peruvian” (almost to audible relief), and the further down the evolutionary scale you went, the worse it got – the picture is from a page of the Mainichi.

So with the downmarket media trying to put the fear up the populace with tales of (foreign) doom, it was interesting to see the National Police Agency’s crime figures this week. I’d never seen crime figures broken down by nationality before, but it helps illustrate the case. So which ethnic group is most likely to commit crime? (Yes there are figures for this.)

Well, while you find Chinese and Brazilians at the top of the league, you also find that the crime rate for the Japanese themselves (in third place) is 12 to 18 times higher than that of ‘westerners’. But in a country that likes so much to distinguish between Japanese and foreigners, no attempt is made (nor is any need felt) to distinguish between the foreigners themselves. The point of the word gaijin (for those not studying Japanese, this is a contraction of gaikokujin and means ‘outsider’ and was used for centuries to denote anyone not part of the community), and the reason so many find its overuse offensive – it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re not from.

Despite it being an anachronism in the 21st century, many countries still have this insular outlook, but arguably nowhere in the world does a nation’s interest wane so rapidly at its own borders as in Japan.

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