Why do Japanese stare at foreigners

Japan: My stress test in Tokyo


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I admit my opinion was clear. When I landed at Narita Airport with my family this spring to do research at Tokyo University for four months, I was sure: Japan is not a liberal country. Point.

My first weeks in the Far East confirmed this impression. No question about it, we were greeted in a very friendly manner, but it quickly became clear that we are "different". On the one hand, there is writing and language that exclude anyone who cannot speak Japanese. On the other hand, there are the statistics: In 2015, only 2.2 million people with foreign citizenship were registered in Japan, half of them came from the neighboring countries of China and Korea. With a population of 127 million, this corresponds to a proportion of foreigners of 1.6 percent - in Switzerland it is a quarter.

It is a strange experience for a free-thinking person to feel excluded. Especially in such a charming way that I experience this in Japan. For example in the workplace, where repairing the printer becomes a social experiment in which you feel at the mercy of unspoken rules of conduct - and do everything to comply with them. You don't want to be seen as a rude guest. As if that weren't enough, for me, the liberal-minded person who has campaigned intensively for an open Switzerland in recent years, life in Tokyo has an unpleasant insight: A country works, even if it differs from the global migration movements largely foreclosures.

But the foreclosure policy is only a superficial one. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his conservative cabinet consistently avoid the word "migration". You speak of a policy of "international human resources". It is supposed to secure the supply of skilled workers and academics in the country. Since the 1980s the government has been dreaming of the perfect migrant, a temporary guest who makes his qualifications available to Japan in order to return home afterwards. "Servir et disparaƮtre", the motto of thirty years of migration policy.

But Japan has left two big back doors open through which the economy brings its workforce into the country. On the one hand, the many foreign students are allowed to work during their stay. After graduation, many stay in the country and settle here long-term.

Johan Rochel

34, is a philosopher and co-founder of the think tank foraus. Most recently published: "Switzerland and the Other: Plea for a Liberal Switzerland" (NZZ Libro, 2016)

On the other hand, come through the so-called foreign trainees Program cheap labor for up to three years to Japan. Most of these "interns" come from other Asian countries. They should continue their vocational training in Tokyo, Kyoto or Sapporo and later carry what they have learned back to their old home. Officially, the program is part of Japanese development policy. In fact, critics have complained for decades, the interns are simple guest workers who are often exploited.

Nevertheless, the Japanese government does not want to officially recognize that the country is dependent on immigrants for economic reasons and that this immigration has been going on for a long time; First and foremost in important and respected sectors such as the automotive and electrical industries, but also agriculture and the hospitality industry.

In the future it will certainly not work in Japan without foreigners. The population is not only getting older, it is also shrinking rapidly. But there are no major political changes in sight. Prime Minister Abe does not want an honest and comprehensive migration policy, but continues to rely on pavement policy. He tries to recruit additional nursing staff with international agreements, although hardly any foreign nurses want to come to Japan, he wants to attract more students to the country and expand the controversial trainee program.

Yes, here in Japan a lot reminds me of the discussions that we have had in Switzerland since the mass immigration initiative was adopted. While Shinzo Abe wants to mobilize "100 million Japanese" for the labor market, the Federal Council has introduced a light priority for domestic residents. Instead of bringing foreigners into the country, more Japanese and Swiss people should work. This primarily refers to women, the elderly and foreigners who are already legally resident in the country.

Just like in Switzerland, politics in Japan also ignores two things: the structural hurdles and the limited potential of the local population workforce. When my partner and I are in the playground with our children here in Tokyo, Japanese mothers tell us the same story over and over again. How difficult it is to overcome rigid family models and find your way back into the labor market as a mother, and how latent parents are discriminated against. From a distance, even the Swiss family policy appears very progressive!