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Confronting Japan’s Fear of Foreign Residents

This is a photo I took in October 2018.


The predominantly red poster on the left seems to be an advertisement for an independent publication of sorts, and I found it in a Tozai line train compartment.

For those who don’t understand Japanese, here is what it says (read right to left) in the first two sections. 

“From Convenience Stores to Hospitals, [there are] Foreign Workers!”

“Through a Mass Inflow of Immigrants, What Will Happen to Japan?”

Later sections talk about how Europe’s safety has also been affected by immigrants, the possibility of terror hotbeds in Tokyo due to the same, and references to a ‘Vietnamese crime network’.

Many residents of Japan will know that it’s all too easy to come across this sort of propaganda in the form of right-wing agents in trucks blaring messages or rallies of people protesting against increased foreign entry, and some even suggest that this falls under the right to exercise free speech, expression, and association by Japanese people though others feel it comes dangerously close to the line separating free speech/expression from a hate act. And to be honest, if I’d seen this poster on a random wall in a major city center like Shinjuku or Ikebukuro, I would have just snorted in derision before continuing my day. 

But not on this occasion.

Apart from the face-value message which struck me as incredibly sensationalist, I was angered to find this message on a train line handled by the Tokyo Metro company. The Tozai line is one of the most frequently used and congested train lines, servicing a large number of localities in three prefectures, from Yokohama in Kanagawa and stretching across a large portion of Tokyo before continuing through Chiba up to Nishi-Funabashi. It also passes through areas that see a larger proportion of foreign groups such as Waseda University, Nishi-Kasai, and Urayasu. 

A quick stroll into a major station handled by Tokyo Metro lets you know that the company is excited about the upcoming 2020 Olympics and is eagerly preparing for the influx of foreign visitors it is bound to receive. There are in-train commercial showing smiling staff members helping lost tourists, and signboards near the platforms recommending common sight-seeing spots and tour packages to make use of. For a company that prides itself so much on Japanese courtesy and hospitality, allowing or even failing to monitor the insertion of a Xenophobic advertisement poster such as this one strikes the viewer as tone-deaf at best and hypocritical at worst. If done deliberately, it shows a double standard which clearly communicates that Japan is happy to welcome tourists (read: temporary visitors) but finds their extended presence invasive and even harmful to the society. Foreigners can expect the best of all things Japanese as long as they pay for it and leave quickly, while the ideas propagated by posters such as these affect the long-term residents who commonly face issues such as housing discrimination and racially-motivated police checks long after the tourists have departed. 

I’m well aware that this is not a portrait of Japan or even its people as a whole. Most Japanese individuals I know are open minded, accepting of foreign workers and students (especially at a time when the society is aging), and some are even advocating to challenge policies regarding the extremely limited acceptance of refugees. 

In many ways this poster is an expression of the fear and confusion originating from the groups disappointed in their government because (from their perspective), their elected leaders have failed to ensure their employment or economic security. And during such a time of perceived crisis, it feels easier to take all those feelings and set it after an easier target (such as foreign workers) because criticizing the government requires the complainant in question to examine their own political ideals, behavior, and level of participation in their civic processes. 

When the world media paints an over-simplified and Orientalist image of Japan as a land populated by courteous people with strange customs but ultimately harmless quirks, focusing only on its identity as a beatific tourist location rather than a long-term residence for many of foreign descent, it erases narratives like these which go on to directly affect the safety and dignity of individuals like you and me. Wherever we go in the world, whether we consider ourselves politically inclined or not, it’s important to observe and address the instances of Xenophobia we encounter in our daily lives notwithstanding whether they are committed by individuals, groups, or entire systems. 

22, INFJ, Sahana is an aspiring investigative journalist and writer studying at Waseda University. She loves reading, film photography, martial arts, writing fiction, debating, vanishing on unplanned hikes, listening to music and planning day trips. When she's not scribbling away, you'll find her searching Tokyo for the perfect cup of coffee, haunting the darkest part of a forest removed from humanity, or lost on the University campus and imploring seniors to decipher kanji for her. The average person has a 10/10 chance of getting into an argument with her.
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