Sunday 10 June 2018

Immigration in Japan: Systems of Control and Deliberate Inefficiency

The other day, I had the "pleasure" of visiting the Tokyo immigration office (nyūkoku kanri kyoku =入国管理局) after quite a few years of not having to go. Because I have permanent residency (eijūken =永住権), I do not need to renew my visa, unlike the majority of non-permanent residents who do need to periodically extend their visa. On top of that, as part of the new 2012 residency management system, the re-entry permit system (sainyukoku kyoka =再入国許可) was streamlined so that if you return to Japan within a year, it is no longer necessary (as long as you remember to tick the right box on the Embarkation card!). Actually, I never managed to figure out why a re-entry permit should be necessary if someone already had a visa. In fact, I never even realised that such a thing was necessary when I first left Japan for the very first time for a holiday only to be told that without the permit I wouldn't be let back in! The memory of me standing in the Narita Immigration Office, which seems to specialise in unfriendly officials, and begging for help in broken Japanese is one that I shall never forget.

On entering the Tachikawa branch office or shucchōjo (出張所) just before 9:00 when it opens, there were already a lot of people milling about and my ticket number in the queue was 31. I was hoping that given the rapid rise in foreign workers in recent years, things may have changed. But no. There was no reception or help desk - you just waited your turn until your number was called. I waited two hours (getting all my Spanish homework done!) only to told that what I wanted to do couldn't be done. The people next to me had the same problem. There were surely many others who had filled out the wrong form or were confused about what documents or payment was needed, including people who had filled out the re-entry permit form and bought the stamps without realising that, if they came back within one year, it was unnecessary (no signs pointed this out). In sum, with no help desk to check and a pretty useless telephone enquiry service the only thing to do was wait and hope - and then go to the back of the queue and start again. When I asked the official whether things wouldn't be more efficient (for both sides) with a reception to screen and help people he simply said it couldn't be done (dekinai).

An "information" board containing no useful information
Why such deliberate inefficiency? Previous posts on immigration provide a hint, in particular the reality that Japan lacks a proper immigration policy despite a falling population and rising labour shortages. Today the number of foreign residents is at an all time high (around 2.5 million), which includes 1.27 million foreign workers. But despite the rapid rise - and need for - workers, the system remains one of control (kanri) of foreigners (gaikokujin) and the word migrant or migration (imin) remains taboo: Japan does not officially accept migrants nor does it have an immigration policy, as politicians frequently take pains to point out. So the system remains one of stop-gap ad-hoc measures (mostly focused on expanding the "trainee" system) coupled with strict controls, such as the fingerprinting and photographing of almost all non-Japanese passport holders, including permanent residents like me, each and every time they re-enter the country. These kind of "anti-terrorist" measures (as they are called) - now including facial recognition which was unveiled at Narita Airport on Friday - means Japanese border controls are even stricter than those in the US, who, unlike Japan, has good reason to fear terrorist attacks. On top of this, while living in Japan, non-Japanese have to carry their resident card (zairyū kādo =在留カード) with them at all times - woe betide you if you pop out to get a drink from the vending machine without your card and get stopped by a "friendly" police officer for questioning (known as shokumu shitsumon =職務質問).

FOOTNOTE: On June 5th, the government announced, in a draft on reform presented to the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy (経済財政運営と改革の基本方針), plans for a new visa status which it hopes will attract "tens of thousands of foreign workers a year." The front page of the Yomiuri (June 6th) headlined this as "accelerating the acceptance of foreign human resources" (外国人材受け入れ促進). This is a classic case of "wanting to have your cake and eat it": desperately needing foreign labour but studiously avoiding creating a proper immigration policy to support them. In the final analysis, a system which tries to attract foreign workers but which makes them feel unwelcome once they do arrive is a system which is destined to fail.