Government and governance, Law, Social policy | Asia, East Asia

2 May 2016

Japan’s African community may have become more prominent of late, but there’s still a long way to go before they are treated equally, writes Bethany Schoer.

Over the past 30 years, Japan’s African diasporas have become a prominent fixture of its broader society. Initially compounded by a growth in educational mobility, as well as intermarriage between Africans and Japanese nationals, these groups have experienced greater visibility and an improved sense of collective identity, owing to the support of religious structures, associations and business hubs across major cities. Yet with Japanese society still marked by inherently xenophobic undertones, will there be genuine acceptance of the African migrant population in Japan in our lifetime, both at the institutional and social level? In all likelihood, probably not.

A glimpse into Japan’s relationship with African cultures superficially hints at a promising future. Looking through a diplomatic lens, the Abe government has made a concerted effort to fortify its ties with several African states. In March this year, Robert Mugabe was invited to Tokyo for a five-day official visit. Japan has also expressed an interest in pursuing foreign direct investment in Africa. While many consider this a blatant duplication of China’s exploits on the continent, it shows Abe government’s desire to gain political leverage and to further promote Japanese commercial interests globally.

Within Japan, urgent socio-economic matters such as its ageing population and a declining birth rate have seen political voices speaking in favour of more migrants. In particular, the Minister for Administrative Reform, Taro Kono, has advocated an increase in current migrant numbers as a means of facilitating a 110 trillion yen growth in GDP.

Increasing migrant numbers has also been framed as a moral obligation by the Minister for Regional Economic Development, Shigeru Ishiba, who highlighted other countries’ acceptance of Japanese migrants as a sign that Japan should reciprocate. With a total of 12,000 Africans officially registered in Japan in 2010, policymakers are under pressure to effectively harness the capacities of this group to rectify Japan’s economic dilemmas.

Socially, African cultures have been subjected to a considerable popularity boost, particularly among the younger demographics. As a haafu (multi-ethnic person) of African-American and Japanese parentage, Miss Universe 2015, Ariana Miyamoto, used her fame to shed light on her experiences of racial discrimination growing up in Nagasaki prefecture. Miyamoto has talked about the stigma she repeatedly confronted as a factor in the development of her determination and tenacity, while also raising critical questions about Japan’s conceptions of its own cultural identity.

More on this: Poles apart: missing the middle ground in Japan | Stephen R Nagy

In addition, YouTube has acted as a platform through which African-Americans living in Japan, such as well-known stay-at-home mother Tara Kamiya, can provide a first-hand account of the everyday problems they face. Although there are perceptible differences between African-American migrants and Japan’s African diasporas, putting a face to racial discrimination has the potential to encourage Japanese citizens to evaluate their own self-awareness and acceptance towards Africans in the community.

These examples highlight ways in which prejudices about African cultures are being challenged at the policymaking and the social level. However, the issue is too entrenched in Japanese institutional norms to be resolved with a diplomatic photo op or a beauty queen.

In 2005, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights condemned Japan for its inability to tackle its “deep and profound” racism and xenophobia, drawing particular attention to its lack of an anti-discrimination law. Much of this racism originates in Japan’s constitution, in which only Japanese nationals – as opposed to residents or people  – are understood as being equal before the law.

Continuing this divisive tone, the constitution’s nationality clauses restrict access among non-citizens to employment opportunities – crucially, those which necessitate security clearances. With constitutional reform only occasionally discussed and seldom acted upon, the chances of African migrants gaining traction in an environment where racial profiling and prejudice are both entrenched in institutions and politically condoned are very slim.

Opponents of a more relaxed immigration policy for Japan have added fuel to the fire, breathing life into the xenophobic semantics of the Japanese constitution. Controversially, influential Abe government advisor Ayako Sono argued last year that while migrants should be encouraged to apply to enter Japan in order to stimulate the faltering economy, they should remain segregated from the native Japanese population.

Japanese law enforcement agencies have also assumed a dominant role in creating a hostile environment. An in-depth analysis of Japan’s Nigerian communities detailed the difficulties faced by Gilbert Otaigbe, a Nigerian who ended up returning to his homeland. Having successfully profited from the wave of nightlife entrepreneurship experienced by many other Nigerians in Japan, Otaigbe’s frequent encounters with police highlighted their tendency to act impartially.

Rather than assume a position of moral stewardship, representatives of the Japanese government have instead been acting as mouthpieces to the constitution.

Yet Japan’s determination to ensure its own homogeneity does not stop at ethnicity alone. Even Japanese-born citizens who are considered foreign-looking have been confronted by government officials for lacking documents only required by foreigners. To be genuinely accepted in Japanese society, one must adhere to what is perceived as the conventional Japanese look.

Ultimately, an absence of strong voices promoting racial equality, coupled with a failure to embrace African cultures, will continue to compound uneasiness between Japan and its African diaspora. Until the Japanese government accepts its shortcomings and commits to long-term integration strategies and general acceptance of its African communities, tensions and animosity will remain.

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Schoer, B. (2016). First among equals? - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: