Hyphenated Identities

I came across a rare article (Japanese-only) on cultural assimilation in Japan.

IgiRodrigoRodrigo Igi is a third-generation Brazilian-Japanese, whose passion for teaching has gained him steady admiration in a notoriously xenophobic Japan. Barely 30 years of age, he first arrived in Japan at age 10 with his factory worker parents, unable to speak a lick of Japanese. As a rare “gaijin” in a public school system, he spent his formative years being bullied by his peers while also battling a rare bout of leukemia. Eventually overcoming his life-threatening illness, he threw himself into his studies with a steely determination to be accepted into the Japanese society, and emerged victorious with near-native language teaching credentials. He now burnishes his credentials in an Aichi prefecture high school, where the majority of his students are low-income migrant children of Toyota’s factory workers hailing from Brazil.

This article was rather striking due to its open acknowledgement of the cultural and economic struggles that foreigners, and specifically nikkei-jin, blatantly face in a foreigner-weary Japan. Brazilian migrants of Japanese ancestry surged in the 1990s when the government issued work visas to those who could claim Japanese heritage (within three generations) to stand in for the country’s declining labor supply. Lured by economic opportunities, many arrived to become factory workers in the automotive and electronic industries, and faced enormous discrimination and injustices in their host communities despite their Japanese heritage and high education levels.

In recent years, there has been a meager uptick in the long overdue efforts by the central government to provide language and job training for foreign residents, as well as to increase local integration and acceptance of foreigners. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a rather unflattering website dedicated to the so-called “symbiosis” of guest workers and emigrants to Japan, which include workshops and symposiums that gingerly broach the subject of societal challenges that hamper these foreigners’ acceptance into Japanese society.

In a country with a severely declining population and a debilitating fear of outsiders, Rodrigo’s story is a positive step toward the long road to multicultural tolerance and openness for Japan. Despite a disturbing rise in popular nationalism, these integration measures are reaffirming Japan’s need for greater education and exposure to the world to overcome its current lack of global competitiveness.

I leave my parting thoughts with Rodrigo’s passionate presentation (two parts) at the 2009 International symposium on Acceptance of Foreign Nationals and Their Integration Into Japan, co-hosted by MOFA and IOM. I only wish the best for him and hope that he continues to influence locals on the plight of foreigners in Japan.

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