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Bangladeshis take part in a neighborhood patrol in Chiba's Inage Ward on March 10.

Japan moves gingerly toward accepting immigrants

While local integration efforts flourish, national policies get low marks

TOKYO -- When a Bangladeshi man Hakim Md. Nasirul and his friends turned a house they had bought in a residential area in the city of Chiba into a mosque four years ago, it raised eyebrows in the neighborhood.

Faced with these suspicions, the 48-year-old man came up with an idea last year to win people over: He and his fellow Muslim congregants began taking part in neighborhood patrols, wearing caps emblazoned with the Chinese characters for "crime prevention."

Little by little, the residents have become accustomed to the newcomers. Some now offer parking spaces to worshippers who drive to the mosque.

"I appreciate their willingness to help us improve our neighborhood," said Masatoshi Saito, who heads the neighborhood association. For the 74-year-old, the Muslims are now welcome members of his community.

Minuses and pluses

In parts of Europe, immigrants are a source of public discord. In the 1950s and '60s, Turks migrated to Germany en masse seeking jobs and settled in, but the government did not do much to integrate these "guest workers" into local communities.

The tensions in Europe have made many Japanese leery of large-scale immigration. "If we were to choose to address Japan's labor shortage by allowing more immigrants in without carefully thinking about it, we would face a situation similar to Europe," said Kazuhiko Toyama, managing partner of business consultancy Industrial Growth Platform. "You should never underestimate the stress it can cause to society."

Of course, the problem has two sides: as the number of foreign workers increases rapidly in places such as Europe and the U.S., hate speech, intolerance and populism have risen as well. The big question is how to integrate immigrants into society without causing major social dislocation.

In the town of Shibazono in Kawaguchi, a city just north of Tokyo, foreign residents make up over half the residents. The newcomers are mostly Chinese who settled there over the past two decades as the Japanese population aged and declined.

Katsuji Nirasawa, who heads the residents' association of a public housing complex in Shibazono, said he was initially alarmed at the influx of foreigners. "We even asked Urban Renaissance Agency which manages the property to prevent foreigners from moving into this complex," Nirasawa said.

But the Japanese residents eventually realized nothing would change or alleviate their anxiety as long as the two groups remained strangers. So they started trying to bridge the gap by holding exchange events, enlisting help from student volunteers.

At present, only about 30 of about the 1,000 Chinese households are paying members of the residents' association, but the gap has narrowed to the extent that a Chinese now serves on the association's board.

Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, which, at over 40,000, has Japan's largest group of foreign residents, began offering Japanese classes for the children of foreign nationals in 2008. Seven out of 10 schoolteachers in the ward have foreign students.

These children, lacking Japanese skills, often feel alienated. Some lose interest in school or have conflicts with classmates. "I hate school," said one fourth-grade Chinese at a language class. But despite the bumps, the lessons have proved effective in assimilating the children, according to Yoshiyuki Miyake of the ward's board of education.

"After attending the class for some time, they begin to understand Japanese," Miyake said. "Then most of them become friends with their classmates and integrate."

In the academic year ending this month, the ward also introduced counseling for students wishing to enter high school, using interpreters. This month, all of the 20 or so students using the service passed their high school entrance exams.

Although there are a number of local efforts like these, Japan's overall integration policy rates poorly. The Migrant Integration Policy Index, which is used to "evaluate and compare what governments are doing to promote the integration of migrants," ranked Japan 27th out of 38 countries in 2015. The operator of the index, said Japan lacks adequate measures to combat discrimination against immigrants, and to encourage their participation in politics and education.


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