April 1 was a big day in Japan. The name of the coming new Imperial era (新元号) was announced as 令和Reiwa. With the new emperor taking over on May 1, the Heisei era is being reviewed and hopes for the new era proclaimed by a tired and disheartened citizenry.
A more concrete change takes place as a new immigration law goes into effect and the country braces for the impending wave of foreigners to fill the labor shortage. For years the government has resisted the inevitable solution to the nation’s graying population and extremely low birth rate. Resisters to change fear diversity and the evils of a multicultural society that will lead to a loss of what they regard as Japanese culture.
But now, a year before the Tokyo Olympics, the gates will be opened to hundreds of thousands of migrants who will enter Japanese society, mostly in roles that Japanese people do not want to fill. You can already see young people of various nationalities working in convenience stores and restaurants. Migrants will also be caretakers for the growing numbers of elderly needing their support in a society where they are increasingly left on their own.
On television they advised ambivalent citizens to open up with the message: 「受け入れては未来の投資」Accepting [foreigners into Japanese society] is an investment in our future.
Having worked with international students in Tokyo for many years I am familiar with the kinds of tensions raised by the presence of those perceived to be outsiders. I was hired at the University of Tokyo as part of a government initiative to bring 100,000 international students to Japan by the year 2000. I started studying and writing about this issue more than 20 years ago with articles and books with titles like, “Expanding the Borders of the Nation,” “Japan’s Diversity Dilemmas,” and “Transcultural Japan.” I've watched and waited for the government to respond and they have at last made a new immigration law that will bring hundreds of thousands of newcomers.
As someone who has often been “othered” and perceived and treated as an outsider, I am sensitive to the ways that people create borders of “us” and “them.” I have also experienced inclusion and I know it is possible to become an integral part of this society. I still see the key to the acceptance of newcomers as empathy and respect for the personal sacrifices and efforts they are making as well as belief that they are bringing something valuable to this country.