Immigration in Japan

As if just to vindicate the reason for translating the previous survey for myself, a friend’s twitter feed produced a lovely example of buyer beware when it comes to English media reporting on Japan. Two posts previous I wrote:

“I also worry sometimes that overly literal translations often are taken out of context in the English media, especially when Japan is involved.”

(hmmm, I suspiciously sound like someone else in the Japanese blogosphere).

Well it seems that we actually need to be careful of completely inadequate translations as well as overly literal ones.

The English version of the Asahi Shimbun report contained this interpretation of the question on immigration as:

“On accepting immigrants to maintain economic vitality, only 26 percent supported such a move, while 65 percent opposed.”

It seems someone took this statement, commented over at, who put it up in flashing lights on his blog, and then proceed to jump to the conclusion that Japan “would rather be poorer as a nation than accept immigrants.” We also see some interesting paranoia where the blog states that the Japanese version did not contain reporting on the question that the English did. Just for good measure, this is apparently because discussion of immigration in Japan’s future is “taboo”.

The Japanese equivalent of the English article perhaps did not summarise the immigration question, but, as with all Asahi Shimbun surveys in Japanese, the full survey is put alongside the Japanese summary. Otherwise, how on earth would I have translated it?

Now for the question itself in the original:


Which I translated instead as:

“In the future, it is likely that due to the low birth rate the Japanese population will shrink and Japan will not be able to support the same large scale economy as it does now. If this was to be the case, do you support Japan embracing large scale immigration (or not)?”

(This is strictly not a literal translation as mentioned – and I am not a professional translator by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t believe that my translation misrepresents the question however.)

There are many problems with this.

First of all, the original question in Japanese is itself meaningless in its own way.

The population will decrease. And the “scale” of the economy will also likely decrease in line with this. In a decontextualised sense, this does not necessarily pose any specific problems however. After all, less people and a smaller economy in terms of GDP are not necessarily bad things that need addressing. Of course, the elephant in the room is that due to the decreasing birth rate Japan will certainly have some problems as Japan will become an aging society with few “productive’ tax payers and workers to support this society. Nevertheless, this is hinted at and not explicitly stated in the question.

The second part of the question then goes on to ask whether or not you agree with Japan accepting “large scale” immigration. Not just “immigration” in an ordinary sense. This is no small difference, as sophisticated policy makers anywhere will tell you. In this context, the 幅広く can suggest either large scale in terms of numbers, or breadth in terms of the criteria used to select possible immigrants. Or both. Either way, the inclusion of this adverb is a significant one and a lack of accounting for it is problematic.

I myself am pretty pro-immigration myself in my own country. But if these two elements were taken together and someone posed them to me, I would want to ask further questions, or, at least have a “maybe” option in answering this question. From the question it is not immediately obvious what the problem is, and more so, what on earth “large scale” or “wide ranging” immigration exactly is. Also, survey takers are not necessarily going to explore the issue in much depth – in the same way they might in a focus group.

Of course those of us in qualitative academic research are very aware of these sorts of interpretive issues – which is why we tend to like to supplement numerical surveys with textured analysis to ensure the complete wrong interpretation is not taken. But, that is just us.

Secondly, the English Asahi’s representation of the question and answer are extremely misleading to say the least. Essentially it simplifies the question not just to the point of it being meaningless, but actually makes the Japanese look extremely intolerant – almost pettily and intentionally ignorant. This leads to the third issue, of even this inadequate English being taken out of context by the interpretation that that Japanese would rather be “poor rather than accept immigrants”. This is certainly a step too far and an extremely uncritical acceptance of a meme that is itself tied to a discriminatory and simplistic stereotype.

We also have another issue – that specific kind of immigration itself is not defined. This can vary from everything such as PR, temporary workers rights, to citizenship.

To be sure, I am not going to go to the other extreme and say that the Japanese would obviously welcome immigration and immigrants with open arms and bouquets and what not. But I certainly do not think 65% of Japanese would rather than be poor than accept (any) immigration – now or in the future.

However, I think it would be fair for me to note some other statistics that I have come across in my own research.

I have in front of me an Asahi Shimbun-Tokyo University survey of 1300 candidates who ran for the Lower House elections in 2009. You can find it here – but it is big and cumbersome and in Japanese.

According to this information 50 percent of all candidates for the Lower House agreed or mostly agreed that Japan should continue to take in foreign workers in the future.


Less than 15% disagreed or mostly disagreed with the proposition with about 30% not being able to agree or disagree. Hardly indicative of rampant bloody minded racism. Putting “worker” into a question may well make all of the difference here – it certainly sounds more neutral than “wide ranging” immigration. It may say something about Japanese images and stereotypes of the non-specific free floating “foreigner”. Then again, it might not just be the Japanese who suffer from this lack of imagination.

We also get an insight into another aspect of the immigration debate through this survey. Another proposition was put forward:


“Foreigners with Permanent Residency should be granted local voting rights”

54 percent of candidates agreed or mostly agreed with this proposition. 23 percent disagreed or mostly disagreed. The rest were sitting on the fence.

Now one may say that this sample of candidates is not were near as representative as a poll of random citizens from all over the country. True. But one hopes there is a certain amount of representativeness in a modern democracy amongst the candidates for office. But even if not, these are likely to be a very good sample of the opinion makers and eventually the decision makers in Japan’s future. While Japanese newspapers might be content with asking meaningless questions with no context, and English media or commentary content to feed its own pre-existing conceptions, these people are going to have to be the ones to engage the public in conversation on this issue in the future. The immigration debate anywhere is pretty complex and much more nuanced than both sides of the argument care to acknowledge.  The appropriate solutions to immigration problems are even more elusive.

And anyway one does not have to be a bigot to consider questions of social stability in immigration policy-making for social as well as economic health.


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