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Fred Hiatt
Thursday, March 10, 2011

Fred Hiatt

Japan's true scandal

Japan's latest political scandal is ostensibly about foreigners giving campaign donations. But the true scandal is what the episode shows about continuing Japanese reluctance to welcome anyone who doesn't look and talk like them.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan moved quickly to name a new foreign minister after Seiji Maehara was forced to resign Sunday. For a country that has been consuming its own with nasty political infighting, the resignation is one more milepost on a road to apparent ungovernability. It also sidelines one of the ruling party's more sophisticated and sensible leaders, who showed an appreciation for the U.S.-Japan alliance not shared by all of his colleagues.

What was Maehara's sin? He had accepted campaign donations from a foreigner - namely, about $2,400 from a 72-year-old woman who lives in Kyoto, operates a barbecue restaurant there and has known Maehara since he was in second grade. Japanese news stories described the woman as "Korean," which could mean she was born in Korea and moved to Japan decades ago, or that she was born in Japan, of Korean parents.

Before and during World War II, when Korea was a colony of Japan, hundreds of thousands of Koreans were induced, coerced or conscripted to work in Japan, often in terrible conditions. Some half-million of them - or their descendants - remain "foreigners" in Japan. For decades, Japan made it almost impossible for them to naturalize. Korean associations also discouraged assimilation.

Recently, naturalization has become easier, as has Korean-Japanese intermarriage. But the fact that the ruling party had to sideline one of its stars, at least temporarily, suggests that xenophobia remains close to the surface.

Why does it matter? The same unwillingness to integrate is playing out with Filipinos, Vietnamese and others who have gone to Japan to work - and with Japan's refusal to welcome immigration in larger numbers. That refusal, in turn, is a key factor in Japan's stagnating economy. As Central Bank Chairman Masaaki Shirakawa recently told the Wall Street Journal, Japan's declining population is one of the main reasons Japanese are reluctant to spend and invest. Its aging population can't reverse that trend; only immigration could. As one of the more forward-looking ministers leaves government, that looks less likely than ever.


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