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FOCUS September 2013 Volume Vol. 73

9th National Forum in Solidarity with Migrants: A Report

Douglas Maclean

This article summarizes the key sessions of the 9th annual National Forum in Solidarity with Migrants, held in Kobe in July 2013. The article provides a summary of the main session, as well as one workshop session the author attended on the first day of the forum. The author’s impressions of the event, and his opinion on the event’s impact, are also included.

As a researcher on international marriage migration in Japan, and as a first time participant, the 9th National Forum in Solidarity with Migrants represented a chance to meet grassroots stakeholders who regularly advocate for migrants, and to hear their thinking about key issues and how to address them. The forum was a two-day affair: the first day was broken into a general session, where three speakers focused on different issues impacting migrants, followed by a set of workshops that delved into specific issues in more detail. The second day included short speeches by immigrants or by second- generation Japanese.1
The forum was held at Konan University in Kobe. The main session filled a large auditorium, with more than one hundred fifty people  in attendance. The audience included non-governmental organization (NGO) workers, scholars, university students, and even a few government officials. While the overwhelming majority of the participants were Japanese, some foreign residents also participated, and the session included English, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese translators.

 Key Themes of the General Session

Following a number of opening speeches, the general session presented three topics: supporting foreign residents in the aftermath of the Great East Japan disaster, impacts of revisions to the Immigration Control Act, and immigration policy under Korea’s Lee Myun Bak administration as a comparison to Japan’s system.

1) Supporting foreign residents in the aftermath of the Great East Japan disaster

According to the speaker, approximately 75,300 foreign residents resided in the disaster areas affected by the tsunami and the nuclear meltdown of 2011. The majority were spouses of Japanese men, mostly from Mainland China, South Korea, and the Philippines. While many were concentrated in the larger towns and cities, such as Sendai, a sizeable minority were broadly scattered throughout the countryside, with one, two, or at best a small handful in any given village. These women were often socially isolated within their local community, making it even more difficult to find them and provide assistance. Some foreign brides lost their spouse in the disaster; a Filipino wife for example saw her husband’s car swept away, leaving her to care for her children alone. While she could speak some level of Japanese, her inability to read and write the language well made finding work, particularly in the disaster area, especially difficult.
On a more positive note, we learned that NGO workers and volunteers cooperated with the city of Ishimaki in Miyagi prefecture, an area particularly affected by the tsunami, to carry out the very first survey of foreign residents and their living conditions. This was apparently a groundbreaking survey for a local municipality to carry out. However, as the impetus for this survey came from the grassroots rather than the national level, it is difficult to know the extent to which other localities surveyed foreign residents and how thoroughly they responded to their needs. With local government resources stretched thin providing general disaster relief, such a survey, and with it relief efforts aimed at immigrant residents, may well have fallen through the cracks.

2) Impacts of revisions to the Immigration Control Act

The Japanese government revised its immigration law, the Immigration Control Act, several years ago, with the changes coming into effect in July 2012. The biggest change was the replacement of the alien registration card all foreign residents carried with a new residence card, similar to what Japanese nationals own. With this change, nearly all government services could be accessed with this one card, while at the same time all immigration control functions moved from local government to the central government. (namely, the Ministry of Justice and its Immigration Bureau) While the stated intent was to make accessing public services
and residing in Japan more convenient for foreign residents, the speaker argued that the outcome was far from positive.
The biggest issue: while public services are now more easily accessible with a residency card, they are not accessible without one. Before, even undocumented migrants could access health care, education for their children, and other services. The revisions thus served to exclude those undocumented, and whom, the speaker argued, were among the most vulnerable populations. Additionally, the law now carries more severe penalties for those who fail to renew their visa or their permanent residency card on time. In some cases, they may even lose their status for a late renewal request, and can face stiff fines. The end result, the speaker argued, is that the increased convenience offered by the new law is heavily outweighed by the additional restrictions placed upon foreign residents, and a penalty system that makes residency less secure than it was before.

3) Immigration policy under Korea’s Lee Myun Bak administration

Finally, a member of an association that advocates for immigrants’ rights in South Korea provided an overview of Korean immigration policy and its impact on foreign residents’ way of life. Her description of the policy evolution and implementation in Korea contrasted sharply with the Japanese system. Progressive governments in Korea in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, urged on by very vocal civil society actors, enacted immigration policies to assist immigrants in settling in the country. For international marriage migrants, policies on “multicultural families” were created, and included language and culture courses for foreign brides, along with help centers in municipalities throughout the country. Such policies were of course, not perfect. Foreign couples (i.e. where both spouses are foreign nationals) were excluded from the family support policies. Worse, services available for marriage migrants (the vast majority of whom are brides from East and Southeast Asia) focused on assimilating the bride into Korean society, but with little effort to educate her new family or the greater community on her own cultural background. With the rise of the more conservative Lee administration in 2007, even the more progressive reforms were slowed or brought to a halt.
Ironically, the question and answer session that followed focused on the many drawbacks the Japanese system has in comparison to its Korean counterpart. For example, at present, there is no national policy on international marriages, while low-skilled foreign labor is ostensibly banned from the country. Additionally, much of the support system that exists for marriage migrants in Korea is simply not present in Japan, and international marriage brokers continue to operate unregulated.

Individual Workshops

Following the main session, the event broke into fourteen separate workshops, lasting just over two hours. Unfortunately, the workshops all occurred at the same time, allowing participants to attend only one. As my research focused on international marriage migrants, I attended a workshop on protecting the rights of immigrant women. The panel included a speaker from Korea, a legal practitioner who represented women who were victims of domestic violence, and a woman whospoke on the implications of the Hague Convention on Child Abduction.2 The format was much the same as the main session, with short presentations, followed by an in-depth question and answer session.
The speakers were well- experienced in their field, and the benefit to having such a long workshop was that participants were able to delve more deeply into the topics presented.
A personal comment on the workshop: I was the only man in the room. While it is wonderful to have a workshop packed with participants (including women from the Philippines, the US, and other countries), the lack of men was telling. Women’s issues are not just for women. Every man has a mother, and many have sisters, aunts, and daughters. The family’s treatment of women has a direct impact upon men. More practically, men still wield a disproportionate level of power in most countries, and no more so than in Japan. Without men engaged and advocating on these issues, moving these issues forward becomes incredibly difficult, and stakeholders risk being sidelined for focusing on “narrow” women’s issues. 

Thoughts on the Forum: Problems presented well, but where are the solutions?

The forum did an excellent job of presenting current pressing problems facing immigrants, and the range of workshop topics was impressive. However, as with similar events held in Japan and abroad, the main session and the workshop I attended featured very little discussion about practical solutions, let alone next steps. As the forum seemed populated with NGO actors, academics, and students, much of the audience likely already knew the issues, and were at a point where discussing potential solutions would have been productive. Given the large number of attendees, and their representation of most areas of Japan, the forum was a prime opportunity to share best practices in how to advance immigrants’ rights on a practical level.
I voiced this opinion to a number of participants after the event, and some responded that there would likely be a closed- door planning meeting next year to discuss how the various stakeholders could achieve shared goals. Understanding my own different cultural background, I found it surprising that they would wait so long, and would not make the event public. Civil society in Japan still faces significant resource and infrastructure challenges; waiting an entire year to discuss strategy, and even then to keep the information private, may well deprive smaller local stakeholders of opportunities to act now, and to learn from the larger and more established actors. As a foreign resident myself, I also struggle to justify waiting another year to formulate strategy when long- term foreign residents face many challenges, including human rights violations, on a daily basis. For the next forum, integrating discussions of solutions would not only promote some much-needed brainstorming among broadly dispersed advocates, but would also help end the sessions on a positive note that solutions are indeed possible.

Douglas Maclean is a US attorney and an associate with the Center for Documentation of Migrants and Refugees at the University of Tokyo. He focuses on international migration and the rule of law, and is currently researching human trafficking and international marriage migration in East and Southeast Asia. His current research is available on the Social Science Research Network at www.ssrn.com

For more information, please e-mail the author at dsm53@law.georgetown.edu.


1. The author was able to attend the first day of the forum.
2. This is the Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction entered into force on 1 December 1983. For the full text of the Convention visit the website of the Hague Conference on Private International Law: www.hcch.net/index_en.php?act=conventions.text&cid=24.

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