July 2, 2020
Allison Alexy: Hello and welcome to Michigan Talks Japan, a new podcast from the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. I'm Allison Alexy. In each episode I’ll talk with a scholar working in Japanese Studies – across academic disciplines, across time periods.
Today I'm talking with Dr. Michael Strauss an associate professor of political science and the director of Asian Studies at Texas Christian University. He is a political scientist focusing on Japanese politics, Japan's immigration policy and the role of norms in international politics. So we're really grateful that you're here. Thank you so much for being with us.
Michael: Well, thank you so much for hosting me, Allison. I'm really excited. It's my first time on a podcast, so I'm very excited.
Allison: Wonderful. Could you introduce the book and tell us a little bit about the overview of the argument and the points you're making in it?
Michael: Sure. The book is called Help (Not) Wanted: Immigration Politics in Japan. And the overall question in the book is why does Japan have so few foreign residents when you compare it with other advanced industrialized countries? And basically the argument is there's two reasons overall. One of them has to do with, basically, labor-intensive businesses were not able to convince the state to admit foreign residents, foreign laborers. And the second reason is that there is no strong theory among governing elites which suggest that foreigners belong in Japan for the long haul. Those two reasons together are why we don't have very many foreign residents in Japan.
Allison: So big companies basically aren't looking for foreign workers per se. And aren't therefore pressuring the government to change policy.
Michael: Well, they pressured the government to change policy, but the pressure has not been successful.
Allison: I really enjoyed reading your book. One of the things that really stood out to me in your book was how Japan stands out. Like about 20,000 people apply for, is it refugee status or asylum? I can't remember.
Allison: Asylum. So 10 to 15 or 10 to 17 are admitted. I was wondering if you wouldn't mind talking through some of Japan's outstanding or remarkable facts within this field of immigration.
Michael: Yeah. So the refugee number that you're talking about, that's from 2017. 2017 was the most extreme example of almost 20,000 applicants and I think like 17 that got asylum. So every year the difference has been pretty extreme between the applicants and the people that got it. But there was one year where it was extremely shocking, but other numbers that really stand out. I feel like the number that I introduced very early in the book is something like more than 80% of firms in Japan are having trouble filling jobs. And that's been consistent in the last several years. There are these intense labor shortages. More than 30% of the Japanese population is over the age of 60. This is related to the problem of shōshika kōreika, aging and declining population. Japan just went up to about 2.7 million foreign residents, which is a very big number for Japan. But it's only about 2% of the Japanese population, which is pretty low when compared with other indents industrialized country.
Allison: I wasn't trying to say please give us fancy numbers. I didn't mean it like that.
Allison: No, no, but I just, there are these numbers you start the book with them and it's shocking. Japan looks like a pretty serious outlier. That's part of the point you're making is that there are demands for more workers, right? On the cover of your book you have these great images of posters, help wanted posters. Companies need more employees, more laborers, and aren't able to hire. In other sort of comparable nations, they might have foreign workers or immigrants coming into the nation to provide those jobs. And in Japan is just not happening. And you're trying to puzzle that out.
Michael: Exactly. Yeah, that’s right.
Allison: Could you give us a sense of how the Japanese case or this case study tells us something beyond Japan? It seems like Japan is actually an outlier but a really interesting part of I imagine a sort of conversation in political science about immigration.
Michael: Yeah. So I think that both of those factors that I mentioned at the beginning, like the extent to which the outcome of a conflict between labor-intensive businesses in the state but also elite and governing elite thought about the appropriate role of foreign residents in the world. They both vary. I tried to create a broader theory of immigration control regimes all over the world. And I tried to place Japan, so I put Japan in the "not a country of immigration" box because of both of those factors. Depending on how those factors play out, there's a variety of different kinds of immigration control regimes that we see in the world. And then also immigration control regimes can change. So I think that ultimately my prediction at the end of the book and what I've been taking since then is that Japan is going to need to become a kind of country of immigration because of the intensive labor shortages and the declining population. So I think the question is what kind of country of immigration are they going to be? Are they going to be a country where foreigners are rotated through on a temporary basis or foreigners are made to feel like they belong and given a path to permanent residency or citizenship or just maybe a more long-term stay.
Allison: That's really interesting. I'm also thinking that we haven't really talked through, the low birth rate problem, which we do need to just at least define in case people don't already know what it means. Do you mind explaining what that is?
Michael: Sure. So Japan has among the lowest birth rates in the world, it varies year to year. Then that coupled with the longest life expectancy in the world. And so what that means is you're getting relatively small number of young people and lots and lots of old people. This is something that's called the demographic crisis or the demographic question of who's going to do the labor. It's caring for those people as they get more elderly, first of all. And then second of all, the question of who's going to keep the economy running so that a social welfare state can continue to be funded and things like that.
Allison: Do you mind talking a little bit about what changes you could see happening in the future? So you're saying Japan is going to have to become more friendly to immigrants. I'm not asking you to speculate necessarily, but just talk through how you're thinking this might move into the future.
Michael: So I think there's three possible paths. So one is essentially remaining on the current path. If that happens, then I think we would see Japan becoming perhaps country more like Switzerland with a lot of foreign residents that are in the country with no path to citizenship or residency on a part time basis, sort of being rotated through every few years. That's one possibility. I think that that's more of the same. I think that that ultimately is continuation of what we are already seeing. Now the second path I see as if some sort of party or coalition of the left can take power against from the LDP, which has been very difficult to do. The LDP is the ruling conservative party in Japan. The biggest left wing party right now is the Constitutional Democratic Party. If the Constitutional Democrats alone or in coalition could somehow take power from the LDP, I think it's possible we would see a different kind of immigration control regime, perhaps one that's more welcoming of the long term of foreign residents. And I think the third path it's essentially if the bureaucrats take control of the process. There was just this reform last year setting up 14 new visa categories for a lower skilled jobs. And then the Abe administration put a target of 350,000 people in those visa categories in the next five years. It's possible though that just the existence of those recent categories, the ministry of justice could sort of take control of those risk categories and decide how they're, awarded and how they're renewed or if they're renewed or how people can transition from those used to categories to other visa categories and sort of transition Japan in that way into a country of immigration as well. Although the ministry of justice historically been pretty reluctant to do that kind of thing.
Allison: I was wondering about differences of ideology or of opinion in the Japanese government. You had just mentioned the ministry of justice. One of the things I've encountered is perhaps unsurprisingly a major difference in the way that the ministry of justice handles parental abduction cases and the way that the ministry of foreign affairs would like to or does handle parental abduction cases. The ministry of justice in this case at least being more conservative, especially around family issues, surprising no one. I was wondering if it's only the ministry of justice that would be in control of immigration policies and the potential to change the Japanese control immigration control regime.
Michael: They have the most control historically over the major immigration stuff. And when there were hearings held in the Diet, they'll bring in different, but they always bring in people from the Ministry of Justice. That's the immigration control Bureau is, so that's where immigration stuff happens. I heard informally from a source at METI – the ministry of economy, trade and industry – that unlike previous immigration reforms, the one that just happened where they set up these 14 new visa categories for lower skilled laborers, METI was more involved with that. My source at METI was suggesting that that might in the future suggest that METI's more interested in getting involved with this issue. Now when I read the Japanese newspaper on this issue, I don't see a lot about METI. Like it seems like the people that are quoted are more likely to be Ministry of Justice bureaucrats. I think METI's interest is much more in that we need to solve the economic problem. We need foreign labor. Whereas the Ministry of Justice is more concerned with what they see as reducing crime and things like that.
Allison: You had mentioned a couple of times in this conversation, the new immigration reform act. Is that what it's called? From 2018.
Michael: Well, it's a revision to the immigration and control and refugee recognition act.
Allison: Thank you.
Michael: ICRRA or we can just call it the immigration law.
Allison: Immigration law. Okay. As you write in the book, prime minister Abe was saying repeatedly, this is not actually about immigration. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that, how this set of major reforms came to be. At least from some perspectives it would either seem impossible in Japan or impossible under this prime minister under his administration.
Michael: Basically I think it was first raised in February as it as a possible issue at one of the economic council or something or other. Than it came up throughout the year. It was being discussed. But basically labor shortages were at a historic high in Japan at that time. So there's just the question of who is going to work in these jobs? And because of that, I think the Abe administration felt like we need a source of foreign labor. But at the same time they had pretty consistently suggested that Japan is not a country for immigrants or that immigration really should be a last resort for Japan. So the way that Abe justified this set of reforms – and his administration, not just him – they differentiated it from immigration policy by noting both that the workers would not be able to bring their families. So they would come alone, only as workers. And that they would have to return for the most part after a fixed interval. So I think it's five years.
Allison: So there's a way that it's structured to make it as much about providing laborers, more than anything about immigration.
Allison: I'm imagining the book was pretty far along when this reform revision came into being. And I was wondering just as an author and as a scholar, how it felt. Did it feel like you needed to reshape the book? Did it feel like, Oh this is great. It proves my theories. What did you think?
Michael: Well I felt ambivalence. On one hand when I came up with the title "Help not wanted," I sent it to some friends. I had a couple options but they all had the "help not wanted." And one of my friends, suggested – he's a guy who's very knowledgeable about Japan – said, are you sure you don't want to put a question mark? Help not wanted, question mark. Cause that way if there is a major reform, then it'll look like, well I was just asking the question, I wasn't making a statement. And when this reform was happening, it's like I wonder if I should've put the question. Maybe is it too late to add it? But the more that I read and thought about the reform, it didn't strike me as a total challenge to my argument. I think that it's possible that in the next few years we will see more like this. And I think there will be more. Whether it's a question of these visa categories being used more with more than 350,000 people or maybe new kinds of visa categories or new programs being established or new ways of recruiting foreign laborers. Because I don't think even if they can fill all these spots that won't solve the labor shortages in Japan. So I think that it's possible that in the next five or 10 years we'll see Japan looking different in terms of as a country of immigration or a country of much larger use of foreign labor than it had been up until now. But this policy alone, I don't think, challenges what I said in the book.
Allison: It's kind of like a step in the necessary direction, but it doesn't go that far. And your book helps us understand why this would be as far as Abe and other members of the Diet would be willing to go.
Allison: Can we talk a little bit about the process of gathering the data and writing the book?
Michael: I did interviews with a wide variety of people. So I talked to politicians, bureaucrats, some activists, some interest group representatives and business people. So that was one big piece of it. But in addition, I just gathered a lot of data. So mostly government data, but not entirely. As much as much as I could and different things. I looked at government documents too government publications, how they changed the way they discussed foreign residents and immigration over time. Then a lot of secondary literature too. And this is one of the things that benefited me being in Japan doing this research was that I was able to get a lot of the Japanese secondary literature that I didn't have access to it from the US.
Allison: Was it hard to get government data? Is it readily available? Are these numbers or statistics, are they hard to find?
Michael: The Immigration Bureau writes a lot of reports. So there's a lot of data that's produced. There's a couple of strange things that go on. I can get their summary statistics. So they'll say this is the total number of foreigners. And they might break it down by visa category, or they might report on a survey. So I have a chapter on refugees and there's a couple of different surveys that I think are really important where the government surveyed the population on feelings about Vietnamese boat people in the early eighties. So I can look at the results of those surveys, but I don't have good enough access to see like the actual, each set of responses. So like this person answered these things, this person answered these things. I can see the government's summary of the overall statistics and then I can see however they choose to break it down, but I'm not able to get in and break down that data on myself.
Allison: So you can get access to these, basically the aggregate data, but not –
Michael: Or broken down in the way that the government wants to break it down.
Allison: I see, ok.
Michael: I mean it takes a lot of time. I like to look at every year going back as far as possible, you know, how many total foreigners there were and then in the different categories. For example, if you get the 2018 report from the ministry of justice, they might only have the last five years so that you don't have to go five years ago and then five years ago and then at some point it stops being online and it's even hard to find a Japanese libraries. You have to go to the diet library to get the older stuff.
Allison: And my memory of being at the diet library is you get one or two books at a time. Is that still the case?
Michael: Yeah. Yeah, they're pretty strict and you have to wait and you'll see your number up on this board that you have to wait until your numbers call. You go get your books and you can look at them for awhile. I mean, it's impressive the amount of stuff that they have.
Allison: The point I'm trying to make, the question I'm trying to ask is that the data are hard to get. They're not automatic and it's not something that you can sort of simply Google up and then use.
Michael: Or you can, but the information would likely be wrong.
Allison: How typical are those research methods in political science?
Michael: I would say elite interviews and like collecting government data and, other secondary sources and, some primary sources too, is overall becoming less common. I would say political science as a discipline is moving in the direction of, more quantitative research. And when I say quantitative, I'm not talking like, you know, gathering government reports. I talking about like trying to make an economic type model that explains, to answer or do the kind of analysis where you quantify everything and then run regressions or really advanced regressions to analyze that data. Political science is increasingly moving in that direction. A lot of the top programs they will say like, Oh, we encourage multi-method research. Dissertations in political science by the way, are increasingly becoming, instead of like a book length dissertation, they're becoming several articles essentially ready to send off to journals. But, so it might be like one, I'm going to write three articles for my dissertation and maybe in one of them I'll use some qualitative methods, but that's not going to be the date. But I just want to, I'll show that I can use multi methods. So I might do a formal model and one of them I might do some survey analysis of survey data in another. And then the third one I might do among other things, some qualitative research. But I would say overall the discipline of political science, both qualitative research and area studies are becoming much less emphasized.
Allison: Do you have any sense why?
Michael: When I have students that are thinking about a PhD program and they're asking me about the job market, often I'll end up telling them my observation, which is that the job market's rough for everyone, but the more statistically oriented your research is, the less rough it is for you overall. And if you have those statistical skills, you'll also have an easier time getting an, if you end up just not getting an academic job or deciding you don't like academia, you'll also have an easier time getting a nonacademic job with those statistical skills. So I'm not sure how the job market became that. I mean, I think that in some ways it looks more like a science when it's quantitative. That doesn't mean that it's actually more scientific. I think. You know, you can miss a lot by trying to put everything into tables that you can run regressions on, but it looks more scientific. So to the extent that we want to be objective and scientific, I think there's something very appealing to a lot of people about. Like I'm just, I just ran the regression and you can have my data and you could look at it, you can run to the regressions too and you'll get the same results. And I think that maybe it has something to do with even that we have science in our name, political science. As you know, I can't, if I go spend a year in Japan and talking to divorcees, I'm not going to probably have the same findings as you, but if I run the regressions that you ran, I better have the same findings as you or that's a real problem. Right? So I think that's something that a lot of political scientists and certainly the job market really values these days.
Allison: So when you were doing the interviews, was it hard to get people to talk with you? Were people willing?
Michael: I would say overall interest groups and activists were pretty easy, but bureaucrats and politicians, that really took a good introduction. And so I remember there was like one point where I got this one person to talk to me at the end of my interviews. I always say like, okay, who else should I talk to? It was a pretty early, so I was introduced to him by someone else. But I got him. he had been a cabinet official who wasn't a cabinet official at the time I interviewed him. But I think he had several different cabinet posts. It was a good interview. And then at the end he gave me some names and those people, when I mentioned his name, those people all responded right away and or their office did. And then those names too. They were really good. Especially with politicians and bureaucrats, having the right connection really, really meant a lot.
Allison: Do you think that the fact that you're visibly not Japanese played into the, how people responded to your research? I mean you're sort of doing research about immigration. I know you're also doing research about labor and I remember in your book you're saying that when you brought up the topic of immigration, people were less likely to respond positively than if you brought up the topic of labor. More people want to talk about labor and labor policy.
Michael: Especially the interest groups that represented like different industries and they definitely were more interested when I said foreign labor versus immigration. I'll be in your thoughts on this as well, but my impression is like as a white American, this is a place where I think that, in political research people are more likely to want to talk to me then they might be to my Japanese friends and colleagues. So since I have a name and which makes it that clear, you can see when I send my resume, when I'm requesting an interview, you can see I'm from America. Whereas some of my Japanese friends and colleagues, if they have a Japanese name, even if they're coming from an American university, I almost get the sense that, especially with politicians and bureaucrats, it's like they want to get their message out to the world, but they sort of already feel like they're able to control their message in Japan. So if you're a Japanese person contacting them, they're less likely to – unless you're one of their constituents. I mean, as a politician, you probably want to talk to their constituents. But if you're just a random Japanese person, they're less likely to respond than if you're, an American. That's been my impression, but I don't know. What do you think about this, Allison?
Allison: I write a little bit about this in my book. I'm also white and American and pretty visibly not Japanese, but speak Japanese. As you do. So it kind of in the best category of like obviously a foreigner but able to communicate in Japanese. Well, some people very explicitly told me, I'm only telling you this because you're a foreigner. So my research, this book is about divorce. Which I should say can be a wonderful thing. You know, some divorces save lives, but they can also be really stigmatizing and horrible. Right? So it, they run the gamut. And what I think happened was that people were more willing, or some people at least were more willing to talk with me because I was a foreigner. But for them it marked a kind of non-judgment. I had one person explicitly tell me, I wouldn't say this to a Japanese person because I would be worried that they would sort of judge me. They were right that I wasn't judging them, but it wasn't because I'm a foreigner, it's because I just can't, in the course of my research.
Michael: Cuz you're an anthropologist.
Allison: Cuz I'm an anthropologist and also because, if you're talking to people about divorce or just intimate relationships and family struggles, you know, 10 hours a day, I do not have enough energy to spend time trying to figure out like who is the good spouse and who's the bad spouse. Like I don't, I'm not interested in that. I want to hear what they want to tell me. So they were correct in that I was not judging them. But I think that my foreignness helped them believe that. So I found it like you, I found it to be helpful. I hadn't thought about the way that having a Japanese name might make politicians less excited. I guess maybe we're, we're both saying it's just kind of a novelty. We have a bit of a novelty factor.
Michael: That's right.
Allison: Yeah. Yeah. What was the hardest or most challenging part of doing the research?
Michael: Going back to the interviewing politicians and bureaucrats, I think that it's really hard because, it's an issue of like honne and tatemae, like a real feeling versus how they present things. Every bureaucratic agency has its official story, which is usually maybe only partially true. And certainly politicians have the things that they want to say to get reelected, they're going to present themselves in the best possible light. Everyone does that, but I think politicians especially have a really strong incentive to do that. This is why I was glad that I was able to talk to a lot of different kinds of people because I felt like it was hard to find politicians that I felt like would really level with me. I found a few, but that was a challenge, and that's why it was good to have more time to talk to more different kinds of sources and things like that.
Allison: Just listening to your answer, I was thinking, Oh, it must be really difficult to do research with politicians because I – not to stereotype, but either they are liars or they could be liars or they're very good at, blending over the truth, whatever you want to say. Um, no offense to politicians out there. So you have somebody and, you're trying to sort of triangulate their story?
Michael: And certain kinds of questions, I felt like I could trust the politician more. I mean, I did, I gave my, my sources anonymity too, so even I even say this is an LDP politician from the lower house or a woman or a man, but I wouldn't say who they were. And I told them that, so I didn't name him. So that gave them a little bit of anonymity and I felt that there are certain kinds of questions where I felt like I was more likely to get good answers. So when I would ask them, well, tell me about your district or what are the constituents in your district? I felt like with that kind of question, they actually wouldn't, I didn't feel like they were going to be lying to me about their own districts, right? So know not necessarily about them, but it was interesting to hear their answers to that kind of question. so for example, there was this group in 2009 a group of LDP politicians that basically advocating Japan admitting 10 million immigrants, which Japan hasn't done, although interestingly, a lot of the other suggestions in that report, Japan did do. When I talked to people for that group, I was able to kind of not be mean, but be a little bit like, gotcha. Like, Hey, you signed this document, it said it 10 million. Tell me about that. They had to kind of find a way to rationalize having signed this document, which a lot of them wouldn't actually make the case for. So then it was like, well, why did you sign it? I wasn't a jerk about it, but I did have this, I knew something about their real record and so I was able to ask them about that.
Allison: How did they respond when you asked that? I know there's lots of variation in their answers but –
Michael: The research that I did on that group, I feel like I was in Japan in 2010 and I interviewed like six or seven members of that group. But the people that I talked to from that group, they all basically agreed, okay, Japan needs foreign labor. None of them were like, Oh, it was a mistake that I was in the group. But I think that several of them essentially said they were in this group. They agree that Japan needs foreign labor or they think like we need to start a conversation on this. The leaders of the group, including this guy named, Hidenori Sakanaka who's a retired bureaucrat from the immigration Bureau who has since become a real strong advocate of Japan becoming an immigration country. Sakanaka was involved with founding that group along with a very senior member of the LDP. They founded it together and basically they pushed the 10 million number and then the people that were in the group were sort of like, well, I mean we know 10 million will never happen, but basically we be agreed with the things that are in this report. So we'll go along with that.
Allison: Was there something particularly fun or interesting or remarkable that didn't make it into the book?
Michael: I feel like every foreigner that spend time in Japan has a story a lot of foreigners that have spent time in Japan have a story about going up to somebody and speak to them in Japanese and having the person freak out and say, I'm sorry I don't speak English.
Allison: in Japanese.
Michael: Even though you're speaking in Japanese.
Allison: Yeah, we all do. Yeah.
Michael: I didn't talk about that in the book, but that is like one sort of weird, like it's like a foreigner panic or something. Like what am I do this person speak English to me? And you don't realize that I actually speaking Japanese to you.
Michael: I have a story about that and I think a lot of, a lot of people do this. I could have mentioned it when I was talking about like foreigners fitting into Japan.
Allison: So I have this ongoing question that I think is relevant here. So it's true in Japan, if you're visibly foreign, a good number of people not only assume that you can't speak Japanese, but also assume that you couldn't, right? Japanese is somehow too hard a language for a foreigner who say, looks like me or it looks like you to be able speak Japanese so that even if you're speaking Japanese to a person, they're saying, I can't understand English. You have, you know, we can't communicate. So that on the one hand, on the other hand in the US, I've noticed some Americans, expect that everyone will speak English so that even if you're not American, your sort of on our soil or you know, I don't know, in Italy, some other place or in Japan and you should, everybody should speak English. So my question –
Michael: You just slow down and get louder, right?
Allison: Slow down and get louder. Eventually if you just yell enough, they'll understand. So my question is, which is worse: Japanese people imagining that Japanese is such an impossible language that nobody can speak it who isn't sort of phenotypically-ish Japanese. Or Americans who think that English is so necessary or easy or universal that we should – and I honestly can't decide which is worse, which is more racist. They're both absurd, but this is an ongoing question in my life.
Michael: No, I agree that they're both bad. They both have racism. I kind of think the American way is worse.
Michael: Just because it involves yelling at people, getting in their face and shouting at them.
Allison: That's true.
Michael: The Japanese way just seems kind of funny. I mean, I guess if you're desperate, like I need to get to this place and you're not, I'm just asking you for directing in Japanese, but for the most part you're not desperate. But having somebody just shout at you like that too. But that would be real, especially in a language that you don't understand. And if you look, that would be very hard to deal with. Whereas the other way just seems kind of funny.
Allison: You're right. And so like the stakes are higher in the US I think you're absolutely right. That makes sense. Was there some moment in the course of this project where your mind changed or you realized something or you were surprised by something that changed your thinking or changed your analysis in a significant way?
Michael: In 1989, Japan revised the immigration law, the ICRRA it revised it in some really major ways. So it formalized the Nikkeijin visa, the teijūsha, the longterm residency visa. That goes to people with Japanese ethnicity and also established the trainee program, which became the technical internship training program. those were the two big new visa categories that were formalized by this law. This was not some great insight that I, I'm the first person to have come to you. But as I was reading the secondary literature in Japanese and English on that law, I realized that the, the long-term residency visa that is used by people who are ethnically Japanese, I had always assumed that when that visa was put into the law, the framers of the law understood this visa was going to be a major source of foreign labor. But actually they didn't. They didn't actually think that it would be used very much. They sort of thought, Oh, this is a little exception. You know, some of these people, some of these Brazilians might want to come to Japan for awhile, so we should give them a way to do it. They didn't realize how much it would be used. And that really surprised me because when sometimes when we tell the story of that visa category, it's almost like, Oh yeah, these are just exceptions that were created to give big business what they wanted. But actually I think it's really a case where you have unintended consequences essentially what ended up happening was labor intensive businesses found a loophole. They're like, wait a minute, we have this new visa category. This is a new way we can have people labor in our factories that we hadn't been able to find before. That was not intended by the framers of the law. That really surprised me.
So in 2017 there were about 250,000 people with that visa category. Out of the, I think it was, what about 2.5 million people in Japan, 2.4 at that time and about 250,000 of them had the have that long term residency visa. I think that cause that number dipped in
2008, 2009 when basically because of the global economic crisis, basically Japan started paying those people to return to their countries of origin as long as they promise not to come back to Japan for awhile. Um, but overall I think the number has stabilized since then.
Allison: It actually reminds me of something that I found too. But in 2004, there was a revision to the pension, the national pension law before the change, if a husband and wife got divorced, the wife would have no access to the ex husband's pension, national pension payment. And then after the law went into effect April 1, 2007, they would. So women could petition for part of their ex husband's pension. What I found when I was doing research about divorce in 2005 and 2006 was that there was a whole lot of women sort of middle aged and older women who are waiting for this law to go into effect because it was on the books but not yet in effect. From what I could tell, the politicians were surprised. They didn't expect that older women would want to divorce their husbands. And we're talking probably the equivalent of like $200 or $300 a month depending on how wealthy the husband is and what his pension was. We're not talking about a ton of money. So I could understand why the bureaucrats sort of didn't see it coming. But at the time I was also thinking, and a lot of people were thinking like, why did you not see this coming? Why was this a surprise?
Allison: And I feel like there's actually a nice parallel with what you're describing with the visas for Nikkeijin people.
Michael: These are both examples of Japanese elites not fully understanding the way the economic forces drive people's lives or drive people's decision making.
Allison: Yeah. Or these latent desires or hopes that people have that are playing out in different ways. Is there some particular detail or fact or footnote in the book that you're especially proud of and would like to highlight?
Michael: It's the table on page 64 table 4.2. It just lines up the main visa categories and then I break it down by nationality type. When I read other articles on Japanese immigration policy, I always want to know, well who are these people? Like where are they from, what research statuses do they have? I was really proud that I found one table where I could have a lot of that information all in one place. I figured out a way to do it. So that's something I was proud of.
Allison: I'm glad you said that I wouldn't have realized how hard it was to make that table until you point it out. But now that you pointed out it's, you're right, there's a lot there. It's all over time and it's all these different categories. It's giving tons of information. So I'm glad you explained it that way. How does this project fit into your general research trajectory?
Michael: This was my goal for a long time. I think that immigration is going to continue to change and expand in Japan. And so I see myself continuing to research immigration. Now since this book came out there's two projects that I've worked on. So one is, I wrote this chapter that was for an edited volume that's going to come out next year about migration in Asia, that more focuses in on that law reform from last year. And the second thing was I did the survey experiment. So this was, this was the most political sciencey thing that I've done in that it was very statistical. We have this really awesome Tokyo university graduate student who really knew his statistical methods as our coauthor. And then it was me and one of my undergraduate students from TCU and we did what's called a survey experiment where we basically presented Japanese voters with a political candidate from their party. Then we randomly varied the candidate's stance on immigration. I'm happy to talk about the results of that. So I want to keep working on immigration. I think that I probably have another survey experiment or two in me. Now that the diet is starting to do things and they'll do more on immigration. I'm really interested in how this will interact with public opinion, how this is going to affect voting going forward. So I think that I'll probably do some more survey experiments. but in addition, I'm interested in watching what happens legally at the elite level too. So both of the public opinion and the elite level. In terms of a longer term project. So I don't have another book idea for a book that I'm going to be writing in the short term, but I have thought about editing a book called the past and future of immigration reform in Japan. I don't have any co authors on board yet, I should say people to write their own chapters, but that's the kind of thing that going forward I think that people would be really interested in interdisciplinary edited volume on immigration and immigration reform in Japan. And so that's something that I see this book leading into pretty naturally.
Allison: That sounds wonderful. Could you talk more about the a survey experiment?
Michael: Sure. This is a really hot topic in comparative politics more generally. And this is a place where actually, scholars of American politics, scholars of European politics and people that just study politics, cross nationally have been doing a lot of interesting work. Including by the way, one of your, university of Michigan political scientists just published this piece with like eight or nine coauthors where they interviewed like something like 10 or 20,000 people, eight different countries including Japan.
Michael: So the overall question and a lot of this research is why do people support anti-immigrant causes? And so people in the US context, it's often why did people support Trump in 2016? In the British context, people look at Brexit, but they also look at just feelings of xenophobia and things like that. So the way that we did the research was we presented Japanese voters with a candidate. We made the candidate as normal as possible. I think we made the kind of 53 years old because the median Diet member was 53. We did not specify a gender because Japanese language makes it very easy for you to do that. You just say, you know, you just talk about the candidate. You don't have to say he or she. So that was easy.
Allison: No pronouns. Yeah.
Michael: And then what else? Oh yeah, we gave the candidate hobbies. This is our awesome Todai graduate student, Takaki Asano. He actually looked, there's like a place where some sort of source where they list all the hobbies. And so he picked the three most common hobbies.
Allison: This man sounds wonderful. (laughs)
Michael: He's awesome, he's great. I think it was like shōgi, music appreciation. And I don't remember the third, it might've been running or jogging.
Allison: We can look it up to be sure.
Michael: We can look it up. But so, so we have this candidate we did our survey online and we paid our survey respondents like 70 yen. It took them about five minutes.
Allison: It's about 70 cents.
Michael: Right. So they got like 70 cents for five minutes. We imagined a lot of them to be doing it on the train. We asked them some demographic information and then we asked them what political party do you support if you support any? And then also what's your ideology from left wing to right way. And then we presented them with our candidate. If they supported the LDP or Kōmeitō, the LDPs coalition partner, we gave them an LDP candidate. If they supported the CDP, constitutional democratic party, or another party that's not in the governing coalition, we gave them a CDP candidate. And if they didn't support any party, we gave them based on their ideology. So if they were a liberal, we gave them a liberal a CDP candidate. If they were conservative we gave them an LDP candidate. If they were in the middle we chose randomly. So here's your candidate, they are involved with this party. And then we randomly vary the candidate's stance on immigration. We actually had four different immigration stances. So we had the candidate supports immigration to solve problems stemming from demographics. The candidate opposes immigration. Oh no, we didn't say oppose. So the candidate supports admission of foreign labor to solve those problems. And then we talk specifically about the 2018 reform. So we said the candidate supported that reform or the candidate opposes that reform. So those were our four different prompts and then had a control group where we didn't do any prompt at all. Just the very normal candidate. And then we asked them, how likely are you to vote for this candidate? So the overall debate in comparative politics is – you see this a lot in the United States – are these people driven by economic concerns or are they driven by xenophobia or in the U S context, you can say racism often. So we wanted to test those theories too. So to test them, we asked them about their job, and how secure they feel economically. But then we also asked them questions about racism. We gave them a 10 point scale. Some people say that that foreigners enrich Japan. Other people say that foreigners undermined Japan. Where do you put yourself? And they could place themselves along that scale. By the way, this is really important to note, although our sample wasn't a truly representative sample of Japan, I think that they weren't unusual in this respect. More people in our sample were on the enriched Japan side than on the undermined Japan side. So I think a lot of people say, Oh, the Japanese are so xenophobic. But that was not what we found in the 1,300 people that we talked to. Our findings though was that the people that were xenophobic were likely to vote on it. So when they saw the pro-immigration or pro foreign labor candidate, they said I would not vote for that person. And when they saw the candidate that was from their party that was not pro-immigration or pro-foreign labor, they were more, "yeah, might vote for that person." But as they moved in the direction of being less xenophobic, more multiculturalist, it didn't affect the way that they would vote. the people that said that they were multiculturalists didn't punish a candidate for being pro immigration or pro foreign labor. But they also didn't reward a candidate. Even though they said that they believe foreigners enrich Japan, they wouldn't reward a candidate that actually wanted immigration.
Allison: So it sounds like what you're saying is that there are maybe not single issue voters, but voters who are closer to single issue on immigration, but they tend to be the more conservative, more xenophobic people. And so it doesn't help politicians politicians to be open to immigration. Because the people who like that don't vote based on that.
Michael: Right. So in the short term, it's a risky proposition for politicians,
Allison: Even if it's popular, or a commonly held belief, the people who like that idea, don't vote on it.
Michael: There's one sort of way that I saw this influencing politicians' behavior. I didn't find this as many as elections as I thought I would. Before a Japanese election, there's this scholar at Tokyo university named Taniguchi. He does a huge public opinion survey of Japanese voters. But then he also basically surveys every candidate. Almost all of them reply. It's really great data.
Michael: And so one of the questions that he asked them that he has been asking for the last several years is, do you support increasing foreign labor? Overall the plurality, the largest group of political candidates did not take a position on that question. So they answered in the middle, neither agree nor disagree. Because I think they view it as risky, right? Because on the one hand, maybe they recognize the economic need for it, but then on the other hand, they're worried about the backlash from those vocal people that will vote on this issue. But the interesting thing that I found in 2017 was that in prefectures where more politicians took a position on immigration, that position was more likely to be pro immigration. Once a few politicians say, yes, we need foreign labor, then everyone else in the district says, yes, yes, yes foreign labor, foreign labor. But initially no one's willing to take that risk. That sort of suggests that maybe there are actually more politicians that realize the economic and demographic need for immigration, but they're just afraid of the vocal people that are afraid of immigrants.
Allison: Hot button topic. Do you have any guesses as to how long Abe will be in office? I'll go out on a limb here and say he's lasted so much longer than I expected. (laughs)
Michael: I know, I know! Especially because his first time as prime minister was so short and it ended in kind of ambiguous way, and, wait, what even happened? Why did he stop being prime minister and, yeah. I wish that I had the exact information, but he's about to be term limited out as president of the LDP I think next year.
Allison: Oh, I didn't realize,
Michael: But they can change their rules. This isn't like a constitutional thing. It's not term limited out as prime minister. It's term limited out as LDP president. But the LDP can change. It's permitted to change its own rules. I think that he'll want to at least stay through the Olympics. But after that I don't know how much longer he's going to want to stay. There was some rocky stuff going on recently, all these cabinet administers all of a sudden resigned. But he's definitely weathered a lot of scandals and storms in the past, so he definitely seems surprisingly resilient. So I don't know how much longer.
Allison: Do you have a favorite book in Japanese studies or an article that I know that that in your field there are lots of wonderful articles too. It doesn't have to be in political science.
Michael: My favorite book is, David Leheny's Think Global, Fear Local. And you know,
Allison: it's a good book.
Michael: Yeah. He's such a delightful writer to read he does things that very few political scientists do. He on the one hand combined the kind of interviews that are maybe more typical in political science, quantitative research with like all this look at literature and literary theory and movies and anime and government propaganda videos and brought together in such a creative, interesting way. And you feel like you learned something. I think that as you're reading it, you feel like this is so much fun that you don't realize. You have to think about, Oh wow, that was a really smart book. Like it sort of deceptively just, Oh, he's just so funny and so fun that it's almost you. You sometimes forget how smart he is.
Allison: I also love that book. I love his writing and his ideas, I'm not surprised when you said that because I could see that kind of vibe, in your book as well as trying to do, trying to write in a way that's accessible and intelligent and you're making really smart points, but you're doing it in a way that pulls people in as opposed to sort of build up walls. Um, so I'm not surprised,
Michael: I'm definitely very influenced by him. So any way that my writing resembles his I take that as a great compliment.
Allison: I mean it as a great compliment. Yeah. Maybe this means that at least one person will listen to the podcast, right? So Dave will listen. (laughs)
Michael: Although he might not like it when I suggested that it doesn't seem smart at first.
Allison: He'll forgive us, I think, probably. But I was wondering if you have any recommendations about good introductory texts or good texts that give a perspective on Japan that you think people would find helpful?
Michael: I think Robin LeBlanc's books both of them. I love Bicycle Citizens and in fact I'm going to be discussing it in my comparative politics class. But I mean more recently I like the Art of the Gut a lot too.
Allison: In the field of Japanese studies, do you think there are any particularly important questions at the moment?
Michael: Maybe coming from my place as a political scientist, not in the mainstream of political science in that I push back against some of the trends in my field of quantifying everything, and ignoring stuff that can't be fit into statistical models. I think that like interdisciplinary study of Japan. I feel like when I talked to my colleagues in political science and I can say "Oh, I'm going to be talking to my friend who's an anthropologist and a historian." I know literature people and we all can together try to produce knowledge about Japan and talk to each other about Japan. that's something really valuable that I hope that we don't lose. I want to keep that because many of my colleagues in political science don't, that's really valuable having these interdisciplinary Japan studies centers, like you guys have university of Michigan, like they had a university of Washington. It's something really valuable that I hope that we can hang on to. I think that if you just try to cram everything in the statistical models, a lot is lost. But from the more politically focused, social science or social humanities of Japan, I think that's scholarship related to the birth rate question and the demographic question is, I think that's a really important issue. I think we need to be paying attention to and thinking about that issue because it's going to profoundly change Japan and already has and it will continue to, and I think it's something we need to think about. You're talking about the beauty of interdisciplinary work. You're the director of the Asia center at Texas Christian University and so I was wondering, what kind of perspective that role gives you, or what you've noticed in that position?
Michael: It's really enjoyable. It's a nice chance to have some interdisciplinarity on campus. since I took over one of my innovations, we call it a first Friday lunch and learn. So the first Friday of every month I try to get one of our professors to come present on his or her research. And then I try to get our students we have about 15 minors. We don't have a major, we don't have any of our own faculty, so we're all adjunct in other departments. But I think it's nice for us to hear about what each other are doing for us to hear perspectives from other departments and for our students to see academic research. So that's been really rewarding and enjoyable to be involved with that.
Allison: Well thank you so much for your time. It's been such a pleasure. I really enjoyed reading your book. I hope lots of people read it. I hope Japanese politicians read it. Personally, I hope there are more immigrants allowed into Japan, let alone refugees and asylum seekers. But thank you so much for your time and your work creating this, this wonderful book.
Michael: Well, thank you so much Allison, and it's been great talking to you.
Allison: Thanks for listening to this episode of Michigan Talks Japan. If you're interested, please check out other episodes which are available where you found this one, and through all podcasting platforms. We're always interested in your reactions or comments, so please reach out on facebook or twitter @umcjs. I want to thank the Center for Japanese Studies and Director of the Center Kiyo Tsutsui for green-lighting the project, the Shapiro Design Lab staff, and our listeners. Thanks also to Reggie Jackson for our theme song. This podcast was recorded with assistance from Jordan Cleland, co-produced by Robin Griffin, Justin Schell, and myself, and edited by Robin Griffin and Justin Schell. It was recorded in the Shapiro Library’s Design Lab in Ann Arbor where, before the Covid-19 restrictions, it was possible to play with sewing machines and 3D printers while we wait to record. I’m Allison Alexy and I hope you’ll join us for the next episode, a conversation with Dr. Meghan Jones.