Picture this: a Chinese triad ganglord goes to his local Japanese embassy to apply for a visa so that he can come to Tokyo on a month-long crime spree. If I paraphrase a bit, the conversation might go something like this:
Ganglord: I’d like a visa to visit Japan, please.
Embassy staff: Are you applying for an approved tour group?
Ganglord: No, I’m not.
Embassy staff: Can you provide evidence that you’re extremely rich?
Ganglord: No, I can’t.
Embassy staff: I’m sorry, you can’t have a visa. Those are the rules.
Ganglord: Ah well, no trip to Japan for me then.
And the thwarted malefactor slinks home with his tail between his legs, cursing those wily Japanese and their cunning visa regulations.
Now, I’m not a criminal mastermind; if I were, I’d be writing this between cocktails from a tropical island inhabited only by myself and a bevy of dusky nubile maidens, not from a chilly 2DK in Kanagawa. But even I can see that triad ganglords won’t be deterred by visa regulations. They’ll form a tour company and ship over pickpockets by the coachload. They’ll have their accountants cook the books to create an appearance of legitimate wealth. They’ll bribe the embassy staff. They’ll think of something.
Try telling that to the Japanese foreign ministry, though. These politicians inhabit a special fantasy world all of their own, where China is a cauldron of red-hot evil, teeming with criminals who are hell-bent on coming to Japan with nefarious intent but who can be put off by rigorous application of the rules. And that fantasy is reason enough to justify maintaining stringent visa restrictions, which prevent the vast, law-abiding majority of Chinese citizens from coming to Japan.
This is senseless; the benefits to Japan from allowing tourists from China far outweigh the supposed dangers. First, of course, it would bring in large amounts of revenue, with a consequent boost to the economy. But perhaps more importantly, it would help build relations between the two countries in a way that no number of summits and conferences could match. This is because such bonds are forged not by ministers hobnobbing over taxpayer-bought Ferrero Rocher, nor by scholars pontificating together about 14th-century poetry, but by ordinary people meeting at ground level.
Every time I’ve been to China, I’ve met young people with a keen interest in Japan and its culture. If they were allowed to come here, then I’m sure they’d feel the same way about the Japanese, and vice-versa. Word of mouth would spread in both countries that the people across the sea are decent, friendly human beings, and shouldn’t be regarded as implacable enemies. That acquaintance with reality would make Chinese less susceptible to the anti-Japan propaganda from their government, and Japanese people to the Sinophobic ranting of the local media.
The conspiracy theorist in me reckons that this is what the Japanese establishment fears—they have so much invested in perpetuating the image of China as a wellspring of crime and aggression that they don’t want to risk normal people discovering it to be false. I’m sure there would be much less public support for the cherished presence of U.S. military bases, for example, if the government weren’t able to get away with raising the preposterous specter of a Chinese attack on Japan, its largest trading partner.
I hope this isn’t true. But if we are to take Japan’s visa regulations at face value, it’s clear that they’re a product of racism and profound naïveté. The notion that they exist to protect Japan from a Chinese crime tsunami panders to a fear that has no basis in reality, and to the equally groundless idea that such rules would keep the criminals away.
Whatever the rationale, this situation marks a comprehensive triumph of prejudice and pettiness over common sense; by choosing to indulge their xenophobia, politicians and bureaucrats are acting against their nation’s interests, not in them. If the people who run Japan are so resolutely incapable of putting aside their own feelings for the benefit of the country, then the 20-year “lost decade” is certain to continue.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today