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28 January 2023

There are layers to our struggle, and they are all interconnected

by a Japanese migrant to the UK

There are layers to the migrant experience.

Integration v inclusion

As a first generation Japanese migrant, I don’t like the word “integration”. It is forceful, and makes me feel like I should be like people who grow up here. But I have my own experiences, and I shouldn’t have to forget who I am in order to be respected and to be allowed to stay here. 

I also want my children to be proud of their Japanese heritage, and I don’t want them to feel like they have to pretend to be something they are not. I have two children, aged four and two. I encourage my children to speak Japanese. My daughter’s school also respects the fact that she is learning Japanese at home, alongside English at school, and supports her with that. My daughter also loves developing her Japanese identity and she loves the culture. The Japanese community in the UK is not particularly large, but we have a group of friends who have young children, and so our families spend time together on the weekends. My daughter has Russian and Turkish friends, but also has lots of Japanese friends that she enjoys playing with.She is always excited to see her grandparents and cousins in Japan.

I am more comfortable with the term “inclusion” instead, as it shows respect for and celebration of our differences. Fortunately I have not felt any negative experiences as a migrant in the UK.

Migrant ‘assimilation’ in Japan

My husband’s story is different from mine. He moved from China to Japan when he was eight years old, and until moving to the UK, he mainly lived in Japan. He is fluent in Japanese and is very familiar with Japanese culture. Growing up in Japan, he was treated negatively because he was a migrant, including by teachers, and he even had to change schools due to these experiences, because he felt he wasn’t being taken care of as much as the Japanese students were. He felt pressure to assimilate, to be “more Japanese” instead of Chinese. It was difficult for him to navigate his identity. Was he Japanese? Was he Chinese? Where was his home? He wanted to leave Japan because of this, and move to the UK. 

It seems like Japan expects or enforces the assimilation of migrants more than the UK does. He feels more comfortable in the UK, as he feels less pressure to assimilate. Especially in London where there are lots of migrant communities. Because I have a stronger sense of home than my husband, I felt more comfortable in Japan than I do in the UK. I think this is because he’s experienced  being a migrant from a young age. He has experienced more than one “home” whereas my story of being a migrant started in my adult years, and I am still adjusting to building a “home away from home”.

When I learnt about my husband’s story, I was shocked. Growing up, I knew that there were big Chinese and South Korean communities in Japan, but since all my close friends were Japanese, I grew up in a non-diversified, monocultural bubble. I didn’t realise that first and second generation migrants often have negative experiences in Japan. After hearing his story, and the story of his family, I realised how closed Japanese society was. I believe that Japanese society should become open and welcoming to migrants who chose to make Japan their home. I now know that Japanese politicians and the government in general refuse to recognise the humanity and dignity of migrants, calling them “foreigners” instead of migrants. I find this word to be exclusionary and dehumanising: because the word “foreigner” is difficult to define, it can be used to exclude many people, which is dangerous. Who defines the word “foreigner” and how?

Human rights violations against asylum seekers are common in Japan’s immigration detention centres. They are like prisons. The Japanese media does not try to reveal or uncover the truth, and this makes me so angry. Clearly there is a long way to go. In some ways, the situation in Japan is comparable to the situation here, or sometimes is even worse.

There are layers to our struggles, and they are all interconnected

I also have complicated feelings towards the term “hardworking”. It is clear that the UK’s points-based immigration system prioritises migrants who can financially “contribute” to the British economy. My visa status makes me feel uncertain and less confident, since I am a dependent of my husband, which means my status in the UK is entirely tied to his. Sometimes, this makes me feel like I am not worthy of being here. I feel like I continuously have to prove myself, and I have never felt this kind of pressure before. In Japan, I felt independent, and nobody assessed my capabilities, knowledge and experiences. I now feel like I have less ownership and power over my life. In Japan, I could do anything. Here, I cannot.

I have never shared my migration experience before publicly. Sometimes I feel like it is not appropriate for me to complain about my situation, because there are people who have it worse. I am aware that my visa status affords me with certain privileges that asylum seekers and refugees do not have. I can work and study here, and can open a bank account, and I do not constantly fear deportation.

I share my story not to compare or dismiss the struggles of asylum seekers, but because I believe it is important to understand the nuances of being a migrant. Migrants all have different experiences depending on their different statuses. There are layers to our struggles, and they are all interconnected.

This blog post is part of our Words Matter x NSW series.