African migration to Japan

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On 2nd of August 2013, the subproject "Trade networks and migration between Africa and Asia" organized a session on African migrants in Japan (chaired by myself). The invited guest of the day was the anthropologist Prof. Sasaki Shigehiro from Nagoya University, Japan. Sasaki is a specialist for masked performances in Cameroon and Nigeria, for ethnic art and cultural heritage in Japan, and more recently he has begun to do research on African migration to Japan in the context of global networks and movements.

Some of the intriguing points of his talk and the subsequent discussion will be summarized here and related to reflections on mobility and migration.

Economic relations between African countries and Japan have a long history. For example, Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya (s. de Silva Jayasuriya: 2008) mentions a Japanese screen painting in Nagasaki from the 16th century, on which Africans are depicted who carry parasols or working on Portuguese caravels (small fast ships). However, compared to the interaction of Japan with other countries and continents, present-day economic relations with Africa are still relatively few in number. One of the reasons is the geographical distance between both regions. This geographical distance is reflected by the low numbers of African migrants in Japan in comparison to other foreigners in the country, although their number has been growing in the past years.

In 2010 there were about 12.000 officially registered Africans in Japan, says Sasaki. The predominant reason of their migration is the search for opportunities to make money. The possibilities to find jobs as unskilled workers are rather limited for Africans, since the Japanese government prefers Asians as unskilled workers due to the long-term historical relationship within the region. Therefore many African migrants in Japan have to look for other ways of earning a living, obtaining a residence permit and carrying out business. Many sell Japanese second-hand goods to African countries. Traders often dispose of considerable tansnational networks. They do not only have contacts and family members in their African home countries but get trade information from friends and relatives in many countries in the world.

This situation of high physical mobility of people and goods and the availability of transnational contacts and networks calls for taking into account that migration should no longer be perceived in terms of cultural integration into the host society only. Migrants might aspire for permanent residence without necessarily imagining cultural integration. In most cases, migrants rather experience an on-going strong rootedness with their home country. Others are temporary guests and businesspeople who come and go for pecuniary reasons. Debatable is of course the meaning of migration in terms of the migrants’ spending power.

References: De Silva Jayasuriya, Shihan (2008): Crossing Boundaries: Africans in South East Asia, Africa Spectrum 43, 2008: 429-438





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