| by Eva Gudbergsdottir

Tsuneo Akaha in his office on the Middlebury Institute campus
Professor Tsuneo Akaha in his office on the Middlebury Institute campus. (Credit: Ed Caldwell )

Professor Tsuneo Akaha has taught courses on migration-related topics at the Institute for decades, and during that time his academic area has been focused on the Americas and East Asia. Last spring, Akaha decided to expand his geographical focus to Europe and the Middle East through a sabbatical in Bordeaux, France. His experience in France led to some surprising comparisons to his native Japan.

I define who I am. I have been in this country for 40 years. I never saw myself as an immigrant until I started teaching migration. My experience in this country has been so positive that I was never treated as different—as far as I know. I am who I am as an individual, and that is all that matters. When I return to Japan I now feel like a quasi-outsider, but at the same time, I feel less and less like an outsider here in the U.S.

Views towards immigration are often linked to the economy of a nation. When any country experiences a booming economy, laws and policies tend to be adjusted to make it easier for companies to hire foreign workers. When there is a downturn in the economy, attitudes change. There are exceptions to this rule, though.

The media is not always accurate. Before I went to France to conduct my research, I had read a lot about negative attitudes toward refugees and migrants, but when I got there I realized that on the ground the reality is much more nuanced. There are still a lot of people who embrace the historical openness of the French society and even go so far as opening their homes and volunteering their time to help. Others look at their culture as being “infiltrated” or “invaded.” The point is that it is often easier to tell a simple story in the media than a more complex story that is closer to reality.

Despite a growing need for workers, many rural areas are resistant to immigration. In the wine-producing areas near Bordeaux, I found growing unease and even resentment about the influx of migrant workers at nearby wineries. Through my research I discovered that the main reason is that the people there fear that immigrants are threatening their sense of identity. At the same time, these wine producers feel under attack from wine producers in other countries that are producing wine and marketing it as “French” wine even though it is not. There are many factors that come into play, and sentiments about immigration are often complex.

France is built on openness, but in reality there are a lot of frustrations. The economy is suffering, immigrants are seen as not making an effort to assimilate and become “French,” and the media picks up on sensational stories that add fuel to that particular fire. Immigrants experience information discrimination, and there is segregation between groups, even if that is not official. In some cases, there is societal self-selection, where people live with the group of people they identify with, but often it is a matter of economics, with migrants choosing to live where they can afford to live, which results in self-segregation. There has been a politicization of immigration issues, and now France is moving in the direction of more restrictive policies.

Japan is moving in the opposite direction. Society is slowing down in Japan and the structure has to change. There is a need for migrant labor, but politicians are running on nationalist, anti-immigration sentiments. Economic needs and politics are not in sync there. The myth of cultural and racial homogeneity is very strong in Japan. Famously, Japan does not accept dual citizenship, but more than that, a foreigner born and raised in Japan but looking “foreign” is not considered Japanese. In that respect, citizenship is based on looks rather than values.

Bookkeeping matters. France’s commitment to cultural assimilation means that government officials are not allowed to ask or record the ethnicity of people they deal with. In reality, however, people make assumptions, and there is indirect discrimination. Not having records makes it hard to correct for anti-discrimination policies. This is one example of how the French are holding onto old ideals of who they are as a country. In Japan, on the other hand, the government wants to know everything about you. Some of the statistics they publish, such as crime statistics, are purposefully discriminatory. The crimes they cite include breaking immigration law, which makes it appear that, statistically, foreigners commit more crimes.

We are at a period in time when nations are asking themselves, “Who are we?” Questions about what makes a nation, what the thresholds are for a minority to have a voice, and lots of other issues like that are bubbling up around the world. At the Institute you can have very open and liberal discussions about these issues because of the diverse backgrounds of students. 

For More Information

Eva Gudbergsdottir

  • News Stories

    Life According to Langholz

    | by Eva Gudbergsdottir

    A fixture in the International Environmental Policy program, professor Jeff Langholz is nothing if not systematic in his approaches to life’s challenges. He generously shares his systems with students and colleagues, and is tireless in his efforts to inspire others.

  • Regarding Gaza

    | by Eva Gudbergsdottir

    Current student Hajar Masoud MAIPD ’19 talks about her life in Gaza—and how the experience has shaped her view of the world.

  • News Stories

    Unavoidable Truths

    | by Jason Warburg

    International Policy & Development professor Jan Black’s colorful backstory includes writing the definitive account of U.S. involvement in Brazil, and being invited to play piano in Elvis Presley’s band.