OSAKA — It’s 2030, and Japan is facing an unprecedented social problem. For the past quarter-century, ever since the population began declining, the government has encouraged the hiring of foreign laborers. But measures to control immigration have failed, and in some towns and villages foreigners now make up more than half the population.
Long-term foreign residents, who are more prosperous and politically connected than recent arrivals, worry the government is ignoring them and focusing only on the influx of newcomers, while labor unions complain foreign laborers are stealing their jobs.
As the problems mount, the public and media have begun asking why these problems weren’t anticipated in the first decade of the 21st century, when it became apparent Japan would need foreign workers.
For the past several years, politicians, bureaucrats, human rights activists and business leaders have been thinking about how to avoid the scenario described above. With Japan’s population now in decline and the need for more foreign labor becoming increasingly apparent, the issue of how to deal with newcomers has become a concern not just for Japanese but for long-term foreign residents, especially Koreans.
“There’s been much discussion on how to deal with the newcomers, which means those who have come to Japan mostly over the past few decades, and of creating policies for bringing in more foreign laborers,” says Bae Joong Do, a Kawasaki-based Korean rights activist. “But Japan has failed to adequately care for it’s ‘oldcomer’ foreigners who came during, or before, World War II and are now growing old.”
In March, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry announced a plan to create a society in which Japanese people can coexist with those from other cultures.
To integrate foreigners into society, both those who are here now and those who may come in the future, the ministry recommends that the central government provide foreign-language information at the local level; offer language classes and courses on Japanese culture and society; provide funding for housing, education, medical care and social welfare; and take steps to improve the work environment for overseas workers.
In May, a team of experts led by Vice Justice Minister Taro Kono published a report calling for a new immigration policy, one that limits foreigners to 3 percent of the total population and includes language proficiency requirements for foreign workers and their families.
The report emphasizes the need for skilled foreign labor — people trained in specific technical areas and fluent in Japanese — suggesting that such workers be subject to language testing before being allowed to enter Japan.
Both reports were generally welcomed by Japanese human rights activists as a first step toward ensuring better treatment of foreign workers, although the Kono report was criticized by some for imposing overly strict conditions for allowing in overseas workers.
But the reports, and the general tone of recent government discussions on the future of foreign labor, have been a cause for concern among long-term foreign residents.
Many long-term Korean residents have a special type of permanent residency. But their numbers are declining as they age and as more of their children take Japanese citizenship. In 2001, there were about half a million special permanent residents. Last year there were 452,000.
On the other hand, the number of more recently arrived foreigners who have become permanent residents is at a record high. There were 184,000 such residents in 2001; by 2005 that figure had climbed by more than 90 percent to 350,000.
“The balance between older and newer foreigners is shifting rapidly. But those with the most experience in fighting for the human rights of foreigners are often the older ones” says Osaka-based Song Jung Ji, who heads the Multi-Ethnic Human Rights Education Center. “They have long-established relationships with local authorities and worry a large influx of newcomers who don’t understand Japanese or Japan will destroy the progress they’ve made.”
Is a confrontation between these older and newer arrivals coming?
“I don’t think you’d see a level of violence between different ethnic groups that you see in other parts of the world because Japanese authorities and society would not tolerate it,” said former Tokyo Immigration Bureau chief Hidenori Sakanaka. “But it’s likely that established foreign residents would discriminate against groups of new foreigners, barring them from apartments, restaurants, or jobs.
“It’s already happening in cities like Tokyo, but it could become a much bigger problem nationwide in the future,” he said.
And newcomers facing job discrimination in particular, be it from long-term foreign residents or from Japanese, could find that groups like labor unions that have often been at the forefront of protecting the rights of foreigners may change their attitude if they begin to see foreign labor as a threat.
“I can see a large influx of foreign workers sparking opposition from Japan’s labor unions,” Sakanaka said.
“Compared to the Justice Ministry and the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry, opposition within the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to large numbers of foreigners is quite strong, and much of this opposition reflects the opposition that exists in labor unions.”
Then there is the issue of education. At the local government level, especially in the Chubu region, where many South Americans live and work, concerns are mounting that the children of foreign laborers are growing up without access to a proper education because they don’t speak Japanese.
In addition, there are fears such children, as well as the children of foreign laborers who come to Japan in the future, will end up without basic language skills, further isolating them from Japanese society.
“Today, many children of foreign laborers only speak Spanish or Portuguese. This will make it extremely difficult for them to fit into Japanese society, and lead to all sorts of social problems later on. Education, especially Japanese-language education, is vital,” Vice Justice Minister Kono said at a news conference in late July.
“The reality is that all foreigners currently in Japan, and any future foreign workers, will find themselves isolated and marginalized by both Japanese and long-term foreign residents who are fluent in Japanese if they cannot speak and read Japanese,” said human rights activist Song.
“How Japan addresses the issue of language and cultural education for new foreigners will determine whether the future of foreign labor is a bright one or a nightmare,” he added.
But before official discussions on foreign labor go much further, national legislation to outlaw all forms of racial and ethnic discrimination is needed, according to the United Nations and nearly 80 Japan-based human rights organizations, many of which work to protect long-term foreign residents.
Without such a law, they argue, Japan will have serious problems with new arrivals, regardless of the restrictions on them, their Japanese-language skills or efforts to educate their children.
But the central government is not seriously considering such legal protections at the moment. In a comment reflective of the views of many senior policymakers and ordinary Japanese, Kono said he did not think such a law would be useful.
“Even if we were to pass such a law, Japanese attitudes toward foreigners wouldn’t change. It’s more important to change the culture of Japanese society to one that is accepting of foreigners,” Kono said.