Helping hand for immigrants

Hope seen in plan to promote Japanese-language education, visas

by and

There is a simple reason why Taba Solange, a Brazilian living in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, never helps her 12-year-old son or 7-year-old daughter with their homework: She can’t read Japanese very well.

But the 40-year-old mother realizes her children are more fortunate than other Brazilian kids. Unlike those who moved here with their parents from South America, her own were born and raised in Hamamatsu, and thus have a grasp of the Japanese language.

“I spoke mostly Portuguese at home to my kids, but they are doing well in Japanese,” Taba said in limited Japanese. “But I know many (Brazilian) kids are having a hard time at school.”

Taba’s compatriots may thus welcome a plan aired in June by a group of lawmakers, led by former Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa, to expand the number of immigrants to 10 million, or 10 percent of the population, in 50 years.

Submitted to Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, the plan seeks to remedy problems such as the expected labor shortage stemming from the decreasing population and low birthrate.

The plan also calls for securing a budget sufficient to strengthen Japanese-language education for foreign students at elementary and junior high schools. Compulsory education does not extend to high school.

“Children would be the biggest beneficiaries of the plan,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, director general of the think tank Japan Immigration Policy Institute and the mastermind of the plan.

One difficulty many Brazilians here face is that they speak only Portuguese at home, so their children cannot acquire enough Japanese to keep up at school, prompting many not to pursue high school, he said.

Unlike Brazilians, who with 15 percent of the foreign population make up the third-largest immigrant group, Korean and Chinese children are relatively fluent in Japanese, Sakanaka said, noting the two ethnic groups make up a combined 55 percent of the foreign population.

Under the plan, the rights of immigrants, defined by the U.N. as people who live outside their home country more than 12 months, would be bolstered and efforts made to make life more convenient for them here.

Those already in Japan would receive the same benefits as those who hope to live in Japan.

Under the plan, a law banning racism would be enacted. The government would ensure immigrants receive the same public welfare services as Japanese do, encourage universities and vocational schools to accept more foreign students and strengthen Japanese-language education.

The conditions for granting foreigners permanent resident and long-term resident status would also be relaxed.

The plan still must be accepted by the ruling coalition and approved by the Cabinet.

If this happens, part of the plan that does not require legislative changes, including loosening conditions for permanent resident status, could take effect within a year, as Nakagawa proposed to the government.

Policies requiring new laws or revisions, such as an antiracism law, will have to clear the Diet. Sakanaka hopes the needed legislation will be enacted in three years.

Keiko Tanaka, director of the nonprofit organization Hamamatsu Foreign Children Education Support Association, praised the LDP members for the plan.

“Children are able to communicate in Japanese but have not reached the stage where they study subjects such as history and science in Japanese. That’s largely because they spend time in language classes, while other kids are pursuing those subjects,” Tanaka said.

Tanaka, whose NPO sends Japanese teachers to schools in Hamamatsu, hinted that schools may as well have poor-performing children repeat a grade, even though this is a rarity.

In addition to giving foreign children better educational opportunities, the plan would potentially give foreign workers more protection by making it easier to get permanent resident or long-term resident status, replacing the less-secure working visa.

Foreigners with working visas who are unemployed at the time they have to renew their visa are in theory illegal residents.

Louis Carlet, deputy general secretary of the National Union of General Workers Tokyo Nambu, said he wishes the plan had specifically done away with the current lump-sum pension payout that allows foreigners to recoup a fraction of the money they’ve paid into the system if they leave.

People have to pay pension premiums for 25 years to qualify for benefits when they turn 65. Foreigners who pay the premiums but leave Japan after working less than 25 years get a lump-sum amount, which increases proportionately up to only 36 months.

“The system basically means (Japan is) trying to send foreigners away in three years,” Carlet said.

Some Japanese do not want foreigners to stay for even three years. The thinking is that a population made up 10 percent by immigrants, which is the case in Western Europe, will worsen public safety.

Nakagawa and his camp “disregard problems that will emerge by bringing in more foreigners,” said Hiroyuki Seto, an adviser to the Tokyo-based nonprofit Foreign Criminal Exclusion Movement. “What about safety, their education, costs to take care of those issues? The most serious problem is that our traditional culture will be threatened to the core.”

Even if the population declines to 80 million from the current 128 million, a way can be found to maintain a satisfactory economic level, he claimed. The government estimates the population will fall to 90 million in 50 years.

His opposition is shared by renowned nationalist critic Kanji Nishio, former honorary chairman of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, which publishes a revisionist history textbook for junior high school students.

“The idea of a society in which multiple ethnicities or cultures coexist is an empty theory. Such societies have seldom existed in history,” Nishio wrote in an essay titled “Recommendation to Reject Foreign Laborers Entering Japan” in the monthly magazine Seiron (Right Argument) published on Aug. 1.

Sakanaka countered that crimes by immigrants will be limited if they are treated the same as Japanese, properly educated and able to get a job.