Massive layoffs from the current economic crisis are falling heavily on foreign workers, many of whom are opting to leave the country to seek work back home.
But for those who stay, there remain the difficulties of adapting to Japanese society, limited educational opportunities for their children and lack of medical support. Yet a rapidly aging Japan is unlikely to long remain the world’s second-largest economy without them.
“Japan’s immigration policy has always been a patchwork. We need to have proper laws and regulations in place when accepting people from abroad,” Susumu Ishihara, 57, president of the Japan Immigrant Information Agency, said during a recent interview with The Japan Times.
Motivated by a sense of urgency, Ishihara recently spent ¥5 million of his own money to launch a quarterly Japanese-language magazine, called Immigrants, focusing on immigration issues. The goal is to provide more information on foreigners living here to Japanese people to bridge the gap between the two sides.
The first issue of the quarterly, circulation 10,000, included messages from ambassadors of South American countries as well as interviews with immigration policy experts, including Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Taro Kono, and Shigehiko Shiramizu, a professor of global media studies at Komazawa University.
Ishihara, a former journalist for the daily Mainichi Shimbun, claims that when Japan revised the immigration law in 1989, during the bubble economy, and started accepting Japanese-Brazilians the following year, the revision was not discussed fully due to political situation at that time.
“Japanese politics was in turmoil in 1989 with the death of Emperor Showa (Hirohito), the collapse of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita’s Cabinet after the introduction of the consumption tax, and the pounding defeat of the ruling LDP led by Prime Minister Sosuke Uno in the Upper House election,” he said.
“Though the revision was such an important policy shift with serious ramifications for Japan, it cleared the Diet without much debate,” said Ishihara, who wrote extensively about Japanese politics as well as defense and human rights issues during his journalistic career.
By attitude if not policy, the government has tried to discourage foreigners from living here permanently, he said. But the revision triggered an influx of Japanese-Brazilians, who numbered 317,000 by 2007.
Recently, however, the government has offered to pay for laid-off Brazilians and Peruvians of Japanese descent to leave Japan, with the promise of never coming back.
Counting some 600,000 Chinese and 590,000 Koreans, Japan was home to 2.15 million foreigners as of 2007, nearly twice as many as in 1990, according to the Justice Ministry.
Many Japanese-Brazilians here must make do with low wages earned from long hours in factories, leaving little time to care for their children, the 57-year-old editor in chief of the magazine said.
Without the ability to communicate fully with Japanese children, Japanese-Brazilian kids tend to stick together. Some, alienated from society, turn to crime, he said.
“When I use the term ‘immigration policy,’ people may think I am urging Japan to accept more foreigners, but it’s not quite true. What I’m saying is that there are already so many foreigners living here, so we have to think about them. We have already opened the door to foreigners, and companies need them, too,” Ishihara said.
His views are shared by politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc. In February last year, about 80 LDP politicians, led by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa, formed a group to promote foreign personnel exchanges.
The group submitted a proposal to educate and train foreigners who wish to come to Japan and to accept 10 million immigrants over the next 50 years. The policy proposal also called for accepting 1,000 asylum seekers annually and others who need protection on humanitarian grounds.
Separately, current Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura established a lawmakers’ group to create a bill to support schools for foreigners living in Japan. In addition, the Cabinet Office set up an office especially to deal with problems facing foreigners here earlier this year.
“For a long time, the issue of foreigners here has been regarded as taboo in the political arena because working for foreigners’ rights won’t help politicians get elected, and it may even anger some Japanese who don’t want to accept foreigners. So, I welcome such moves by politicians,” said Ishihara, who is also an expert on Korean residents in Japan.
Behind such moves is the growing uncertainty about Japan’s future. Ishihara notes Japan’s population is expected to drop below 90 million by 2050, 30 million to 40 million less than the 2005 level.
Every industrialized nation finds itself in a similar situation and competition is heating up to attract immigrants, Ishihara said, adding, “Even other parts of Asia, including Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan, have shaped their immigration policy to legally accept foreign workers.”
Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and China are currently experiencing population growth and supply workers to other countries, but they, too, will see declines in population by 2030. “But Japan has done nothing to cope with the looming crisis so far,” he said.
Ishihara noted many industries in Japan are already dependent on foreign workers, including convenience stores and farming, where many Chinese and other non-Japanese work. “These days, even the sumo industry is dominated by foreigners,” he added with a smile.
Ishihara plans to use part of the magazine’s proceeds to help foreign children get a higher education in Japan, given the current difficulties they face, including financial constraints.
“Japanese society should support these children who work hard to get into universities. They are the ones who have overcome various difficulties since arriving here, and I’m sure they will be active in bridging the gap between Japan and foreign countries,” he said.