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Olympics highlight the need for foreign blue-collar laborers

by Philip Brasor

In a recent column, Tokyo Shimbun sportswriter Masaru Ogawa called on past and future Olympic athletes to come forward and talk about what he sees as the biggest problem facing the Tokyo 2020 Games: lack of construction workers. Next year, work on venues will start in earnest, but Japan is already burdened with a labor shortage, a problem most notable in the Tohoku region, where reconstruction is proceeding at a very slow pace.

Ogawa writes that if the Olympic organizers “set up events with athletes talking to workers at construction sites, the media will pay attention and report on the reality.” Using the flowery diction that accompanies any discussion of the Games, he said Olympians should “show respect to those workers who are creating the venues of our dreams.”

Much of the excitement surrounding the Olympics has to do with making money, and the biggest short-term beneficiaries are construction companies, who get to put up all those sparkling new stadiums and arenas that fall into disuse once the Games are over. Neither the people who promoted Tokyo for the 2020 games nor those who selected the city brought up the labor issue, which was well-publicized before Tokyo was chosen. But if Ogawa wants the public to be better informed about the problem, what does he expect people to do with that information?

Experts say there is only one solution: more foreign workers. In principle, the Japanese government does not allow immigration for the purpose of filling blue-collar jobs. Last week, this column discussed the media’s role in a growing xenophobia trend, which makes it more difficult to sell the idea of increased immigration for economic reasons, so the central government, if it is considering such a solution, will need to carry out its own PR campaign.

Another Tokyo Shimbun columnist, Shigeo Takeda, believes that Japanese society is not ready: Immigrants will face wholesale discrimination and maybe even violence. However, most of the vocal opposition to foreign workers comes from the underemployed urban youth, who have too much time on their hands, anyway.

Outside the cities, local governments are taking matters into their own hands. Last month, Asahi Shimbun asked, “Will immigrants save rural Japan?” Takikawa, a town in Hokkaido, wants to set up a special economic zone like those the central government proposed for foreign companies who would be exempt from Japanese labor standards, except that Takikawa wants to populate its zone with foreign farmers. Applicants would contact the local government directly — but since immigration is involved, the central government would have to approve the plan. A basic law has already been passed by the local assembly, which is now working out the details.

Takikawa already conducts “exchange activities” with foreign counterparts, so the town has experience in the field. As the mayor told the newspaper, “The word ‘imin‘ (immigrant) may perplex some people, but already there are foreign workers who come to Japan for training and want to settle here.” He suggests the trainee system be expanded.

Though it would be simpler than making a new law, enlarging the scope of the trainee law might exacerbate existing problems. The system was set up to transfer technical know-how to developing countries in Asia, but almost everyone understands that it’s been used by small and medium-sized businesses to obtain cheap labor, and abuses in terms of work load and pay are common.

The system is clouded in euphemism. Employers, whether agricultural or industrial, must “accept” trainees through business associations, and each employer is limited to nine at a time, each being able to stay in Japan no more than three years. Small business owners told Asahi that they couldn’t survive without the system, and want the government to let them hire more and allow the workers to stay longer.

While in some places the trainees make good money — ¥1,300 an hour at a seaweed processing plant in Fukushima Prefecture — most make below the minimum wage (which ranges from ¥664 to ¥869, depending on the prefecture) a practice that is legal for trainees. Nevertheless, many still make enough to send some money home, but the longer they are allowed to work, the more likely they will want to stay. They will certainly demand higher wages.

Most employers turn to trainees as “a last resort,” since many young people leave rural Japan as soon as they’re old enough. At a meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Feb. 25, members of a marine-products industry association asked the government to allow it to employ more trainees. The construction industry has already asked, practically begged. The industry now employs about 15,000 foreign trainees, but that isn’t nearly enough considering the demand.

For house-framers alone, there are 7.32 job openings for every job seeker. The shortage is even worse in the care-giving field, since it is estimated that one million workers will be needed over the next two decades, so an association of private nursing home operators has also asked the government to ease immigration standards. The LDP, utilizing the vague diction it’s so fond of, said it will “indicate the direction” of its decision by June.

Construction-related officials told Asahi that it may already be too late for the Olympics, and some politicians have taken the matter more seriously. Cabinet members emerged from a meeting in January saying they will “summarize” a plan to expand the trainee program for the construction industry by the end of this month, but last week at another LDP meeting some members argued that “foreigners will take jobs away from Japanese people.” They fear that once liberalization takes place it will be impossible to turn back; which raises the question: Why aren’t Japanese people clamoring or training for these jobs right now?

The Japan Federation of Bar Association has said the government should just draft a bill to admit unskilled laborers into Japan, whether the public is ready or not. No more indirection and no more euphemisms.

  • Stephen Kent

    I think this article is correct to raise the issue of euphemism when it comes to immigration issues in Japan. The idea that foreigners may struggle to adapt to “Japanese culture” is in itself a euphemism for the fear that workers from overseas may not readily accept violations of their rights and demand the things that they are legally entitled to such as payment for overtime worked and a full compliment of paid holidays.

  • Tom Driggers

    This seems to imply that Japan is not ready to get this done
    and the Japanese people themselves don’t want the work involved. Why would that
    be? I am ready to move there and work in a support role in the broadcast
    industry but am surprised here at the implications.