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Japan’s masochistic approach to immigration


Special To The Japan Times

The Asahi Shimbun’s online newsmagazine, Webronza, recently featured a conversation between former Asahi reporter Mieko Takenobu and sex-goods purveyor Minori Kitahara. They discussed the latter’s brief imprisonment after being busted for displaying “salacious material” at her store associated with the controversial “vagina artist” Rokudenashiko. Most of the conversation was about the salacious material, but they also talked about jail.

Kitahara was kept in a cell at a Tokyo detention center with three other women, two of whom were Chinese being held for immigration violations. One had been working on a farm and the other at a dry cleaners. Kitahara learned that more than half the women in the center were non-Japanese being held for overstaying their visas. Takenobu, whose specialty is labor issues, explained that almost all the foreigners arrested in Japan are overstayers though the media makes it seem as if they are “criminals,” and therefore a danger to the public.

Kitahara said that the foreign inmates at the detention center are treated poorly — held for long periods without proper medical attention or the right to speak to outsiders in their own language, and since they can’t understand the rules of the place, they are always breaking them inadvertently and getting into trouble. Nobody is prepared when they go to trial, because the explanation of their rights is incomprehensible. “Even I didn’t understand it,” she said.

Takenobu explained that these conditions are the norm.

“As a reporter, I saw how difficult it was for foreign workers to live in Japan,” she said. “So I think they go home and talk about it, conveying what a tough place Japan is for them. I wonder if any good workers want to come here any more.”

Takenobu’s supposition is the natural manifestation of the government’s policy toward foreign laborers. The official line is that Japan does not accept workers from overseas, so if fewer people are interested in coming to Japan for work, then that means the policy is successful. In 1993, just after the end of the bubble period, the Foreign Ministry estimated there were 300,000 undocumented foreigners in Japan. As of Jan. 1, the number was 60,000.

Some of the people who overstay do not, in fact, have visas to begin with. They are so-called trainees who were accepted into a government program to transfer know-how to developing countries by having people from those countries work for Japanese companies at below minimum wage. For years now, however, it has been clear that the system is a sham, and that most of these workers do not learn special skills but instead perform the kind of repetitive labor Japanese people don’t want to do any more. The trainees know this. They are coming to make money — or trying to make money.

The government has said it will expand the trainee program so as to let workers stay for up to five years rather than the current three. By doing so, it is indirectly admitting that it uses the trainee system to address the current labor shortage, but underlying this admission is the assumption that there are many people out there itching to work in Japan.

On April 12, Tokyo Shimbun ran a feature profiling several undocumented workers. One woman “from the Middle East,” who married another foreign national some years ago and had a child by him before he divorced her and left Japan, worked at a printing company from 2008 to 2013. Her employer said she works hard and speaks Japanese well, and he hired her knowing she was undocumented. He eventually laid her off because of the economy, but he would hire her back if his business picked up because she has the skills he needs.

Then there’s the Bangladeshi man who came to Japan as a student in the late 1990s and later tried to start a computer service company. He could not get a resident visa, however, and found work as a lathe operator while supporting a wife and child. He communicated well in Japanese and understood how his factory works, but he felt bad about overstaying and reported himself to immigration, hoping they would give him amnesty.

But amnesty is not a concept recognized by the Foreign Ministry. The Immigration Bureau handles residency visas on a case-by-case basis, and the Bangladeshi man was ordered deported on principle.

Yukiko Omagari of the nongovernment organization Ijuren, which supports foreign workers, told Tokyo Shimbun that many overstayers have jobs that not only support their families but also Japanese industry. They tend to work for small companies involved in construction, civil engineering, manufacturing and service — industries that are now suffering labor shortages. The government thinks it can alleviate the problem by expanding the trainee system, which Ijuren and others say is inherently exploitative, but it could solve the problem effectively and quickly by granting amnesty to overstayers who are already contributing through their jobs. The government is afraid of foreign workers settling down permanently because they think Japanese society doesn’t accept them — a self-fulfilling assumption.

In the end, by removing skilled workers who have become valuable members of the community and treating unskilled trainees as cheap labor and unwanted guests, the government sends out a message. When Japan was the only economic game in Asia, everyone wanted to work here — but not any more. As pointed out by Hitotsubashi University researcher Kiyoto Tanno in the business magazine Diamond, South Korea and Taiwan are encouraging immigration of workers with easier visa conditions, especially in the caregiving field, which is also greatly understaffed in Japan.

Tanno says the Japanese public believes that “exploiting foreign workers when they’re needed and then kicking them out when they’re not is normal. That’s why they no longer want to come here.”

When a conservative business magazine chides the authorities over a policy that is supposed to help business but does the opposite, you have to wonder about the government’s priorities.

  • Steve Jackman

    A corollary to the famous saying, “Every nation gets the government it deserves” is, “Every country gets the immigrants it deserves”.

    Two good examples are the U.S and Japan, which are on opposite ends of the spectrum, in terms of the quality of immigrants they attract. The U.S treats immigrants with much more respect and dignity, while giving them much greater opportunities to reach their full potential, so it attracts the highest quality immigrants from around the world.

    Japan, on the other hand, treats immigrants with contempt, xenophobia, discrimination and racist attitudes. This is why it will never attract high quality immigrants, since they have many other better choices than coming and settling in a country with such closed minds and backward attitudes as Japan, where they will never ever be accepted as equals.

    Because of this, Japan is doomed to attract the least attractive immigrants or the small group of anime and manga loving apologists who are always lurking in these comments sections and feel compelled to attack anyone who they feel has insulted (their fantasy of) Japan.

    • batbrewer

      Popcorn? Check.
      Beer? Check. Check. Check. Check.
      OK, I’m ready for the illuminating and constructive thread that will surely follow.

    • Toolonggone

      Well, unfortunately, the two good examples you bring up seem to be going to the very similar direction in terms of media propaganda and bigotry on race and gender. Immigrants are losing dignity and respect as of today, thanks to national media and conservative bullies in Red States. Those coming from specific regions(i.e., the Middle East, East Africa, Southeast Asia, or Central America) are very likely to be treated like trash–due to the consequence of nation’s awful foreign policy that brings catastrophic injury to local economy.

      Yet, what’s mind-boggling to me is that Japan is having a very similar allergy to immigrants from particular regions despite their history of pacifism that has kept them from other country’s political/economic crisis. Imagine how the MOJ would react should tens of thousands of Mexicans and Muslims made a choice to sail across Pacific Ocean to reach Tokyo Bay–very unlikely hypothetical situation, though.

      Phil is spot-on. It is mostly conservative weekly tabloid and magazines like WILL, Bungeishunjyu, Shukanshincho, ‘Shukan Da-i-a-mon-do’and even Sapio that make crude, distasteful 19th century ‘immigrants-as-disease’ narrative.

    • paul martin

      True, true again !
      I have lived here on and off since 2008 and yes immigration puts a LOT of unnecessary hoops in our paths. My Sons have been married to nationals (one now divorced) and my grandchildren are part Japanese, so I do have close ties here.
      What you say about America is factual, I had many doors opened there in the 25 years I lived there.
      On the other hand the US and the UK (I am UK citizen) have allowed millions of extremely UNDESIRABLES to literally, effortlessly INVADE and as a result of lax scrutinizing potential immigrants invited the very WORST elements who commit endless crimes in those countries.
      Yes Japanese immigration are VERY hard to deal with, but Japan is also the SAFEST country in the World and does NOT have masses od foreign derelicts flooding in on rickety boats, gypsies and violent criminals exploiting their STRICT system and sleeping on the streets !

    • BG Davis

      “The U.S…attracts the highest quality immigrants from around the world.”

      Surely you jest. The U.S. attracts huge numbers of low-level economic refugees who end up driving taxis and being surly and rude. Also Hispanic thugs, gangsters, drug dealers and the like, who are routinely deported and who routinely sneak back in. And many wealthy people from places like Taiwan who hide their assets so they can qualify for Medicare (there are even ads on Chinese-language TV in Los Angeles, promoting services to help people beat the system). And of course we got Justin Bieber.

      As a former resident alien in Japan, and having lived in Japan on and off since 1960, I’m hardly an “anime and manga loving apologist” (my experience predates anime, which I find stupid, and I’ve always though manga is/are rubbish). And I have no fantasy about Japan. But like everyone else, I wasn’t forced to go there and if I didn’t like things I could either adapt or go home. Seems eminently fair.

    • Frido

      As a manga and anime enthusiast, my fantasy of Japan was not insulted at all by this article. The contrary was the case. I feel bare grudge over a country where criminals are vagina molders, their purveyors and over-stayed immigrants. I wish there would be an exchange program where criminals of my country went into Japanese prisons and vice versa.

    • Stephanie

      I just read on the Japan Times that Tokyo was named the #1 liveable city in the world by Monocle magazine based on the “quality of life,” from the number of murders, to the level of noise. I do not believe this could have been achieved by the immigration policy US currently has. Especially, when only one city in US made it in the top 25, and that was Portland… For every policy, there will be some form of backlash no matter how well intended it was suppose to be. SO, to compare Japan to United States is a bit ignorant since it can be misleading, since yes, both have very different immigration policies and goals for the country.

    • Josef K.

      I think you are mistaking Japan with Sweden when you write “Because of this, Japan is doomed to attract the least attractive immigrants”.

      Surely, it should be: “Because of this, Sweden is doomed to attract the least attractive immigrants”?

      Sweden will never attract high quality immigrants since immigrants pretty much are offered life time support from social benefits.

      On the other hand, the only foreigners who are allowed into Japan are highly skilled workers mainly working mainly in the IT field.

  • Btd

    Totally unacceptable! How dare this nation treat illegal immigrants and visa overstayers so poorly! Unbelievable. They should at Least be housed at the Hilton and get citizenship in 48 hours. What a racist nation, I’m shocked to leave in such a place. I mean, why do they imprison illegal immigrants, I think they should even be treated better than japanese, sarcasm over what a bunch of crying babies , you’re an illegal, you face the consequences!

    • Steve Jackman

      Actually, this says much more about Japan, than it does about these unfortunate immigrants. As a very wise man once said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

    • primalxconvoy

      Japan is one of the few places in the world that officially counts visa violators as “criminals”. The government can then trot out bloated statistics that show when more foreigners come into the country, then so do crime statistics.

      Japan is also one of the only developed nations that allows a miniscule amount of asylum seekers into the country.

    • COYP

      In the camps on the border of Mexico and civilized America the unlucky central Americans who don’t make it through are treated to waterslides and BBQs all day long before a drunken party in the evening all paid for by USA inc.

    • Josef K.

      “They should at Least be housed at the Hilton and get citizenship in 48 hours.”
      Welcome to Sweden!

  • FeministSafeZone.blogspot.com

    I don’t think these idiot journalists get it. Whenever you hear we are “living in a global society” where people from all countries can move to work, the reference is only to North American and European countries. Due to the Holocaust, European cultures do NOT deserve to keep their ethnic identities. Due to Racism, America must accept immigrants from everywhere. This rule does NOT apply to culturally rich Asian countries, who have every right to preserve their identity.

    Whiteness needs to be abolished.

  • primalxconvoy

    I think that if Japan continues to engage in racist/nationalistic/protectionist activities like this, then in the near future, it will be JAPANESE immigrants coming to China to find jobs…

  • Ahojanen

    There are a number of discussion points, most of which I leave to other forum fellows :) Here I only point out some unbalanced tendency of media focus on the issue of immigration and cultural adaptation.

    Crimes or maltreatment involving foreigners or other intercultural problems can be conspicuous or newsworthy while successful and culturally well-adjusted foreign residents, whose number is in fact quite enormous, have little news value the media are willing to feature. If foreigners “fit in,” no news report about them is necessary, just like about most of ordinary Japanese.

    I don’t find Japan racist in comparison to other migrant societies. True, there are still problems in both technical and socio-cultural levels, but let’s look at a bright side, much reform and progress have also been made these days. Social perceptions towards foreigners are changing, less-stereotyping. Overall, it depends on where and in what perspective you see in the world.

  • Clickonthewhatnow

    Of course the way people in those detention centers are treated is ridiculous, but I find it hard to feel sorry for how they got there. At the immigration center, you can get forms outlining your duties and obligations in regards to a visa (if you don’t speak or understand Japanese or (in some areas) English. How you end up letting your visa expire is beyond me. Unless you’re in a coma or something.

  • COYP

    Japan like most places treats immigrants well if they have a marketable skill.
    Sadly for a lot of you guys, reading aloud from a textbook in ones native language is not considered a marketable skill in Japan nor anywhere else in the world.

  • Tangerine 18

    Why is it that every time there’s an excellent article on Japan Times that attracts many readers like this one, the comments section is soon overrun by trolls, fakes and the just-plain-weird?
    Is there some kind of article-flagging that goes on? Something like an alert, a “Hey people, discussion at Japan Times about immigration. Get over there and disrupt it now” kind of thing.
    I’ve seen a similar thing at the Guardian website regarding Japanese whaling. As soon as any article about whaling is posted pro-whaling posters suddenly arrive, shortly followed by the oddballs. It’s the same here.

  • BG Davis

    Why is the title of the article “Japan’s masochistic approach to immigration?” What’s masochistic about it? Masochistic would be, say, letting in hordes of slackers or thieves or terrorists, and then letting them stay on taxpayer money.

  • feltip

    There are may who want to take mileage on the ‘apologetic Japanese’. I hardly find any meaning in this story.
    First, Takenobu’s words are nothing but a reflection of typical ‘apologetic Japanese’. Saying sorry for everything and think that they achieved some good image in front of foreigners. Unfortunately such observations does not elevate Japan’s image. Instead, apologetic Japanese are taken seriously by many foreigners and are projected as people’s view in Japan (against establishment). What I did not understand here is, the author writes in a way that overstaying is no harm. It should be simply accepted. And no one should question this. Are you serious?? Are you really serious?? I do not know which is an ideal country you have in mind that you keep as benchmark, but I really want to hear from you if visa overstay is treated as something different? Or are you portraying some immigrant Chinese case here and trying to build some protection for some other nationalities? Prisons are prisons. Not any place to preach any holy book.

    Second, on what basis are you suggesting that immigrant workers are not being treated well? I guess immigrant workers are getting more importance than Japanese nationals in many places. One thing is true, whatever argument you put forward Japanese government is not going to give citizenship. So knowing that very well, you have the full freedom to say anything and everything. At least Japan is not Saudi Arabia where the punishment ends up taking the organ with which one does the crime.

    Overall there are three concerns. First, many of the Anglo Saxon nationals get undue importance in Japan. Just because at least some Japanese like the fact that those people can speak English. I have witnessed that many anglo saxon thinks that it is their right to be treated royally in Japan. If one can not get respect in your own country, is it not too much to demand that respect in another place? The author must rethink about what is written about here and what is his agenda while saying such things.

  • Shady Shita

    With this kind of treatment no wonder less and less people want to immigrate to Japan , Japanese people accept foreigners but the government is so backward, with the population continues decline and labor shortages , I wonder who will run Japan in the near future ? It’ll be a ghost country :/

  • tisho

    If competent people with understanding of economics and economic history of foreign countries were in charge, this problem would’ve been solved by now. Like i said before, all what needs to be done is simply remove all government restraints over the labor market. That’s it. Japanese companies would’ve easily supply themselves with the necessary labor if they were free to do so. Google doesn’t need permission from the US government to hire anybody from around the world, fly them to the US, grand them working visa and put them on the path to citizenship. Japanese companies on the other hand cannot do that, they are way too restricted by the government. I am sure Toshiba would have no problem hiring someone from the amazon jungle and granting him working visa and put them on path to citizenship as long as he makes them money. Labor market is the best way for people to integrate into a society. By liberalizing the labor market, you kill two rabbits with one bullet – allow companies to supply themselves with the needed labor, which also ensures they will not leave the country to move to another country in order to supply themselves with the needed labor, and also bring new human capital to the country.

  • derekdj

    The reason why Japan is having such a hard time dealing with immigration is because like other racially homogenous countries (like Sweden), it can’t separate race and its singular cultural history from nationality.

    It’s a difficult concept to understand for people who come from countries whose history of international conquests and colonialism, made it easy for them to absorb cultures and races to form a national identity that isn’t based on skin color or ethnicity. Even China with its mythic racially pure Han Chinese has the ability to accept foreigners into its fold because of its history of conquests dating back to when the mongols ruled.

    This is why Japan has such a hard time acknowledging even Japanese celebrities who are of mixed birth or immigrated to the country. Japan can’t come to terms with its immigration and dwindling population problem until to comes to terms with what it means to be Japanese. Can Japan be more than just its ancient history and ethnicity?

  • Btd

    They came because they wanted to come, they knew it all so don’t give me that crap about exploitation…… If they really wanted to complain they could go to the authorities and file a claim. Fact is they’re illegals and will be treated as such. Still better here I guess than in their own crap countries otherwise they wouldn’t have come in the first place!