National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

The face of immigration is rapidly changing in Japan

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Over the past half decade, major changes have taken place in the demographics of foreign residents in Japan. Weekly Playboy’s Dec. 18 issue devoted a four-page article to “Research into Vietnamese.” Why Vietnamese? And why now?

“Their numbers in Japan have drastically increased,” the magazine rationalizes. Up fourfold from five years ago, they grew by a remarkable 36.1 percent between 2015 and 2016. The Vietnamese population of 232,562 (as of end June 2017) has shot past Brazil to make them the fourth-largest nationality, and they may soon overtake the Philippines (251,934) for third place.

Take, for example, the city of Matsudo, a bed town of about 484,000 in Chiba Prefecture served by the JR Joban commuter line, about 21 minutes from Tokyo’s Ueno Station. It currently boasts 15,058 foreign residents, including a growing community of Vietnamese.

“Matsudo has lots of Japanese-language schools,” the chef at a local Vietnamese restaurant tells the reporter. “Spread by word of mouth among Vietnamese, the number of foreign students has increased. Still, they don’t stand out much. It’s probably because only a few of them do business around here.”

Weekly Playboy’s reporter then traveled to Hiroshima Prefecture, which last year was ranked fourth nationwide in terms of the number of technical trainees from Vietnam. Enough on a proportional basis, he writes with some exaggeration, to make Hiroshima a “province of Vietnam.”

Duan, a 32-year-old housewife originally from Hanoi, tells the reporter: “The Japanese I work with are devious. They scare me and I don’t care for them much.”

Duan arrived four years ago as a language student, and wound up marrying a Japanese 18 years her senior.

The language school where Duan first studied operated a side-business of farming out its students to part-time jobs, and initially Duan labored at a demanding job in a shipping depot for refrigerated items.

“One day I dropped a heavy box on my foot,” she relates bitterly. “I could barely walk and had to seek medical attention. Even the day I went to the hospital the company made me work.”

To make matters worse, she said, the school arranged with the depot to report her injury as having occurred during her commute to work, thereby making her ineligible for worker’s compensation.

Conditions at her second job, at a restaurant, proved no better. Still, she expressed deep affection for her Japanese husband, a “sweet old guy” whom she describes as caring and generous.

While not dwelling on negative aspects of immigration, Weekly Playboy doesn’t pull any punches, noting that Vietnamese are already the Japan’s top minority in one unenviable statistic: During 2015, their 2,556 violations of the criminal code exceeded the 2,390 cases by Chinese.

A police interpreter working in the Chubu region says roughly half of Vietnamese trainees and students are unable to keep up their school tuition payments and drop out; many turn to crime.

According to government figures, the number of legal foreign residents in Japan last year reached 2.47 million, or 1.95 percent of the total population. On a proportional basis that might not seem like a lot, compared to, say, Switzerland, where non-citizens make up 29 percent, or Australia (28 percent).

The 34-page cover story in Weekly Toyo Keizai (Feb. 3) titled “Japan, the major nation of hidden immigrants” views the issue from a variety of macro- and micro-perspectives.

The issue starts by noting that the total number of foreign residents in the country presently outstrips the 2.31 million population of Nagoya — Japan’s third-largest city — by more than 100,000.

So if that’s the case, why does Toyo Keizai use the word kakure (hidden) in its headline to describe immigration?

“Depending on the perspective, Japan is already a major nation of immigrants,” declares chief economist Koichi Fujishiro of the Dai-ichi Mutual Life Insurance Co.

It seems that while the government maintains the position that Japan is not open to immigration, according to definitions in use by some organizations, an immigrant is simply “a person who has resided in a foreign country for one year or longer.” If that’s the case, then according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, during 2015 Japan admitted approximately 400,000 immigrants — in substance if not in name — placing it fourth overall among advanced economies, behind Germany, the U.S. and the U.K.

The cities with the highest foreign population are listed as Yokohama, with 92,117; Nagoya with 77,668; Kobe (46,831); Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward (which is treated as a separate municipality, with 43,354); and Kawasaki (38,651).

While Weekly Playboy focused on Vietnamese, Toyo Keizai played guide to the Chinatown that has sprung up in the vicinity of Nishi Kawaguchi Station, situated on the JR Keihin-Tohoku Line in Saitama Prefecture just across the Arakawa River from Tokyo’s Kita Ward.

Inside the station building one can indulge in a Chinese-style breakfast of doujiang (hot soya milk) and youtiao (deep-fried dough crullers). Ethnic groceries sell live turtles and frogs. Roughly half the businesses patronized mostly by Chinese are food and beverage establishments.

Within the Chinese community, people from different provinces tend to dominate different types of business areas. While food services are run largely by arrivals from the northeastern provinces, mizu shōbai (bars and related “adult” businesses) tend to be managed by people from Fujian province on China’s southeastern coast. A color-coded map of Nishi Kawaguchi’s Chinatown identifies 28 Chinese-operated businesses, including three retail stores, 20 restaurants and five service businesses — a billiard parlor, two internet cafes, a karaoke outlet and a real estate agency.

And where are the accusatory cries complaining of new arrivals taking jobs away from Japanese? Forced to confront a serious and worsening labor shortage, Japan’s politicians and bureaucrats are clearly much less inclined to quibble over the downsides to immigration. That makes it practically the diametric opposite of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. Which also raises the question: Will some of those deported from the United States possibly wind up in Japan?