Time running out for shrinking Japan

Japan must sort out its bizzare immigration policies


Last week when I started to research this article I went looking for foreign factory workers.

I didn’t have to travel far. A few kilometers from our house in Tsukui, Kanagawa Prefecture, I came across a restaurant called Sabor Latino catering to a small community of local South Americans, a little ethnic oasis in a desert of identikit convenience stores and family restaurants.

Inside, first and second-generation Brazilians chatted over barbecue beef, Feifoada and coffee with the sound of TV in Portuguese blaring in the background. Some were sprawled out asleep in seats, exhausted from long shifts at the main local employers, two factories making box lunches and windscreens for cars.

The younger customers, many of whom looked like they should have been in school, were happy to chat in broken Japanese. Bruno Rodrigues Hirama, who says he gets his Japanese ancestry from his great-grandfather, is still in his teens but works a full week on a short-term contract making palates at the glass factory for about 100,000 yen a month.

His young friends Raul Pereira Dearaujo and Nishi Fumiyo Sawarze are paid a little better, but Raul says he must works “all the time — 7 a.m.-9 p.m., weekdays and weekends.” Both wanted to save up enough money to go home and start a business.

An older worker said he earned 170,000 yen a month in a ham processing factory but sent 110,000 yen back to his wife and family in Brazil.

“How can you live on 60,000 yen a month?” I asked.

“I squat with four others in a place near here,” was his reply.

“Over 85 percent of the workers at the bento factory are now foreign, mainly Latin American,” said a Japanese manager who didn’t want to be named. “You can’t get Japanese people to do this work anymore.”

Everybody knows the problem: Japan’s labor force is set to shrink. Japanese women now have an average of just over 1.3 children in a lifetime, well below the level needed to maintain the current population of 127 million.

If the trend continues, the population will plummet to just over 100 million by 2050, shrinking the country’s labor pool by more than a third and dragging down the country’s national wealth.

The solution seems equally obvious.

Throw the country open to the millions of poor Asians, Africans and Latin Americans who would certainly come if invited.

A recent United Nations report estimates that Japan will have to import over 640,000 immigrants per year just to maintain its present work force and avoid a 6.7 annual drop in gross domestic product. Recent signs are that business and political leaders are starting to come to the same conclusions.

The chairman of Japan’s top business federation, Hiroshi Okuda, favors importing up to 6.1 million foreign workers in the near future. Even Shintaro Ishihara now says he supports mass “controlled” immigration.

But standing in the way of a clear-cut policy decision is a political culture that seeks to have Japan remain ethnically pure and avoid the social problems associated by many in the old guard with immigration in Western cities.

In the meantime, foreigners dribble into Japan in a multitude of legal guises, filling the hole left in the lifetime employment system by ten years of downsizing with badly-paid, insecure jobs.

“It’s been obvious for a while now that Japan desperately needs an influx of workers from outside,” says Tony Lazlo, director of Issho Kikaku, an NPO that researches and supports multicultural issues in Japan.

“People in business have already been forced to recognize this but it’s not really widely known in Japanese society. There are likely to be two kinds of resistance. One will simply be resistance to having a lot of foreigners around, which is clear cut, and another form will come from people who believe that Japan is not really ready for it and needs more time.”

Although Japan now has about 1.7 million legally registered foreigners, the figure includes hundreds of thousands of Korean Japanese who were born here but have not naturalized.

Unskilled foreign workers are allowed into the country under the guise of “trainees” (36,199 in 2000 ) and pre-college “students” (37,781), many of whom end up working in short-staffed factories.

But Japan’s tortuous attitude to immigration and the attempt to preserve ethnic purity is best seen in the army of 330,000 Latin American nissei, many of whom, like the young workers in Sabor Latino, have been allowed in because they have some Japanese blood.

“Allowing thousands of Brazilians, Peruvians and Bolivians to come in after 1990 was an opening of the door but the authorities still stuck to what was literally a blood-relation approach,” says Professor Tom Gill, a social anthropologist at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. “The more Japanese you were, the more you could be trusted.”

Naturally, this approach has created a thriving black market for passports that can “prove” Japanese ancestry.

“There are a lot of illegals among the South American population in Japan,” says Rui Kureda, a Brazilian nissei who worked for years in Japan.

“A Peruvian with whom I worked with told me that an illegal passport costs around 50,000 yen.”

All this boils down to a bit of a mess. Young Chinese pay huge fees to universities where they will never study, disappearing instead into the illegal economy; thousands of foreigners enter on “technical trainee” visas and help to prop up the small-business sector; a quarter of a million people live in permanent fear of being deported; and hundreds of thousands of young South Americans, like Bruno, Raul and Nishi, work for a fraction of what they’re worth and will never see Japan as “home.” Unsurprisingly, all three say they hate it here and want to go back to Brazil.

“Countries and governments can change (their immigration policies) in two ways,” says Tony Lazlo. “Either with vision — making bold, inventive and imaginative decisions. Or by necessity, which is more painful, because you’re changing under duress.”

“We hope change will come from vision, because that’s the kind of history Japan has. But we’re running kind of late for a decision.”