Japan’s employment situation has gotten pretty dire, especially for non-Japanese workers. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry reports that between last November and January, more than 9,000 foreigners asked the Hello Work unemployment agency for assistance — 11 times the figure for the same period a year earlier.

The ministry also claims that non-Japanese don’t know Japan’s language and corporate culture, concluding that they’re largely unemployable. So select regions are offering information centers, language training, and some degree of job placement. Good.

But read the small print: Not only does this plan only target 5,000 people, but the government is also trying to physically remove the only people they can from unemployment rosters — the foreigners.

Under an emergency measure drawn up by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party only last month, from April 1 the Japanese government is offering nikkei — i.e. workers of Japanese descent on “long-term resident” visas — a repatriation bribe. Applicants get ¥300,000, plus ¥200,000 for each family dependent, if they “return to their own country,” and bonuses if they go back sooner (see www.mhlw.go.jp/houdou/2009/03/dl/h0331-10a.pdf ).

History is repeating itself, in a sense. These nikkei beneficiaries are the descendants of beneficiaries of another of Japan’s schemes to export its unemployed. A century ago, Japan sent farmers to Brazil, America, Canada, Peru and other South American countries. Over the past two decades, however, Japan has brought nikkei back under yet another wheeze to utilize their cheap labor. This time, however, if they take the ticket back “home,” they can’t return — at least not under the same preferential work visa.

Let this scheme sink in for a minute. We now have close to half a million nikkei living here, some of whom have been here up to 20 years, paying in their taxes and social security. They worked long hours at low wages to keep our factories competitive in the world economy. Although these policies have doubled Japan’s foreign population since 1990, few foreigners have been assimilated. Now that markets have soured, foreigners are the first to be laid off, and their unassimilated status has made them unmarketable in the government’s eyes. So now policy has become, “Train 1 percent (5,000) to stay, bribe the rest to be gone and become some other country’s problem.”

Sound a bit odd? Now consider this: This scheme only applies to nikkei, not to other non-Japanese workers also here at Japan’s invitation. Thus it’s the ultimate failure of a “returnee visa” regime founded upon racist paradigms.

How did this all come to pass? Time for a little background.

Japan had a huge labor shortage in its blue-collar industries in the late 1980s, and realized, with the rise in the value of the yen and high minimum wages, that Japan’s exports were being priced out of world markets.

Japan’s solution (like that of other developed countries) was to import cheaper foreign labor. However, as a new documentary entitled “Sour Strawberries: Japan’s Hidden ‘Guest Workers’ ” ( www.cinemabstruso.de/strawberries/main.html ) reveals, Japan’s policy was fundamentally different. Elites worried about debasing Japan’s supposedly “homogeneous” society with foreigners who might stay, so the official stance remained “No immigration” and “No import of unskilled labor.”

But that was all tatemae — a facade. Urged by business lobbies such as the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), Japan created a visa regime from 1990 to import foreign laborers (mostly Chinese) as “trainees,” ostensibly to learn a skill, but basically to put them in factories and farms doing unskilled “dirty, difficult, and dangerous” labor eschewed by Japanese. More importantly, trainees were getting paid less than half minimum wage (as they were not legally “workers” under labor law) and receiving no social welfare.

Even the offer of competitive wages was tatemae. Although some trainees were reportedly working 10 to 15 hours a day (one media outlet mentioned 22-hour days!), six to seven days a week including holidays, they found themselves receiving sums so paltry they beggared belief — think ¥40,000 a month! A Chinese trainee interviewed in “Sour Strawberries” said he wound up earning the same as he would in China. Others received even less, being charged by employers for rent, utilities and food on top of that.

Abuses proliferated. Trainees were harassed and beaten, found their passports confiscated and pay withheld, and were even fired without compensation if they were injured on the job. One employer hired thugs to force his Chinese staff to board a plane home. But trainees couldn’t just give up and go back. Many had received travel loans to come here, and if they returned early they would be in default, sued by their banks and ruined. Thus they were locked into abusive jobs they could neither complain about nor quit without losing their visa and livelihoods overseas.

As labor union leader Ippei Torii explains in “Sour Strawberries,” this government-sponsored but largely unregulated trainee program made so many employers turn bad that places without worker abuses were “very rare.”

But trainees weren’t the only ones getting exploited. Nineteen-ninety was also the year the long-term resident visa was introduced for the nikkei. However, unlike the trainees, they were given labor law protections and unlimited employment opportunities — supposedly to allow them to “explore their heritage” (while being worked 10 to 15 hours a day, six days a week).

Why this “most-favored visa status” for the nikkei? Elites, in their ever-unchallenged wisdom, figured nikkei would present fewer assimilation problems. After all, they have Japanese blood, ergo the prerequisite understanding of Japan’s unique culture and garbage-sorting procedures. So, as LDP and Keidanren policymakers testified in “Sour Strawberries,” it was deemed unnecessary to create any integration policy, or even to make them feel like they “belong” in Japan. It was completely counterproductive and demoralizing for an enthusiastic workforce. A nikkei interviewed in the film mentioned how overseas she felt like a Japanese, yet in Japan she ultimately felt like a foreigner.

So over the past 20 years Japan has invited over a million non-Japanese to come here and work. And work they did, many in virtual indentured servitude. Yet instead of being praised for all their contributions, they became scapegoats. They engendered official opprobrium for alleged rises in crime and overstaying (even though per-capita crime rates were higher among Japanese than foreigners, and the number of visa overstayers has dropped every year since 1993). They were also bashed for not learning the language (when they actually had little time to study, let alone attend Japanese classes offered by a handful of merciful local governments) — nothing but disincentives toward settling in Japan.

The policy was doomed to failure. And fail it did on April Fool’s Day, when the government confirmed that nikkei didn’t actually belong here, and offered them golden parachutes. Of course, it was a race-based benefit, unavailable to wrong-blooded trainees, who have to make it home on their own dime (perhaps with some fines added on for overstaying) to face financial ruin.

It’s epiphany time. Japan’s policymakers haven’t evolved beyond an early Industrial-Revolution mind set, which sees people (well, foreigners, anyway) as mere work units. Come here, work your ass off, then go “home” when we have no more use for you; it’s the way we’ve dealt many times before with foreigners, and the way we’ll probably deal with those Indonesian and Filipino care workers we’re scheming to come take care of our elderly. Someday, potential immigrants will realize that our government is just using people, but the way things are going we eventually won’t be rich enough for them to overlook that.

What should be done instead? Japan must take responsibility. You invited foreigners over here, now treat them like human beings. Give all of them the same labor rights and job training that you’d give every worker in Japan, and free nationwide Japanese lessons to bring them up to speed. Reward them for their investment in our society and their taxes paid. Do what you can to make them more comfortable and settled. And stop bashing them: Let Japanese society know why foreigners are here and what good they’ve done for our country. You owe them that much for the best part of their lives they’ve given you.

Don’t treat foreigners like toxic waste, sending them overseas for somebody else to deal with, and don’t detoxify our society under the same race-based paradigms that got us into this situation in the first place. You brought this upon yourselves through a labor policy that ignored immigration and assimilation. Now deal with it here, in Japan, by helping non-Japanese residents of whatever background make Japan their home.

That’s not a radical proposal. Given our low-birthrate, aging-society demographics, experts have been urging you to do this for a decade now. This labor downturn won’t last forever, and when things pick up again you’ll have a younger, more acculturated, more acclimatized, even grateful workforce to help pick up the pieces. Just sending people back, where they will tell others about their dreadful years in Japan being exploited and excluded, is on so many levels the wrong thing to do.

Debito Arudou is organizing nationwide screenings of “Sour Strawberries” in late August and early September; contact him at debito@debito.org to arrange a screening. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

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