Staff writer For Elok Halimah, 21, an Indonesian student at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, learning Japanese in Tokyo has been a long-term aspiration. “Eventually, I hope I will be able to work for a Japanese company in Indonesia,” said Halimah, who came from Jakarta in October. “In Indonesia, public trust in Japanese companies is so firm that many people want to work for them.” Her classmate, Anuttaya Supaneedis, a 20-year-old Thai student who arrived from Bangkok in the same month, has a similar motivation. “I hope I can become a flight attendant. But getting this job in Thailand is a big challenge,” she said. “I decided to study Japanese because being able to speak that language gives me an edge over my competitors.” In the past few decades, Japan’s policies toward Asia have produced new generations of Asians like Halimah and Supaneedis. Without the negative experience of Japan’s wartime aggression, they have found strong economic incentives to associate with Japan. The views of these young Asians, who might lead their countries in the future, may provide insights into Japan’s regional relations in the coming decades. To date, Japan’s Asian policies have been characterized by the government’s large-scale official development assistance and firms’ expanded trade and investment, which is believed to have built the foundations for the region’s economic development. In 1998, Japan’s ODA amounted to $10.8 billion, up 14 percent from 1997. Of this, $5.37 billion went to Asia. Despite these positive developments, people in Asia have not forgotten the war. Halimah, like many other Indonesians, heard outrageous and humiliating stories from her parents and grandparents about Japan’s military ventures in Asia. “For young Indonesians, Japan’s wartime aggression is not a matter of concern anymore,” she said. “But the fact remains that Japan did hurt our dignity as human beings. I know we won’t get anywhere if we stick to the past, but it will take time before we can reconcile in a true sense.” As Japan’s economic slump lingers, Tokyo’s development assistance for Asia has come under tighter budgetary scrutiny, and the government has been urged to comprehensively review its ODA guidelines. Unlike previous guidelines that primarily focused on numerical targets, the most recent ones, adopted last summer, stress “effectiveness” and “efficiency” in providing assistance while abandoning numerical targets. The sluggish economy has also affected Japanese firms’ direct investment overseas. According to a survey conducted in November by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, such investments in fiscal 1999 are expected to fall 18.3 percent from the previous term to 1.25 trillion yen. The survey was conducted on 383 out of the nation’s 786 companies that operate overseas subsidiaries, the bank said. Unable to keep expanding economic aid to Asia, Japan’s public and private sectors have begun focusing on development of human resources in the region. Last August, an economic research mission led by Toyota Motor Corp. Chairman Hiroshi Okuda was sent to six Asian countries. Its recommendations became the basis of Japan’s new Asian policy framework announced by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi at a meeting last November in Manila of the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, China and South Korea. “Under the new policies, we will focus on the development of human resources in Asia through public and private efforts,” a Foreign Ministry official said. “Such efforts will include enhanced training of experts in Asia not only in the field of production but also in the areas of management, marketing and so on.” To achieve these goals, Tokyo will strive to “open up Japan to Asian people” by designing long-term, comprehensive human exchange programs to increase the number of students and job trainees from other parts of Asia, the official said. While companies are following a similar path, their motivation is different. Japanese firms that have expanded their Asian subsidiaries and utilize the local labor force are now under pressure to revise their supervisory systems in an effort to improve productivity and survive global competition. Some electric appliance manufacturers, for example, have taken steps to promote the autonomy of their overseas subsidiaries by training quality local staff as prospective managers at their own factories. “In our industry, giving more autonomy to local branches is an urgent issue,” said Ichiro Takemura of Toshiba Corp.’s human resources division. “Because local expertise has become adequate since we began to shift production to (other parts of) Asia earlier in the 1990s, a Tokyo-centered system of supervision is becoming inefficient and unproductive.” In response, Toshiba began providing managerial training courses in April 1996 to staffers at its subsidiaries in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and China, Takemura said, noting many classes are now given by local managers themselves. “The training program has been highly appreciated by our local staff,” he said. “Their enthusiasm for work, as well as their company loyalty, has increased, leading to higher productivity.” Toshiba estimates that 1,200 local staffers participated in the managerial training programs in 1999, Takemura said. The firm currently has a workforce of approximately 16,800 dispersed through 47 subsidiaries in nine Asian economies. Of the manufacturer’s worldwide production output in 1998, Asia represented 8.7 percent, the firm’s largest overseas production center. Despite these changing policies, it remains to be seen whether Japan will really open up to Asia, because evidence seems to suggest tough times ahead. According to a white paper on education for fiscal 1999 released by the Education Ministry, Japan aims to accommodate 100,000 foreign students at the beginning of the 21st century. Despite this, the number of foreign students enrolled in higher education institutions as of May 1998 was just over 50,000. According to the report, 89.5 percent were students from China, South Korea, Taiwan and other parts of Southeast Asia. According to the report, foreign students in Japan have been decreasing since peaking in 1995 at 53,800, mainly due to the Asian economic crisis that began in 1997. This situation is markedly different to the U.S. experience. Department of Education statistics from 1998 show that the number of foreign students enrolled in higher education institutions during the 1996-1997 school year was 458,000, of which some 216,600, or 47.3 percent, were from East and Southeast Asia. According to Zhu Jianrong, a professor of Chinese studies at Toyo Gakuen University, Japan’s social system is often criticized as being discriminatory against non-Western foreigners. He said this makes the country comparably less attractive than countries that include the United States or Canada as a study or work destination for Asias.”It is true that many Asian students are attracted by Japan’s technological and economic strength,” Zhu said. “But at the same time, they know there is only a dim prospect for career promotion in Japan.” Although an increasing number of foreigners, mostly Asians and Japanese-Latin Americans, are being granted working visas in Japan, those employed for technical or managerial positions are a minority. According to statistics by the Justice Ministry, the number granted working visas in 1998 increased 8.5 percent from the previous year to about 101,000, of which 5,700, or a mere 5.6 percent, were admitted as technicians. A Labor Ministry survey on the number of foreign workers in Japan in 1998 indicated that of the 114,753 employed at 16,948 firms, almost 90 percent were engaged in manual labor or services. Those from East and Southeast Asia represent 32.7 percent, the second-largest group next to Latin Americans of Japanese descent, the statistics show. A major issue, according to Zhu, is the high number of Asians illegally staying in Japan. He said they are gradually becoming a social segment that can be easily exploited as a cheap source of labor. The Justice Ministry estimated the number of illegal aliens in Japan was nearly 271,000 last January, of which 61.9 percent were from South Korea, China, the Philippines and Thailand. Of the illegal aliens Japan deported in 1997, those employed illegally numbered about 41,000, according to the ministry. “The fact is that illegal aliens, many of whom come from Asia, are becoming the main workforce for small and medium size companies,” Zhu said. “Japan should quickly give them legal status and create a social safety net for them by reforming immigration regulations.” For economic reasons as well, Japan may have to open up its labor market to people from other parts of Asia in the near future, because the country’s labor-intensive industries will not be able to maintain international competitiveness without them. Noting Japan’s aging society, the Okuda mission said in its report to Obuchi: “It will soon become necessary to accommodate a foreign workforce in the field of nursing care. Legal authorities, therefore, should quickly review the present immigration standards for these people.” This year’s Group of Eight summit, which Japan will host in July in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, is a good opportunity for Tokyo to show its resolve to open up before the eyes of Asia and the international community, Zhu argues. “One of the roles Japan is expected to play in the coming years is to bridge Asia and the West,” he said. “Japan, therefore, should strive to become a country that can represent Asian perspectives — a challenge that can be achieved only by nurturing mutual trust between Japanese and (other) Asian people.”
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