Inevitably, newcomers play growing role


This is the first in a four-part series focusing on issues confronting Japan’s growing foreign communities and their increasing impact on society as a whole.

Community ties held fast by the Internet are drawing people from faraway India to the Nishi-kasai enclave in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo.

Some 2,000 Indians in the area around the subway station, where a tenth of the entire Indian population of Japan resides, are linked in an Internet community.

In addition to two Indian schools, two Indian restaurants and two Indian grocers, area residents have at their fingertips 22 channels of Indian TV programs available via the Internet in Hindi and Punjabi.

It is estimated that 90 percent of the people in this neighborhood are either information technology engineers or their families.

And like many foreign communities in Japan, they have started to play an increasingly essential social role — namely easing what the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry calls a critical shortfall of 500,000 IT workers.

“It’s a seller’s market,” said Jagmohan Chandrani, chairman of the Indian Community of Edogawa, a social networking group. “An IT engineer can get a job in one minute. In one minute, (the same person) can change (to another) job.”

For a long time, foreign residents played relatively marginal roles. But things are changing as Japan’s population shrinks at a time when globalization and fluid labor markets are gaining force. Like no time before, Japan is finding that it needs foreigners as workers, long-term residents and even spouses.

According to government statistics, the number of registered foreign residents had grown by 50 percent over the past decade to 2.08 million in 2006, accounting for 1.63 percent of the total population. While a tiny fraction compared with many other industrialized countries, it is a record for Japan.

The foreign population is relatively young and disproportionately likely to wed in Japan. According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, in 2006 one in every 10 marriages in Tokyo’s 23 wards was the union of a Japanese and a non-Japanese partner.

It is much the same across Japan. A record high 6.1 percent of marriages during the same period were international, more than three times the rate 20 years earlier, according to the ministry.

“The number of international couples can no longer be overlooked, as it has reached a level that will help maintain the Japanese population,” wrote Masaaki Satake, a professor of economic policy at Nagoya Gakuin University and an expert on migration issues.

The foreign population is growing amid a decline in the native population that began in 2005. Some demographers predict native Japanese will be half their current number by 2100 if the birthrate decline continues.

Faced with that alarming forecast, the government, business leaders and scholars have long debated whether Japan should open its doors to unskilled laborers to shore up not just the workforce but also produce enough children to maintain economic growth and support an aging society.

Currently, most foreigners with permission to work in Japan are skilled. As a result, the proportion of registered foreigners is still much lower than in European countries: in Germany it’s 9 percent, France 6 percent and Britain 4 percent.

On the one hand, many Japanese worry that opening the door to unskilled immigrants could cause security problems and wealth disparities, while threatening job security for Japanese workers. Such concerns have kept the national debate over immigration policy simmering.

In May, then Justice Minister Jinen Nagase proposed that for Japan to secure cheap labor, it should expand its “on-the-job trainee system,” employing tens of thousands of young people mainly from China and other parts of Asia.

But Nagase’s self-stated “private idea” was no welcome banner for the huddled masses yearning to get ahead, because, he said, people from other countries should not be enticed into long-term stays or settling.

Like it or not, however, the allure of the Japanese economy — the world’s second-largest in terms of gross domestic product — makes any slowing of the tide unlikely.

What’s more, having faced international pressure to accept more outsiders, the government in 1998 reduced the minimum required time needed to apply for permanent residence to 10 years from 20. The effect was dramatic. People with permanent residence status more than quadrupled from 93,364 in 1998 to 394,477 in 2006.

Among the newcomers, Filipinos are particularly eager to make Japan their home, with increasing numbers marrying Japanese or obtaining permanent residence independently.

In 2004, most Filipinos coming to Japan were women on “entertainer” visa status. Many worked at karaoke pubs or other after-hours businesses, according to experts and aid groups for Filipinos.

But after a crackdown on human trafficking, the government required Filipinos to undergo more stringent examinations to qualify for those visas.

In a measure clearly targeting the sex trade, new guidelines allow Japanese immigration officials to thoroughly investigate whether applicants have either worked two years in professional drama, singing or dance overseas, or completed at least that many years of study at a recognized school for the performing arts. Work contracts in Japan must also guarantee salaries of more than ¥200,000 a month.

This move led to a brief drop in the number of registered Filipino residents.

But by 2006, their numbers were rising again, boosted by a constant increase in the number of those married to Japanese and holders of permanent residence.

Nagoya Gakuin’s Satake said thousands of Filipino women who have lived in Japan have already formed communities here. This attracts relatives and friends and encourages marriages with members of the host population.

A record 12,150 Filipino-Japanese couples took the vows in 2006 — eclipsing Chinese-Japanese pairs for first place among international marriages.

But there were also more reported cases of “paper marriages” intended only to bring Filipino women here to work, Satake said, but the number of such cases was unclear.

Although this kind of immigration clearly has its problems, trying to stem overall immigration to Japan would be attempting the impossible, he said. “I don’t think you can stop the flow of people, nor do I think you should,” he said. “If they come, the biggest agenda for Japan should be to prepare an environment comfortable both for Japanese and foreigners.”