Language, not labor, key for Japanese-Brazilians

by Mariko Yasumoto


Cinthia Nagashima, 24, has been unemployed since she lost her factory job in May and is now aware of the need to study Japanese more strongly than before.

Japanese fluency was a requirement for her previous job, too, but Nagashima, who is from Brazil and speaks little Japanese, was able to get it as the economy was still buoyant and the manufacturing industry was facing a serious labor shortage in 2006.

“But the situation is really harsh against us these days,” she said. “I want to be fluent in Japanese so I can have more job opportunities.”

Nagashima has never had any systematic Japanese education since she came to Japan in 2003 along with her third-generation Japanese-Brazilian husband.

In seeking temporary relief, Nagashima recently applied for unemployment benefits at her local Hello Work public employment office in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture.

According to Hello Work official Akihiko Sugiyama, many companies remain hesitant to directly hire Japanese-Brazilians for fear of communication problems, and only less stable jobs offered by temporary agencies or contractors are available to them.

Lack of Japanese-language skills hampers social mobility, noted Shigehiro Ikegami, a professor at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture. “The weak Japanese ability of Japanese-Brazilians has riveted them to a specific hierarchical position in Japanese society,” Ikegami said.

A recent prefecturewide survey organized by Ikegami showed that Japanese-Brazilians surveyed engaged in various types of jobs back in Brazil, including services, sales and clerical work, but that around 60 percent of nearly 2,000 respondents are now working as temporary staff and over 80 percent do manufacturing jobs in Japan.

Sugiyama has also seen many Japanese-Brazilian job seekers who used to be teachers, police officers or nurses in Brazil. “But their qualifications don’t apply here and unless they are truly good at Japanese, there is no option but to engage in unskilled labor,” he said.

The survey also found that almost 70 percent could not understand or hardly understood Japanese when they arrived in Japan, and over 60 percent indicated a desire to learn Japanese but responded they had no time or opportunity to do so.

Angelo Ishi, a Japanese-Brazilian associate professor of social science at Tokyo’s Musashi University, denounced Japanese companies for not assuming responsibility to offer proper access to Japanese education to their Japanese-Brazilian employees.

“Many major corporations do not directly hire them and their contractors are their actual employers, but the corporations cannot dodge the responsibility,” he said.

Japanese-Brazilians began moving to Japan after the Japanese government in 1990 enabled Japanese descendants overseas and their spouses to enter the country on resident visas and work with no limitations, in a bid to cope with a serious labor shortage that had been previously filled mainly by illegal foreign workers.

Keita Takayama, an assistant education professor at the University of New England in Australia, said Tokyo believed Japanese descendants are not complete “foreigners” and that cultural friction could be kept to a minimum.

“But that was wrong, because their cultural backgrounds are of South America,” he said. “Most of the present problems surrounding the Japanese-Brazilian community stemmed from this erroneous premise.”

Some positive moves have recently developed, however, in the Tokai region, which includes Hamamatsu and is home to numerous automobile and other corporations employing scores of Japanese-Brazilian workers.

In April last year, Yamaha IM Co., an in-house robotics firm of motorcycle maker Yamaha Motor Co., launched a weekly language program for its Japanese-Brazilian workers, who account for about 10 percent of its total workforce of over 1,000.

One of its employees, Shigeru Marcos Furukawa, is now willing to cut back on his lucrative overtime hours to attend the free evening lessons, as the 31-year-old third-generation Japanese-Brazilian could never get around to studying Japanese after coming to the country in 1993 at age 16.

His Japanese has improved so much that he is now trusted by his boss to supervise one operation at Yamaha IM’s industrial robotics factory.

But “I still can’t describe my symptoms well in Japanese at the hospital and I also want to learn more kanji,” he said.

Yamaha IM teaches not just Japanese skills useful at their workplace, but also skills for them to live in communities.

In one lesson, local firefighters were invited to teach the students how to deal with an emergency situation, while in another, doctors lectured on how to explain symptoms. Staff from a nearby McDonald’s restaurant took part in a role-playing session.

“We initially regarded them simply as labor and believed any progress in their ability would help improve our productivity,” said Osamu Ishioka, general manager of the company’s business project division. “As the program went along, however, we came to think of them as members of our community.”

Another student, Gilberto Liyzo Isomura, 47, said, “The class is really helpful as I can also learn reading and writing.” The second-generation Japanese-Brazilian spoke some Japanese when he moved to Japan in 1999.

But “only with the language I learned from my parents, I can’t make myself fully understood to Japanese coworkers,” he said. “I also want to be able to read Japanese newspapers someday.”

Among other moves, Aichi Prefecture announced last month plans to set up a ¥700 million fund in cooperation with local firms and residents to help the private sector organize language classes for the Japanese-Brazilian and other foreign communities, marking the first such prefecturewide initiative across Japan.

Some may say immigrants should shoulder the financial or other burdens related to language study, since they moved to Japan of their free will.

But Ishi of Musashi University feel corporations owe a debt. “It’s extreme opportunism if companies refuse to invest in Japanese-Brazilians who have helped save Japan’s manufacturing industry from extreme labor scarcity, just for the reason that the workers would go home sooner or later,” he said.

“It’s within the scope of their corporate social responsibility for companies to help them further their occupational skills,” said Takayama from the University of New England.