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Media starting to tally the economic effects of foreigner flight


News reports immediately following the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant accident of panicked foreign residents lining up for the first flight home — in many cases advised to flee by their own governments — had the initial result of helping to feed the sense of angst among Japanese that has pervaded much of the postquake reporting.

Subsequent TV news spots have aired interviews with farmers and small manufacturers who faced labor shortages after foreign “interns” and other workers bailed out. Two days before Tokyo Disneyland reopened on April 15, one sports tabloid went so far as to claim the key cause for delays in the theme park’s reopening (it had been closed since March 12) was not the rolling power blackouts in Urayasu City but a lack of foreign entertainers to perform in the parade that serves as the day’s most popular event.

Compared with the week before the March 11 disaster, the Immigration Bureau data confirmed departures by foreigners nearly doubled the week following the quake, from 139,782 to 244,274. Exits by those holding official or diplomatic passports, for example, were 192 and 1,320, respectively.

In terms of their overall proportion, foreign students may have been the largest segment to leave the country. Some 60,000 — about one third of foreign students here — were reported to have departed during the second half of March, but this period coincided with the end of the academic year, a time when many would be traveling in any case.

As Golden Week approached, more judicious analysis of the situation finally began to make its way into business publications. The April 26 issue of Shukan Economist ran a cover story titled “Nihon Hazushi,” a phrase that suggests the undoing, removal or dislocation of Japan. One article examined the implications of the disaster on inbound tourism, airlines and agriculture, pointing out that the business picture looked particularly grim for already-struggling Japan Airlines and for luxury hotels catering to affluent foreign clientele.

Another article by former Mainichi Shimbun editorial writer Susumu Ishihara suggested that the “hollowing out” of foreign human resources would have a serious impact on the nation’s economic future. Citing research by Kwansei Gakuin University professor Yasushi Iguchi, even when excluding Zainichi ethnic Koreans and other foreign nationals with special permanent resident status, some 920,000 foreigners are working in Japan.

That estimate is about 270,000 higher than the figure given by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, which gave the number of foreign workers in Japan at 649,982 as of October, 2010. Iguchi has factored in foreigners engaged in jobs not permitted by their status of residence as well as illegal sojourners.

In Ishihara’s somewhat orthodox view, multilingual foreigners are needed to help Japanese companies shift to a more globalized strategy. He suggested the government adopt speedy initiatives to encourage foreign students to come back.

Meanwhile, on the cover of its May 2 issue, Nikkei Business asks, “The vanished foreign labor force: Can the workplace be defended by Japanese alone?”

While the number of foreign workers relative to Japan’s overall workforce is minuscule, the article recognized that non-Japanese make valuable contributions in such diverse sectors of the economy as food services, finance, textiles, convenience-store retailing, agriculture, manufacturing, information technology, education, tourism and air transport.

The magazine pointed to what it views as common factors among companies whose foreign workers chose not to leave after the disaster, compiled mnemonically as A-B-C-D, which stand for “Accountability” (dispelling anxiety by working to keep the foreign staff informed); “Bonds” (building relationships that will make them want to stay); “Career” (making the acquisition of “knowledge” their motive for staying on the job); and “Diversity” (discarding the awareness of differences because the workers are foreigners).

Nikkei Business was also unequivocal in its denunciation of so-called benri-zukai (utilization based on expedience), i.e., bringing in foreign workers to address labor shortfalls and discarding them when no longer needed.

Subsequent to the business downturn from autumn 2008, some 21,675 Brazilians of Japanese ancestry who were laid off from jobs in ailing industries accepted a one-time lump sum payment of ¥300,000 from the Japanese government to return to Brazil. The offer was contingent on their not coming back to Japan for at least three years, which means they are banned from returning before March 2012 at the earliest, even if new positions come open.

Hopes that workers from China would be available to take up any slack in the labor force are fast fading. Writing in Nikkan Gendai (May 7), Shanghai-born journalist Mo Bangfu suggested that not only have wages in China been rising in conjunction with that country’s economic development (and shrinking labor force due to the consequences of its one child per family policy), but the Tohoku disaster and Fukushima reactor accident are likely to exacerbate the decline in Japan’s appeal as a place to come to work.