In what could be a significant change in policy affecting “nikkei” migrant workers from Brazil, the government Tuesday lifted a ban on the return of Japanese-Brazilians who received financial help in 2009 to fly home when they were thrown out of work during the global financial crisis.

Ostensibly an attempt to help the unemployed and cash-strapped Latin American migrants of Japanese ethnic origin escape the economic woes here, the 2009 initiative offered each an average of ¥300,000 to be used as airfare. It eventually resulted in an exodus of around 20,000 people, including 5,805 from Aichi Prefecture and 4,641 from Shizuoka Prefecture.

Although some of the migrants were genuinely thankful for the chance to get out of struggling Japan and find jobs back home, others were insulted because accepting the deal also meant they couldn’t come back to Japan at least “for the next three years” under “the same legal status.” This was seen as an outrageous move by the government to “get rid of” foreign workers as demand for their services fizzled out.

The migrants were initially banned from re-entering Japan for an unspecified period of time, but after a storm of both domestic and international condemnation, the government eventually said it might green-light their return after three years, depending on the economy.

In its move Tuesday to lift the ban on re-entry, the government cited recent signs of economic recovery. In one such example, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry says the ratio of job offers to job seekers, having logged 0.95 in August, is on a steady trajectory back to the level before the Lehman shock, which caused the downward spiral in the first place.

“The more the government trumpeted the positive effect of ‘Abenomics,’ the harder it became for it to keep pretending the economy isn’t strong enough” to lift the ban on their re-entry to Japan, said Angelo Ishi, a professor in the sociology department at Musashi University.

But this apparent concession by the government comes with a catch that has sparked sharp disagreement among the Japanese-Brazilian community.

People of Japanese descent, or “nikkei,” will only be granted the coveted right of re-entry if they secure an employment contract of at least one year with a Japanese firm beforehand, a deal some decry as a near impossibility.

Japanese-Brazilian Giullyane Futenma, 22, is one who bemoans this requirement, saying most foreigners in her circumstances can only find work as a temporary hire, typically renewing the contract every three months.

“Many of my friends in Brazil say they want to come back here now that the ban is lifted, but they don’t think they actually can because of this condition,” said Futenma.

Her parents, after being plunged into penury when they suddenly lost their jobs following the global collapse, used the 2009 program to get back to Brazil.

Ishi of Musashi University defended the condition as not entirely merciless. For one thing, he said, it’s a virtual warning against the sliest of Japanese employers and job brokers who had traditionally thought nothing of jettisoning foreign temporary workers with little regard for their contracts. Government officials, he said, are now duty-bound to supervise, and if necessary, punish those wrongdoers and ensure that migrants are allowed to stay on the payroll for at least a year.

“So in a way, it allows (the migrants) to start fresh with the prospect of better job security,” he said.

Ishi also argues that the condition signals a historic change in Japan’s perception of nikkei migrant workers.

Official acceptance of these people dates back to 1990, when the immigration law was revised to grant them privileged long-term residential visas. Back then, Japan was still in boom times and thus desperate for cheap labor to fill the oft-despised “3K” jobs — “kitsui” (difficult), “kitanai” (dirty), and “kiken” (dangerous). But the government was careful not to clearly admit that the nation needed more laborers, because legitimizing an influx of foreign menial workers would take jobs away from Japanese — or so many conservatives feared.

However, now that the government is making it mandatory that the migrants can re-enter Japan only if they have a one-year job contract, “it’s like the government is proclaiming it will only welcome the nikkei if they can serve Japan as useful laborers,” Ishi said.

Although government officials questioned by The Japan Times reiterated in chorus that the only reason the nikkei are being allowed back in is that economy has improved, some experts aren’t buying it.

They believe it had something to do with an unprecedented lawsuit initiated by Futenma against the government in May.

Futenma and many others only begrudgingly agreed with their families’ decision to use the 2009 money and give up the ability to come back to Japan. One of the ramifications was that by leaving she was torn asunder from her beloved friends in their hometown of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture.

“I felt like the government was saying it doesn’t need us anymore because we lost our jobs. I wish I could have stayed, because I had already grown so accustomed to living in Japan that I’d come to consider it my home,” said Futenma, who came to Japan with her parents when she was 7.

Two years after her return to Brazil, she married Lucas Futenma, who had bought his own ticket home to Brazil in 2009. Lucas re-entered Japan in 2012 looking for work and requested that his wife be granted admission as well, only to be turned down twice.

“Saying those (Latin-American) migrants are banned from entering Japan just because they used a government-sponsored project has no legal ground whatsoever,” said Ryo Takagai, the lead lawyer in Futenma’s lawsuit.

In an unexpected flip-flop, the government greenlighted Futenma’s re-entry before the trial opened. Observers say it was as if the government feared it would lose in court.

The Futenmas have been reunited and currently live in Hamamatsu.

When contacted by The Japan Times, an Immigration Bureau official explained Giullyane Futenma was only permitted re-entry because her newly gained change in marital status also changed her legal status.

But Hamamatsu Gakuin University professor Kimihiro Tsumura believes Futenma’s triumphant return no doubt sparked the government’s move to lift the re-entry ban.

“I can only hope Japan learned a lesson this time and will never resort to the same kind of inhumane program even if the economy plunges again,” he said.

Although Futenma yielded to her parents’ wishes and returned to Brazil on government money, many Japanese-Brazilians in her generation decided to stay, Tsumura said.

He said the government probably didn’t see that coming, having traditionally deemed younger migrants as a mere appendage of their parents, and gave short shrift to their feelings of independence.

Indeed, many of them came to Futenma’s aid, creating a loud outcry that the government eventually found impossible to ignore.

“In a way, these nikkei youths made a brave stride toward showing (the government) that they’re totally capable of standing up and acting on their own” Tsumura said.

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