The Asahi Shimbun’s online newsmagazine, Webronza, recently featured a conversation between former Asahi reporter Mieko Takenobu and sex-goods purveyor Minori Kitahara. They discussed the latter’s brief imprisonment after being busted for displaying “salacious material” at her store associated with the controversial “vagina artist” Rokudenashiko. Most of the conversation was about the salacious material, but they also talked about jail.

Kitahara was kept in a cell at a Tokyo detention center with three other women, two of whom were Chinese being held for immigration violations. One had been working on a farm and the other at a dry cleaners. Kitahara learned that more than half the women in the center were non-Japanese being held for overstaying their visas. Takenobu, whose specialty is labor issues, explained that almost all the foreigners arrested in Japan are overstayers though the media makes it seem as if they are “criminals,” and therefore a danger to the public.

Kitahara said that the foreign inmates at the detention center are treated poorly — held for long periods without proper medical attention or the right to speak to outsiders in their own language, and since they can’t understand the rules of the place, they are always breaking them inadvertently and getting into trouble. Nobody is prepared when they go to trial, because the explanation of their rights is incomprehensible. “Even I didn’t understand it,” she said.

Takenobu explained that these conditions are the norm.

“As a reporter, I saw how difficult it was for foreign workers to live in Japan,” she said. “So I think they go home and talk about it, conveying what a tough place Japan is for them. I wonder if any good workers want to come here any more.”

Takenobu’s supposition is the natural manifestation of the government’s policy toward foreign laborers. The official line is that Japan does not accept workers from overseas, so if fewer people are interested in coming to Japan for work, then that means the policy is successful. In 1993, just after the end of the bubble period, the Foreign Ministry estimated there were 300,000 undocumented foreigners in Japan. As of Jan. 1, the number was 60,000.

Some of the people who overstay do not, in fact, have visas to begin with. They are so-called trainees who were accepted into a government program to transfer know-how to developing countries by having people from those countries work for Japanese companies at below minimum wage. For years now, however, it has been clear that the system is a sham, and that most of these workers do not learn special skills but instead perform the kind of repetitive labor Japanese people don’t want to do any more. The trainees know this. They are coming to make money — or trying to make money.

The government has said it will expand the trainee program so as to let workers stay for up to five years rather than the current three. By doing so, it is indirectly admitting that it uses the trainee system to address the current labor shortage, but underlying this admission is the assumption that there are many people out there itching to work in Japan.

On April 12, Tokyo Shimbun ran a feature profiling several undocumented workers. One woman “from the Middle East,” who married another foreign national some years ago and had a child by him before he divorced her and left Japan, worked at a printing company from 2008 to 2013. Her employer said she works hard and speaks Japanese well, and he hired her knowing she was undocumented. He eventually laid her off because of the economy, but he would hire her back if his business picked up because she has the skills he needs.

Then there’s the Bangladeshi man who came to Japan as a student in the late 1990s and later tried to start a computer service company. He could not get a resident visa, however, and found work as a lathe operator while supporting a wife and child. He communicated well in Japanese and understood how his factory works, but he felt bad about overstaying and reported himself to immigration, hoping they would give him amnesty.

But amnesty is not a concept recognized by the Foreign Ministry. The Immigration Bureau handles residency visas on a case-by-case basis, and the Bangladeshi man was ordered deported on principle.

Yukiko Omagari of the nongovernment organization Ijuren, which supports foreign workers, told Tokyo Shimbun that many overstayers have jobs that not only support their families but also Japanese industry. They tend to work for small companies involved in construction, civil engineering, manufacturing and service — industries that are now suffering labor shortages. The government thinks it can alleviate the problem by expanding the trainee system, which Ijuren and others say is inherently exploitative, but it could solve the problem effectively and quickly by granting amnesty to overstayers who are already contributing through their jobs. The government is afraid of foreign workers settling down permanently because they think Japanese society doesn’t accept them — a self-fulfilling assumption.

In the end, by removing skilled workers who have become valuable members of the community and treating unskilled trainees as cheap labor and unwanted guests, the government sends out a message. When Japan was the only economic game in Asia, everyone wanted to work here — but not any more. As pointed out by Hitotsubashi University researcher Kiyoto Tanno in the business magazine Diamond, South Korea and Taiwan are encouraging immigration of workers with easier visa conditions, especially in the caregiving field, which is also greatly understaffed in Japan.

Tanno says the Japanese public believes that “exploiting foreign workers when they’re needed and then kicking them out when they’re not is normal. That’s why they no longer want to come here.”

When a conservative business magazine chides the authorities over a policy that is supposed to help business but does the opposite, you have to wonder about the government’s priorities.

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