OTA, GUNMA PREF. – Afghan children studying at a madrassa, Catholic mass in seven languages, workers from over sixty countries.
It’s not New York, but Ota, a town north of Tokyo with an economy powered by Japanese automaker Subaru. It’s here that Subaru’s parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. got its start building engines and the Hayate fighter plane for the Imperial Japanese Army in the 1940s. A recent influx of foreigners has transformed the Subaru hub, making it a rare example of multiculturalism in a country stubbornly resistant to immigration.
Drawn by the prospect of jobs in factories supplying Subaru’s export-driven boom, Ota’s foreigners — many of them asylum seekers and indebted trainees — work long hours for low pay. Some have established communities centered around mosques and churches. But others feel alienated by punishing work schedules and scant assistance with Japanese language from the town’s authorities, they say in interviews.
Ota’s history with foreign laborers dates back to the late 1980s, when a short-staffed Subaru invited descendants of Japanese immigrants to Brazil to fill its busy production lines under a special visa category. They took jobs that Japanese workers shunned, including many at Subaru’s factories.
Around the same time the Brazilians were arriving, Asian migrants also came to work in Japan, entering on tourist visas and staying without papers. A crackdown on visa overstayers cut the number from 224,000 in 2002 to 59,000 in 2014, according to government data.
Since 2012, the foreign population of Ota and neighboring Isesaki has grown to over 18,000, almost three times the national ratio of Japanese to foreigners. The town, with a population of 222,000, is home to 63 nationalities, municipal data show.
In Ota’s center, a rundown concrete grid south of Subaru’s main plant, a remittance store does brisk trade wiring money to countries in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
A few streets away is the town’s kilometer-long red light district. Over 10 percent of Ota’s foreigners are women from the Philippines, many of whom work in the clubs and bars advertising “newly arrived” women that line the wide street.
There is little interaction between Ota’s newcomers and its Japanese residents. “All the workers do is go back and forth between their dorms and the factories,” Ota mayor Masayoshi Shimizu says.
The center of Ota is quiet six days a week. On Sundays, for many their only rest day, foreign workers mill around the train station, or congregate at churches and mosques. Ota’s Catholic church offers mass in Tagalog, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Spanish, English, Japanese and Korean. Its pastor, Father Kim, is from South Korea.
In Ota’s auto industry, labor brokers and a manager at a Subaru supplier said ethnicity plays a part in how workers are placed: Japanese workers are at the top of the chain, followed by Brazilians of Japanese descent, who have been in the country longer under a special visa category and can speak the language. They’re followed by South Asians, many of them asylum seekers, and lastly, African workers at the bottom of the pyramid.
An executive at one local manufacturer said he favored asylum seekers from Nepal, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh, who he said are more willing to take on difficult jobs for lower pay.
“We carefully examined the matter and confirmed that this was not the case,” Subaru said in a written response.
On the outskirts of the town, men in traditional Islamic dress spill out of the Darussalam mosque after prayers, heading to a halal cafe for a meal of chicken with saffron rice. Afghan women in burqas take their children to a madrassa next door.
A community of Muslims from countries including Mali, Yemen and Afghanistan has taken root around the mosque, said Abdullah, its Japanese imam.
“Many here don’t speak Japanese or each other’s languages,” he said. “But we pray, sleep and cook together.”