National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Foreign workers: Should they stay or should they go?

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

As the rest of the world debated the ramifications of U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban on persons from seven Muslim-majority countries last week, Japan was notably silent.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is currently going out of his way to placate the new American leader for the sake of national interests, but in any case there was little he could add to the discussion. Japan has never universally welcomed immigrants, especially refugees. The local media, which covered the travel ban with detachment, didn’t bother to make any relevant connections to Japan’s situation, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any.

For instance, the Asahi Shimbun ran an interview on Feb. 1 with Takaji Kunimatsu, the former chief of the National Police Agency. Kunimatsu is best known for having been shot in 1995 in what is believed to have been an assassination attempt carried out by the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, whom the NPA was investigating at the time. After he retired, Kunimatsu was appointed ambassador to Switzerland for three years, during which time he observed how a multicultural society operated.

The interview centered on Kunimatsu’s views on immigrants in Japan. While the head of the NPA, he advocated against permitting foreign nationals to settle here in large numbers. After living in Switzerland he feels differently, although he adds that these two impulses are not “contradictory.”

“I’m not insisting on increasing immigration without conditions,” he told the Asahi reporter. “Once Japan decides to accept more foreigners to live here, we should make a proper system in order to protect social order.” When he was in charge of the NPA, “the media always talked about how many foreigners were being arrested, but I never thought the (foreign) crime rate was particularly high.”

Kunimatsu was impressed by Switzerland’s approach to immigrants. The Swiss government spends money on language lessons and vocational training in fields that benefit the country. When immigrants break the law, they are subject to deportation.

“One-fourth of the Swiss population is foreign,” he said, “either permanent residents or temporary workers. There are also many refugees. And they aren’t viewed as being special.” He came to understand this dynamic through his own staff, who were immigrants and played important roles in their respective communities.

“The fundamental principle is not assimilation,” he said, “but integration.” Immigrants are not forced to give up anything of themselves, but rather encouraged to integrate economically and socially. He points out that the Japanese word “imin” (immigrant) has a negative connotation, so he suggests using the word “seikatsusha” to describe foreign residents in Japan, thus indicating a “person who lives here.”

Kunimatsu is critical of the government-regulated trainee system used by many companies to obtain cheap labor from abroad, although not necessarily because of its exploitative aspects. The idea that an employer “trains” a worker who is going to have to leave the country in three to five years is, to the former police chief, a waste of resources.

“The workers have no incentive to learn Japanese or integrate into society,” he said. The result is a “never-ending cycle of new short-term workers” who have no stake here.

Kunimatsu’s complaint suggests that such integration is desirable, but current policy is designed to ensure that foreign workers don’t stay in Japan. He believes that if the government invites anyone to work in Japan at any job, it “must give them the same benefits as Japanese people. That way you foster productive human resources, which leads to natural economic competition.” If the foreign workers want to go back, they can, but if they want to stay, they should be allowed to do so. They will integrate as a matter of course.

This same theory was discussed at a symposium on the foreign trainee system in Nagoya earlier this month. The symposium focused on the field of caregivers, which can newly tap the trainee system to acquire help from overseas.

According to a report in the Feb. 1 Tokyo Shimbun, participants concluded that workers are just becoming proficient in Japanese language and good at their work when they are forced to move back to their home countries. As one researcher said, despite the “training” purpose of the program, it doesn’t “build careers.” It’s simply a short-term human resources solution.

And now, the trainees themselves understand that they are only in Japan to provide cheap labor. A recent NHK documentary looked at the textile industry in Gifu Prefecture, which relies completely on trainees. Japanese people stopped working at these factories a long time ago. Now, more and more foreign nationals who come to work there through the trainee program are demanding better working conditions and wages.

Ten years ago, it was easy to get foreign trainees because even below-minimum wages in Japan were higher than what they could earn in their native countries, but that isn’t always true anymore, and the number of applicants has dwindled. According to NHK, the Gifu textile industry is quickly collapsing as a result.

One company, however, is taking a long-term approach by training Japanese workers and paying them fairly high wages. The money the company invested in these employees has led to higher productivity levels, not to mention better quality products, and NHK implies that the same theory could apply to foreign trainees if they were allowed to really learn the skills they are supposed to be learning — but that takes time.

Kunimatsu’s interview and the NHK documentary suggest that Japan’s short-term approach to its labor woes is hurting competitiveness, but what’s missing from the media discussion is the moral dimension that informs the travel ban controversy in the United States. Everybody, non-Japanese and Japanese alike, deserves a living wage and, if you can’t pay it, maybe you shouldn’t be in business.

Correction: In last week’s column, the self-described “military journalist” on the MXTV program discussed was mistakenly identified as Kazuhisa Ogawa. The journalist’s name is actually Kazuhiko Inoue. The Japan Times apologizes for the error.

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