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The downturn of the Japanese economy is severely affecting foreign workers in this nation, most of whom are temporary employees. The labor ministry says at least some 5,600 foreign workers have lost or will soon lose their jobs. But that estimate is likely low.

According to a recent poll of foreign residents in Oizumi, Gunma Prefecture, where 17 percent of the population is non-Japanese — including many Brazilians of Japanese descent — 39 percent had no jobs and only 8 percent of those employed were full-time workers.

This poll and an international symposium recently held in Nagoya point out that language poses the greatest barrier for foreigners seeking new employment. Many jobless foreign residents can no longer afford to have their children attend private schools for foreigners, yet public elementary and middle schools do not have enough staff to teach Japanese to such children.

A labor ministry survey of companies shows that there were some 486,400 foreign workers in Japan as of October. Of these, 43.3 percent were Chinese, 20.4 percent Brazilians and 8.3 percent Filipinos. Many of these workers underpinned the production of cars and other exported products when the economy was good. In addition, many small firms and agricultural enterprises employee foreign trainees.

Given their significant contribution to the Japanese economy, it would be wrong to regard foreign workers as merely a means to lower production costs and cope with labor shortages during economic good times. Some local governments have started support programs for such workers. For example, in Aichi Prefecture, where more than 220,000 foreigners are registered, the prefectural government and business community have established a fund to help foreigners learn Japanese. Hamamatsu City in Shizuoka Prefecture plans to train unemployed foreigners to work in nursing care.

The central government should also quickly implement support measures, such as increasing the number of interpreters at public employment security offices, stationing advisers to help foreign children enroll at public schools and providing grants to local governments that discount school fees for foreign children.

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