Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE: Apr 7 2009: ‘Golden parachutes’ for Nikkei only mark failure of race-based policy


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Hi Blog. This month’s JUST BE CAUSE column was a challenge because of the news cycle.  I had originally written this month’s JBC about three weeks ago, before I went on the SOUR STRAWBERRIES movie tour.  Here I was thinking I was Mr. Prepared and all that.  However, I arrived back in Sapporo on April 1 to hear  news of this special GOJ bribe for Nikkei, and realized that story took precedence.  But my first draft of the JBC column was due April 2, so within 24 hours I pounded out something of hopefully passable quality.  It was, and the next three days were spent refining the original 1150-word draft into the 1550-worder you see below.  Not too dusty.  I feel fortunate to be a columnist with time to think, as opposed to a reporter with a much stricter set of news deadlines…  Arudou Debito in Sapporo
Golden parachutes’ mark failure of race-based policy

Japan Times, April 7, 2009

Japan’s employment situation has gotten pretty dire, especially for non-Japanese workers. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry reports that between last November and January, more than 9,000 foreigners asked the Hello Work unemployment agency for assistance — 11 times the figure for the same period a year earlier.

The ministry also claims that non-Japanese don’t know Japan’s language and corporate culture, concluding that they’re largely unemployable. So select regions are offering information centers, language training, and some degree of job placement. Good.

But read the small print: Not only does this plan only target 5,000 people, but the government is also trying to physically remove the only people they can from unemployment rosters — the foreigners.

Under an emergency measure drawn up by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party only last month, from April 1 the Japanese government is offering nikkei — i.e. workers of Japanese descent on “long-term resident” visas — a repatriation bribe. Applicants get ¥300,000, plus ¥200,000 for each family dependent, if they “return to their own country,” and bonuses if they go back sooner (see www.mhlw.go.jp/houdou/2009/03/dl/h0331-10a.pdf ).

History is repeating itself, in a sense. These nikkei beneficiaries are the descendants of beneficiaries of another of Japan’s schemes to export its unemployed. A century ago, Japan sent farmers to Brazil, America, Canada, Peru and other South American countries. Over the past two decades, however, Japan has brought nikkei back under yet another wheeze to utilize their cheap labor. This time, however, if they take the ticket back “home,” they can’t return — at least not under the same preferential work visa.

Let this scheme sink in for a minute. We now have close to half a million nikkei living here, some of whom have been here up to 20 years, paying in their taxes and social security. They worked long hours at low wages to keep our factories competitive in the world economy. Although these policies have doubled Japan’s foreign population since 1990, few foreigners have been assimilated. Now that markets have soured, foreigners are the first to be laid off, and their unassimilated status has made them unmarketable in the government’s eyes. So now policy has become, “Train 1 percent (5,000) to stay, bribe the rest to be gone and become some other country’s problem.”

Sound a bit odd? Now consider this: This scheme only applies to nikkei, not to other non-Japanese workers also here at Japan’s invitation. Thus it’s the ultimate failure of a “returnee visa” regime founded upon racist paradigms.

How did this all come to pass? Time for a little background.

Japan had a huge labor shortage in its blue-collar industries in the late 1980s, and realized, with the rise in the value of the yen and high minimum wages, that Japan’s exports were being priced out of world markets.

Japan’s solution (like that of other developed countries) was to import cheaper foreign labor. However, as a new documentary entitled “Sour Strawberries: Japan’s Hidden ‘Guest Workers’ ” ( www.cinemabstruso.de/strawberries/main.html ) reveals, Japan’s policy was fundamentally different. Elites worried about debasing Japan’s supposedly “homogeneous” society with foreigners who might stay, so the official stance remained “No immigration” and “No import of unskilled labor.”

But that was all tatemae — a facade. Urged by business lobbies such as the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), Japan created a visa regime from 1990 to import foreign laborers (mostly Chinese) as “trainees,” ostensibly to learn a skill, but basically to put them in factories and farms doing unskilled “dirty, difficult, and dangerous” labor eschewed by Japanese. More importantly, trainees were getting paid less than half minimum wage (as they were not legally “workers” under labor law) and receiving no social welfare.

Even the offer of competitive wages was tatemae. Although some trainees were reportedly working 10 to 15 hours a day (one media outlet mentioned 22-hour days!), six to seven days a week including holidays, they found themselves receiving sums so paltry they beggared belief — think ¥40,000 a month! A Chinese trainee interviewed in “Sour Strawberries” said he wound up earning the same as he would in China. Others received even less, being charged by employers for rent, utilities and food on top of that.

Abuses proliferated. Trainees were harassed and beaten, found their passports confiscated and pay withheld, and were even fired without compensation if they were injured on the job. One employer hired thugs to force his Chinese staff to board a plane home. But trainees couldn’t just give up and go back. Many had received travel loans to come here, and if they returned early they would be in default, sued by their banks and ruined. Thus they were locked into abusive jobs they could neither complain about nor quit without losing their visa and livelihoods overseas.

As labor union leader Ippei Torii explains in “Sour Strawberries,” this government-sponsored but largely unregulated trainee program made so many employers turn bad that places without worker abuses were “very rare.”

But trainees weren’t the only ones getting exploited. 1990 was also the year the long-term resident visa was introduced for the nikkei. However, unlike the trainees, they were given labor law protections and unlimited employment opportunities — supposedly to allow them to “explore their heritage” (while being worked 10 to 15 hours a day, six days a week).

Why this “most-favored visa status” for the nikkei? Elites, in their ever-unchallenged wisdom, figured nikkei would present fewer assimilation problems. After all, they have Japanese blood, ergo the prerequisite understanding of Japan’s unique culture and garbage-sorting procedures. So, as LDP and Keidanren policymakers testified in “Sour Strawberries,” it was deemed unnecessary to create any integration policy, or even to make them feel like they “belong” in Japan. It was completely counterproductive and demoralizing for an enthusiastic workforce. A nikkei interviewed in the film mentioned how overseas she felt like a Japanese, yet in Japan she ultimately felt like a foreigner.

So over the past 20 years Japan has invited over a million non-Japanese to come here and work. And work they did, many in virtual indentured servitude. Yet instead of being praised for all their contributions, they became scapegoats. They engendered official opprobrium for alleged rises in crime and overstaying (even though per-capita crime rates were higher among Japanese than foreigners, and the number of visa overstayers has dropped every year since 1993). They were also bashed for not learning the language (when they actually had little time to study, let alone attend Japanese classes offered by a handful of merciful local governments) — nothing but disincentives toward settling in Japan.

The policy was doomed to failure. And fail it did on April Fool’s Day, when the government confirmed that nikkei didn’t actually belong here, and offered them golden parachutes. Of course, it was a race-based benefit, unavailable to wrong-blooded trainees, who have to make it home on their own dime (perhaps with some fines added on for overstaying) to face financial ruin.

It’s epiphany time. Japan’s policymakers haven’t evolved beyond an early Industrial-Revolution mind set, which sees people (well, foreigners, anyway) as mere work units. Come here, work your ass off, then go “home” when we have no more use for you; it’s the way we’ve dealt many times before with foreigners, and the way we’ll probably deal with those Indonesian and Filipino care workers we’re scheming to come take care of our elderly. Someday, potential immigrants will realize that our government is just using people, but the way things are going we eventually won’t be rich enough for them to overlook that.

What should be done instead? Japan must take responsibility. You invited foreigners over here, now treat them like human beings. Give all of them the same labor rights and job training that you’d give every worker in Japan, and free nationwide Japanese lessons to bring them up to speed. Reward them for their investment in our society and their taxes paid. Do what you can to make them more comfortable and settled. And stop bashing them: Let Japanese society know why foreigners are here and what good they’ve done for our country. You owe them that much for the best part of their lives they’ve given you.

Don’t treat foreigners like toxic waste, sending them overseas for somebody else to deal with, and don’t detoxify our society under the same race-based paradigms that got us into this situation in the first place. You brought this upon yourselves through a labor policy that ignored immigration and assimilation. Now deal with it here, in Japan, by helping non-Japanese residents of whatever background make Japan their home.

That’s not a radical proposal. Given our low-birthrate, aging-society demographics, experts have been urging you to do this for a decade now. This labor downturn won’t last forever, and when things pick up again you’ll have a younger, more acculturated, more acclimatized, even grateful workforce to help pick up the pieces. Just sending people back, where they will tell others about their dreadful years in Japan being exploited and excluded, is on so many levels the wrong thing to do.

Debito Arudou is organizing nationwide screenings of “Sour Strawberries” in late August and early September; contact him at debito@debito.org to arrange a screening. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp


13 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE: Apr 7 2009: ‘Golden parachutes’ for Nikkei only mark failure of race-based policy

  • I can’t praise you enough Debito. What a superbly written article! Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely ever to be read by the ones who formulated this suck ’em dry and get rid of ’em policy. Disgusting.

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    I’m curious as to how the Y300,000 figure was arrived at.

    It seems pitifully small for someone working as a regular member of society.

    How much would a regular laid-off person expect to receive, in total, in unemployment payments during a typical job-hunting period? What’s the maximum length of time to receive these benefits?

    Even a refund of one’s unemployment contributions would be fairer than being sent home without a chance to receive benefits from the system that you’d been forced to pay into!

    Consider also that foreign workers, Nikkei or not, who have been here for three years or more and will not be returning will lose their contributions to the national pension plan. The employee’s share of up to three years’ worth of contributions can be recovered (but not the employer’s share!) if a foreign worker leaves Japan, but if you paid in for more than this three-year period and less than the 25 years required to get a pension, you’re losing money.

    I wonder what the average total financial contribution to mandatory social programs (unemployment + pension) is for these workers. It would seem to me that the minimum value of a “golden parachute” would be a refund of that amount — remember, the government has already taken this money from the worker! — plus an additional sum as an actual incentive to the worker.

    Sending a worker outside the country permanently means pension money that won’t have to be paid, unemployment benefits that won’t have to be distributed, and Hello Work job-searching efforts that won’t have to be made. The value of all this can’t possibly be under Y300,000 per person, and so it looks to me like the government made a handsome profit off these workers before dumping them. A golden parachute, sure, but spun from gold forcibly extracted from the workers while they still had jobs.

    — It depends, but generally, according to HANDBOOK pgs 242-6, a regular laid-off person receives 40-80% of Basic Salary (kihonkyuu) for between three months to a year. And yes, if you leave, you lose a LOT of money given your pension contributions. Likewise the GOJ saves a LOT and gets people off the unemployment lists, if they’re counted at all in the first place (we’ve had comments here saying they are).

    I suspect the 300,000 yen was arrived at by looking at costs of plane tickets, and adding a little on top to make the “parachute” a little more gilded. I was being sarcastic about the GP, anyway.

  • The 300.000 Yen looks more like the second bid in an AUCTION.

    In March 2009 the provincial Government of Gifu proposed a loan to pay for the trip (Which looked more like a grant) of 700 Nikkei-Brazilians to get out of Japan…Only 110 applied for it.
    Now we have this one (A little bit “better”, but with some political conditions), if it does not work out, the GOJ will have to raise the bid.

    — Link to source for the March bid?

  • I was undecided on this until I saw the above post about the pension contributions.

    This is the most persuasive argument, IF (we have to be sure) there is no reciprocal pension arrangement with thier home countries (as I think the US and Japan started fairly recently, where govt. pension contributions in one country count in the other) AND we are sure these immigrants have been paying.

    How does the 300,000 yen compare to what these people have paid in taxes, etc. over the years?

    One can always argue that even if they are not getting as much out of their tax payments as native Japanese, putting a concrete number on that would be hard to do and not convincing to anyone.

    But the 3 year pension refund limit probably applies to the vast majority of these immigrants [the opposite of the typical eikaiwa worker, or citizens of countries with pension arrangements with Japan]

    Cynics can argue (probably rightly) that the 300,000 yen was probably seen as a cheap way to get rid of a “liability” but again, it is hard to determine concrete figures.

    But the pension thing is easy math. Undeniable, if true.
    Those who are thinking of taking the 300,000, and those who think it’s insulting now should whip out their pension contribution booklets and demand their money back in full. It should amount to millions of yen for many. Let’s see what the government response is.

    Probably, “You will still be able to use these contributions toward your Japanese pension [if we let you back into Japan] so you’re technically not really losing it.”

    Oh, and can we get confirmation on even the 3 year refund thingy. I believe I’ve heard that you really only end up getting 80% of the up to 3 years of pension, 20% is still kept as some sort of tax? Anyone?

    And why the hell is there a 3 year maximum anyway?
    What is Japan’s obsession with the 3-year number anyway? 3-year work visas, 3 years of JET, 3 years at many uni jobs before you’re sent out the revolving door, 3 years to Japanese fluency for the new crop of imported nurses

    “Welcome to Japan, you can stay and work for us for 3 years, then you really should leave.”

  • A bribe implies the willing participation of two parties. Willingness implies choice. More choice, perhaps, than many Japanese workers might get.

    — First I’ve heard of a bribe having this implication. Tell us more?

  • Debito, I would say this is one of your best articles yet. Keep up the good work!

    As far as some Nikkei not yet assimilating, I understand your point. However, I’m forced to point out that many Japanese citizens (probably the silent majority) have not assimilated to Japan yet either. 😉

  • Not too sure if this is the right place to post but good to see the Mainichi reporting re: foreign trainees-


    1,000 foreign trainees forced to return home as firms feel pinch

    More than 1,000 foreign trainees involved in government programs were forced to return home as sponsor companies have been suffering from the deteriorating economy, a government survey has revealed.

    According to the survey held by the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau, a total of 1,007 foreign trainees left Japan between October last year and January before their contract period ended. Of that figure, 921 people were laid off due to their employers’ deteriorating business conditions, and 86 were dismissed after their host companies went bankrupt.

    The figures have increased every month, quadrupling to 489 in January from 114 in October last year.

    The trainees’ three-year contracts can be terminated if both parties agree, however, most of foreigners were forced to leave, according to the survey.

    “Most of the trainees took out a loan of about 700,000 yen to 1 million yen to come to Japan,” said a representative of Advocacy Network for Foreign Trainees in Tokyo’s Taito Ward. “If they return home before their contract period ends, they will be left in debt. The government should take some countermeasures.”

    The central government is now reviewing the trainee program, including the guarantee of the trainees’ status, which is not covered by the current Labor Standards Law. A revision is expected to be made in May.

    Japan received a total of 102,018 foreign trainees in 2007, according to the Immigration Bureau.

    (Mainichi Japan) April 7, 2009


    gonna tell you your JT coluum was bloody wonderful and damn near perfect again space did not permit more

    1. Health insurance people lose health ins. when they go back. We pay a very high rate for what we get and need when we are young that covers the older people who need more and we expect are promised that it will be there when we need it .

    2. Where are/have been the Japanese language classes in Hokkaido or for that matter Japan? How many spaces are/were there? Are they full with AET’s whose way is being paid for by the gov’t. Jung Chang in Wild Swans writes about the fraud of being sent to the countryside to teach Chinese literacy to peasants after they had spent 12 hours in the fields. It hardly ever led to improved literacy.

  • Little, sort of, follow up from the Asashi..


    Returnees to Brazil finding it tough

    SAO PAULO–Many Brazilians of Japanese ancestry returning here from recession-struck Japan are struggling to find work, according to Grupo Nikkei, an NGO set up to support the job-seekers.

    The group said the number of returnees seeking help had more than doubled from 70 a month last year to 150 a month this year.

    Some returnees who performed unskilled labor in Japan have found it difficult to return to old jobs that require specific expertise, according to Leda Shimabukuro, 57, who heads the group. Some youths also lack Portuguese literacy skills, Shimabukuro said.(IHT/Asahi: April 17,2009)

  • And a bigger article from Time:


    Japan to Immigrants: Thanks, But You Can Go Home Now

    By COCO MASTERS / TOKYO Monday, Apr. 20, 2009

    When union leader Francisco Freitas has something to say, Japan’s Brazilian community listens. The 49-year old director of the Japan Metal and Information Machinery Workers called up the Brazilian Embassy in Tokyo April 14, fuming over a form being passed out at employment offices in Hamamatsu City, southwest of Tokyo. Double-sided and printed on large sheets of paper, the form enables unemployed workers of Japanese descent — and their family members — to secure government money for tickets home. It sounded like a good deal to the Brazilians for whom it was intended. The fine print in Portuguese, however, revealed a catch that soured the deal: it’s a one-way ticket with an agreement not to return.

    Japan’s offer to minority communities in need has spawned the ire of those whom it intends to help. It is one thing to be laid off in an economic crisis. It is quite another to be unemployed and to feel unwanted by the country where you’ve settled. That’s how Freitas and other Brazilians feel since the Japanese government started the program to pay $3,000 to each jobless foreigner of Japanese descent (called Nikkei) and $2,000 to each family member to return to their country of origin. The money isn’t the problem, the Brazilians say; it’s the fact that they will not be allowed to return until economic and employment conditions improve — whenever that may be. “When Nikkei go back and can’t return, for us that’s discrimination,” says Freitas, who has lived in Japan with his family for 12 years. (See pictures of Japan and the world.)

    With Japan’s unemployment rate on the rise — it reached a three-year high of 4.4% in February — the government is frantic to find solutions to stanch the flow of job losses and to help the unemployed. The virtual collapse of Japan’s export-driven economy, in which exports have nearly halved compared to the first two months of last year, has forced manufacturers to cut production. Temporary and contract workers at automotive and electronics companies have been hit especially hard. Hamamatsu has 18,000 Brazilian residents, about 5% of the total in Japan, and is home to the nation’s largest Brazilian community. After immigration laws relaxed in 1990, making it easier for foreigners to live and work in Japan, Brazilians have grown to be the country’s third largest minority, after Koreans and Chinese. But as jobs grow scarce and money runs out, some Nikkei ironically now face the same tough decision their Japanese relatives did 100 years ago, when they migrated to Brazil.

    Japan can scarcely afford to lose part of its labor force, or close itself off further to foreigners. Japan, with its aging population that is projected to shrink by one-third over the next 50 years, needs all the workers it can get. The U.N. has projected that the nation will need 17 million immigrants by 2050 to maintain a productive economy. But immigration laws remain strict, and foreign-born workers make up only 1.7% of the total population. Brazilians feel particularly hard done by. “The reaction from the Brazilian community is very hot,” says a Brazilian Embassy official. The embassy has asked Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to “ease the conditions” of reentry for Brazilians who accept the money. (Paradoxically, the Japanese government had recently stepped up efforts to help Brazilian residents, with programs such as Japanese-language training and job-counseling.) This particular solution to unemployment, however, is perceived as a misguided gift. “Maybe there were good intentions, but the offer was presented in the worst way possible,” says the Brazilian official. The program applies to Brazilians who have long-term Nikkei visas, but restricts their right — and that of their family members — to reentry until jobs are available in Japan. The terms are vague and will probably stay that way. Tatsushi Nagasawa, a Japanese health ministry official says it’s not possible to know when those who accept the money will be allowed back into Japan, though the conditions for reentry for highly skilled positions might be relaxed.

    The Brazilian community plainly needs some help. The Brazilian embassy normally pays for between 10 and 15 repatriations each year, but in the last few months it has already paid for about 40. Since last September, Carlos Zaha has seen many in his Hamamatsu community lose their jobs. In December, he helped start Brasil Fureai, or “Contact Brazil,” an association to help unemployed Brazilian residents find jobs. He’s thankful to the Japanese government for the offer of assisted repatriation, but says the decision will be a rough one for workers. “I don’t think [the government] thought this through well,” Zaha says. “If someone is over 50 years old and is already thinking of returning to Brazil then it might work. But there are many people in their 20s and 30s, and after two or three years they’re going to want to come back to Japan — and they won’t be able to.” (Read more about Japan’s new stimulus package.)

    Lenine Freitas, 23, the son of the union leader, lost his job at Asmo, a small motor manufacturer, one month ago, but says he plans to stay in Japan and work. Freitas says that there would be no problem if the Japanese government set a term of, say, three years, after which Brazilians who took the money could return. But after nine years working at Suzuki Motor Corp., he thinks that the government should continue to take responsibility for foreigners in Japan. “They have to help people to continue working in Japan,” he says. “If Brazilians go home, what will they do there?”

    And if Nikkei Brazilians, Peruvians and others who have lost their jobs go home, what will Japan do? Last week, Prime Minister Taro Aso unveiled a long-term growth strategy to create millions of jobs and add $1.2 trillion to GDP by 2020. But the discussion of immigration reform is notoriously absent in Japan, and reaching a sensible policy for foreign workers has hardly got under way. Encouraging those foreigners who would actually like to stay in Japan to leave seems a funny place to start.

  • Matt at anarchyjapan says:


    I am very much against this repatriation program, and as I mentioned in an earlier comment, this is an excellent editorial.

    I just wanted to note two things here. First, something that’s not mentioned here, that should at least be acknowledged is that the Nikkei can come back … *when* the government says so. This is a rather inane clause, but apparently based on a reliable source, this is the case. So I guess in discussions, this has to at least be acknowledged.

    Anyway, that is peripheral to what I really wanted to say.

    I was thinking about this program and trying to think of a way to bring it down to earth just how really horrible it is. Here’s some of the thoughts I had.

    First … we all frown upon loan sharks, right? But should the government do something about them? Should the government stop loan sharks? In this case, it’s easy to see both sides of the argument. Even if loan sharks are evil, the victims need to watch out for themselves. Maybe. Whatever. However, what if it were the case that the government *were* the loan shark? Is there anyone who would argue in favor of that? Basically, that’s what’s going on here. The government is offering a *bad* deal to *desperate* people. So the defense that this program is optional and therefore okay, which I’ve seen bandied about by some, is not really tenable.

    Now someone might say the program isn’t comparable to a deal offered by a loan shark. Is that so?

    Compare person A and person B.

    Person A — A nikkei in Japan. Out of work. Out of luck. But has a decent sized savings account. They decide to to return to Brazil (or Peru and so on), and they do so with a reentry permit. They can easily go back to Japan later, should they choose. And many probably would. The important thing is, they maintain their visa.

    Person B — A nikkei in Japan. Out of work. Out of luck. They don’t have savings because they lost their job earlier than person A. They wouldn’t mind temporary returning to Brazil (or where ever) temporarily, but lack the money to do so.

    Now the government wants to portray themselves as giving person B *a way home*. However, that’s simply not true. Just like A, B has the ability to return to their previous country of residence. They’re capable of purchasing a ticket (in a legal sense); they can obtain a reentry permit, and so on. They lack only *one* thing, money. So that is *all* the government is offering them, *money*. The government is most certainly not giving them a way *home*, especially if their home is — for shame — Japan.

    Now what is the payment the government exacts in return for *money*. A promise not only to leave, but to not come back. (At least not until the government says so. And really not a promise, as the government will see to it, these nikkei don’t come back.)

    In the US recently a program was started where people can trade in their old car for a more fuel efficient one, and the government will then pay cash. This program is called “cash for clunkers”. I propose that the “repatriation program” be named similarly. It should be called, “cash for visas.” You give up your visa and the government gives you cash. (Or maybe “cash for the unwanted”.)

    This is, of course, a terrible deal. It’s similar to the kind of deal a loan shark might give someone. Who can put a real price tag on that visa? There’s only one kind of person who will take a deal like this, a desperate one. Someone down and out and without a real choice.

    Now one more time, who is offering this deal? An sinister crime syndicate? Ah, no, the Japanese government.

    It should go without saying, that residents in Japan shouldn’t be paid to leave any more than citizens should be paid to leave. But I guess it needs to be said.

    — Thanks for your thoughtful comments. BTW, in regards to “something that’s not mentioned here, that should at least be acknowledged is that the Nikkei can come back … *when* the government says so.”, the GOJ added that bit after my article came out. Quite possibly to soften the outrage.

    One more thing that needs to be said: The fact that these people are also giving up their pension contributions (as in, leaving before they can pay in the full 24 or so years) makes the repatriation bribe an even worse deal. I got into that in a later version of that Japan Times essay I wrote for another academic outlet.


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