Japan’s Future as an International, Multicultural Society: From Migrants to Immigrants
By Arudou Debito. Japan Focus.com, October 29, 2007
Despite an express policy against importing unskilled foreign labor, the Government of Japan (GOJ) since 1990 has been following an unacknowledged backdoor “guest worker” program to alleviate a labor shortage that threatens to become chronic. Through its “Student”, “Entertainer”, “Nikkei repatriation”, “Researcher”, “Trainee”, and “Intern” Visa programs, the GOJ has imported hundreds of thousands of cost-effective Non-Japanese (NJ) laborers to stem the “hollowing out” (i.e. outsourcing, relocation, or bankruptcy) of Japan’s domestic industry at all levels.
As in many countries including the United States, France and South Korea, immigration has become a hotly-debated subject. While Japan’s immigrant population is much smaller than that of many European and North American countries, there is growing reliance on foreign labor resulting in a doubling of the number of registered NJ in Japan since 1990.
Despite their importance to Japan’s economy, this has not resulted in general acceptance of these laborers as “residents”, or as regular “full-time workers” entitled to the same social benefits under labor laws as Japanese workers (such as a minimum wage, health or unemployment insurance). Moreover, insufficient GOJ regulation has resulted in labor abuses (exploitative or coercive labor, child labor, sundry human rights violations), to the degree that the GOJ now proposes to “fix” the system by 2009. The current debate among ministries, however, is not focused on finding ways to help NJ workers to assimilate to Japan. Rather it has the effect of making it ever clearer that they are really only temporary and expendable. The most powerful actor in the debate is the Justice Ministry. Its minister under the former Abe administration proposed term-limited revolving-door employment for NJ workers. Meanwhile, one consequence of the present visa regime is a growing underclass of NJ children, with neither sufficient language abilities nor education to develop employable skills and adjust to Japanese society. Nevertheless, immigration continues apace. Not only does the number of foreign workers grow, but Regular Permanent Residents (RPRs) also increase by double-digit percentages every year. By the end of 2007, the number of RPRs will surpass the number of generational Zainichi Permanent Residents of Korean and Taiwan origins. In conclusion, Japan is no exception to the forces of globalization and international migrant labor. The GOJ needs to create appropriate policies that will enable migrant workers and their families to integrate into Japanese society and to find appropriate jobs that will maximize their contributions at a time when Japan faces acute labor shortages that will increase the importance of migrants.
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