Japan Times: Japan sanctioning mass ‘slave labor’ by duping foreign trainees, observers say


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Hi Blog. This article is nearly a year old, but it is still worth a read, if only to remind everyone of how things have not changed in Japan’s exploitative visa regimes. Dr. ARUDOU, Debito


Japan sanctioning mass ‘slave labor’ by duping foreign trainees, observers say
By Harumi Ozawa, The Japan Times, November 23, 2014

The first word En learned when he began working at a construction site in Japan after moving from China was “baka,” Japanese for “idiot.”

The 31-year-old farmer is one of 50,000 Chinese who signed up for a government-run program that promises foreigners the chance to earn money while acquiring valuable on-the-job training. Like many of his compatriots, he hoped to leave Japan with cash in his pocket and a new set of skills that would give him a better shot at work at home.

“My Japanese colleagues would always say baka to me,” said En, who spoke only on condition that his full name not be revealed. “I am exhausted physically and mentally.”

His problem is not the bullying by Japanese colleagues, nor the two-hour commute each-way or the mind-numbing work that largely consists of breaking apart old buildings. It is the ¥1 million he borrowed to take part in the Industrial Trainee and Technical Internship Program, ostensibly to cover traveling expenses and other “fees” charged by middlemen.

The loan has left him a virtual slave to Japan’s labor-hungry construction industry. “I cannot go back before I make enough money to repay the debt,” he said.

Japan is desperately short of workers to pay taxes to fund pensions and health care for its rapidly graying population, but it is almost constitutionally allergic to immigration. Less than 2 percent of the populace is classified as “non-Japanese” by the government; by comparison, around 13 percent of British residents are foreign-born.

This results, critics say, in ranks of poorly protected employees brought in through a government-sanctioned back door that is ripe for abuse and exploitation.

“This trainee program is a system of slave labor. You cannot just quit and leave. It’s a system of human trafficking, forced labor,” said Ippei Torii, director of Solidarity Network With Migrants Japan, a nongovernmental group that supports foreign workers.

Around a quarter of Japan’s population of 127 million is 65 or older, and this proportion is expected to jump to 40 percent in the coming decades. The heavily indebted government, which owes creditors more than twice what the economy generates annually, is scrambling to find the money to cover the welfare and health costs associated with the burgeoning ranks of the elderly even as the taxpayer base shrinks.

Japan’s average birthrate of around 1.4 children per woman, far below the level necessary to replenish the national workforce, is ratcheting up the pressure.

In most developed nations, this kind of shortfall is plugged by immigration, but Japan allows no unskilled workers into the country amid fears by some they would threaten the nation’s culture of consensus, an argument others view as mere cover for xenophobia.

But in 1993, as the economy was on the way down from its bubbly 1980s zenith, the government began the foreign trainee program, which allows tens of thousands of workers, mostly from China, Vietnam and Indonesia, to come to Japan and supply labor for industries including textiles, construction, farming and manufacturing.

The program, however, has not been without its critics. Japan’s top ally, the U.S., has even singled it out, with the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report for years slamming the program’s “deceptive recruitment practices.”

“The (Japanese) government did not prosecute or convict forced labor perpetrators despite allegations of labor trafficking in the TTIP,” it said this year, using the program’s acronym.

Past allegations include unpaid overtime work, karoshi (death from overwork), and all kinds of harassment, including company managers restricting the use of toilets or demanding sexual services.

The government rejects claims the program is abusive, yet acknowledges there have been some upstream problems. “It is true that some involved in the system have exploited it, but the government has acted against that,” an immigration official said. “It is not a system of slave labor.”

The official insisted it was not in authorities’ power to control the behavior of middlemen but insisted they were not allowed to charge deposit fees. “It is also banned for employers to take away trainees’ passports,” he added.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has unveiled a plan to expand the program that would allow foreign trainees to stay in Japan for five years instead of three, and says such labor will increasingly be needed, particularly in the construction boom ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Abe is also aware that the nation’s health care sector must increasingly look abroad to fill the shortage of workers.

“It has been said that we will need 1 million caregivers for the elderly by 2025, which would be impossible to handle only with the Japanese population,” said Tatsumi Kenmochi, a manager at a care home near Tokyo that employs Indonesian nurses.

For Kenmochi, foreign staff are a precious commodity and the sector must do as much as it can to make them feel welcome. “It must be hard to leave home and work overseas,” he said. “We make sure that they don’t get homesick, listening to them and sometimes going out to have a warm bowl of noodles with them.”

Torii of Solidarity Network With Migrants Japan said this is just the kind of attitude Japan needs to learn: “The issue is not whether we accept immigrants or not. They are already here, playing a vital role in our society.”


12 comments on “Japan Times: Japan sanctioning mass ‘slave labor’ by duping foreign trainees, observers say

  • Same thing, but slight off topic.
    Just saw the BBC news this morning, they are having a Japan Direct, during 11-24th Oct. On the business news, they pointed out that Abe’s, lets get women into the work force and his proposal of offering financial incentives to companies that apply to assist them in educating/training and getting more women into their companies has failed. After 18months of this “promotion” not one single company in the whole of Japan has taken up the offer from the Govt.


    — Link welcome if you have one.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    This article is one year old, and yet, it could have been written yesterday because despite the UN, telling them every year (even the ‘Country report’ issued by the CIA on Japan every year calls the trainee program human trafficking) the Japanese government has made no progress on fixing this abusive system. Therefore the abusive system must be seen to represent official policy.

    Remember a couple of years ago Abe had this great idea to attract ‘2000 elite gaijin’ every year with a points based system? It totally failed, and now the J-gov never talks about ‘elite gaijin’ or target numbers. They have given up on the idea.
    Remember the nurses and carers from the Philippines and Indonesia that Japan desperately needs, but then subjected to an impossible level of study whilst expected to work as helpers to Japanese nurses? Almost all of them were failed, and those that passed almost all went home. Now we don’t hear a peep from the J-gov about attracting foreign nurses. They have given up on the idea.
    The trainee program sets the bar much lower, by setting out to get unqualified workers in the first instance, but even then, the J-gov is talking about building the Olympic stadium on time if it can include construction workers on the ‘trainee/internship’ scheme.

    The outlook isn’t good that the stadium will get completed without halting virtually every other construction project in the Kanto area. And in the same way that the J-govs plans to attract (and then control excessively) other NJ has back-fired and left Japan with a skills shortage and a negative PR image amongst the target group, what makes them think that NJ construction workers will com and save them?

    Japan has to learn, as a society, how to treat these people better, and accept that they can’t be kept on a leash, or they won’t come, and the Japanese will have to live out their old age in a society of shortages and insecurity as Japan’s social fabric collapses under the demographic and fiscal strain.

  • #2 JDG

    Thanks for that link, it shows some of the news articles I have seen so far, but not all. May be once the season has run, the article I saw will be on line too.

    The video of the older lady the “business woman” her statement at the end was shocking and yet she doesn’t see it as being at variance with her earlier statements and thus the whole pint of this posting – slave labour. Where she said that wife’s who stay at home (to have babies and raise the kids) should pay back the tuition fees spent on them!!! Yet earlier saying it is a waste of half of the population not working; under utilised. So another circle they cannot square. Thus import slave labour because they cannot change the system to encourage working mothers to have both.

    If Abe is also citing these “slow moving changes and problems” for not wanting to accept asylum seekers from Syria etc, then he doubly shoots himself in the foot for not seeing what Germany and others see. The refuges are a source of immediate cheap labour. Not cheap in the sense under paid and poor conditions like in Japan, just willing to work for minimum wages (with real legal rights too) and willing to succeed. Thus by the time Abe and his hawks realise this, all those cheap labour imports he could have had will have gone, along with the dream of the Olympic stadium being built on time too!

  • Jim di Griz says:

    @ Jonh K #4

    Not to derail the thread, but BBC News launched its own Japanese language site today.
    I have to wonder why? They claim they have one million English BBC News page views a month, with 90% by viewers whose first language is Japanese (how do they know that?), so I’d suggest that people are using it for English practice?

    It’ll be interesting to know which Japanese news partner will be translating for them, and if they’ll cover stories that are critical of Japan.


  • #3 JDG: excellent post. Thanks for reminding us of the GOJ’s multiple failures (I had forgotten). Your expectations may be much higher than mine. While I agree that Japan should treat their slave laborers better, I doubt they will. Snobbery, elitism and racial superiority are so integral to being Japanese. IMHO, you are asking for much more than most Japanese people are willing/able to give.
    As a long term Japan observer, surely you recognize that Japanese people have to manage everything. They suffocate talent, squash initiative, and demand blind obedience at all times.
    They turned making tea into something that could be done wrong (only they can do it correctly).
    Rather than letting a tree grow naturally, they “guide” it to grow only how they want it.
    And so on.

    The only way (that I’ve seen) to get respect from Japanese people is to possess a (desirable) skill that they do not have. Trainees/slave laborers have no skills Japan respects – they are just cheap labor. In the hierarchy that is Japan, these people are at the bottom, and will stay there. They are to be used, exploited, and then sent away before their needs outweigh their ability to contribute.

    In the community of nations, Japan is a bad neighbor. They are selfish, exploit others, and are self-serving and self-centered in virtually everything they do. They don’t want foreigners to stay. They don’t want to accommodate others. They just want everyone to see how wonderful Japan is – and then go away.

    #4 JK: There will always be a source of cheap labor – always.

  • Who ever said Japan doesn’t like immigrants. Japan loves immigrants. To clean toilets, build the Olympic stadium, and other crap jobs, so they can learn “skills” under a bullshit trainee program. But give them proper status and a real chance of a better future for themselves and their children?? Nah.

    Whenever the Japanese talk about how immigrants are needed to help Japan, what they mean is that they need immigrants for slave labor. They don’t mean that they need immigrants to stay here, go to good universities, become educated, and contribute to Japanese society through skill and intellect.

  • Just drop the cheap bowl of noodles and pay the fair price of a developed country. Why is it so hard to understand that it is just a matter of supply and demand, and yes, it is just about the money. Nobody really cares about watching the sakura when the money and living conditions are under the international standard. Plain simple.

  • The Japanese have exploited South East Asians as a cheap source of labor for many decades. This is nothing new. And during the War era, the Japanese simply put prisoners to work.

  • @Manule

    Yes! You hit the nail on the head.

    The “bowl of noodles” remark is part of the “rock star treatment.” When foreigners come to Japan, especially (but by no means only) white foreigners, they get the “rock star” treatment, which basically means people treat them to the occasional free bowl of noodles, or a drink at the bar, or some other form of hospitality that would probably not be given to an ordinary Japanese person. Eventually (usually after a few months), this “rock star treatment” dwindles to near-zero.

    Many Japanese people (and apologist foreigners) look at this “rock star treatment” and conclude that “life is easy for these foreigners.” Or at very least, they use simplistic logic of “well, there’s some discrimination, but there are also some perks to being a foreigner, so it’s all good.”

    Well, I don’t mind a free bowl of food or a free beer. That’s nice and all. But does it change the fact that when I, with my degree, am in my early 30s and still making 3 million yen per year, I’ll only be making 69.44% of what an average Japanese man of that age makes (with or without a degree)? That’s a 1.32 million yen difference per year–enough to buy more than a few bowls of food or beers at the bar. And this wage disparity would be far worse for a “trainee” from another country. Which brings me to my final point: “rock star treatment” and a few special privileges are, in most cases, NOT a substitute for just being treated decently.

  • Japan is a wonderful country. I believe that people would be more than happy to immigrate to Japan. Just one condition: to be treated equally, be made feel that they too can feel at home in Japan etc. It could all be so easy actually!!

    If Japan chooses not to have (too many) people with different ethnic origins living in Japan, Japan will eventually isolate itself which would be a pity.

    And yes (as mentioned above): if your employer or somebody else keeps your passport against your will, just go to your embassy. Your passport is the property of your country and should not be taken from you.

    — I wish people would stop simplifying matters in situations such as these. Such as, “Just go to your embassy.” Yes, someone hundreds of kilometers away out in a factory in Japan’s boondocks wending their way to Tokyo at their own expense (when “Trainees” such as these are generally very closely monitored and sequestered as well as kept in poverty and servitude), and getting there during business hours without being missed. How many people commenting like this have actually experienced working conditions like these to comment so facilely?

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    Here comes another story of GOJ’s establishment policy: a.k.a. foreign trainee program.


    The system continues to fail as Abenomics does absolutely nothing to alleviate nation’s increasing poverty rate.


    Bad labor policy and worker exploitation are disturbing practice of racial discrimination pushing many NJ to social and economic segregation in Japanese society.

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