WSJ on Imported NJ workers on J farms and factories


Hi Blog. An excellent primer from the Wall sTreet Journal on why Japan is importing NJ workers and how they are getting along: less than half wages (one Filipino mentioned below gets $500 a month, and sends half of it back home!!), yet the unsung savior of many industries (Toyota, now the world’s #2 automaker, is dependent on them). The demographics of the situation also nicely interwoven into the article as well.

Are people still going to make the argument that Japan’s internationalization is not inevitable? Arudou Debito in Rochester, NY.


Cautiously, an Aging Japan Warms to Foreign Workers
Loopholes Open Up Jobs In Farms and Factories;
Friction in Toyota City
The Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2007; Page A1
Courtesy of Matt Dioguardi at The Community

AKEHAMA, Japan — Four years ago, when a group of farmers in this remote village first brought in young Filipinos to work in their citrus fields, neighbors rebuffed the idea of hiring foreigners. “They said these men shouldn’t be hired even if they worked for free,” recalls Motosa Katayama, a ninth-generation farmer with a weather-beaten face.

But they soon saw the logic. The Filipinos performed strenuous tasks such as pruning branches and pulling weeds, becoming indispensable to the elderly farmers. Since then, Akehama, a village with just 100 households, has hosted a total of 70 workers from the Philippines and Vietnam.

“People began to realize it was so much better to have someone with you” on the field, says Mr. Katayama.

Japan, long known for its resistance to mass immigration, is gradually starting to use more foreigners — known as gaikokujin roudousha in Japanese — to solve its labor shortage. They are taking up jobs in rural areas where industries such as agriculture and textiles are struggling. Big companies are filling their factories with foreigners to assemble auto parts and flat-panel TVs. In cities, foreign workers serve meals at restaurants and stock shelves at grocery stores.

The 2005 census found Japan had 770,000 foreign workers, or 1.3% of its working population, up from 604,000 and 0.9% a decade earlier. That is still a far cry from the U.S., which has 22 million foreign-born workers, or 15% of the labor force. Nonetheless, for Japan it’s a big change.

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Resistance to allowing in foreign workers runs strong in this island nation, where virtually everyone speaks Japanese and shares a similar ethnic and cultural background. From 1639 to 1854, Japan banned nearly all foreigners from entering the country. The only major immigration in modern times came before and during World War II, when several million Koreans came to Japan. At the time, Korea was a Japanese colony.

Even today, many Japanese believe that the country’s relatively homogenous population and common values contribute to a low crime rate and economic strength. But as the country is swept by drastic changes in its population and economy, Japanese are shaking off some of their traditional views. In a 2005 government public-opinion survey, 56% of respondents said Japan should accept unskilled foreign workers either unconditionally or if certain conditions are met. Only 26% said they were opposed to the idea under any circumstance.

Cut Off From Mainstream

The foreign workers currently don’t present an economic threat because they tend to do jobs that Japanese workers don’t want, such as agriculture and construction work. And many are dotted around the country in small, rural communities which are cut off from mainstream society.

What’s more, in a country where the public is strongly aware of demographic trends, many see foreign workers as inevitable in the long run. Because of the falling birth rate, Japan’s working-age population peaked in 1995 and is now falling. Demographers forecast that the number of working-age Japanese — aged 15 to 64 — will drop 15% by 2025 from 84.6 million in 2005. The drop will be especially sharp over the next few years as people born during Japan’s 1947-49 baby boom turn 60, the official retirement age at many companies.

The Japanese government has kept a tight grip on foreigners and their activities. While officially keeping the door closed, it has permitted numerous loopholes that enable hundreds of thousands of foreigners to come and work in Japan every year, mostly on a temporary basis — a strategy that some call a “backdoor policy.”

The young men in Akehama, for example, aren’t technically employed as workers. They are among 140,000 “trainees” brought to Japan under a three-year government-approved program that is supposed to teach them skills that they will take back to their countries. Some trainees are paid just $2.50 an hour, around half the lowest of Japan’s minimum wages, which vary by region.

In addition, some 100,000 foreigners with student visas are allowed to work part-time, and most do so at low-wage jobs in convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. And about 300,000 descendants of Japanese who emigrated to South America more than 50 years ago now live and work in Japan, granted visas as relatives of Japanese citizens.

This quiet, backdoor policy could backfire if the number of foreigners swells quickly or workers start competing for more mainstream, blue-collar jobs. Already the media has played up a rise in crime committed by foreigners. Serious offenses by foreigners such as robbery and rape are up 67% over the past 10 years although the absolute number of such crimes remains low.

At least one high-profile politician, Shintaro Ishihara, governor of the Tokyo metropolitan region, has made a name for himself with verbal attacks on foreigners, saying foreigners “are carrying out extremely heinous crimes.” In a sign that many Japanese welcome his outspoken style, he was elected to a third four-year term on April 8.

The Japan Association of Corporate Executives, a powerful business lobby that supports allowing more foreign workers in Japan, projected that by 2050, foreigners would exceed 6.1% of Japan’s working-age population — the current level in France, and nearly five times the current level.

“By not calling these people workers and leaving things vague in a typical Asian fashion, the Japanese government retains tremendous control over the situation for now,” says Bui Chi Trung, a sociology professor from Vietnam at Aichi Shukutoku University near Nagoya. But without a clearer definition of the role of foreigners in the work force, he says, the issue may lead to social instability. “Japan may pay dearly for this policy,” he says.

First Opening

The first big opening for foreign workers came in the booming late 1980s, when Japan allowed tens of thousands of Iranians to come on tourist visas — after which they stayed on, illegally, to work. When the economy slowed, the government made Iranian visitors meet the tighter entry requirements already required for people from most developing nations.

A more significant experiment involved Latin Americans of Japanese descent. In 1990, the government made it clear that most descendants of Japanese emigrants — in particular the children and grandchildren of those who left to work as farmers in Brazil during the first half of the 20th century — were free to work in Japan for as long as they wished.

Officially, the reason was unrelated to a labor shortage. “It was just a natural thing to take back the descendants of Japanese people who had left a while ago and now wanted to come back,” says Saori Fujita, an immigration policy planner at the ministry of justice.

As Japan’s auto industry thrived — and developed a labor shortage — in the early 2000s, the large Brazilian community around Toyota City became a vital part of the labor force.

Aisin Seiki Co., which supplies Toyota Motor Corp. with parts such as transmissions, employs about 1,700 Brazilians among its 6,000 factory workers. The company has found it hard to recruit new Japanese workers, who increasingly shun factory jobs. Most Brazilian workers are hired on a contract basis, which means they can be laid off more easily in a downturn — or if Aisin decides to move more production overseas. “Aisin was taking on fewer new employees” during Japan’s long downturn in the 1990s, says Ryuichiro Yamada, a human-resources personnel manager. In this decade, “when business boomed, we didn’t have enough people.”

Because many of the Brazilians don’t speak Japanese well, they generally do routine tasks that require less explanation, such as preparing products for shipment. Aisin employs 20 interpreters and has translated essential notices and manuals into Portuguese.

Though most Brazilians intended to stay just a few years to make quick money, many are deciding to remain in Japan. That means Japan is acquiring its first foreign-language community since it brought over Koreans to work in factories during World War II.

A public-housing complex in Toyota City called Homi Estate was built in the 1970s to house workers at Toyota’s parts suppliers. Now, 45% of the roughly 9,000 residents are South American, predominantly Brazilian. A Japanese supermarket on the estate closed down last year and a shopping center owned by a Brazilian took over the premises.

Japanese residents complained at first about the loud music young Brazilians played and the motorbikes they allegedly stole. But they eventually realized the Brazilians were there to stay, and made an effort to educate them in Japan-style living.

“You have to talk to them one-to-one,” says Kinuyo Miyagawa, 59, a long-term Homi resident who is active in the local residents association. She explained Japan’s elaborate process of putting out the trash on particular days for different categories, such as burnables and items for recycling.

More recently, foreign workers have expanded to include fruit pickers, scallop packers and garment-factory workers. They support struggling businesses in rural Japan where the population is declining rapidly as young people move to cities.

Most of these workers have arrived under the government-sponsored trainee system, originally created to allow big companies to train their overseas staffers in Japan, and gradually expanded to include small companies with a labor shortage. Last year, Japan brought in 68,305 trainees — twice the number in 2001. The trainees initially receive a one-year visa, and they can extend their stay for an additional two years. Most choose to do so. Once their three years are up, they can’t get a trainee visa again.

Factories Keep Going

The 53 garment factories in Ehime prefecture in western Japan, known for its towel and garment manufacturing in the 1960s, have been clobbered by cheap imports from the rest of Asia. They keep going thanks to some 300 trainees from China, who work at 36 of these factories — all of them small companies with a few dozen employees — where they sew skirts, blouses and school uniforms. The trainees are paid a little over $500 a month. Employers say they cost about the same as Japanese workers after paying for their room and board, training and travel expenses. Still, with so few Japanese workers willing to join the industry, factory owners even charter flights from China to bring them over.

The local industry association is now demanding that the government allow foreign workers to come in more freely. “We want the government to do away with this nonsense and create a system where people who want to come back are allowed to do so,” says Kohji Murakami, chairman of the association. “We need foreign workers, and we need them right now.”

Of course, problems inevitably arise. Trainees can’t change employers, and during their first year are not protected by Japanese labor laws. Last September, a 26-year-old Chinese trainee on a pig farm near Tokyo boycotted work after a pay dispute. A representative of the staffing agency that brought him to Japan arrived at the farm to send him back to China. The trainee then stabbed him to death, according to a police spokeswoman.

In December, a Chinese woman trainee in her thirties filed a civil suit against the host organization that brought her to Japan and its representative. The woman alleged she was raped many times by the head of the host organization, who had a key to her dormitory room. The organization fully admitted the allegations and settled out of court in February.

The government says it is planning to revise the system, including possibly allowing trainees to stay longer than the current three-year maximum. Officials have yet to agree on the details.

Many young workers are eager to come to Japan, attracted by wages that are higher than they are back home. Rimando Sitam, a Filipino who has worked on an Akehama citrus farm for two years, has a college degree in teaching but couldn’t find work at home. The 29-year-old sends home much of his monthly salary of $500. That covers more than half the living expenses of his parents and six siblings, who live on a small vegetable farm.

“So many farmers want to be trainees in Japan because we have no work in the Philippines,” says Mr. Sitam. “I want to stay here much longer or come back again if I can.” When his training period in Japan ends, Mr. Sitam is hoping to find a factory job in South Korea.

Mr. Katayama, the citrus farmer, likes the trainee system, as it’s helped keep his farm in business for the past few years. A powerful typhoon destroyed much of the orange crop in Akehama seven years ago, wiping out many neighboring farms. Mr. Katayama and a few of his neighbors bought some of the land so they could expand.

After failing to recruit young Japanese workers, the Akehama citrus farmers decided to try foreign workers, following the example of farmers in a nearby town. They recently set up their own recruiting agency to bring over new trainees. Most come from Benguet, a province in northern Luzon in the Philippines, where farms are struggling to compete with imports of Chinese vegetables. Akehama currently hosts eight trainees — two Vietnamese women and six Filipinos. Shipbuilding companies in a nearby town also employ some Filipino trainees.

“American farmers use Mexican workers to run their farms,” says Mr. Katayama. “So we said, why couldn’t we Japanese farmers use foreigners too?”


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