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Japan: Help wanted, foreigners need not apply
By Jamie Miyazaki

HAMAMATSU, Japan - Surrounded by small farms growing green tea and oranges, this city 230 kilometers west of Tokyo is an unlikely spot to belie the widespread claim that Japan does not accept unskilled foreign laborers. Hamamatsu, however, is home to one of the largest populations of foreigners in the country.

Of the city's 590,000 residents, about 18,000 of them are foreigners. And unlike the lawyers, bankers and executives that flock to Tokyo, most of Hamamatsu's residents are not well-heeled Western professionals but unskilled Brazilian immigrants. Many of them are the descendants of the diaspora community of Japanese who went to Brazil after World War II in search of a better life. Now some of them have returned to Hamamatsu to work low-paid manufacturing jobs like unskilled immigrant laborers the world over. Walk around some neighborhoods and you are more likely to hear Portuguese being spoken than the local dialect of Japanese.

Hamamatsu's large immigrant worker base makes it unusual in Japan, but the town may offer a glimpse of the country's labor force in 10 or 15 years.

Officially, Japan has maintained a tough line on foreign workers dividing them into two categories: specialized professionals with technical skills, and unskilled laborers. While the door to professionals is open, the government is not handing out visas to unskilled laborers, at least not publicly. The rationale is that unskilled immigrants could trigger a deterioration in labor conditions and a rise in crime.

The Japanese government has begun to acknowledge, though, that changes in the workforce will be inevitable. At the beginning of October a Foreign Ministry panel urged the government to accept more unskilled labor from abroad.

Today foreign workers account for only 1% of the Japanese workforce, compared with 10% in the United States. However, this might change over the coming years. Japan's graying population is facing a swelling deficit of workers. A report last year by Keidanren, the influential Japanese business lobby, forecast a labor shortfall of 6.1 million workers in the next decade, with agriculture and nursing being hit especially hard.

All this has the business community worried, and with the brutal and dismal taskmaster of economics hanging over it, Keidanren has repeatedly urged the government to ease restrictions on unskilled foreign laborers. In April it released a report calling for the creation of a minister of foreigners' affairs in an effort to make Japan more receptive to foreign workers.

The Japanese public, however, remains cautious, especially to the prospect of any influx of unskilled workers. While the public may acknowledge the gestating worker shortage crisis, it isn't willing yet to grasp the nettle.

A poll by the Keizai Koho Center in July found that 45% of respondents said employing foreign workers would be an acceptable solution to any labor shortfall - only if all other means of solving the problem had been exhausted.

Japan certainly hasn't exhausted its other options yet. It could do a lot more to exploit its largely underutilized female workforce and its growing legion of elderly who are discouraged from working once they start receiving their pensions.

But even if Japan embraced these options, it would still face a labor shortfall, especially in unskilled workers. It is, after all, unlikely that many Japanese pensioners and women will be queuing up to work in the construction, low-end manufacturing and agricultural sectors even if given plenty of opportunities to do so. Tellingly, the same Keizai Koho Center poll found that 70% of respondents expressed support for relying on immigrants in the farm, construction and manufacturing sectors.

Yet as the Brazilians of Hamamatsu demonstrate, these unskilled foreign laborers actually are already in Japan and working in just these sectors - just not in sufficient numbers. Of the 800,000 foreign workers in Japan, nearly three-quarters are thought to be unskilled; 200,000 of these are thought to be illegal. A further 60,000 foreigners are officially on "trainee" visas, although there have been frequent accusations that many of these trainees are being used as a source of cheap labor.

Increasingly, there are calls for foreign workers in agriculture and in dying, uncultivated rural areas. The great irony is that agriculture is one of the most heavily protected industries in Japan, and some elements of the farmers' lobby are now considering using foreign laborers from many of the countries that government tariff barriers are designed to shield them from.

Still, the current Asian craze for free-trade agreements (FTAs) has also put Tokyo under pressure to open its doors to foreigner workers from prospective FTA partners. Thailand has been pushing Japan to open its doors to Thai masseuses; South Korea wants its doctors to be recognized. And generating most headlines and heat, the Philippines has called on Japan to let its nurses and unskilled laborers work in the country.

By any measure, Japan is in need of nurses and caregivers for hospitals and old people's homes. Twelve hospitals and elder-care homes have already asked to be awarded special reform zone status and allowed to employ foreign nurses and caregivers. The Nikkei newspaper estimates that nearly two-fifths of retirement and nursing-care facilities suffer from a shortage of caregivers.

But only a limited number of foreign nurses are allowed to work in Japan at this time, and the few that do can only work for a maximum of four years, and for the purpose of "on-the-job training". Foreign caregivers on the other hand are prohibited totally from coming to Japan to work.

Unsurprisingly, the Philippines is eager to satisfy this demand for nurses and caregivers. It churns out upwards of 8,000 nurses a year and many of these nurses wind up in such far-flung locales as Saudi Arabia, the United States and the United Kingdom, and they provide a large chunk of the estimated US$7 billion that overseas Filipino workers remit home annually.

It would be fair to say that when it comes to cheap workers, the cheap, energetic Philippines has a comparative advantage over expensive, graying Japan. Unfortunately, comparative advantage counts for rather less than electoral advantage for Japan's ruling Liberal Democrat Party, which is not keen to upset the traditional, conservative voters.

For while many Japanese may be warming to the idea of immigrants to fill jobs in construction, low-end manufacturing and agriculture, they are less sure about opening up the doors to foreigners in the service sector. The issue of cultural dilution and integrity, they feel, is at stake. Thirty-four percent of the respondents to the Keizai Koho Center poll were opposed to opening up nursing to foreign workers. And the government has been lukewarm about opening the gates to a flood of unskilled Filipino workers.

But where there is a will there is a way, and if the Japanese public remains unconvinced about letting in an influx of foreign workers to make up for its graying workforce, then the people flow can always run the other way. The Philippines and Malaysia have gone on the offensive and started wooing Japanese retirees to spend their sunset years in their Southeast Asian countries, marketing their proximity to Japan, their lower living costs and their many willing caregivers who work for very little.

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Oct 22, 2004
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