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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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