WHEN Sakura no Mori hospital and care home in Kawaguchi, 20km north of Tokyo, hired its first foreign workers six years ago, some of the patients would shout “gaijin” (“foreigner”) to summon them; others were wary of having anything to do with them at all. Today Verlian Oktravina, a 26-year-old Indonesian nurse, says the Japanese she works with are more curious than hostile. Yoko Yamashita, the director of the care home, says patients can see that foreign workers are as good as Japanese ones: “They accept them.” She herself, she admits, was initially sceptical about hiring immigrants, but has since changed her mind.

Acceptance of foreign labour is gradually increasing in Japan, one of the world’s most homogenous countries, where only 2% of residents are foreigners, compared with 16% in France and 4% in South Korea. A poll conducted last year found opinion evenly split about whether Japan should admit more foreign workers, with 42% agreeing and 42% disagreeing. Some 60% of 18-29-year-olds, however, were in favour, double the share of over-70s.

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Whatever Japanese think of them, foreign workers have become a fact of life, at least in cities. There are 1.3m of them, some 2% of the workforce—a record. Although visas that allow foreigners to settle in Japan are in theory available only to highly skilled workers for the most part, in practice less-skilled foreigners are admitted as students or trainees. The number of these has been rising fast. Almost a third of foreign workers are Chinese; Vietnamese and Nepalese are quickly growing in number.

More gaijin are on their way. In June the government announced that it would create a “designated skills” visa in order to accept 500,000 new workers by 2025, in agriculture, construction, hotels, nursing and shipbuilding. More significant than the number, perhaps, is the government’s willingness to admit lower-skilled workers openly, rather than through the back door. “It is not the Berlin Wall coming down, but it is a significant shift,” says David Chiavacci of the University of Zurich.

Help wanted

Pressure from business lies behind the change in attitudes, both societal and official. Over the past 20 years the number of workers below 30 has shrunk by a quarter. In addition, the ageing population is creating jobs that few Japanese want at the wages on offer, most notably as carers. There are 60% more job vacancies than there are people looking for work. Industries such as agriculture, construction and nursing are increasingly dependent on foreigners. Some 8% of Sakura no Mori’s staff are foreign, as are 7% of workers at 7 Eleven, Japan’s biggest convenience-store chain.

More exposure to foreigners, through tourism, has reassured Japanese that they can get along with them, reckons Hidenori Sakanaka, a former immigration official who now heads the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, a think-tank, and has long advocated widespread immigration. Fears that more foreigners would bring more crime have proved unfounded (although many landlords still refuse to rent to them).

Attracting the foreign workers Japan needs will not necessarily be easy. Language is a big barrier. Highly skilled immigrants, for whom the government has made it easier to get permanent residency, reducing the required period of residence from five years to one, are not required to speak Japanese. But only a handful of companies, such as Rakuten, an e-commerce giant, work in English. Lowlier workers must pass a Japanese exam and are not allowed to bring their families, even under the new “designated skills” visa.

Business practices are another barrier. Workers on student and trainee visas are vulnerable to exploitation. Firms where promotion is based on seniority rather than merit and where long hours are the norm will find it hard to attract workers.

Japan also needs to do more to help integrate foreigners, says Iki Tanaka, who runs Youth Support Centre Global School, a private institute in Fussa, a city of 60,000 people west of Tokyo. A teacher at the school is coaching a group of foreign students, including Nepalese and Filipinos, in Japanese. The goal is to get them into state secondary school.

Ms Tanaka suspects that the government makes little effort to help foreigners integrate because it does not really want them to stay. It requires many of those already present to renew their visas frequently, for example. The case of nikkeijin, immigrants of Japanese extraction, is instructive. They have the right to move to Japan based on family ties and so provide an easy way around the restrictions on low-skilled migrants.

In theory they should be easy to integrate; many are familiar with the culture and speak some Japanese. In practice, however, the government has made no effort to help them. The children of nikkeijin do worse in school than those of other immigrants. The clearest sign of the government’s ambivalence came in 2008, when the economy took a turn for the worse and unemployment rose. It offered nikkeijin free flights and other subsidies to move back to their home countries if they promised not to return.

Accepting mainly skilled workers has allowed Japan to get away without any integration policy until now, says Mr Chiavacci. But as the number of immigrants rises, and especially as more low-skilled workers are admitted, this omission threatens to bring about some of the very concerns that prompted the government to restrict immigration in the first place, such as ghettoisation and poverty. “With the right policies, we could transform ourselves from the weirdest nation in the world on immigration to a model for how to do it,” muses Mr Sakanaka.

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