Can Japan Embrace Multiculturalism?

Appears to be a good overview of the challenges and welcome any comments from those with experience in Japan:

In April 2019, Japan officially opened its doors to lower-skilled foreign workers under a major revision of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act. The creation of the Specified Skills visa program for blue-collar and other workers represents a historic change in Japanese immigration policy. But questions linger as to whether Japanese society, often described as insular and homogeneous, is prepared to welcome foreign residents and facilitate their participation on an equal footing.

Can Japan Become More Open?

I was confronted by such questions when I traveled to Cairo last December, at the behest of the Japan Foundation, to speak in Parliament and at Cairo University. “Do you think Japanese society can change and become less insular?” I was asked. “Isn’t the government just admitting foreign workers to do the jobs Japanese people don’t want any more?”

These are legitimate concerns. The Japanese have a reputation for looking down on nonwhites from other countries. Moreover, the recent deterioration in diplomatic relations between Japan and its neighbors, China and South Korea, has affected popular sentiment regarding the citizens of those nations. The far-right Japan First Party attracted considerable media attention during the unified local elections of 2019 with its anti-Korean, anti-immigration rhetoric (though the party has yet to win a seat at the local or national level).

It should be stressed that one rarely encounters such extreme forms of bigotry among ordinary Japanese people. Foreign students and trainees from Asia and elsewhere have entered Japan by the tens of thousands over the past two decades and have become a familiar sight behind the counters of convenience stores. Almost everyone in the local community views them positively, as intrepid, hard-working young people coping with the demands of life far from home. Increasingly, the Japanese people are coming to see that their society will need foreigners if it is to continue functioning as the native population dwindles and ages.

However, there is no doubt that foreign residents face serious challenges adapting to life in Japan, and that much remains to be done to ensure that our new immigration system works. In the following, I review some of the steps taken thus far before spotlighting the key issues demanding action.

Community-Driven Change

Until quite recently, the central government has done very little from a policy standpoint to assist foreigners living in Japan or promote their integration into society. On the other hand, local governments and nonprofit organizations have been working hard to fill the gap at the regional and community level. The municipal governments of Nagoya and Kitakyūshū and the Nagano prefectural government have set aside an annual “multicultural month” devoted to educating the public about cultural diversity and tolerance. In terms of legislation, Miyagi Prefecture has led the way with its Ordinance Pertaining to the Promotion of the Formation of a Multicultural Society , aimed at “building a community that upholds the human rights and social participation of all prefectural residents regardless of nationality or ethnicity.” The government has established a support center and other multilingual resources for foreign nationals and holds regular social events bringing together Japanese residents and foreigners living and working in the prefecture under the Technical Intern Training Program (see below). Shizuoka Prefecture has passed a similar ordinance.

Hate speech is an important target of efforts to promote tolerance. The central government made some attempt to address the issue with the 2016 Act on the Promotion of Efforts to Eliminate Unfair Discriminatory Speech and Behavior against Persons Originating from Outside Japan, although it fell short of criminalizing such behavior. Osaka enacted its own ordinance against hate speech in the same year, and in December 2019, Kawasaki became the first municipality to pass an ordinance that makes hate speech a punishable offense.

In Shinjuku, a municipality in central Tokyo with a large foreign population, a community council was established by local ordinance with the aim of building a more harmonious and livable community for Japanese and foreign residents alike. The Shinjuku Multicultural Community Building Committee, of which I am chair, holds regular meetings where representatives of various ethnic groups freely share their experiences and opinions. In this way, we are working to shed light on and improve the living conditions of Shinjuku’s growing population of foreign nationals.

Discrimination in Daily Life

As part of its effort to build a harmonious multicultural community, Shinjuku has conducted an extensive questionnaire survey of its foreign and Japanese residents. The results of the 2015 survey help to highlight the challenges facing newcomers to Japanese society as they attempt to lay the basic foundations for daily life, from renting an apartment to opening a bank account.

The 2015 Shinjuku survey asked foreign residents how frequently they felt subject to discrimination or prejudice in their dealings with Japanese. A full 35% responded that “it happens sometimes,” and another 7.5% reported that “it happens often.” More than half of these (51.9%), the largest number, identified “apartment hunting” as a situation in which they encountered discrimination. The second most frequently cited situation was “looking for a job” (33.2%), followed by “administrative procedures” (25.6%).

Comments in the “free response” section of the survey reveal a wide range of impressions. A woman from Myanmar had nothing but praise for Shinjuku, declaring that, in her seven months in Japan, everyone she had dealt with, from municipal officials to hospital and school employees, had treated her and her family courteously and kindly and that she had seen no evidence of discrimination. However, another woman lamented that her husband had been turned away time and again when searching for an apartment for the sole reason that he did not speak Japanese. She called on municipal authorities to publish local housing guides for foreigners.

Overcoming the Language Barrier

The language barrier is cited time and again as an obstacle to integration with the local community. In the 2015 survey, 58.6% of respondents reported experiencing difficulties with the Japanese language. “Reading newspapers and notices” was the problem most frequently cited (49.3%), followed by “understanding instructions from municipal officials and hospital staff” (46.6%) and “ordinary conversation” (37.6%). Among the comments in the free-response section were calls for multilingual editions of the Guide to Living in Shinjuku and other publications. “It’s very common to find oneself in violation of the rules simply because one can’t read Japanese,” commented one Chinese woman. Others called for expansion of the Japanese language classes sponsored by the municipal government. “One class a week is not enough to master Japanese,” said a Chinese woman, adding that “lessons focused on Japanese used in daily life would be ideal.”

The language barrier can be a serious issue for children as well as adults. Lack of proficiency in Japanese often leads to poor achievement and social isolation at school. Indeed, just “looking like a foreigner” can provoke bullying in many cases. Some parents transfer their children to international school to protect them, but for many the tuition is prohibitive. Children who are bullied or shunned at school are apt to drop out and grow up undereducated, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and isolation.

In December 2018, in conjunction with the revised immigration law, the government announced a package of “comprehensive measures for acceptance and coexistence of foreign nationals.” Under the policy, the government, recognizing foreign residents as members of the community, has allocated ¥21.1 billion for measures to promote inclusion and integration. In June 2019, it enacted the Act for the Promotion of Japanese Language Education, which explicitly recognizes the government’s responsibility to provide language instruction to foreigners living in Japan. These are important steps forward.

Closing the Back Door

Unfortunately, the “comprehensive measures” do not have the force of law and do not guarantee the rights of foreign residents. The lack of guarantees is particularly alarming in light of the continued expansion of the Technical Intern Training Program, which has been widely criticized for opening the door to human rights abuses and illegal immigration.

Established in 1993, the TITP has served for years now as a backdoor for foreign workers, who are recruited from other Asian countries ostensibly for training purposes. Admitted for a limited stay, the “interns” are assigned to farms, factories, and construction firms in need of cheap labor. They work at minimum wage and are not permitted to change jobs. Human-rights abuses have been reported, and some 9,000 of the interns have gone missing, according to the latest government figures.

As of fiscal year 2018, approximately 80,000 foreign trainees were entering Japan each year under the program. Recently, the number of interns assigned to workplaces in Kyūshū and Shikoku has spiked as labor shortages worsen in those outlying regions. There is good cause to worry that these workers, denied such basic rights as fair wages and freedom of movement, will encounter hardship and discrimination as they pour into communities that have little prior experience with foreigners. The result could be more disappearances and visa overstays, as well as potential public safety problems. What we need is a fundamental law on the status and rights of foreign residents in Japan.

“One Team” for Japan’s Future

During the 2019 Rugby World Cup, held in Japan under the motto “One Team,” the multinational, racially diverse Japanese rugby team thrilled and inspired fans with its historic advance to the top eight. Overcoming their differences to achieve a common goal, the Brave Blossoms offered a shining example for Japanese society to follow in the coming years.

Japan’s population is declining at a rate of nearly 500,000 a year. The number of foreign residents is increasing at a rate of about 200,000, and that growth is expected to pick up.

The future of Japanese society hinges on our ability to adapt our systems and our attitudes to these new realities. The government needs to send a clear message about its commitment to building an inclusive society in which foreign and Japanese nationals can live and work together harmoniously.

(Originally published in Japanese.

Source: Can Japan Embrace Multiculturalism?

As 2020 Olympics Approach, Japan’s Treating Foreign Workers Like Indentured Labor

Frightening comparable to  Qatar with the 2022 FIFA World Cup and other Gulf states where passports and other documentation are held by employers:

As Japan ages and the population declines it needs foreign workers more than ever, but it’s unlikely to get them when employers can snatch your passport and keep it, even after you quit—leaving you in legal limbo.It all seems like something that you’d expect to happen in a dodgy part of the Middle East, but nope, it’s happening in the Land of Omotenashi, where everyone is putting on a friendly face with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on the horizon.

Foreign tourists with money are very welcome. Foreign laborers? Not so much. Yet they are needed. The Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) union published a report last year, The Dark Side of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, claiming that laborers—many of them foreign—already are being overworked and exposed to dangerous conditions. There simply aren’t enough Japanese to do the jobs that need to be done.

Even if all the sporting venues, new hotels, and housing for the Olympics are completed in time for the start of the games in July, staffing those facilities adequately may be a colossal challenge.

There’s even concern there won’t be enough security staff to police the venues, and the Japanese government is considering asking Japan’s Self Defense Forces to do the job. But soldiers can’t take up the slack elsewhere.

Japan’s Cabinet Office announced last year that the nation has a shortage of about 1.2 million workers, primarily in the construction, agriculture, fishing and hotel industries. Teikoku Data Bank lists 10 major industries in Japan that already are short on labor, not only in construction, but in the automobile industry and information technology.

Perhaps that is why Japan is willing to look the other way when laws get bent, as long as empty workbenches are filled. But Japan’s rep among potential recruits is such that many are discouraged from coming here. The abuse of foreign workers often occurs within the antiquated laws of this country, and the Japanese government seems to have no interest in solving the problem.


On Thursday, a Filipino woman, with the financial aid and support of the independent nonprofit called POSSE, which supports labor issues here, sued her employer in the Yokohama District Court. She is requesting the return of her confiscated passport and her graduation certificate, as well as financial compensation. Without her passport, she cannot find a new job or leave the country. Her employer, ironically, is an Immigration Law Firm in Yokohama.

According to the lawsuit and her lawyers, “Brenda”—who has asked us not to use her name, lest she be branded a troublemaker when she seeks future employment—arrived in Japan in 2017. After finishing Japanese language school, she began working for the law office in Yokohama in April of 2019.

“If I give you your documents, you’ll run away.”
— Brenda’s Japanese employer

Brenda was asked to give her employer the documents necessary to process her visa paperwork, and she signed a contract that allowed her boss to “manage” these materials. She did interpreting, translating Tagalog into English, and other secretarial work for the firm. However, when she was paid after the first month she discovered her entire salary was under 100,000 yen (about $900), well below the cost of living. That was half of what she had been promised. She tried to quit the firm, but her boss refused to give her back her papers, saying, “If I give you your documents, you’ll run away.”

Eventually, in early July she did resign, but the firm still refused to give her back her passport. She went to POSSE, which is known for helping young workers, students and foreign laborers.

Makoto Iwahashi, a staff member there, says that when they went to the law office with Brenda to talk to her employer, he refused to cooperate and yelled at them to leave.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” says Iwahashi. “In order to make non-Japanese work long hours for very little pay without quitting, a number of companies confiscate their employees’ passports.” Many foreign workers complain about poor conditions, wage arrears, workplace injuries, and unfair dismissal, he said, but regulations to protect the rights of foreign workers are far behind where they need to be.”

“This is, after all, a country where Karoshi (death by overwork) is a word everybody knows.”
— Shoichi Ibusuki, labor rights lawyer

“Many workers speak little Japanese,” says Iwahashi, which is a major handicap. “They are afraid to speak up or report the harsh conditions.”

Iwahashi notes that in many countries withholding an employee’s passport is against the law. The Immigration Bureau of Japan says there is nothing illegal about an employer keeping the passport of a foreign worker who is not under the technical trainee program. The Labor Ministry of Japan has issued guidelines discouraging employers from holding onto passports, but there are no penalties for violators.

If Japan wants to attract the large number of workers it needs, says Iwahashi, it’s going to have to do a better job protecting their rights.

Brenda told The Daily Beast, “I had heard stories about foreign workers being treated badly in Japan, but I never expected it from an Immigration Law Office. I guess because they know the law, they know they can get away with it.” She said she feels like an untethered kite in the wind, unable to find work because now she doesn’t have the necessary paperwork to apply for a job, and unable to leave Japan because she does not yet have a new passport, or her old one back.

Still, Brenda is a little lucky. POSSE is paying for the lawsuit and soliciting funds for the court case, which may take up to two years. “Even if the embassy reissues my passport, I’m going to fight this. I will stay and I will work and I will fight. I’m surely not the first foreigner in Japan to suffer this treatment, but I would like to be the last one.”

Brenda’s former employer, the Yokohama legal firm, has not yet responded to requests for comment, despite phone calls, letters, and emails.

Shoichi Ibusuki, the noted labor rights lawyer representing Brenda, says that it’s very rare to sue for the return of a passport in Japan. Most employers would simply return the passport rather than go to court. “But then again very few foreigners would ever be able to take their employers to court in the first place.”

The road to restitution and fair treatment for foreign workers is long and hard; the odds of winning are not on their side.


“In 2015, I was able to gain back wages from one surly employer of a foreign agricultural worker,” says Ibusuki, “but I had to get a court order to seize 1,000 chickens and their eggs, in lieu of compensation.”

At that point the recalcitrant employer chickened out, as it were, and paid up what he owed—after what had been more than a court battle of more than two years.

Partly for cultural reasons, Japan has never been a model nation when it comes to labor laws and worker protections. This is, after all, a country where Karoshi (death by overwork) is a word everybody knows. Japan’s working hours are some of the longest in the world, according to the International Labor Organization, despite numerous attempts at reform.

It may be a lot to expect a country notoriously unfriendly to labor conditions with its own people to integrate foreign labor successfully, and the history is not encouraging.

In the old days, Japan solved labor shortages in part by conquering Korea or parts of China and integrating them into the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. This doesn’t work so well anymore, but the archaic labor laws have not advanced far from this “golden era” when labor was synomous with slavery.

Modern-day servitude in Japan is more subtle, and a prime example of how it works is the Technical Intern Training Program. It started in 1993 and has come under fire repeatedly  as a breeding ground for the exploitation of foreign labor.

“The ultimate virtue of a Japanese worker: endure silently and work long, long, long hours for low pay.”
— Yoshihisa Saito, an associate professor at Kobe University

The Japan Times in an editorial, “Overhaul Foreign Trainee Program”, bluntly stated that a large number of trainees “are in fact used as cheap labor under abusive conditions.”

“Japanese labor laws are deeply flawed and outdated, unfit to protect Japanese workers, much less foreign workers,” says Yoshihisa Saito, an associate professor at Kobe University Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies. He notes that while there appears to have been progress made in integrating foreigners into the workplace, most of these advances are merely cosmetic. Saito emphasizes, “There are a multitude of legal ways that a Japanese company can keep a non-Japanese employee in servitude, other than simply taking their passport.”

In the end, Saito points out, the Japanese system for recruiting “is not about measuring skill but measuring endurance. Japanese companies want people who have gone through and completed spartan training programs, who make no complaints, and can build pleasant relationships at their workplace. This is seen as the ultimate virtue of a Japanese worker—endure silently and work long, long, long hours for low pay.”

Japan is a lovely place to visit as a foreign tourist. But currently if you want to work at Hotel Japan as a foreign laborer, you will need to check your human rights and your passport at the front desk.

You can’t change hotels and, to paraphrase The Eagles, while you can check out anytime you like, you may not be able to leave.

Source: As 2020 Olympics Approach, Japan’s Treating Foreign Workers Like Indentured Labor

Plain Japanese key to inclusive, multicultural Japan


With Japan hosting increasing numbers of foreign visitors and residents, plain Japanese is spreading as a means of more inclusive communication in various situations, from disasters to tourism.

“Every language must be respected, and when we communicate with people who don’t speak Japanese, responding in their native language should be a priority,” said Akira Yoshikai, head of Yasashii Nihongo Tourism Kenkyukai, a group which promotes plain Japanese and its potential in tourism.

“But when it’s not practical to do so at an individual level, plain Japanese could be another option,” he said.

Plain Japanese targets those who can use the language to navigate things like shopping and making plans with their friends, according to a plain Japanese research group at Hirosaki University in northeastern Japan’s Aomori Prefecture.

It uses all three components of the Japan writing system — hiragana, katakana and kanji Chinese characters — but at a level of second- or third-grade elementary school students.

Also, for ease of understanding, sentences can be written completely in hiragana. Hiragana can also appear above Chinese characters, called furigana, to indicate its pronunciation.

Difficult terms are often rephrased. For example, evacuation shelter would be stated as ‘a place where everyone can stay for safety.’

In Yanagawa in southwestern Japan’s Fukuoka Prefecture, the city government created in 2016 badges indicating tourists and locals who prefer to speak in plain Japanese.

The badges carry messages written in Japanese — “Plain Japanese please” for tourists and “Hosting in plain Japanese” for locals.

Yoshikai, who was involved in making the badges in Yanagawa, his hometown, said he first got the idea of utilizing plain Japanese in tourism from a conversation with his mother.

“She said she wasn’t able to talk to foreign tourists because she can’t speak English. But many of the tourists to Yanagawa were from Asia, including Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea,” Yoshikai said.

Ad agency Dentsu Inc. estimated in 2016 a total of 8 million people from the three Asian neighbors were learning Japanese, either at school or as a hobby, and over 60 percent of Japanese learners in those areas wanted to speak the language when they visit the country.

“Not many people are aware that there are so many tourists who want to speak Japanese,” he said.

Municipalities including Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture, Kagoshima Prefecture and Tokyo’s Kodaira city and Setagaya Ward have held lectures for citizens to learn about plain Japanese and how to use it in tourism.

In 2018, the number of foreign tourists to Japan surpassed 30 million for the first time, with the government aiming to welcome 40 million in 2020 when Tokyo hosts the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

In the first 11 months of 2019, about 29 million tourists visited Japan, according to the Japan National Tourism Agency. The top three places tourists came from were China, South Korea and Taiwan.

As a reference for municipalities, the Olympic and Paralympic Games preparation bureau has set up a portal site that offers information and case studies of how to provide multilingual assistance, including plain Japanese.

But many Japanese people still have a stereotype that foreigners speak English, Yoshikai said.

“The problem is not that Japanese people are not good at speaking English,” he said. “Rather, it’s that daily Japanese used by native speakers is difficult for beginners to understand.”

Some of the factors making Japanese difficult are its honorific expressions as well as its importance of context, often abbreviating constituents of sentences, according to Yoshikai, who has a teaching license for Japanese as a second language.

“Daily Japanese is difficult to deal with just by learning from textbooks,” he said. “While the government is beefing up Japanese language education, shouldn’t we, the hosting side, be doing something too?”

The number of foreign residents in Japan reached 2.73 million in 2018, up 6.6 percent from a year earlier, according to the Justice Ministry. Chinese accounted for 28.0 percent of the total, followed by South Korean at 16.5 percent and Vietnamese at 12.1 percent.

According to a survey by the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, 62.6 percent of the foreign residents in Japan said they understand Japanese, while 44 percent said they understand English.

With the government introducing a new skilled worker visa in April 2019 to bring in more foreign labor, “Japanese society will be more multicultural at a pace we have never experienced,” Yoshikai said. “Being able to use plain Japanese will be a must for native Japanese speakers.”

Plain Japanese was originally developed to provide emergency information in case of disasters, after many foreigners were troubled by a lack of information during the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake that devastated Kobe and its vicinity, killing more than 6,400.

Among foreigners in the area, for every 100 people, 2.12 were injured, while the ratio for Japanese was 0.89, according to a survey by the Urban Disaster Research Institute in Tokyo. The data suggested a lack of information increased risks for foreigners.

Usage of plain Japanese has been evolving in this area as well with the help of new technologies such as social media.

In October 2019, when Typhoon Hagibis made landfall on Japan’s main island of Honshu, a plain Japanese tweet written all in hiragana by the Nagano prefectural government went viral. The powerful typhoon left more than 90 people dead and flooded tens of thousands of homes.

The tweet, which carried the official phone number offering disaster information in 15 languages, were not only retweeted more than 40,000 times but received a number of thank-you comments, with some Twitter users even voluntarily translating the post in various languages.

“We didn’t expect this much impact,” said an official in charge of disaster response at Nagano Prefecture, one of the areas hardest hit by the typhoon. “We didn’t think it would be translated into multiple languages and we can’t be more grateful for the support.”

He said tweeting in plain Japanese was decided amid the disaster, responding to requests from followers of the prefecture’s twitter account to offer information in plain Japanese as well.

“With more people using different languages in Japan, it’s definitely necessary to give consideration to them when offering disaster information,” the official said.

Plain Japanese is not only helpful for foreigners, their children raised in Japan or Japanese returnees who spent years overseas, but also for Japanese who have a hearing disability, Yoshikai said.

Those who grew up using sign language as a major communication tool could face challenges similar to foreigners in trying to understand Japanese, whose grammar is different from that for signing, Yoshikai said.

“(Using plain Japanese) will be an opportunity for the majority of Japanese people to rethink what their language and society is like,” he said.

“When you become aware of one minority group, it makes you realize other minority groups around you,” Yoshikai said. “I hope the idea of plain Japanese leads to a society where a diverse group of people can live as they are.”

Source: Plain Japanese key to inclusive, multicultural Japan

A Crying Need for Japanese-Language Instruction Among Immigrants

Coming to terms with immigration and related integration realities:

The number of foreign residents in Japan has been growing by about 150,000 annually since 2014, reaching an all-time high of 2.8 million in 2019. At a time of mounting concern over labor shortages and other consequences of demographic aging and population decline, these newcomers—most of whom are under 30—represent a vital resource. The crucial question is whether they can build rewarding lives as productive and accepted members of Japanese society. That will depend very much on their ability to communicate in Japanese, a notoriously difficult language for foreigners to learn.

Unfortunately, it is not at all unusual to encounter foreign residents who are functionally illiterate in Japanese even after living here a decade or more. Many are ill-equipped to cope in the event of an emergency.

The Japanese government must bear much of the blame for this state of affairs. While Germany, South Korea, and many other countries sponsor semi-mandatory orientation and social integration programs, including language instruction, the Japanese government has left it to local communities to respond as they see fit with the resources at their disposal. Fortunately, that is beginning to change.

Signs of Change

The impetus for change has come from the passage in December 2018 of the amended Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, which officially opened Japan’s doors to lower-skilled foreign workers. In conjunction with the new law, the government announced a package of “comprehensive measures for acceptance and coexistence of foreign nationals.” Although this policy document does not have the force of law, it articulates a commitment by the Japanese government to support the social integration of foreign nationals. This in itself is a major step forward.

With regard to the specific issue of language training for foreigners, the measures include budget allocations for improvement and expansion of the existing “community Japanese-language education” program, which relies on local volunteers, with the goal of  ensuring access to instruction in all communities nationwide. It also earmarks funds for the development of multilingual online language-training resources to meet the diverse needs of learners.

In the spring of 2019, the Commission on Japanese-Language Education (an advisory organ under the Agency for Cultural Affairs), of which I am a member, began deliberations on specific measures aimed at improving the level of Japanese-language education in Japan. One major agenda item is the development of a national system for the certification of qualified instructors. The goal is to boost the skills and expertise of Japanese-language teachers; to enhance the prestige of the profession; and to raise the level of Japanese-language education in Japan. We are also considering steps to standardize Japanese proficiency testing and align proficiency levels with those of the Common European Framework of References for Languages.

The Responsibility of the State

Meanwhile, an even more important step forward came in June 2019 with the enactment of a new law that recognizes the government’s responsibility to offer Japanese-language education to foreigners living in Japan. The bill was drafted and submitted by a cross-partisan group of lawmakers led by former Minister of Education Nakagawa Masaharu. While cognizant of the need for far-reaching, comprehensive legislative action to facilitate integration of foreign nationals into Japanese society, Nakagawa decided to place top priority on a Japanese-language education bill in the belief that it addressed an urgent need and was likely to win broad support in the Diet.

Article 1 of the law states that the government “shall carry out comprehensive and effective measures for the promotion of Japanese-language education and thereby contribute to the creation of a dynamic, inclusive society that respects cultural diversity.”

The law’s significance consists in its stipulation that providing Japanese-language education for foreign nationals in Japan is “a responsibility of the state.” It calls for a basic policy to be drawn up by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) and approved by a cabinet decision. It also calls on local governments to draw up policies consistent with that of the central government.

Notwithstanding the recent change in the Immigration Control Act, the government of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō continues to insist that it is not adopting “immigration policies” in the sense of measures to encourage or facilitate the permanent settlement of foreigners in Japan. Amid this denial, the explicit commitment to providing Japanese-language education to foreign nationals as a foundation for their acceptance and meaningful participation in an inclusive society is a major step in the right direction.

Challenges on the Ground

But to get a real sense of the task before us, we need to heed the actual voices of foreign residents and those attempting to serve them at the community level.

The Shinjuku Multicultural Community Building Committee was established by municipal ordinance in Shinjuku, Tokyo, where foreign nationals from more than 130 different countries account for 12% of the population. The committee, which I have the honor to chair, consists of more than 20 Japanese and foreign residents representing various demographic segments of the community. The members gather once every few months to discuss the challenges and issues confronting Shinjuku’s foreign residents. In the course of chairing these meetings, I have learned a great deal about the issues surrounding Japanese-language learning and teaching in this diverse community.

The first point to understand is that most foreign residents here are genuinely eager to study Japanese but find the obstacles daunting. While Shinjuku’s international community includes corporate executives with ample time to learn the language, many other foreign residents are juggling school and work, often holding multiple jobs. Mothers with small children, likewise, have very few options when it comes to attending language classes. We need to recognize and accommodate the increasingly diverse and complex circumstances of Japan’s foreign residents.

I also hear many complaints from the teaching side. In the absence of funding from either the central or local government, community-level Japanese-language education has had to rely on volunteers. Most are middle-aged or older married women who only want to teach during daytime hours on weekdays, and more and more are retiring from their volunteer jobs. As a result, Shinjuku’s community Japanese programs suffer from an acute shortage of personnel. Nor are they equipped with the resources and expertise to meet the diverse learning needs of this growing population. The question many people are asking is whether continued reliance on volunteers is a viable option.

Foreign residents also stress the need not just for Japanese instruction but also for direct “life guidance” to equip people from other cultures with the practical skills they need to function on a daily basis. A committee member representing the Nepalese community, for example, has made the point that an increasing portion of the young Nepalese who come to Japan to study or train have no previous experience with urban living. They come from rural areas and have never even been to Kathmandu. It is essential, he argues, that such people receive a basic orientation immediately after arriving if they are to avoid the pitfalls of navigating this alien environment. Providing such orientation could head off needless trouble.

Although Shinjuku’s municipal government has prepared living guides in multiple languages, which it issues to foreign students and trainees when they arrive, it offers no orientation classes, nor am I aware of any local governments that do so. As the foreign population of Japan diversifies, the central and local governments must work together to develop and institute an orientation program for new arrivals, along with Japanese-language instruction geared to foreign nationals who must learn local customs while living and working in Japan.

A Brewing Educational Crisis

Although adequate Japanese-language instruction for adults is critical, the educational needs of foreign children today are even more pressing.

According to data published by MEXT, as of May 1, 2018, there were 50,759 students in Japanese public schools identified as needing remedial Japanese-language instruction—an increase of 6,812 from the previous survey two years earlier. A recent MEXT survey found that, of the high school students identified as requiring remedial Japanese instruction as of 2017, a full 9.6% subsequently dropped out, as compared with a 1.3% dropout rate overall. Of the students requiring remediation who graduated in 2017, only 42.2% subsequently enrolled in a university, college of technology, or other postsecondary school, as compared with 71.1% of all 2017 high school graduates. A full 18.2% of them were unemployed, as compared with a 6.7% rate overall.

Learning to speak Japanese is not the biggest linguistic challenge facing foreign schoolchildren in Japan. The biggest challenge is kanji. During their six years in elementary school, Japanese children learn to read and write more than 1,000 kanji. Foreign children who transfer into the system after the beginning of third grade are already at a serious disadvantage. Poor reading skills tend to affect academic performance in almost every subject. By fifth or sixth grade, when many Japanese schoolchildren are already attending juku or enrichment programs, foreign students often find themselves socially isolated. Bullying is also a serious problem.

In places like Tokyo and Hamamatsu (Shizuoka Prefecture), where foreign students are no longer a rarity, many teachers work extra hours coaching them to improve their Japanese skills and help them catch up academically. A few schools have even hired additional faculty and staff in order to offer pull-out classes, with interpreters providing assistance. But only a fraction of the foreign children living in Japan have access to such support.

Foreign students face a major hurdle when it comes time to take the high school entrance examinations. The test results determine what kind of high school they can attend, which in turn determines their college and career prospects. And the vast majority of foreign students must take the written examination in Japanese in direct competition with their Japanese peers. In big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, there are a few schools that offer special admissions processes for foreign students, and there are also a growing number of nonprofits and other organizations dedicated to helping those students. But again, all too few have access to those services.

As the foregoing suggests, the academic and social pressures of school education in Japan can be overwhelming for young foreign nationals. When the stress builds up, students are apt to avoid school or simply stop attending altogether. In Japan, elementary and junior high school education is compulsory only for Japanese citizens, not for the children of foreign nationals. As a consequence, when a foreign student drops out, school authorities seldom intervene.

Leaving these children uneducated and unsupervised cannot possibly be a good thing, either for them or for the community as a whole. The government needs to address this brewing crisis by drawing up a robust policy for educational support, intervention, and accommodation and implementing it rigorously at the local level in collaboration with foreign residents, NPOs, Japanese-language instructors, and others.

Leaving No One Behind

Some progressive municipalities are leading the way with their own initiatives to support the adjustment and social integration of foreign nationals living in Japan. The city of Yokohama has established the Himawari Japanese-language support center to help recently arrived children adjust to Japanese schools. Hamamatsu has launched a program to ensure that all foreign children attend school. But for most municipalities, the education of non-Japanese children is still uncharted territory.

South Korea has established Rainbow Centers at 25 locations around the country to provide basic instruction in Korean language and customs to foreign children before they enter school. By comparison, Japan has only begun to develop dedicated facilities for such purposes, and it has a long way to go in terms of training and hiring the qualified professionals—including language teachers and interpreters—needed to staff them.

The number of foreigners living in Japan is now roughly equal to the entire population of Hiroshima Prefecture. They have much to contribute to Japanese society, both culturally and economically. But that potential will go untapped in the absence of a concerted effort to develop our language-education infrastructure. Through flexible partnerships with municipalities and nonprofits, the government must actively support language and social-integration programs tailored to the needs of individual communities and fulfill its responsibility to “leave no one behind.”

Source: A Crying Need for Japanese-Language Instruction Among Immigrants

Brazilian immigrants have it hard in Japan. Could music help?

Nice story on music as a means of recognition and integration:

The three music teachers — armed with a violin, a guitar and a drum — are ready for class. But the elementary school students jump around the room, screaming and laughing.

“Quiet! Stand up straight!” one teacher shouts.

“OK,” another says. “Who remembers this song? Leticia — silence! Kenji, come on, we’re gonna make music.”

The scene plays out at a school here in Tokyo’s industrial hinterland, but all the chatter is in Portuguese. The students and teachers are Brazilian, and the music includes samba and bossa nova.

The class is part of a project called “Music Without Borders,” the brainchild of Rafael Kinoshita, a 35-year-old Brazilian who endured a difficult childhood here as an outsider and believes music can help spare his students from that kind of distress.

Japan has long considered itself the unique homeland of a single race: the Japanese. But when the economy faced an industrial labor shortage about 30 years ago, officials had no choice but to bring in foreign workers.

In 1990, the government started offering visas to descendants of Japanese immigrants to South America. Today, the more than 200,000 Brazilians living in Japan are part of a foreign community, including Koreans and Chinese, that makes up 2% of Japan’s population of 127 million. Immigration is set to increase under an expanded migrant worker program launched in April.

Kinoshita, whose paternal grandfather was Japanese, was 6 when his family arrived in 1991 and settled in Oizumi, a factory town 90 minutes from Tokyo. His parents worked in the factories, and he enrolled in Japanese public school.

It wasn’t easy.

“Even the teachers discriminated against us,” Kinoshita recalled. “If you made a mistake, the teacher would say right in the middle of the class, ‘Foreigners just don’t understand, do they?’”

Kinoshita learned Japanese within months of arriving, started karate when he was 8. But all he could think was: This is not really my country.

At 12, he discovered the violin when his family church, Megumi Baptist, started a musical group. He improved quickly and at 14 became the first Brazilian to join a local Japanese youth orchestra.

Still, like most Brazilians in Japan, he remained on the margins of society.

Immigrants are not granted Japanese citizenship even if born here, and children can face bullying in school. Brazilian schools have spread to relieve the pressure, but career opportunities remain limited for those without Japanese pedigree or native-level language skills.

Kinoshita quit school at 15 and went to work at Sanyo Electric’s sprawling plant in Oizumi. He kept playing violin at church on Sundays and took private lessons.

In time, he concluded that factory work in Japan was a dead end.

“All you have to do is be there, hammer some boxes, and you go home,” he said. “But what is it really? I’m selling my body by the hour, and I’m not imagining anything good for myself.”

In 2008, he decided to use his musical skills to show Brazilian children that life held better possibilities than making cars or air conditioners for a living. He started teaching violin in Oizumi, and things grew from there.

He now has 180 students, all from Brazilian immigrant enclaves scattered across three prefectures surrounding Tokyo.

On a Monday in July, Kinoshita is teaching at Escola Opcao, a cluster of single-story buildings wedged among rice fields along a potholed gravel road in Joso.

A green map of Brazil covers the wall of the dining room. In one classroom, a paint-splattered air conditioner blows through broken vents, and corkboard conceals a hole in the concrete wall.

The day starts with younger students, who work on rhythm and singing. Cristiano Petagna, the teacher with the guitar, leads the session. Kinoshita pitches in with violin.

After a mix of children’s tunes and traditional Brazilian songs, the morning crescendos to a rousing rendition of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” with Freddie Mercury’s voice blaring from a Bluetooth speaker while the kids provide percussion by banging rhythm sticks on the tile floor.

Then the teachers split up. Petagna takes the guitar students. Kinoshita and a third teacher, Vitor Novak, a 20-year-old Brazilian born in Japan, take the violin students to another classroom.

Kinoshita often lightens his classes with slapstick. He grabs his head and staggers in mock surprise when students make mistakes. He dances around the classroom to the music, swinging his hips and rubbing his belly, making the children laugh.

He peppers lessons with snippets of encouragement: “Why are you playing? To get better!” and “It’s good to play music that’s difficult. Easy is boring, right?”

Today, he pumps up the confidence of his middle-school violinists for a public concert in September.

“You’re gonna be famous,” he tells them. “Japanese reporters will be taking photos, saying, ‘Oh, they’re so cute!’” The kids laugh.

The group warms up with the scales, moves to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” then takes on the Brazilian standard “Asa Branca,” a favorite at Kinoshita’s concerts.

He hopes one day to attract Japanese students and create a bicultural orchestra to foster understanding between immigrants and their hosts.

“Discrimination is everywhere. Why? Because people don’t communicate. They don’t make contact,” he says. “I want to let these children dream, and forget this thinking that nothing but the factory can bring you money.”

But money is one of Kinoshita’s biggest problems.

His fees are modest — between $18 and $36 for a month of lessons — and the low wages he can pay assistants make it hard to retain help. In the fall, Novak quit for a better-paying construction job.

Kinoshita works nights doing clerical work and giving Breathalyzer tests to drivers at a 24-hour delivery company. The round-the-clock grind — and the fast food he eats on the go — has taken a toll on his health. The married father of a 2-year-old son is already on cholesterol drugs. By year’s end, he plans to quit his night job.

“I have no choice. I need to sleep,” he said. “I can’t die — I have to take care of my family.”

That means he’ll have to raise more money to keep the project alive. He’s planning a major push this month to win over skeptical sponsors and widen the scope of the program.

He said he’s thought about quitting. No one would blame him if he closed up shop and withdrew to a factory, where many in Japan think he belongs.

But that urge vanishes when he is teaching.

In the final session of the day at Escola Opcao, he and Petagna lead kindergartners in an original song featuring the sounds of different animals.

“Which animal has a sharp voice?” Petagna asks the kids, ages 4 to 6.

“Birds!” they scream.

“And what does a lion do?” he sings.

The children respond with a roar.

At the end of the session, Kinoshita leads dozens of children in a raucous conga line around the common room, waving a speaker over his head.

“Do the samba!” he shouts. “Do the samba!”

Source: Brazilian immigrants have it hard in Japan. Could music help?

‘See beyond difference’: Japan looks to Aussie example as it opens door to foreign workers

Interesting challenges and modest expectations:

The woman tasked with repitching Japan’s strict immigration policy to open the doors to foreign workers for the first time says she wants to avoid the ‘friction’ evident in Australia’s multicultural community.

Japanese MP Yoko Kamikawa said the country has a lot to learn from Australia in ‘drafting a multicultural community’.

“I understand Australia has welcomed a lot of immigrants,” she told SBS News.

“Australia has faced several frictions coming from the difference in the cultures or religions with people from different backgrounds.

“Japan has a lot of things to learn from your country to overcome these challenges.”

Japan started rethinking it’s immigration policy last year, faced with an aging population and a shrinking labour force.

A new visa program, aiming to lure more foreign workers to Japan took effect in April, and Ms Kamikawa said it was working well so far.

But she flagged room for further improvement.

The visa covers 14 industries that need foreign workers to boost labour forces –  including food services, cleaning, construction, agriculture, fishing, vehicle repair and machine operations.

Ms Kamikawa said, so far, the number of foreign workers entering Japan would be relatively small.

“We estimate that there will be merely 350,000 foreign workers in the next five years,” she said.

“We will improve the system step by step. We are trying to make the best effort to make our system properly workable.”

But there has been resistance to the new visas.

Ms Kamikawa said while some tension was ‘inevitable’, she believed the key to a successful multicultural community was a mutual understanding.

“We have to see beyond the difference in the cultures and the religious differences, especially in the workplace and at the community level,” she said.

“We must try to study from each other and learn from each other.

“The foreign workers should study Japanese culture but at the same time, the Japanese community must understand the people with a different background, from foreign countries.

“Mutual understanding is the key and I strongly believe with mutual understanding it will lead to achieving a true multicultural society eventually.”

Ms Kamikawa said Japan was also looking at ways of ‘improving the process’ for refugee intake.

Japan has accepted just over 40 asylum seekers so far in 2019, which is already double the intake of last year.

“Japan is now looking a process of welcoming refugees and the convention relating to the status of refugees,” Ms Kamikawa said.

“We try to continue to improve these operations and we try to have more refugee intake into our society in accordance with international obligations.”

Source: ‘See beyond difference’: Japan looks to Aussie example as it opens door to foreign workers

Japan: Muted in country of their birth, three women try to find their voice

Interesting vignettes and symbolic of some of the challenges:

As Japan’s demographic sands shift, with its graying population, declining regional communities and doors inching slowly further open to immigrant workers, three young Tokyoite women are envisioning a new way forward.

One is Korean, one is Chinese and the other is Japanese, but they all want to make the country they call home a more progressive, inclusive and representative place.

All three look like they could be any other young professional walking the streets of Japan’s capital, but when they speak they demonstrate a thoughtfulness that makes it obvious they have different motivations to most.

“I think, even like a few decades ago, it would be impossible for us to be having discussions and dialogue about how we want the future of Japan to be,” says Amy Tiffany Loo, 23.

Loo, the Chinese member of the trio, says the difficult history of relations between her ancestral homeland and those of her friends — Korean Chung Woohi, 25, and Japanese Yuka Hamanaka, 23 — means any discussion about a collective future in Japan would have been out of the question not so long ago.

“Woohi is ‘zainichi’ Korean, my family has been through a lot of upheavals through the Sino-Japanese war, and Yuka, she is a Japanese national, so when we engage in conversation we always talk about how we can think and discuss issues in a way that encompasses all three sides of us,” said Loo.

“The way we view history, it is very different. Me, coming from a Chinese background whose grandparents fought Japanese forces, it is going to be a very sensitive issue.”

Their varying ancestral histories may bring them into contrast, and even conflict sometimes, but their current shared realities in the country of their birth also gives them plenty in common.

As foreigners in their own country, the issue of representation is one that is particularly important to Chung and Loo, and it led them to evaluate the issue of voting rights for non-Japanese nationals ahead of the recent upper house election.

“There is a tendency for others to simplify us or to force us into a corner,” said Loo, a graduate of University of California Berkeley and now a consultant at a large multinational professional services company.

“But in our case, we have lived in Japan for over 15 to 20 years…And so, for us, we feel the same things that Japanese people feel. We care about gender inequality, we care about the right of disabled people, we care about children,” she said.

But as much as they care, they, like the rest of the more than 2.73 million foreigners living in Japan, have no way to voice their opinion by casting a vote for a candidate or party that represents their best interests.

“In the season of the election many people around me they always say ‘I voted’ or ‘let’s go vote,’ but my frustration was that I was unable to join that voice,” said Chung, an artist, activist and office worker.

Without a voice and with issues of great frustration at the current Japanese leadership’s attitude toward some Korea-related issues, Chung came together with her friends to start the #VoteForMe social media campaign.

“This campaign started from my personal frustration, I guess. I felt this kind of frustration because I have no right to vote in Japan even though I was born in Japan and grew up in Japan,” said Chung.

“I wanted to make a kind of bridge between the voters and those who don’t have the right to vote, so this #VoteForMe campaign is going to be the bridge between them.”

The women hoped the social media campaign would raise awareness about Japan’s disenfranchised among those who have a vote, making them realize that their vote is both valuable and has even more significance to those without a voice.

Ha Kyung Hee, an assistant professor at Meiji University who specializes in race, ethnicity and immigration, understands the motivations of the trio.

Herself a zainichi Korean, Ha says many foreign residents feel alienated from Japanese political discourse “even though they are impacted by it.”

“Election season is a painful moment as it reminds me that we are still excluded from one of the most basic civil rights,” said Ha.

“My family has been in Japan for 90 years, my first language is Japanese, and I want to call Japan my home. And yet, I hesitate because we are not treated with equality and fairness as full members of society.”

Through the process of naturalization, Japan gives foreign-born residents a chance to take the same rights as a Japanese person. They have to have lived in the country for a prescribed amount of time, and must meet a number of other conditions, but it requires they give up any other nationality and their old passport.

But many foreign passport holders do not believe they should be required to forfeit their nationality in order to have a voice in their home country.

Cognizant that a vote for “me” does not necessarily mean that vote will represent the views to which they prescribe, the three women want to make clear they are not trying to influence anyone to vote one way or another — they just want to open a dialogue about issues of importance.

“It gives us a chance to engage in a conversation. If I say ‘vote for me’ and then (someone) asks me what are your issues and they agree with it, then it is their choice,” said Loo.

“In engaging in a conversation, (someone) might change their mind, they might go the complete opposite way, but that’s their choice…but at least now I can put my picture.”

And this was the situation for Hamanaka, who, of course, does have a vote.

She was initially conflicted about being involved as she felt it may have been viewed as inauthentic.

“I wanted to support them, I wanted to do something with them, but I didn’t know how I can,” said Hamanaka, who is from Tokyo and works alongside Loo at the professional services company.

Even more frustrating for the women is that Japanese people are increasingly taking their opportunity to vote for granted, demonstrated by the poor turnout at the upper house poll in July.

At that election, in which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner secured a healthy vote, turnout for voting for candidates standing in the electoral constituencies fell to 48.80 percent, the second-lowest on record since 44.52 percent in 1995.

In the proportional representation section, turnout was slightly lower at 48.79 percent, according to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

For Hamanaka, the indifference of her fellow Japanese is annoying, but understandable.

“I didn’t go vote (in the past) because I wanted to prioritize what I wanted to do at that time over going to vote, so I understand it,” she said.

“But not going to vote means they support the current system, so I want more people to think about the consequences.”

One solution to the lack of representation for foreigners would be for Japan to extend them the vote, as in some circumstances a number of other countries, including Japan’s close neighbor South Korea and a range of European nations, do.

Meiji University’s Ha says there is no reason for that not to become a reality, as with the numbers alone — foreigners make up about 2 percent of Japan’s population — the impact the foreign community could have is very limited.

“I absolutely think (foreigners being given a vote) is realistic, particularly for local elections, because we already have many examples from other countries.”

“I think it requires discussions as to whether or not foreign residents should have a right to participate in national elections, but currently there is no such discussion because in Japan political rights are thought to be strongly connected with one’s nationality.”

Similarly, Loo sees the likelihood of her getting a vote being a long way off, but says there is good reason for local governments to want to hear from their entire constituency, Japanese and non.

Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward is a perfect example of somewhere that foreigners need a voice.

The bustling, central Tokyo hub has a total of 43,065 foreign residents as of Aug. 1, according to its ward office, making up 12.3 percent of the total population — by some way the most of any municipality in Japan.

Therefore, says Loo, the local government should be a reflection of that relatively diverse demographic.

“Let’s say it is going to be 20 percent in the future, as the Japanese population shrinks, that means a kind of big chunk of people living in Shinjuku, for example, don’t have a say in how they want their community to be, how they want their living area to be.”

“So, something has to happen to change that system.”

There was a time when Japan gave serious thought to extending the vote to permanent residents.

Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan of the now-defunct centrist Democratic Party of Japan in 2010 supported an earlier Supreme Court ruling supporting the constitutionality of granting voting rights to non-Japanese nationals, but when he and then his party were ousted from power by the LDP, the push foundered.

There are examples of where permanent residents are allowed to vote in local referendums, such as in Maibara in Shiga Prefecture which became the first local municipality to allow it in 2002.

Since then, a number of other places have similarly allowed permanent residents a say in referendums on limited local matters, but no more than that.

Ha says much of the current thinking on the subject posits that there are only intangible reasons for major change being little more than a pipe dream.

“I see it as a symbolic refusal to treat foreign residents as equal partners in our society,” she said while pointing out that in many other countries, foreigners have a say.

“People in Japan really must start asking themselves what is so wrong about allowing foreign residents to vote instead of giving up on critical thinking and automatically equating voting rights with nationality.”

With universal suffrage realistically out of reach, at least for the foreseeable future, the #VoteForMe three have plans to make an impact elsewhere.

They plan to prepare a bigger and better campaign for the next Japanese poll, a general election that has to be held by October 2021, but also to expand their activities to encompass more activism.

Their next target is establishing a program to use performance art to highlight some targets of discrimination that hide in plain sight.

They want to bring attention to a range of issues of importance to them, with the treatment of Japan’s so-called burakumin population one such area of concern.

Hamanaka says that by using performance to highlight discrimination, it illuminates the reality faced by those suffering from in an accessible way: so that is the plan.

The meat-packing industry is particularly problematic, she says, because Japan’s burakumin, an outcast group traditionally rooted to the bottom of the social strata and restricted to working in jobs widely — and without any basis — considered “dirty” such as meat-processing, undertaking or as hide tanners, are a people whose plight should be more widely understood.

“In our daily lives it is very invisible, that process, but they are people who work in it and they are discriminated against in Japanese society, historically,” said Hamanaka.

“We are trying to make performance art in the place, and organizing a study tour to make the discrimination visible in a creative way.”

With impressive young women like Chung, Loo and Hamanaka trying to make their voices heard in Japan, the country is very likely moving in a positive direction.

However, the question remains whether the country’s leadership, or wider population, have any interest in listening.

Source: Muted in country of their birth, three women try to find their voice

Japanese firms resist hiring foreign workers under new immigration law – poll

Significant culture change:

Only one in four Japanese companies plan to actively employ foreign workers under a new government immigration scheme, a Reuters poll found, complicating Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to ease the country’s tightest job market in decades.

And the bulk of the firms that may hire these immigrants do not plan to support them in securing housing, learning Japanese language skills or getting information on living in Japan, the Reuters Corporate Survey showed.

The survey results underscore the challenge for Japan to cope with its dwindling and ageing population that has put pressure on the government to relax tight foreign labour controls. Immigration has long been taboo here as many Japanese prize ethnic homogeneity.

The lack of language ability, cultural gap, costs of training, mismatches in skills and the fact that many foreign workers cannot stay permanently in Japan under the new system were among factors behind corporate wariness about hiring foreign workers, the Reuters poll showed.

The law, which took effect in April, creates two new categories of visas for blue-collar workers in 14 sectors such as construction and nursing care, which face a labour crunch. It is meant to attract up to 345,000 blue-collar workers to Japan over five years.

But the survey suggests the government may struggle to get the workers it needs to ease the country’s labour shortage where there are now 1.63 jobs available for every job seeker, the most since the beginning of 1974.

“Taking education costs, quality risks and yields into account, costs will go up” by hiring foreign workers, wrote a manager at a rubber-making company, who said the firm has no plans to hire foreign workers.

“We have failed in the past by employing foreign workers who could not blend in with a different culture,” a manager of a metal-products maker wrote.

Some 41% of firms are not considering hiring foreigners at all, 34% are not planning to hire many and 26% intend to hire such foreign workers, the survey conducted from May 8-17 showed.

Of those considering hiring foreign workers, a majority said they have no plans to support them in areas such as housing, Japanese language study and information on living in the country, it showed.

The survey, conducted monthly for Reuters by Nikkei Research, polled 477 large- and mid-size firms, with managers responding on condition of anonymity. Around 220 answered the questions on foreign workers.

Under the new law, a category of “specified skilled workers” can stay for up to five years but cannot bring family members. The other category is for more skilled foreigners who can bring relatives and be eligible to stay longer.

While foreign workers are generally viewed as cheap labour in Japan, 77% of firms see no change in wage levels at Japan Inc as a whole, when hiring specified skilled workers. Some 16% expect wages to decline and just 6 percent see wages rising.

Foreign workers “will help ease the labour crunch, bringing down overall wages,” a steelmaker manager wrote in the survey.

Abe, whose conservative base fears a rise in crime and a threat to the country’s social fabric, has insisted that the new law does not constitute an “immigration policy.”

Japan has about 1.28 million foreign workers – more than double the figure a decade ago but still just 2% of the workforce. Some 260,000 of them are trainees from countries such as Vietnam and China who can stay three to five years.

Source: Japanese firms resist hiring foreign workers under new immigration law – poll

As Japan Tries Out Immigration, Migrant Workers Complain Of Exploitation

Some interesting, if disturbing, comparative data on trainees and some of the exploitation that some are facing as Japan slowly opens up to “guest workers”:

The wind howls and snow drifts around a house in Koriyama, in northeastern Japan’s Fukushima prefecture. The town is inland from Fukushima’s coastal areas that were devastated by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant meltdown.

Inside the home, several Vietnamese laborers prepare dinner. The house is a shelter, run by local Catholics, for foreign workers who are experiencing problems in Japan.

One of the workers is surnamed Nguyen. He came to Japan in 2015 as part of a government program for technical trainees. He asked to use only his last name, as he doesn’t want his family in Vietnam to know what he’s been through.

He says he paid the equivalent of about $9,200 to a Vietnamese broker and signed a contract with a private construction company in Koriyama, Japan, to get on-the-job training as a rebar worker.

“I expected to come to a country more developed, clean and civilized than my own,” he recalls. “In my mind, Japan had many good things, and I wanted to learn professional skills to take home.”

Instead, he says he was ordered to do jobs such as removing radiation-contaminated soil from land around the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

“We were deceived,” Nguyen says, referring both to himself, and technical trainees in general.

He would not identify the company by name so as to avoid undermining negotiations he and a workers union are holding with the firm to get compensation.

He says the company issued him gloves and a mask, but not the kind of gear that would protect him against radiation. He did receive a radiation detector to wear, but only before safety inspectors paid a visit. He complained to the company, which ignored him.

Complicating matters, he had borrowed money from a bank and family members in Vietnam to pay the broker who helped him get to Japan.

“I wanted to sue my company, but I didn’t know how,” Nguyen explains. “I didn’t speak Japanese, or understand Japan’s legal system. So all I could do was be patient, and keep working to pay off the debt.”

Technical trainees like Nguyen now account for about 20 percent of the 1.3 million foreign laborers in Japan, according to government data cited by local media.

The Japanese government intends to bring in 345,000 more foreign workers in the next five years, to staff sectors including restaurants, construction, agriculture and nursing. Many will come from nations such as China, Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Japan has both the world’s third-largest economy, and fastest-aging population. It also faces an acute labor shortage. Now, it is doing something previously unthinkable: allowing immigration — even as its prime minister denies it.

But advocates for the foreign workers warn that without an overhaul of the technical training program, many of the newcomers could be subjected to the same sort of exploitation Nguyen says he has experienced. Critics equate the training program with “slavery,” and deride it as the creation of labor without a labor force.

Most trainees are paid below minimum wage. They die of work-related causes at twice Japan’s overall rate, according to an analysis of government data by The Japan Times.

The problem of labor brokers using debt to enslave would-be immigrants is an element in human trafficking in many countries around the world.

The Japanese government has promised to crack down on unscrupulous brokers, establish 100 “consultation centers” where trainees can report abuses, increase Japanese language training for enrollees and generally strengthen oversight of the program.

But the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report for 2018 says that, so far, Japan has failed to prevent brokers from holding technical trainees in “debt bondage,” and sometimes the authorities arrest trainees who escape from “exploitative conditions,” instead of helping and protecting them.

Many conservative opponents of immigration would prefer that foreign workers don’t stay in Japan after finishing the program.

Speaking before the Diet, Japan’s parliament, in October, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied that the country is opening its door to immigration.

“We are not considering adopting a so-called immigration policy,” he insisted. “To cope with the labor shortage, we will expand the current system to accept foreign workers in special fields. We will accept foreign human resources that are skilled and work-ready, but only for a limited time.”

Japan’s parliament, which is controlled by the ruling right-wing Liberal Democratic Party, passed Abe’s plan last month.

Shiro Sasaki, secretary-general of the Zentoitsu Workers Union, which represents some of the foreign workers, rejects Abe’s argument, and adds that Japan’s government is not facing up to the reality of immigration.

“Abe’s definition of an immigrant is someone who lives in Japan long-term, with family,” he says. “But by international standards, the trainees are immigrants. In this sense we can say that Japan is already an immigrant society.”

Sasaki says that opening Japan’s door to immigrants even a tiny crack is better than tricking them into coming.

He says Japan has never experienced mass immigration in modern times, and it has failed to assimilate those few immigrants it has taken in. He sees the whole issue as a test of character for this island nation.

“Japan has never been able to examine itself and define itself in terms of diversity,” he argues. “Now we must live with diversity, and every single Japanese person must think about it.”

Then again, Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, argues that Abe may have no choice but to reform by stealth.

“Immigration is unfortunately not popular even in countries like the U.S. … which historically have been nations that have been built on immigration. So obviously he’s not going to say: ‘Vote for me, I will bring in 10 million foreigners.'”

Many analysts compare the technical training program to Germany’s gastarbeiter or guest worker program of the 1950s-70s. It too took in laborers from poorer neighboring countries — particularly Turkey — but tried to limit workers’ stay in order to prevent immigration. But the cost of hiring and training temporary workers was too high.

Many workers stayed on, paving the way for Germany to see itself as a de facto immigration nation.

Current trainees like Nguyen may be eligible to remain in the country for up to five years on a new class of visas.

But Nguyen says that without decent pay and a chance to learn new skills, he has no interest in staying on.

Source: As Japan Tries Out Immigration, Migrant Workers Complain Of Exploitation

An Excel error could delay Japan’s massive immigration overhaul

As someone who works a lot with data, this can happen. But it shouldn’t, given government validation and checking processes:

Japan’s government seems to be in need of some tech support.

Its plans to pass a crucial immigration bill that could open the country’s doors further to as many as 340,000 foreign workers from next year might be stymied due to data input errors.

Japan’s government had given lawmakers an analysis of why foreign workers in the country are dropping out of an existing work training program, as it argues for the country to create create two new categories of work visas. The justice ministry admitted last week that the data on those workers was incorrect, and blamed the problems on the handling of an Excel spreadsheet, Japan Times reported yesterday (Nov. 19). For example, the analysis exaggerated the number of foreign workers who left their jobs because they wanted higher-paying positions, rather than to escape poor wages or working conditions.

There are some 1.3 million foreign workers in Japan as of 2017, a 17% increase from the previous year, as businesses try and fill positions in industries ranging from construction to food preparation to nursing amid a shrinkage in Japan’s working population. Right now, foreign workers filling run-of-the-mill jobs are often in the country on temporary “trainee” visas that lock them into employers.

The proposed work-visa categories, approved this month by prime minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, would allow those with “specified skills” in the most labor-starved industries to live and work in Japan under for up to five years. The new visa status would also allow such workers more flexibility in changing jobs, which would make them less vulnerable, proponents of greater immigration to Japan say.

Though Japan’s justice ministry has said that the errors were the result of mistakes in data processing—the latest IT mishap after Japan’s newly appointed cybersecurity minister admitted that he had never used a computer—opposition lawmakers have accused the government of glossing over the problems with the current trainee program in order to rush the bill through.

In the revised data, the government said for example that 12.6% of trainees said that they left their jobs because of harsh working conditions, up from the previous 5.4% presented by the ministry. Opposition legislators boycotted a debate over the immigration overhaul in the Diet last week in protest, but deliberations could resume this week.Many of those currently working as trainees are expected to switch over to the new visa status once the bill becomes law.

Calling foreign workers technical trainees or interns was a workaround for the government to keep it from having to admit that more people from overseas are living in Japan—a country where many remain deeply apprehensive about immigration, even as it struggles with a severe labor shortage. But it’s also a workaround that has left thousands of workers vulnerable to exploitation by employers and the brokers who bring them over, as many of these trainees told lawmakers earlier this month.

Source: An Excel error could delay Japan’s massive immigration overhaul

And public opinion appears sceptical regarding the proposed changes:

Sixty-four percent of respondents said there is no rush to revise the immigration control law to expand the acceptance of foreign workers from next spring, according to an Asahi Shimbun poll released on Nov. 20.

They said it is not necessary to pass the revisions in the current extraordinary Diet session, while 22 percent of respondents believe it should be.

The nationwide poll was conducted Nov. 17 and 18.

The government and the ruling parties are seeking to pass the revisions to the immigration control law in the current Diet session.

However, even among supporters of the Liberal Democratic Party, the main force of the ruling coalition, 57 percent said that it is not necessary to do so. Only 31 percent replied that the revisions should be passed in the current session.

The survey also asked respondents about whether they support the expansion of acceptance of foreign workers. Forty-five percent, down from 49 percent in the previous survey in October, said they support it. Forty-three percent, up from 37 percent, expressed opposition.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that accepting more foreign workers into Japan is not a policy of accepting immigrants. As for Abe’s comment, 52 percent of respondents said that they don’t accept the explanation while 29 percent replied that they agree with it.

In the latest poll, the support rate for the Abe Cabinet stood at 43 percent, up from 40 percent of the previous survey, while the nonsupport rate was 34 percent, down from 40 percent.

The latest number means that the support rate for the Abe Cabinet recovered to the levels recorded in January and February polls, which were taken prior to the revelation of the alteration of Finance Ministry documents.

Respondents also were asked about the four islands off eastern Hokkaido that were occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II in 1945. The islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan, are Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai.

Abe agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin in their summit on Nov. 14 to accelerate peace treaty negotiations based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration that stipulates the return of two islands, Shikotan and Habomai, to Japan after concluding a peace treaty.

The survey asked respondents if they expect an agreement to lead to a resolution of the long stalemate over the Northern Territories issue.

A total of 60 percent replied that they don’t expect that at all or very much. Thirty-eight percent responded that they very much expect it or at least to some degree.

The survey also asked about how Japan should deal with the Northern Territories issue.

Fifty-one percent replied that the government should first seek the return of Shikotan and Habomai and continue to hold negotiations on the return of the remaining two islands.

Meanwhile, 25 percent said Russia should return the four islands at the same time, and 11 percent said that Japan should conclude the Northern Territories issue with the return of the two islands. Six percent replied that Japan should not seek the return of any of the four islands.

The Asahi Shimbun conducted the survey through land-line telephones and mobile phones of eligible voters chosen randomly by computer.

Of 2,048 households contacted with land-line telephones, 991 people, or 48 percent, gave valid responses. As for mobile phone users, 949 of 2,022 people, or 47 percent, gave valid responses.

Land-line telephones do not include those located in a part of Fukushima Prefecture.

Source:  Poll: 64% say not necessary to rush revisions to immigration law November 20, 2018 Sixty-four percent of respondents said there is no rush to revise the