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Friday, Nov. 14, 2003

Xenophobia aside, Japan said to need foreign labor


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Although immigrant labor can play a key role in creating economic growth and vitality in Japan, serious debate on the issue has been stymied by traditional reluctance to welcome foreigners, sensationalized media coverage of the rise in crimes by foreigners and xenophobic comments by rightwing politicians.

This was the conclusion reached at an Osaka symposium on foreign workers in Japan this week involving some 100 scholars, government officials and local businesspeople.

U.N. reports have indicated Japan will face a severe labor shortage in the coming decades as the society rapidly ages and have urged the nation to admit a large number of foreign workers to fill the gap.

Hidenori Sakanaka, director general of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, said these reports have fueled two debates in Japan.

"The first is that a future Japan should be a 'small country,' a country that accepts a population decline and makes adjustments without resorting to importing foreign labor en masse," he said. "The second argument is that Japan should remain a 'big country' and an economic powerhouse by responding to the population decline with an influx of foreign workers."

Sakanaka indicated he personally feels a rise in foreigners would help revitalize not only the nation's industry but also society as a whole.

Some participants meanwhile took note of structural problems in Japan's existing programs for foreign laborers.

According to the Justice Ministry, about 54,000 technical trainees from China, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines were working at Japanese companies, primarily small and midsize businesses, in 2002.

Zha Daojiong, an associate professor of international studies at China's Renmin University, noted many Chinese trainees are invited by the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization, which is under the control of the justice, foreign and industry ministries.

"The JITCO channel is attractive because it offers a Chinese skilled laborer the chance to work in Japan for up to seven years," he said.

Although some Chinese trainees overstay their visas or fail to finish their contract period of work, immigration statistics show that a low percentage of total trainee visa holders have overstayed, he added.

But Zha said Chinese workers who come to Japan at the invitation of JITCO often face problems, including fees deducted from their pay that make it impossible to meet monthly expenses.

In January 2001, he said, the Chiba District Court sentenced two Japanese involved with the JITCO program to prison for violating the Labor Standards Law by withholding, as "management fees," money owed to Chinese trainees.

"Stories about Chinese trainees being ripped off by their Japanese employers are numerous," Zha said. "But in most cases, Japanese employers settle such disputes quietly by wining and dining the trainees, as well as by making an effort toward paying the contractual salary."

German academic Rainer Geissler said that if Japan is truly serious about welcoming not just temporary foreign workers who leave after a few years but fully integrating foreigners into its society, it might learn from the example of Canada.

"Canada has enshrined multiculturalism principles in its constitution and several laws," he explained. "These principles include a commitment to migration, the right of minorities to be ethno-culturally different, the right to equal opportunities in economic, social, cultural and political life, as well as the belief that the right to be different ends when differences interfere with laws and the human rights of individuals."

Masao Niwa, a Kansai-based lawyer who specializes in foreign labor and human rights issues, noted that for all of the talk about Japan wanting foreign labor, there is much resistance as well.

"The mass media often do not report foreign crime accurately, while rightwing politicians warn that Japan is unsafe because of foreign criminals," he said. "This reinforces Japan's traditional insularity and creates fear of and resistance to immigration."

Sakanaka echoed Niwa's comments, noting he was disappointed that foreign labor was not a campaign issue in Sunday's House of Representatives election.

"Some politicians talked about the rise in foreign crime," he said. "But I don't think anybody in the Diet has really begun to discuss the issue of how to accept immigrant labor over the long term. That's a shame, because it is an issue that is in great need of careful deliberation."



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