Japan's Treatment Of Foreign Workers Criticized

Japan's government has mandated research into using robots to care for its fast-growing elderly population, as it is easier than getting visas for immigrants to come and do the job. This is just one of the many signs that analysts point to in warning that Japan's insular nature is a major drag on its economy.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. When the current economic downturn hit Japan, foreign workers there asked the Japanese government for assistance. They wanted financial aid to return to their home countries until the recession was over. The government gave them money on the condition that they not return to work in Japan, ever. Japan's population is aging, and it has depended on foreign workers to fill the gap. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn discovered on a trip to the heart of Japan's auto industry, the country's immigration and labor policies may not be sustainable.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

ANTHONY KUHN: The brightest spot in Toyota City's Homi Danchi community is its school, the Escola Comunitaria Paulo Freire, named after a celebrated Brazilian educator. The small-but-lively schoolhouse is surrounded by shuttered shops and a rundown public housing compound. About half of the 10,000 residents here are foreigners, mostly Brazilian or Peruvian. Retiree Yoshitaka Sakuma is volunteering at the school, distributing donated bags of rice and milk powder. He estimates that 80 percent of the families in the community have suffered layoffs. Some families can no longer afford tuition, and the school's enrollment is down by half.

Mr. YOSHITAKA SAKUMA: (Through translator) Many Japanese-Brazilians were laid off and kicked out of their dormitories. Some of them came here to stay with friends or relatives, but they're hiding because this is public housing. You're not allowed to have unregistered residents.

KUHN: Most folks here work in automobile factoring. Many of them are Nikkei, the descendents of Japanese who fled poverty in Japan a century ago and went to farm Brazil's coffee plantations. In 1990, Japan liberalized its immigration laws and welcomed the Nikkei back to Japan as its economy was booming and Brazil's was gripped by hyper inflation. Sakuma says relations between the Nikkei and Japanese have deteriorated since then.

Mr. SAKUMA: (Through translator) I think Japanese should extend a hand to the Brazilian community, but the friction between and Nikkei is, sadly to say, very serious.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: The Brazilian-Japanese are sometimes maligned by Japanese right wingers, who cruise city streets in black vans, blaring out nationalist rhetoric. In 1999, right wingers clashed with locals in Homi Danchi, and the Nikkei firebombed one of the vans. Sakuma reckons that 10 to 20 percent of the Nikkei have accepted the government's offer of $3,000 per returnee, plus 2,000 for each dependent. But this is not an option for long-term resident who have sunk roots into Japan.

Wilton do Nascimento Silva has lived here for 12 years, welding parts and checking quality at a Toyota subsidiary. He was laid off on Christmas Day last year. He says he would never accept the government's offer of help.

Mr. WILTON DO NASCIMENTO SILVA (Autoworker): (Through translator) My wife and I have been discussing saving money for a plane ticket. I watch the news about Brazil, and it seems too wild and scary. But if my unemployment insurance runs out and if my wife loses her job, then we may have no choice but to return to Brazil.

KUHN: The Silvas say they may go back to Brazil to wait out the recession, then return to Japan. They've stopped eating out to save money for their son Gabriel's tuition at the local school. The policy towards foreign workers has triggered criticism, including from some Japanese officials. Taro Kono is a Liberal Democratic Party member of Japan's House of Representatives.

Mr. TARO KONO (LDP Member, House of Representatives, Japan): I was a former senior vice minister for Justice, and I was in charge of this immigration. Then I said I apologize to those Brazilians or Peruvian who came to Japan with high hope. Our policy was very wrong. We just wanted the cheap labor, but we don't want to open our market to the foreign countries.

KUHN: Even worse off than the Brazilians are some Chinese workers who come here on official work trainee or technical intern programs. Pan Wei(ph) came here from northeast China in 2006 after signing a three-year contract. After a couple of weeks of studying Japanese, she found herself on a farm, picking strawberries for half of the legal minimum wage. She remembers her first look at her spartan living quarters.

Ms. PAN WEI: (Through translator) As soon as I saw that building on the first day, my tears started to fall. I felt cheated and lost, and I wondered, how am I going to make it through the next three years?

KUHN: Pan says she worked for up to six months with only one day off. When she asked for another day off, she was fired. Pan's case is now pending before a labor adjudication committee.

Ippei Torii is an activist and leader of the Zentoitsu Workers Union, which is assisting Pan and other foreign workers.

Mr. IPPEI TORII (Leader, Zentoitsu Workers Union): (Through translator) These folks are sometimes called $3-an-hour workers. They are not treated like human beings. They are trafficked like slaves. This kind of behavior is destroying Japan's public morals.

KUHN: Some observers argue that Japan needs to be more open if it is to avoid further stagnation and decline. Jean-Pierre Lehmann is an Asia expert at the IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland and coauthor of a new book called "Japan's Open Future."

Professor JEAN-PIERRE LEHMANN (Asia Expert, IMD Business School; Author): Japan just has closed in on itself. Now, why does that matter? It matters because, you know, we do live in a global age. There has to be a much greater degree of coordination. And you cannot coordinate with a country that is basically closed off.

KUHN: Lehmann says that Japan's success in becoming Asia's first modern industrialized nation in the late 19th century was due in part to its openness. But by many standards, such as foreign investment, foreign language proficiency and number of foreign expatriates living in country, China has now surpassed Japan in openness, he says, and it will soon take Japan's place as the world's second largest economy. Lehmann says that Japan remains affluent, and its closing is a recent problem.

Prof. LEHMANN: What Japan failed to do was to address the changes that began taking place in the late '80s, early 1990s. For example, production technology became much less important than information technology. Advantage no longer was held by people who made things the best, but by people who thought things the best.

KUHN: The most pressing problem, of course, is that Japan's population is declining and aging. And while there are people in Japan who advocate building robots to take care of the elderly, critics say that Japan will have no choice but to further open to the outside world in general and foreign workers, in particular.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Toyota City, Japan.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.