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Faced with an aging population and an acute labor shortage, Japan is doing something previously unthinkable. They're allowing immigration. Critics point out that foreign workers in Japan often face exploitation and the system that allows them in has to be fixed. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from the city of Koriyama.
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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Koriyama is part of Fukushima Prefecture, which was devastated by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. There's a shelter here for foreign workers. As the wind howls and the snow drifts outside, Vietnamese workers make dinner inside. Among them is a man surnamed Nguyen (ph). He asked that we only use his last name, as he doesn't want his family in Vietnam to know what he's been through.
Mr. Nguyen came to Japan in 2015 as part of a government program for technical trainees. He signed a contract to get on-the-job training as a rebar worker.
NGUYEN: (Through interpreter) I expected to come to a country more developed, clean and civilized than my own. In my mind, Japan had many good things, and I wanted to learn professional skills to take home.
KUHN: Instead, he said he was ordered to do menial jobs, including removing radiation-contaminated topsoil from land around the Fukushima nuclear plant. Nguyen says he wasn't given protective equipment, and he wasn't paid in full. He complained to his company, but they ignored him. An added complication was that he had borrowed money to pay a Vietnamese agent who had helped him get to Japan.
NGUYEN: (Through interpreter) I wanted to sue my company, but I didn't know how. 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.
KUHN: Technical trainees account for about 20 percent of Japan's 1.3 million foreign workers. Most are from developing countries, including China, Myanmar and Vietnam. Japanese labor ministry data shows most are paid less than the minimum wage. Critics have derided the system as slavery or human resources minus the humanity. They warn that if the technical trainee program isn't fixed, many of the newcomers could end up exploited like Mr. Nguyen. Speaking to lawmakers last October, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied he's opening Japan's door to immigrants.
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PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE: (Through interpreter) We are not considering adopting a so-called immigration policy. To cope with the labor shortage, we will expand the current system to accept foreign workers in special fields.
KUHN: Japan's Parliament passed Abe's plan last month after a brief debate. Sasaki Shiro is secretary-general of the Zentoitsu Workers Union, which represents some of the foreign workers. He says that Japan's government is not facing up to the reality of immigration.
SASAKI SHIRO: (Through interpreter) Abe's definition of an immigrant is someone who lives in Japan long term with family. But by international standards, the trainees are immigrants. In this sense, we can say that Japan is already an immigrant society.
KUHN: 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, and he sees it as a test of character of this island nation.
SASAKI: (Through interpreter) Japan has never been able to examine itself and define itself in terms of diversity. Now we must live with diversity. And every single Japanese person must think about it.
KUHN: 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.
ROBERT DUJARRIC: Immigration is unfortunately not popular even in countries like the U.S. or in Western Europe, 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.
KUHN: Japan's government says it will crack down on brokers and provide effective oversight to the trainee system. Current trainees, like Mr. 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.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Koriyama, Japan.
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