Quiz time! What percentage of Tokyo is non-Japanese?
Answer: 2.93% – that’s the percentage of registered foreigners in Tokyo as of January 1, 2007 (an increase of 1.8% over last year), says Shukan Toyo Keizai. That means that 3 out of every 100 people you see in Tokyo are foreign (one of whom could be a white dude staring at the Daily Yomiuri [picture courtesy STK]). There are 371,000 registered foreigners among Tokyo’s overall population of 12.69 million. The information comes from a “population movement survey” conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
Chinese – 126,000
Korean – 109,000
Filipino – 31,000
Most foreign districts:
Shinjuku-ku (where Tokyo’s Koreatown is located): 30,000
Edogawa-ku (home to Indiatown in Nishikasai): 21,000
Tokyo’s foreign population has surged 2.5-fold over the past 20 years, going from a mere 150,000 in 1987 to the present 371,000 (18.5% of the estimated 2 million registered foreigners, or about 1.5% of the total population).
These numbers may just be the tip of the iceberg. The ‘registered’ foreigners are merely the people in the country legally for purposes other than tourism, some of whom are temporary visitors who have no intention of making a life here. But many do plan to (there were 349,804 permanent residents that are not zainichi Koreans/Chinese as of 2005). According to Immigration Bureau statistics, there were approximately 190,000 people illegally residing in Japan (presumably concentrated mainly around Tokyo) as of 2006. Though the number of illegal immigrants has decreased as controls have gotten stricter over the years, Japanese manufacturers have no intention of turning back from their use of cheap, often illegal, foreign labor to stay competitive as the numbers of Japanese workers decrease and fewer people are willing to take such jobs. On top of that, other industries, including the medical, restaurant, and agricultural industry are eager to expand their use of foreign labor.
While many of the legal immigrants were educated at least partly in Japan (and in the cases of Chinese and Koreans, their families may have been in the country for 3 generations or more) and lead normal, middle class lives, the conditions for illegal workers in Japan can be downright dreary. A recent government-produced documentary depicting the daily activities of immigration officials features a scene in which the “Immigration G-Men” break up a textile operation in a small Tokyo apartment that was making handbags for local consumption. The workers are Korean, speak poor Japanese, and look like they rarely leave their work stations. Even among legal residents of Japan, many are “trainees” at manufacturing companies whose “training” consists of full time work on an assembly line for low pay.
The regular publication of statistics like these, and the regular, adversarial reporting of developments in this issue, should remind the public as well as the authorities that real “internationalization” based on economic interests, rather than the abstract concept of peace, cooperation, and English study that is usually associated with that term, has already arrived in parts of Japan, making it necessary to adjust and respond. Recently publicized cases of some issues facing foreign laborers, such as abuse in the “trainee” system the difficulty that children of foreign residents face in getting an education, have resulted in increased attention by the authorties, and even some incremental reform. Justice Minister Nagase is heading efforts at the ministry to provide a legal framework to tap unskilled workers, a move that would give legal credibility to the current practice but at the same time would give the foreign workers rights and proper status. The Ministry of Education has begun requiring children of permanent residents to attend school.
These are necessary steps forward, but I feel like the current developments facing foreign residents in Japan have yet to receive the top spot on the agenda that they deserve. Back in 1990, Japan began a program to accept Brazilians of Japanese descent as temporary guest workers. I wasn’t around at the time, but it’s clear that the issue received very wide coverage that I think helped prepare people mentally for the small-scale but significant change in policy. Today, with the foreign population exploding (by Japanese standards), where are the public opinion polls, dramas featuring foreign laborers, rants by unqualified political commentators, etc etc?
Corporate-led Social Revolution
Generally, Japan’s immigration policies are much more liberal than the US – in the rare case that you speak Japanese fluently and have connections within the country. For the rest of the world, Japan’s immigration policies focus on attracting skilled foreign workers in areas such as computer programming where Japanese skills aren’t enough to meet demand. Some industries, meanwhile, are calling for an addition to that policy of allowing more low-skilled workers in to either fill shortages or drive wages down. The most recent victories for advocates of such policies were the “free trade agreements” signed with the Philippines and Thailand, which will allow foreign nurses and chefs, respectively, to work in Japan. However, the Japanese side insisted on language requirements that guarantee virtually no significant numbers will be let in.
This is a radical change for Japan, which has traditionally coddled its low-skilled workers with decent wages and living standards and kept out large numbers of non-Japanese foreigners. Like the US, Japan has a valuable currency and lots of industry, making it an attractive destination for low-skilled workers. Bringing in lots of foreign unskilled labor would make Japan’s immigration structure more like the US, which imports millions of unskilled laborers with poorly enforced immigration laws while making highly skilled jobs very difficult through unofficial barriers such as difficult licensing requirements and tight visa quotas. From the perspective of an average citizen who wants to see the best people in the right jobs, I would advocate opening up the books for all levels of jobs. The US situation is a nightmare for both the illegal immigrants from Mexico who have no prospects back home but must leave their families and live as an outlaw to support their families in the US, and the Americans who have seen low-skilled jobs with decent pay evaporate as a result of the immigration and outsourced manufacturing.
Japan, meanwhile, has relied almost exclusively on what the Japanese government coyly calls “international division of labor” and less on importing labor. Large Japanese corporations are major investors around the world, particularly in China and SE Asia, and employ hundreds of thousands if not millions throughout the region. This decision by the Japanese companies no doubt increases the supply of labor for the companies and allows them to save on wages. But Japan managed to avoid the US situation by maintaining stable employment in domestic industries such as service and construction, sometimes at the expense of efficiency or economic rationality.
But the business community has changed its tone over the years, and now the two top business lobbies, the Keidanren (made up of manufacturers) and Keizai Doyukai (a more brazenly neo-liberal group of top executives), are calling for massive importation of labor to avoid a drop in GDP due to the shrinking native work force that will accompany Japan’s population drop to 100 million by 2050.
No more – Economic analysts have been pointing out for years that Japanese consumer consumption is low relative to other developed countries, and that poor consumption is holding back Japan’s GDP growth. The low consumption is blamed on two factors – deflation that makes people delay large purchases, and stagnant wage growth – the latter of which Morgan Stanley economist Stephen Roach argues stems from the “powerful global labor arbitrage that continues to put unrelenting pressure on the labor-income generating capacity of high-wage industrial economies.” In other words, Japanese labor is in competition from foreigners, a prospect that means money for the global corporations but hardship for the domestic workers.
Japan’s media has been sensitive to this issue, if a bit reluctant to blame it on globalization. Economic disparity between the rich and poor (known succinctly as “kakusa” in Japanese) has been a persistent buzzword over the past 2 years. A host of phenomena – growing income disparity, the collapse of stable employment and the rise of fluid ‘temporary’ employment, a jump in the welfare rolls, the rise in prominence of a new wealthy class, the bankrupt finances of local governments, the near-collapge of the social insurance system, low economic growth for more than a decade, a shrinking/aging population, and on and on – have given average Japanese people the sense that the future looks rather dim.
Now the manufacturing interests, among others, are calling for more foreign labor to come to Japan, and as we’ve seen above it is on its way, putting perhaps more pressure on the average worker. But in my opinion this is only a problem if only labor is allowed to be fluid while corporations with stable management and shareholders reap the profits. Highly skilled laborers such as lawyers, doctors, professors, journalists, and especially corporate managers/investors should be allowed into Japan. Allowing a full spectrum of business opportunities into Japan, which with a highly educated population, peaceful society, and hyper-developed infrastructure, would allow for a wealth of more business and labor opportunities.
But of course that’s a silly proposition. The stewards of Japanese society will continue to hoard the top positions and continue making hypocritical appeals to racial harmony out of one side of their mouths when it comes to reform of corporate boardrooms while pushing for internationalization of cheap labor from the other side. Like it or not, the choice average citizens have is how to deal with the situation that’s been thrust upon us.
Where East and West meet
It’s easy to see a disconnect between, say, the interests of English teachers, IT workers, and businessmen that make up the bulk of Japan’s semi-permanent Western population, and those of the “low-skilled” world of immigrants from Asia.
But that would be wrong. Apart from entry requirements and visa stipulations, Japanese law treats all foreigners basically the same. And while perceptions of foreigners is different based on skin color and culture, the rights of foreigners and the level of their acceptance in Japan will depend on the experiences of other populations. There are already many examples of this connection. The question of whether zainichi Koreans will be accepted as a distinct “Japanese-Korean” identity or whether they will end up mostly assimilated and forgotten will decide how future populations will be dealt with. And if human rights activist Arudo Debito is successful in his campaign to get a national law passed banning racial discrimination, that legal framework will be enforceable for the entire foreign population.
At the same time, the bad deeds of a small group of people can ruin things for everyone else, fairly or not. Crimes committed by foreign nationals are often highly publicized thanks to a xenophobic police force that I suspect is in search of a scapegoat to help market security equipment and grab bigger budgets. Whatever the case, the anti-foreign crime campaign has resulted in bothersome ID checks and humiliating signs warning citizens to watch out for suspicious foreigners. And as limited as its impact was (thanks mainly to successful protests that cut its shelf life to mere months), the “Foreign Crime File” book, a despicable, short-lived multimedia diatribe against the foreign population in Japan, did not distinguish between Asians, Africans, or Westerners in its cheap attempts to cast foreigners in a negative light.
My biggest worry is that without proactive efforts to make this immigration smooth and easy, Japan will start to experience something like the US illegal immigration problem, with all the poverty, crime, and mistrust that goes with it. Occasional statements from high-level politicians, like Education Minister Bunmei Ibuki’s statement that Japan is a “homogeneous nation,” should remind people that race consciousness and nativism are not dead and work as appeals to a conservative voter base. The time to lay the groundwork is now to prevent a backlash against foreigners that would prove a major headache for the entire foreign population, and a loss of the culture of tranquil co-existence with neighbors that has defined Japanese society.