Japanese System of Slave Workers

―A Fraud of International Contribution―

Yanagawa Tomoki
Jesuit Social Center staff

Underdeveloped Human Rights Japan
  At the end of May 2016 Japan hosted the Summit of Heads of G7 States in Ise-Shima. Leaving aside the content and meaning of the Summit, one must admit that the 7 participating countries, Japan included, pretend to be the leading industrial countries of the world. If asked for the meaning of “leadership,” leadership in the economic field will be number one, as well as in international affairs. More than the strong influence exerted in those fields, they are also expected to be advanced nations in their humanitarian attitudes.

  “Japan is the only G-7 country that is not a party to the 2000 UN TIP (Trafficking In Persons) Protocol.” The “Trafficking in Persons Report 2015” published by the American State Department indicates that, on a final paragraph concerning Japan. According to American standards, the government of Japan does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking though it is making significant efforts to do so.

  31 countries and regions, including the other 6 G7 countries, are classified as first-class rank countries fulfilling the standards, but by comparison the attitude of Japan to eradicate human trafficking is not considered to be up to the level of other industrial countries.

  The international society again and again has issued recommendations to the government of Japan with regard to its slow and inadequate efforts for the protection of human rights. Also in July 2014, at the International Human Rights Committee session that took place at the European Headquarters of the UN in Geneva, the 6th official report of the Japanese government regarding the situation of human rights in Japan was considered faulty in several aspects. The following four were the most important problems —namely, the death penalty, the sexual slavery practices against “comfort women”, the substitute police detention system (Daiyo Kangoku), and the Technical intern training program (TITP). The Japanese government was told to offer rapid and sincere solutions to these issues.

  Despite the legislative amendments extending the protection of labor legislation to foreign trainees and technical interns, the Committee notes with concern that there are still a large number of reports of sexual abuse, labor-related deaths, and conditions that could amount to forced labor in the TITP.

  As indicated in the concluding observations (article 16), the TITP is replete with problems. Here I would like to reflect on the practice of TITP that are continually criticized as “a hotbed of forced labor” or “modern slavery.”

The Purpose and Real Intentions of TITP
  “Cases of forced labor occur within TITP, a government-run program that was originally designed to foster basic industrial skills and techniques among foreign workers, but has instead become a par-time workers program. During the ‘internship,’ many migrant workers are placed in jobs that do not teach or develop technical skills —the original intention of the TITP; some of these workers continued to experience conditions of forced labor.” (Trafficking in Persons Report 2015) As mentioned by the USA, the main issue in this system will be that the purpose and the turnover of the program are detached from each other.

  Up to now, government of Japan has accepted highly skilled foreign workers and technicians and has stuck to its attitude of denying entrance of non-skilled workers into the country, except for “Nikkei” people with Japanese roots.

  Nevertheless, the demand for workers in one sector of the economy, the so-called “3Ds” (Dirty, Dangerous and Demeaning), suffered from lack of manpower. Therefore, the business side has called out for foreign workers who will take such harsh working conditions with cheap pay.

  As a loophole between the official policies and the needs of the job market, an expansion of the skills- training system was later designed. According to the Japan International Training Organization (JITCO), which has promoted the training system for about 25 years, “The purpose of this program is to transfer skills to Intern Trainees who will constitute the basis of economic development in their respective countries and play an important role in Japan’s international cooperation and contribution.” In other words, the training system is an international contribution of industrial Japan so as to cooperate with developing countries and transmit its high skills, technology, and knowledge to foreigners.

  In 1981 the new visa title “training” was officially issued by immigration authorities in order to accept foreign residents. But, in fact, it became just an empty name. In reality, it has been disclosed that many companies abuse trainees, making them work under harsh conditions. Since trainees came to Japan for skill-training and not for work, the jobs undertaken by them are not rewarded and consequently their workers’ rights are not secured. They are obliged to work for very low pay.

  Later, legal amendments were often made and the system was greatly expanded. The policies executed mainly took into consideration the side of Japanese companies to freely use foreign trainees instead of focusing on the trainees themselves, who are the primary persons concerned.

  For instance, in 1990, not only large companies but also middle- and small-size ones accepted trainees, and 3 years later, in 1993, for those trainees who after a year of training were able to pass an examination, the “Technical Intern Training Program” made its start, allowing them to remain working in Japan for a year. Further, in 1997, the period of practice was extended to 2 years so that their stay in Japan was prolonged to a maximum of 3 years.

  In such a situation, several problems came to light with cases casting doubt on a serious disregard of human rights often being disclosed. In fact, there is no end to these. For instance, in order to cut personnel costs, people work long hours with the lowest wages, the management confiscates passports and bankbooks with the excuse of controlling their moves, and illegal fines and financial penalties are impassively imposed. Due to the lack of security measures and because of long working hours, diseases and injuries spread and in some cases foreign workers also died from “karoshi” or committed suicide. Such “work accidents” were often kept hidden from public attention.

  Again, apart from work conditions, many reports note the inhuman treatment foreign workers receive with regard to daily life matters, like providing them only a very poor living environment and food and, on top of that, demanding from them high amounts of money to pay for food and the monthly rent for their apartment. The companies have strict control over their outside contacts and whenever they leave the working place. There are also instances limiting their religious activities and love affairs. The most evil action is dominating over them by the threat of “forced deportation” so that they are unable to resist. Criminal acts like sexual and power harassment also occur within such dominating relationships.

  Once the practices of such a system became evident, criticism from inside and outside Japan built up and in July 2010 a new “Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act” was implemented. As a result, trainees were recognized as workers and they are basically protected by the labor laws of the country. Nevertheless, the injustices became more ingenious and it is now more difficult to discover the facts. Serious human rights violations are still frequent.

  Of course, not all companies accepting trainees act unjustly. Those conscientiously conducting the training of the trainees also exist. But, according to the supervision done by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, every year about 80% of companies where trainees are working seem to be violating the Labor Standards Act. It is clear that this system has become a hotbed for work that disregards human rights.

No Slaves but Brothers and Sisters
  In his message for “World Day of Peace” delivered by Pope Francis on January 1, 2015, the Pope stated: “In particular, the problem exists where the laws of a nation create or permit a structural dependency of migrant workers on their employers, as, for example, when the legality of their residency is made dependent on their labor contract. Yes, I am thinking of such ‘slave labor’.”

  The lack of freedom to select jobs or change one’s work, under the threat of deportation, enforces absurd work conditions and life environment. If the workers create a problem or can no longer be used as labor force, they are fired and sent back home. That is not a respectable labor relationship but slavery based on submission to domination. From the point of view of international standards, the Japanese TITP for foreigners is nothing more than a “modern slavery system.”

  Article 18 of the Japanese Constitution as well as article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights forbids submission to hard labor and being placed in situations of slavery. Freedom from slave work can be considered a universal basic human right of humanity. The Labor Standard Act, which is the first law to defend the rights of workers, severely forbids forced labor (article 5). As proof, the Labor Standard Act (article 117) prescribes the most severe punishment for violations of that article. Nevertheless, the Japanese government has not even once recognized as a victim of forced labor any foreigner suffering oppression from the TITP and, on the other hand, did not prosecute violators conducting human trafficking. By closing their eyes to the damages, they feel no need for policies and support.

  It is reported that in Japan there are presently about 200,000 foreign trainees. Formerly, the main stream was Chinese, but they have now been overtaken by Vietnamese. Japan’s Young Christian Workers (YCW/JOC), to which I actively belong, has links with several Vietnamese trainees. They are the “lucky ones,” but it is easy to imagine the existence of foreign trainees who cannot find ways to look for help and whose cries cannot be heard.


  At the basis of a system that supports labor and disregards human rights there is a view justifying discrimination “because they are gaijin (foreigners).” When people consider foreigners as “human” or “workers,” as “neighbors” or “brothers and sisters,” they cannot accept a system that permits such despotism. We should not be deceived by fraudulent words like “international contribution.” At the same time, we need to recognize our own sinful attitude of demanding a work force that can be easily discarded and we must reflect on our own consumption patterns which support such attitudes.

Comments are closed.