Gates are Opened for the Arrival of Foreign Workers ― a New Pandora’s Box

Ando Isamu SJ
Jesuit Social Center staff (Migrants’ Desk)

  The new fiscal year has just started in Japan. As happens every year during this season of spring, the cherry blossoms are at their peak, but this time a fresh wind of social change is blowing over Japanese society.

  This new year has brought two prominent events. Japan’s Emperor has resigned and, following an old tradition, a new era will begin with the accession of the new Emperor on May 1. On April 1, the name REIWA was officially proclaimed for the new era in a traditional ceremony. As a result, the official calendar, dates of official documents, etc. will have to be changed on May 1 when the new Emperor is enthroned.

  Another prominent event has also changed the face of Japanese society. Beginning on April 1, Japan officially opened the country to foreign workers for the first time in modern history. Japan already had many workers from foreign countries but, starting this April 1, “unskilled workers” were officially accepted to work in Japan. Additionally, what we were accustomed to call the Immigration Bureau has been elevated to the level of “Office” (庁, Cho in Japanese) with an independent Head and an increase in the numbers of employed workers.

  Since October of last year, a bill to accept over 350,000 foreign workers into Japan was hotly debated in the National Diet by the various political parties, with a remarkable coverage in the mass media. The government offered a clear number of workers (350,000) to be accepted within a space of five years and showed two types of residential status under which foreign workers will be accepted. Although opposition parties criticized the government’s policy and policy-makers issued complaints, businesses seemed happy to have young people come to fill Japan’s lack of manpower.

  On the other hand, the government issued assurances that it was not adopting an “immigration” policy, which seems unpopular in the country, but this is to be doubted. In fact, what has really happened? The Japanese government has opened the gates, placing there a green light saying: “Welcome to Japan!” But in reality, it has left untouched many needed structures for the newcomers to live and survive in Japan.

  From the Japanese side, the aim of such policies is merely “economic.” Japan’s economy is suffering from lack of manpower, which is critical in many fields, such as nursing care, agriculture and fisheries, construction, restaurant and lodging industries. In a large number of small and middle-size businesses especially, there is a lack of young workers. This has a serious effect on the whole of Japanese society. We can truly say that the thinking behind these new policies is merely in economic terms. It does not extend to the cultural field or to educational training, which would also serve to benefit the workers allowed into Japan.

  Certainly, most of the workers to come anew will be from East Asian countries, like Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc. The youth in those countries are thirsty for jobs. Their own countries are in a process of growth, and rural areas are still poor. Thus, Japan needs manpower, developing Asian countries need opportunities to work, and these mutual needs match. Thinking in economic terms, Japanese companies can continue to grow while foreign workers can obtain income to help their families and themselves also to grow.

  Such an official view, though real, is by no means adequate.

A Pandora’s box?
  Japan has opened its gates to foreign workers, offering them thousands of job opportunities. Comparing this to traffic lights, the government has suppressed the red lights that had prevented “blue collar” workers from entering into Japan and has turned on many green lights, letting them come in but letting most of the existing structures remain unchanged. In other words, proper contracts, language training, living facilities, improvement of educational skills, safety assurances, family reunions, etc. all require monetary expense and are left to the whims of the private sector. Foreign youth arrive in Japan burdened with debts, loans that must be repaid. Many will need further study of Japanese in Japanese language schools, but how will they be able to pay their school fees? (The average fee in Tokyo will usually be over 600,000 yen per year).

  Will it be possible for foreign workers to change their place of work without affecting their visa renewal? The government expects foreign workers to work in rural areas, in fishing and construction, or in domestic jobs, and without being concentrated in urban centers. Japanese youth usually avoid such jobs because of bad working conditions. So why are such regulations being imposed only on the young people coming to work in Japan from abroad?

  With regard to jobs, private companies will provide income in exchange for the work done and, in fact, the amount of remuneration given to foreign workers is left to the companies, the private sector whose main goal is “profit,” regardless of legal regulations that wages paid to foreign workers should be equal to wages paid to the ordinary Japanese. Labor discrimination exists, and experience shows that it will remain.

  Structural changes in the ways of working in Japan have become an important social issue. More flexibility and relaxation are considered of significant importance now in Japanese life. The demand for foreign workers, who will enter into unfamiliar environments and without much preparation, could result in greater stress on the incoming workers.

  All these and many other situations look to me like a “Pandora’s box,” full of upcoming unexpected phenomena.

  The Japanese government has officially insisted that is not creating an “immigration” policy. Certainly, a simple analysis of how the new policy is implemented without touching deeply social structures manifests a merely “temporary” welcome. The idea lurking behind seems to say: “Come and work for a while but then go back to your own country.”

  Nevertheless, the arrival of many foreigners happy to work in Japanese society to supply for lack of manpower is an important challenge to provide the needed social changes and introduce into society a variety of cultural interactions.

  The Catholic Church has already started many activities with foreign communities and will most probably now face further important challenges.

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