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Chris Jameson

Japan’s invisible migrant workers

Japans invisible migrant population

Japan boasts the third largest economy in the world, and since the late 1990s, the growth in Japan’s real GDP per head has outperformed every other major economy. Most of its residents enjoy excellent health care services, an amazingly punctual transportation system, access to lightning-fast fiber-optic internet services, and many more of the luxuries one would expect from such a technology-focused society.

Japan also presents an intriguing destination for travelers with its mix of the old and new. Skyscrapers covered with massive neon signs and television screens line the streets of the larger cities, however, walk a little further and you’re likely to come across a traditional shrine or temple nestled away among the hustle and bustle. It’s not unusual to see women dressed in kimonos – sometimes for formal events and other times simply to add an extra dimension to their sightseeing experiences.

The majority of people living outside of Japan learn about this fascinating country mainly through researching their next holiday, and through their experiences, once they arrive. However, tourism information and experiences are naturally designed to focus only on the positive aspects of a country or region. Most people come to and leave Japan as tourists, and thus typically remain unaware of the underlying problems within Japanese society.

There were a number of factors that influenced my own decision to move to Japan, where I am currently living. Perhaps the largest factor was the similarities I felt between my own personality and that of Japanese. I was also looking for a change in my life. I, like many others before me, saw Japan through rose-tinted glasses: as an oasis of enjoyment, new opportunities, friendly people, and hassle-free living. In many cases, these are true; however, there are also several aspects I could (and often do) complain about in regards to Japanese society. My experience has taught me that there is no such thing as a perfect country. And Japan is no exception – in particular in regards to its treatment of migrant workers.

Japan is currently faced with a super-aging population, which is also decreasing. Healthy lifestyles and access to excellent healthcare are among the many factors which have seen the life expectancy of the Japanese rise to around 83 years. There are now approximately 68,000 people aged over 100 in Japan. The reason for this super-aging phenomenon is that not enough babies are being born to sustain the current population (around 125 million). Last year marked the second year in which less than 1 million (946,060) babies were born in Japan; the lowest number since records began in 1899. During the same year, there were 1.3 million deaths, meaning that Japan’s population decreased by 394,373 people in 2017 – equivalent to the population of a small city. Currently, approximately one-quarter of Japan’s population is aged 65 years or older. If nothing is done, this is predicted to increase to more than one third by 2040, and around 40% by 2060.

In such a rapidly aging society, the immense financial pressure is placed on a shrinking working-age population which must support the elderly. Various measures have been proposed and some are underway to help alleviate this pressure within Japan. These include the use of robots and AI, increasing the age of retirement, making it easier for the elderly to continue working, and increasing the number of migrant workers.

This month, in recognition of the need to boost the number of migrant workers in Japan, Prime Minister Abe announced plans to bring in 500,000 workers by 2025. These workers will fill chronic labor shortages in farming, construction, accommodations, and elderly care. According to the Justice Ministry, Japan currently has approximately 1,083,769 migrant workers. Many of these workers are admitted to the country on specialist or skilled worker visas, allowing them to work as engineers or teachers. They generally enjoy good wages and are treated relatively fairly (though many claim they have experienced discrimination).

A large number of migrant workers are also brought in to provide unskilled labor (not technically allowed within Japan) such as factory and farming work, under the guise of “technical intern trainees” and even “foreign students”. Such workers are much more likely to be paid unfair wages and be forced into unfair working and living conditions.

Japan’s Technical Intern Training Program was originally established in 1993, aiming to contribute to the international community by teaching people from developing countries skills based on Japanese technology and know-how. The interns would then take their new knowledge back to their home countries, benefiting both their homelands and Japan. However, the system has been abused by Japanese companies, who have used it as a means to employ migrant workers to perform unskilled labor at very low wages (much lower than what Japanese people are willing to work for). The program’s stated goal of developing skills among foreign nationals has seemingly been pushed aside, as most companies’ focus has been solely on remaining competitive.

In one case, A 28-year-old woman from Myanmar arrived in Japan in November 2016 under the program to work in a sewing factory. She had hoped to gain knowledge and skills in sewing while earning money for her family back home by working at a Japanese company. Her hopes were soon dashed when she was assigned to produce car seat covers, not make clothes as told by an agent in Myanmar before coming to Japan. She worked for more than eight hours a day, six days a week, for five months. However, after all of her hard work, she was paid an insulting ¥339,000 (around US$600 per month); much lower than the legal minimum wage.

Similar to other countries’ systems, “trainees” in this program are not allowed to change their job or employer even if they find their work situation is not what they were promised. Many trainees have no choice but to keep working in unfair conditions.

In another case, in March this year, the Justice Ministry was investigating allegations by a Vietnamese man that he was made undertake decontamination work in radioactive areas following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. This man was also brought to Japan under the intern program described above and was reportedly not informed that he would be undertaking work in contaminated areas. Given that Vietnam does not have any nuclear power plants, it’s highly unusual that his technical training in Japan would even include decontamination. The Japan Times was able to access records showing the man had indeed been exposed to radiation while working, and according to the labor union the employer had withheld this information from him. The employer also reportedly denied the man additional allowances provided to those working under hazardous conditions. Furthermore, he was being paid almost three times less than Japanese workers who were doing the same job.

There is a pervasive undertone within Japanese society that Japan is for Japanese people – not foreigners. News headlines such as “What will happen if foreigners become our bosses?” and “Before we realized it, Japan has become a nation of immigrants” can be seen from the more conservative and alarmist media outlets. And that’s fine – societies are entitled to question whether migrant workers are needed and to preserve their culture and ethnicity. However, if a government decides to invite migrant workers into its country to help improve the economic situation, it has a responsibility to accept – and promote the broader acceptance of – those people politically and socially, not simply economically.

Many people believe that migrant workers only experience hardships while working in countries with poor human rights records. However, as explained in this article, that is clearly not the case. Migrant workers are taken advantage of even in seemingly advanced societies such as Japan. The more often these issues are exposed, the more likely it is that positive change will occur.