COLUMN ONE : Gingerly, Japanese Open Up : A shortage of unskilled labor is forcing Japan to rethink its immigration policies. The notion of a closed society is questioned.


Exclusivist Japan suddenly has become a beacon of hope for tens of thousands of poor Asians.

A year ago, the number of illegal foreign workers in Japan was about 100,000. But now, “it may be as many as 300,000,” said Mitsuaki Yoshimen, who heads a Labor Ministry unit dealing with foreign workers. “We don’t know what the real number is. It keeps increasing steadily.”

Police are arresting and deporting illegal foreign workers at a rate of more than 18,000 a year. The illegals have been found in all but two of Japan’s 47 prefectures (states). Most of them come from Pakistan, the Philippines, Malaysia and South Korea. Since May, about 1,700 Chinese, mostly from Fujian province in the People’s Republic of China, have arrived by boat posing as Vietnamese refugees.

The initial official reaction was in line with the Japanese instinct to protect their country’s homogeneity. Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu’s Cabinet tightened screening of “boat people” and other illegal immigrants and reaffirmed a ban on foreigners taking unskilled jobs.


But for a nation rated among the world’s most exclusionary, Japan has displayed a surprising--and growing--degree of receptivity to the flow of foreigners. For instance:

-- Three Cabinet ministers have argued for a new policy of accepting foreign workers for specified periods.

-- A poll by the Justice Ministry found that 47% of the respondents supported accepting foreign workers for unskilled jobs if the positions could not be filled by Japanese.

-- In a survey by the Tokyo metropolitan government, 64% said they believed they could work smoothly with foreigners.


-- The Small Enterprises Agency of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) reported in an annual white paper that nearly 60% of the nation’s small-business people want to employ unskilled foreign workers. Japan already accepts skilled foreign workers, and their numbers, too, have been increasing without stirring up any controversy.

-- Most astonishing of all in a country often condemned as a closed society, NHK, the semi-government radio and television network, devoted three hours of evening prime-time TV to a debate on whether Japan should accept unskilled foreign labor. Two “open door” advocates were pitted against two “closed nation” proponents.

The major impetus for the change has come from an increasingly severe domestic labor shortage, particularly in what Japanese are now calling “three-K” jobs. Average Japanese, employers complain, don’t want to do anything that is kitanai (dirty), kitsui (hard) or kiken (dangerous).

McDonald’s is now offering $7.14 an hour as starting pay for workers at some of its restaurants in Tokyo, compared to the average of $4.60 that the hamburger chain pays its employees in the United States. Bars and nightclubs post advertisements in their bathrooms for part-time waiters and waitresses. Some fast-food and family restaurant chains have been forced to curtail their hours of operation because they can’t find enough workers.

On average, four jobs go begging for each person seeking part-time employment.

As recently as last year, there was no visible sentiment at all in favor of accepting unskilled foreign labor.

That exclusionary attitude was so marked that in August, 1979, even Japan’s prime minister lamented the closed nature of his country’s society. After the Indochinese refugee issue was a major topic at that year’s Tokyo economic summit, Prime Minister Masayashi Ohira, in a nationally televised interview, said that “all Japanese have a desire to lead an existence as a homogeneous society with a single language,” adding, “A country with this kind of nature is not good.”

The late prime minister declared that he personally would like to see Japan become a nation in which “people from all nations could reside and make a living” but said that “we have a long way to go” before that could happen.


Met by Silence

At the time, Ohira’s comments produced no reaction. But now, some Japanese are beginning to echo them.

In an editorial, the Japan Times said recently that “as an outstanding economic power (with) a past of committing wrongs in this part of the world, (Japan) should be more positive toward sharing part of the fruits of its economic success with its Asian neighbors.”

Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima of Nagasaki urged acceptance of foreign workers and said his city would accept them for humanitarian reasons. Scholars also have supported admitting unskilled labor as a form of aid to Japan’s neighbors.

Most of the illegals come into Japan armed with visas as language students or tourists and then take jobs. Many, including those who enter the country legally on visas as entertainers, remain beyond the period they are legally permitted to stay.

More than 1.7 million Asians are expected to enter Japan legally this year, compared to about 1.4 million last year. Descendants of Japanese immigrants to South American countries, who are allowed to spend as long as three years “visiting relatives,” also are arriving by the thousands.

Other countries in the Pacific from which illegals are coming to Japan--including Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and even South Korea--also report a growing influx of illegal workers. But even low wages here so outstrip the average pay in developing countries that Japan is a special target.

It is no deterrent that word has spread widely of the ill-treatment that the illegals often receive here. For example, illegal male workers, about three-quarters of the total, often have to pay part of their wages to gang leaders who arrange for them to come and then sell their labor to Japanese companies. For many foreign women, prostitution is the fate that awaits them here.


Nonetheless, the newspaper Asahi told the story of one Brazilian of Japanese descent brought here by a Japanese company whose executives were later arrested for violating a law regulating employment agencies.

The Japanese-Brazilian said the company arranged wages for him that were 20 times what he earned in Brazil--and provided an apartment to boot. The employment agency, which was estimated to have earned $48.6 million in supplying foreign laborers to auto parts manufacturers over the last three years, raked off $4.23 for every hour he worked, but he still took home $7.14 an hour.

In its monthly economic report for September, the Economic Planning Agency declared that “the shortage of labor is becoming increasingly serious.”

Mitsuru Takahashi, a Labor Ministry employment planning officer, said the shortage is reaching serious proportions in the construction, service and retailing industries.

Construction firms are unable to find 34% of the labor they need, he said. In particular, riggers--who lay scaffolding for construction work--are so scarce that more than half of the jobs available for them go unfilled, he noted.

“No young people are entering that trade any more,” he said.

The shortage, Takahashi added, also is hurting such industries as automobile and auto parts manufacturing and metal and steel fabrication.

With the nationwide unemployment rate at only 2.2%, an average of 132 jobs are available for every 100 workers seeking employment. As recently as June, 1988, workers seeking employment outnumbered the jobs available, a situation that has prevailed for 14 years.

Predictions Wrong

The turnabout also has defied predictions made by MITI. Overseas investment by Japanese manufacturers, the ministry predicted in 1987, would strip 600,000 jobs from the manufacturing sector in Japan.

In fact, nearly 1.2 million new jobs have been created in the last 12 months, with 580,000 of them in manufacturing, in addition to 540,000 new jobs in service industries.

Traditionalists such as Eiji Suzuki, chairman of the Japan Employers Federation (Nikkeiren), continue their reflexive rejection of unskilled foreign laborers.

Suzuki argues that the government “should send the refugees home. Unskilled foreign laborers must not be allowed. The increase in illegal foreign workers is already causing trouble. The construction industry, which is suffering the worst shortage, should persevere,” reducing the pace of its projects, if necessary.

Ultra-rightists have staged rallies and argued that unskilled foreign workers would destroy the “identity” of Japan.

Many average Japanese, too, have expressed fears that unskilled foreign laborers would bring crime and slums to Japan.

So frequently has West Germany been held up as an example of “failure” in welcoming immigrant labor that Bonn’s ambassador to Tokyo, Hans Joachim Hallier, felt the need to contradict the image publicly, declaring that immigrant labor in West Germany, in fact, has been a success. Its contributions to West Germany’s economy, he said, outweigh the temporary problems that arose when the country’s economy slowed down.

If West Germany did make a mistake, it was in failing to limit the stay of foreign workers, Hallier said.

The proposal that appears to be gaining support in Japan would avoid that shortcoming. Last May, an advisory commission of the Economic Planning Agency recommended that the government accept unskilled foreign laborers but impose restrictions on their numbers and their length of stay. Agreements would be negotiated with other nations to fix quotas for unskilled labor from each country.

Already, both the Philippines and Malaysia have offered to provide laborers and guarantee their return within a specified period.

“Preparations must be made to handle foreign workers not just as providers of labor at cheap wages but to treat them as human beings. We must consider not just their labor but also their livelihood, especially such things as housing and medical insurance,” said Yoshimen of the Labor Ministry.

Ministry Opposed

But he added that the ministry remains opposed to admitting unskilled foreign workers even with specific limits.

“Will they really go home at the end of the period they are allowed to stay? Employers also may wish to retain them a little longer because, by the time their period of stay is expired, they would have learned their jobs well,” Yoshimen said. “Japan would have to provide the social facilities to support them.”

Pressure upon the government to accept unskilled foreign laborers, he said, has increased as a result of a boom in domestic demand.

“But no one knows how long economic conditions will remain good, and when they turn downward, the demands for foreign labor will ease,” he warned.

Only three years ago, the official noted, the economy was in a doldrums, unemployment rose to 3.2% and “the Labor Ministry was criticized for not developing a better employment policy. No one was advocating opening the labor market to foreign workers then,” he said.

Despite the pinch that many industries are feeling, the worker shortage has not yet swept through the entire labor market. Yoshimen pointed out that it is focused on a demand for young workers and is concentrated in large urban areas.

“There are few companies seeking older workers,” he said, noting that for every 100 men 55 and older seeking employment, only 20 jobs are being offered. By contrast, 277 jobs are available for every 100 youths 19 or younger.

Nor has the labor shortage spurred inflation, thanks to productivity increases that have enabled employers to more than cover wage increases, the Labor Ministry’s Takahashi said.

In the short term, the ministry plans to try to cure the imbalance between supply and demand of labor, he said, by promoting the use of women and older workers, re-training labor and combatting regional gaps in employment.

In the longer term, however, a labor shortage that Japan has never experienced is on the horizon. It will start in 1995 and last at least 10 years as Japan’s population between the ages of 15 and 64 drops drastically, Takahashi said.

That’s when a debate on foreign labor will be unavoidable, he predicted.


The number of Japanese between the ages of 15 and 64 is rising--an increase of 4.6 million is expected between 1985 and 1995. But after that, it is expected to decline sharply--by 2.3 million in the decade beginning in 1995. In an age group crucial for the job market, the ranks of 15- to 29-year-olds will shrink by more than 4.4 million. If economic demand in Japan is as strong then as it is now, Japanese may have to choose between stagnation or accepting foreign workers. The likely decision is foreign workers.