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Japanese Culture To Change As Foreign Workers Pour In

by Andrew Lam

A graying country with a shrinking work force and fear of foreigners
(PNS) TOKYO -- Two taboos have marked Japanese society since the end of World War II. The first: Engaging in military operations overseas, a constitutional no-no. The second: opening the country's gates to welcome immigrants, which threatens Japanese pride in their homogeneity.

Two weeks ago, Japan broke the first rule by agreeing to send troops to Iraq to aid the United States. Though the stated aim is peacekeeping, the move still puts soldiers in harm's way in volatile post-war Iraq.

Now the need for immigrant labor might see the second taboo falling as well.

Consider the facts. Japan's birth rate is among the lowest in the G-8, while its citizens' longevity is the highest in the world. By 2025, as many as one in four Japanese will be 65 or older. It's a graying country with a shrinking work force.

There are a mere 2 million foreigners working in Japan, less than 2 percent of the population. By contrast, foreign-born make up 11 percent of the U.S. population and account for half the increase in the labor force in the last decade.

Some argue that Japan should open its gates to foreign workers if it cares at all about its own future.

That's easier said than done. Those who argue against immigration cite the 6 percent unemployment rate, the worst economic crisis since World War II. Japan, they say, can't afford any more foreign workers.

In fact, many jobs in Japan remain unfilled. "It's a mismatched economy," says Tatsuya Torikoshi, an economist at Daiwa Research Institute in Tokyo. "There are two areas that are in serious shortage: information technology and the "silver" industry. People don't have the skills for the first, or don't want to work in the second." Information technology needs computer programmers and engineers, and "silver" -- referring to health care for Japan's aged population -- desperately needs support.

While some complain foreigners don't speak fluent Japanese, it's hard to imagine a bed-ridden, elderly person in a convalescent home choosing little or no care by an overstretched staff over attentive care by a Filipino nurse speaking poor Japanese.

Whether Japanese like it or not, the survival of major industries such as food processing, construction, autos and electronic is increasingly dependent on the sweat of foreign laborers.

A recent UN study estimates that Japan must bring in a whopping 600,000 foreign laborers a year to maintain current levels of economic output. "I wrack my brain wondering why Japan won't allow more people in," Torikoshi says.

The reason may simply be xenophobia. Racial purity still looms large in the Japanese mindset. When Japan's economy was booming, politicians celebrating homogeneity warned against immigration as the main cause of social destabilization.

The Rev. Hideotoshi Watanabe, an immigrant rights advocate, says Japanese society, while slowly changing, is still rife with prejudice. "There's discrimination against women, Ainu tribal people, the Burakumin (leather makers) and handicapped people. And, of course, against foreigners." Few immigrants are given permanent residence and fewer still citizenship. A third of foreigners in Japan are there illegally. Only recently were their children allowed to attend school in Japan.

Japanese know, however, that they need foreigners. "In Japan, foreigners do the "three d's" very well," says Watanabe. The three d's: difficult, dirty, and dangerous.

Take the case of Sankat Hossain, 35, who came from Bangladesh 15 years ago, and let his visa run out. Last year, Hossain lost his right thumb while moving steel pipes at his job in a metal production complex. Since then he has been sharing a small room with five others while he looks for work. "With my disability it's hard to find a new job. But I am afraid to leave Japan. I'll never be able to come back."

Hossain earned about $1,100 a month before the accident, and is now trying to file for compensation while avoiding deportation. "I've been in Japan for so long, I feel part Japanese. Besides, there's no job for me back in Bangladesh. If I go back now, my family there will starve."

Japan could fill some of its workforce holes by granting amnesty to the half million or so who have overstayed their visas like Hossain. But it needs a systematic immigration policy for those who come seeking work on its shores.

These days there is a new word the Japanese are trying to incorporate into their vocabulary: kyosei. Literally, it means living together, but it implies multi-racial cohabitation, glimpses of which can be seen at places like Ikebukuro station in Tokyo. There, restaurants and shops buzz with the sounds of Indian, Korean, Chinese, Iranian Vietnamese immigrants under iridescent neon lights -- a scene straight out of Blade Runner, but with more energy and verve.

"It's not true that Japanese culture is so unique," says Yamaguchi Tomoyuki, head of the Asian People's Friendship Society. "Even before immigration became an issue, Japan was changing. Is our passion for baseball unique? Is our taste for pizza unique?" Old culture disappears and new cultures arrive -- it's a matter of globalization, and Japan can't stop it, Tomoyuki says. "Immigrants will keep coming, as long as there is a demand for their sweat and blood."

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Albion Monitor August 6, 2003 (

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