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Learning to coexist with foreign workers, on whom Japan relies heavily

Tokyo Metropolitan University professor Kiyoto Tanno (Mainichi)

As Japan faces a huge labor shortage amid falling birthrates and an aging population, the business community has high expectations for foreign workers to fill in for the dwindling number of Japanese laborers.

In addition to the government-promoted acceptance of highly skilled workers and students from overseas, improved labor conditions and the Technical Intern Training Program have increased the number of foreign nationals living in Japan, year after year. However, a multitude of problems arise when it comes to long-term stays in Japan by foreign nationals.

The following is a summary of insights offered by Kiyoto Tanno, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University and an expert in labor sociology, on how the Japanese can coexist in harmony with the foreign nationals on whom Japan relies for labor.

As of October 2017, approximately 1.28 million foreign nationals were working in Japan, marking a record high at an increase of some 200,000 people from the previous year. Once the demand for construction laborers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics peters out, this growth is likely to slow down, but the total number of foreign nationals working in Japan is likely to continue growing.

The acceleration of demographic aging leads to a widening gap between the number of people who are leaving the workforce and the number of people who are entering it. Japan relies on foreign workers to secure its labor force. What we should be thinking about now is how to help foreign workers -- whose presence in Japan is growing -- to make "soft landings" in Japanese society.

Of the 1.28 million foreign workers in Japan, only around 230,000 people, or 19 percent, entered the country on "status of residence" documents permitting them to work. This means that Japanese society exists upon the labor of people who entered the country on non-work permits. It is difficult to protect those who cannot claim their rights as workers at their place of employment, since they fall through the cracks of labor-related legislation. Japan must first establish a framework in which foreign nationals who are already working here can continue to do so without worries, before accepting more foreign nationals into the country.

The Technical Intern Training Program, whose purpose is to allow people from developing countries to learn skills and technology in Japan, was originally established in 1993 as a way to contribute to the international community by sharing Japanese knowledge and technology to the developing world. However, the system has been highly criticized for effectively serving as a system of employing foreign nationals at low wages, rather than as a system for cultivating skills among foreign nationals. In fact, industries such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries, where fewer and fewer Japanese choose to work, have been buttressed by the labor provided by "technical interns" from the program. We are eating safe, Japanese-made food products that are actually the fruits of foreign labor.

In 2016, a law to increase scrutiny of employers who take in technical interns to ensure they're following labor regulations was passed, because the technical intern program had become a system that placed interns under tight restrictions, and benefitted only the Japanese companies and industries that accepted them. But what's more important, I believe, is to increase the options available to technical interns. If they are allowed to switch to another company or organization if they find that the one they are assigned to do not suit them, companies and organizations that force interns to work and live in horrible conditions will not survive.

Many Japanese may believe that foreigners would rather work in Japan to earn foreign currency than work in their own countries. However, the countries from which many foreign workers in Japan come are undergoing rapid economic growth, and narrowing their wealth disparity with Japan. Real estate in the city center of Sao Paulo, Brazil, is now more expensive than that of the Tokyo suburb of Hachioji, where Tokyo Metropolitan University is located. In the past decade, Brazil's minimum wage grew threefold, while Japan's has not. As it stands now, even if Brazilians come to work in Japan, the money they earn here isn't enough to build a home in Brazil.

Many children who've accompanied their Japanese-Brazilian parents to Japan can speak Japanese. Regardless of whether the Japanese government decides to change its policies to accept more immigrants, many people may, in the future, become immigrants anyway. But what's important to foreign laborers is whether they can have a "dream" in the country to where they're headed. People will not flock to countries where they have no chance of succeeding. From the perspective of foreign nationals, Japan, sadly, is not one conducive to envisioning and accomplishing dreams. Unless we treat the foreigners who are already here better, they will not come to our rescue when we truly need their manpower. Japan is moving closer and closer to being abandoned by foreign workers.

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