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Shrinking Japan: Local support seen as key to smooth integration of foreign residents

A bonsai tree cultivation class is seen on Oct. 5, 2018, in the town of Oizumi, Gunma Prefecture. Oizumi offers classes in Japanese culture such as this aimed at foreign residents as part of its "multicultural coexistence program." (Mainichi/Naoki Sugi)

OIZUMI, Gunma -- There is a corner supermarket in this town much like any number of shops across Japan, but for one detail: the sign proclaims it to be a "Super Mercado." The Portuguese-language signage is hardly a surprise when looking at the shoppers coming in and out, most of whom are Brazilian.

Oizumi, in Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, is home to factories run by electronics firm Panasonic Corp. and automaker Subaru Corp., as well as numerous small and medium-sized businesses that have grown up to fill the needs of the big plants. The town has a population of about 40,000, some 18 percent of whom are foreign citizens -- one of the highest ratios anywhere in Japan. This has drawn the interest of many other municipalities, and Oizumi receives a steady stream of requests from local governments to send observers to find out how the town has adapted. It has even been called "a snapshot of Japan's future."

Foreign communities first began to form in Oizumi about 30 years ago, after a 1990 revision to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act opened the way for "Nikkei," or people with Japanese ancestry, to come to the country to work. Still riding the highs of the "bubble economy" at the time, Japan was short of workers, and the descendants of Japanese immigrants to Brazil came to fill the labor needs of the local factories. The foreign population declined somewhat after the bubble burst and again in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, but there was no mass exodus.

The reason for the community's resilience is the core of foreign residents that have decided to settle permanently in the town. In a 1991 survey of foreign residents conducted by the Oizumi local government, about 70 percent said they intended to return to their home country within three years. In fact, however, increasing numbers of them married, had children and chose to make a life in the town. Oizumi conducted the same survey in 2000, and found that only around 20 percent of respondents planned to leave within three years, while it was no longer uncommon for these residents to have homes.

However, frictions emerged between the foreign and Japanese townspeople, and the trouble was not limited to the Japanese townspeople's frustrations with foreigners failing to observe garbage-sorting rules. Pregnant women in Japan get a maternity health record book used to track their condition all the way up to giving birth, and some pregnant foreign women complained that medical institutions expressed reluctance to admit them for not having the booklet. Men who had not registered for unemployment insurance lost their homes when they were laid off.

"The root of a lot of these problems was the language barrier," an Oizumi town employee told the Mainichi Shimbun.

The town began trying different ways of overcoming that barrier and getting necessary information to its foreign residents. For example, it launched classes in tea ceremony and bonsai aimed at foreigners, where officials would also distribute essential community information on everything from disaster prevention to garbage sorting. They also had the participants register their email addresses, counting on them to forward the town's messages to their friends and family and thereby boost information access across the entire foreign community.

Oizumi also prints a monthly Portuguese-language information pamphlet for the more than half of its foreign residents hailing from Brazil. In 2007, the town opened a counter to provide daily life support services to foreigners, and established Japanese classes taught by professional language instructors at all its public primary and junior high schools. Strong public-private cooperation is also said to have played a big part in reducing frictions with Japanese residents.

"Support here is more generous than in other municipalities, so I think it's an easy place for foreigners to live," commented 50-year-old Eder Hashizume, a Brazilian of Japanese descent who has lived in Oizumi for some 20 years.

However, the makeup of the town's foreign population is shifting. In 2008, Brazilians made up about 73 percent of Oizumi's foreign residents. That ratio has now dropped to 56 percent. Meanwhile, Nepalese now make up 9 percent of the town's foreigners, up from just 0.4 percent in 2008. Oizumi officials are beginning to feel the limits of what a single municipality can do to respond with the needed support. If changes to Japan's immigration law now being debated in the Diet and intended to attract large numbers of foreign workers go into effect, the impact could be even greater than the 1990 revisions.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the House of Representatives on Oct. 29 that "enhanced Japanese language education, support to secure places to live, and promoting registration with social security programs are all being considered" to help foreign workers establish themselves in Japan. Despite this pledge, Oizumi Mayor Toshiaki Murayama says he's not optimistic.

"There still hasn't been enough preparation to accept (more foreign workers)," he said. "To be honest, I am worried about opening the door further."

Meanwhile, the central government has established a committee of officials and experts to make recommendations on creating the best possible environment to accept so many more foreign residents. Since September this year, the committee has considered measures including unifying help desks at all Japan's municipalities into a single body, boosting the quality of Japanese language schools, and establishing procedures to handle foreign patients at medical facilities. The committee is striving to submit its recommendations by the end of this year.

However, municipalities that are already home to large foreign populations have been taking matters into their own hands. Of 48 municipalities with high ratios of foreign residents surveyed by the Mainichi Shimbun, 39 said they were "implementing measures to accept more foreigners and integrate them into the community."

Government administrative services are provided to foreign residents almost entirely by local governments, and there are increasing calls for the central government to provide support and financial guarantees to make sure these services can be maintained after the immigration law revisions go into effect. Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita said during a recent interview with news outlets, "It's extremely important for us to coordinate with local governments. I want to consider what kinds of support are possible."

(Japanese original by Naoki Sugi, Maebashi Bureau)

This is Part 7 of a series.

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