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30 yrs of backing distressed foreigners in Japan (Pt.1): No more slave labor

Mirakuru, left, tearfully talks about her family's situation as Ippei Torii, right, encourages her, at the First Members' Office Building of the House of Representatives in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Feb. 25, 2021. (Mainichi/Natsuki Nishi)

NAGANO -- "I don't have a visa or resident card from the time I was born in Japan. But I want to live here," said Mirakuru, 17, a high school student of Ghanaian parents, as she shared her plight at a study session hosted by Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers in February at the members' office building of the House of Representatives in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

    Sitting next to her was Ippei Torii, 67, representative director of the NPO Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan (SMJ). He gently put his hand on her trembling shoulder. The residency status of Mirakuru's parents has expired. The family have been regularly appearing at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau and following its instructions. However, the recent directions they received tore the family apart. While granting the Japanese-born Mirakuru a visa to study in Japan, the bureau said that her parents might be deported.

    Her parents came to Japan around 1992, when Japan was looking for cheap labor, and have been working at a rubber products factory, among other places, for nearly 20 years. When Mirakuru was about to enter elementary school, her parents consulted with the local government, and the family was investigated by the immigration bureau for illegally staying in the country, and her father was temporarily detained in an immigration facility, but is now on provisional release.

    Invited to the study session, Torii said, "The right of families to live together is recognized internationally. The family should be granted Special Permission to Stay in Japan."

    Torii has been protecting the human rights of vulnerable foreign workers for about 30 years. In 2013, he was recognized by the U.S. Department of State as a "hero" in "the fight against human trafficking" for his efforts to raise global awareness about the plight of foreign technical intern trainees who were forced to work in Japan.

    Recently, Torii has felt anew that "the spread of the coronavirus has brought to light the distortion of Japanese society." On Jan. 2 this year, when the re-declaration of a state of emergency began to be discussed, he was listening to the complaints of foreign workers at a consulting event held at a park in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. Their position is precarious and susceptible to layoffs and other changes.

    Torii said indignantly, "Government documents are usually accepted only in Japanese, and there have been many foreigners who have not been able to receive the coronavirus-related 'special cash payment' (of 100,000 yen for which all residents of Japan were eligible.) With the coronavirus spreading, discrimination against foreigners is becoming more blatant."

    Meanwhile, travel restrictions have further escalated the labor shortage in industries such as manufacturing, agriculture, and fishing. Torii and his fellow staff members received comments from managers in various locations, saying, "These foreigners are excellent workers at our company."

    For more than 20 years, Torii has devoted himself to helping foreigners under the technical intern program, which has been the target of increasing criticism for being a system exploiting interns as cheap labor. In a monthly web conference led by SMJ with supporters from across the country, they report on cases of unfair dismissal and concealment of work-related accidents involving trainees. Recently, there has been an increase in the number of cases where trainees are dismissed when they find out they are pregnant and are forced to return to their home countries.

    In January, Torii negotiated with a company based on a consultation with a Vietnamese woman. The person in charge at the company explained, "Their main purpose is technical training. We have instructed them not to get pregnant." The reply was almost as if to say, "What's the problem?"

    Then, Torii asked, "Does your company do any follow-up (verification) after the trainees return to their home countries?" If Japanese companies are accepting trainees as a way to support developing countries, it would not be convincing if they are not verifying the effectiveness of the program. The person in charge could only remain silent.

    In February, Torii was invited by the House of Councillors to be a witness on the issue of foreign workers. His pet theory is that "the foreign technical intern program makes people disposable and creates slave labor."

    On this day, he stressed, "There has been severe criticism from the international community, and there has been a string of fraudulent acts and human rights violations." He continued that even though their status is trainees, "in reality, they are the labor force that supports Japanese society," and that "various human rights violations are occurring because the reality and public facade are far apart. The technical internship system should be abolished."

    (This is Part 1 of a three-part series)

    (Japanese original by Go Kumagai, Nagano Bureau)

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