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30 yrs of backing distressed foreigners in Japan (Pt. 2): US honors grassroots action

Ippei Torii, left, is honored by the U.S. Department of State as a "hero in the fight against human trafficking," in Washington on June 19, 2013. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of State)

NAGANO -- Ippei Torii, 67, representative director of Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan (SMJ), a nonprofit organization that continues to support foreign workers, has no middle finger on his left hand.

    In 1980, when he was in his 20s, he was working at a factory in Arakawa Ward, Tokyo, processing plastic into molds when a metal mold collapsed and he lost his finger. At that workplace, a colleague also suffered an accident on the job, but the company took no action and also tried to crush union activities. Torii consulted with a labor union that he could join individually, which led him to throw himself into the labor movement.

    Torii became a full-time employee of the union, and in 1991, he received a consultation from a young Bangladeshi man who was working in a metal stamping factory in Japan and lost three fingers after they were caught in a machine. The activist visited the hospital where the young man had been treated to help him apply for workers' compensation. In the waiting room, there were many people from Asia with bandages on their hands and feet. "Something terrible is happening," Torii thought. As word spread among foreign workers that a Japanese labor union had assisted a Bangladeshi worker in his industrial accident proceedings, Torii began to receive a stream of consultations.

    Some members of the union warned him that he would be neglecting support for Japanese workers, but Torii persisted, saying, "I will work on my own time, only on weekends." During the "bubble economy" period from 1986 to 1991, the labor shortage became serious, and foreigners who came to Japan on tourist and other visas continued to work in the construction and manufacturing industries. In 1993, after the bursting of the bubble economy, the number of undocumented foreign residents rose to about 300,000.

    "The Japanese government had a policy of accepting foreign nationals. But as soon as the economy goes down, it's quick to deport them. That's opportunistic policy," Torii said critically. To support foreign workers who had been treated badly, he established the SMJ in 1997 in cooperation with support groups in various regions, and later became its representative director. Currently, more than 100 organizations have joined the SMJ.

    Torii has provided advice to many technical intern trainees and he is often left puzzled. Many of the business owners who accept trainees seem honest and kind. But somehow, these owners have come to underestimate and treat the trainees, who are in a weak position, roughly. Torii was convinced that "the system changes people." He began to believe that, "We must not let management do that. We must change society, which passes the system's contradictions on to the front lines."

    As he began to participate in more international conferences on labor issues, Torii began to develop the habit of thinking about the domestic situation in terms of international standards. When he asked the SMJ members to look up materials from the U.S. Department of State, which aims to eradicate slave labor, he realized that the situation faced by technical trainees in Japan, who face difficulties leaving their positions because their passports have been taken from them and for other reasons, fits the definition of "human trafficking."

    Just as Torii and others continued to complain that "the foreign technical intern trainee system is a form of human trafficking," they were contacted by the U.S. government. Since 2007, the U.S. Department of State has pointed out the possibility of widespread exploitation of workers under the technical internship system, and in 2013, Torii was honored by the State Department as a "hero in the fight against human trafficking." At the award ceremony held in Washington, Torii realized that "grassroots movements are shaking the United States."

    Since receiving the award, the environment surrounding Torii has changed drastically. Some Japanese bureaucrats began to repeatedly visit the SMJ office to ask for advice. There is room for cooperation, even if their positions are different. In February of this year, Torii and Mirakuru, 17, a high school student in Japan who has undocumented Ghanaian parents and is afraid of deportation, attended a study session organized by ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers because Torii thought, "Some conservative members of the Diet are also interested in human rights issues involving foreigners (in Japan)."

    Kenichiro Hiraga, 79, an adviser to the policy network of small- and medium-sized labor unions, who has been working with Torii for more than 30 years, said, "Torii has unearthed problems in society not from a broad perspective, but from the viewpoint of working people, and has made them known to the public. He also did a good job in lobbying to impress Diet members."

    (This is Part 2 of a three-part series)

    (Japanese original by Go Kumagai, Nagano Bureau)

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