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Foreign Guest Workers Suffer "Shameful" Abuse in Japan

New York Times  |  August 25, 2008  |  Share

KAWAKAMI, Japan - After a day's work in the lettuce fields, the young Chinese men began arriving at their favorite gathering spot here, a short concrete bridge in the center of town. Soon, more than a dozen were leaning against one of the railings, one man leisurely resting his elbow on another's shoulder, others lighting Chinese cigarettes.

Some Japanese crossed the bridge on foot, hugging the other railing, followed by a young Japanese man the Chinese recognized on sight. "Japanese?" one of the Chinese workers joked.

"Japanese, of course," the passer-by said without slowing down. "You can tell by looking."

The brief exchange was a subtle recognition of the conspicuous presence of 615 Chinese living temporarily in Kawakami, a farming community of about 4,400 Japanese residents about 100 miles west of Tokyo. Five years ago, unable to find enough young local residents or to draw seasonal workers, Kawakami's aging farmers hired about 40 Chinese on seven-month contracts.

Now half of the town's 600 farming households depend on temporary workers from China. And Kawakami expects to hire more foreign workers next year, not only from China but also, for the first time, from the Philippines.

With one of the world's most rapidly aging populations and lowest birthrates, Japan is facing acute labor shortages not only in farming towns like Kawakami but also in fishing villages, factories, restaurants and nursing homes, and on construction sites. Closed to immigration, Japan has admitted foreign workers through various loopholes, including employing growing numbers of foreign students as part-timers and temporary workers, like the Chinese here, as so-called foreign trainees.

But that unofficial supply route has left some businesses continually scrambling for a dependable work force and the foreigners vulnerable to abuse. With Japan's population projected to decline steeply over the next decades, the failure to secure a steady work force could harm the nation's long-term economic competitiveness.

"It's not only in farming but everywhere else," said Kenichiro Takano, an official at Kawakami's agriculture cooperative. "If we don't at least start by allowing in unskilled laborers for a limited period and for a limited number of times, and then come up with long-term solutions, Japan won't have a sufficient work force. The deadline is approaching."

The labor shortage has grown serious enough that a group of influential politicians in the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party recently released a report calling for the admission of 10 million immigrants in the next 50 years.

Junichi Akashi, an immigration specialist at the University of Tsukuba who advised the group, said its members had come to realize how Japan had come to depend on foreign laborers.

"There is no doubt about that," Mr. Akashi said. "They've increased sharply in the last two to three years."

The foreign work force in Japan rose to more than one million in 2006 from fewer than 700,000 in 1996. But experts say that it will have to increase by significantly more to make up for the expected decline in the Japanese population. The government projects that Japan's population, 127 million, will fall to between 82 million and 99 million by 2055. Moreover, because the population is graying, the share that is of working age is expected to shrink even faster.

That could pose problems for companies like Yoshinoya, a large restaurant chain. Starting in 2000, with insufficient numbers of Japanese job applicants, the chain turned to foreign students who are allowed to work part time.

Today, its 3,360 employees include 791 foreigners, 564 of them students. Without the foreign workers, "we probably wouldn't be able to operate some stores," said Shinichiro Kawakami, an executive in the Tokyo area.

What is more, the chain plans to triple the number of its stores nationwide to 3,000. "To reach our target, in a country where the people are getting older and the birthrate is getting lower, we'll have to hire either older workers or foreigners," Mr. Kawakami said. He added that the chain also needed to hire foreigners as store managers, a category of workers not allowed in under current laws.

Here in Kawakami - which began growing lettuce, traditionally not part of the Japanese diet, for American soldiers during the postwar occupation - farmers could depend on Japanese college students or part-time workers during the planting and harvesting seasons until five years ago. Then hardly any came, and those who did stayed only a few days, finding the work too hard.

"Some stayed the night, and in the morning I'd find them gone," said Noriko Yui, 72, who was working in her field with two Chinese workers on a recent afternoon. "The Chinese have perseverance."

Her two Chinese workers, Li Shude, 24, and Jiang Cheng, 25, share a small, stand-alone room behind Ms. Yui's house, where they sleep on two single beds put together. Each had taped a photo of his child on a wall.

They, like the other Chinese workers here, are from Jilin Province in northeast China and are paid $775 per month, or $5,425 over their seven months here. But most of the Chinese interviewed here said they had paid about half of the total, or about $2,700, to the agency that had arranged their employment here.

Mr. Jiang, who grows corn and Chinese cabbage back home, said he would use part of his earnings to buy pigs and chickens.

"I like the environment here," he said. "The air is clean, and I'm not homesick because there are many other Chinese here."

By all accounts, the Chinese workers here, who are technically considered foreign trainees and are not counted among Japan's foreign workers, are treated well compared with others in the same category.

The foreign trainee system was established in the mid-1990s, in theory to transfer technical expertise to young foreigners who would then apply the knowledge at home. After one year of training, the foreigners are allowed to work for two more years in their area of expertise. But the reality is that the foreign trainees - now numbering about 100,000 - have become a source of cheap labor. They are paid less than the local minimum wage during the first year, and little emphasis is placed on teaching them technical skills. Advocates for the foreign workers have reported abuses, unpaid wages and restrictions on their movements at many job sites. Mr. Nakamura, the Liberal Democratic politician, said the foreign trainee system was "shameful," but added that if it were dismantled, businesses would not be able to find Japanese replacements.

Most foreign trainees in agriculture, like the Chinese here, end up leaving in less than a year because little work is available after the farming season.

The Chinese interviewed here said they came to Japan primarily to make money, but some wished they could stay longer to learn more about farming and the country.

"It's unfortunate that we have to go back home just as we were getting settled here and learning to speak some Japanese," said Yang Shangli, 26, one of the men relaxing on the bridge at the center of town.

The large presence of the Chinese workers has unsettled some Japanese here even as they have become increasingly dependent on them. Some vaguely mentioned the fear of crime, though they acknowledged that crime rates had not risen. No Japanese interviewed welcomed the idea of immigrants here or elsewhere in Japan.

"I feel a strange sense of oppression," Toshimitsu Ide, 28, a lettuce farmer who had not hired any Chinese workers, said of seeing large groups of Chinese hanging around town. "They seem hard to approach."

Perhaps because of the Japanese unease, the Chinese workers were given directives apparently aimed at curbing their movements, even before they arrived. They said they were told to go home by 8 p.m. and not to ride bicycles except for work. Some even said they had been instructed not to talk to young Japanese women.

Still, for many residents who had not seen a single foreigner in this area until a few years ago, Kawakami had changed fundamentally.

"Though I'm in Japan," said Toshimitsu Yui, 57, who works in construction, "I feel this is not Japan anymore."

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