In a Shift, Japan Seeks to Help Laid-Off Immigrants Stay in the Country

Paulino and Lidiane Onuma, Brazilians of Japanese descent, and their daughters Juliana, left, and Leticia, are reluctantly heading back to Sao Paulo next month. Lidiane has lost her job, and Paulino's ends next week.
Paulino and Lidiane Onuma, Brazilians of Japanese descent, and their daughters Juliana, left, and Leticia, are reluctantly heading back to Sao Paulo next month. Lidiane has lost her job, and Paulino's ends next week. (By Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)
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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 23, 2009

UEDA, Japan -- The last thing that aging Japan can afford to lose is young people. Yet as the global economic crisis flattens demand for Japanese cars and electronic goods, thousands of youthful, foreign-born factory workers are getting fired, pulling their children out of school and flying back to where they came from.

Paulino and Lidiane Onuma have sold their car and bought plane tickets for Sao Paulo, Brazil. They are going back next month with their two young daughters, both of whom were born here in this factory town. His job making heavy machinery for automobile plants ends next week. She lost her job making box lunches with black beans and spicy rice for the city's Brazilian-born workers, most of whom have also been dismissed and are deciding whether to leave Japan.

"We have no desire to go home," said Paulino Onuma, 29, who has lived here for 12 years and earned about $50,000 a year, far more than he says he could make in Brazil. "We are only going back because of the situation."

That situation -- the extreme exposure of immigrant families to job loss and their sudden abandonment of Japan -- has alarmed the government in Tokyo and pushed it to create programs that would make it easier for jobless immigrants to remain here in a country that has traditionally been wary of foreigners, especially those without work.

"Our goal is to get them to stay," said Masahiko Ozeki, who is in charge of an interdepartmental office that was established this month in the cabinet of Prime Minister Taro Aso. "As a government, we have not done anything like this before."

Japanese-language courses, vocational training programs and job counseling are being put together, Ozeki said, so immigrants can find work throughout the Japanese economy. There is a shortage of workers here, especially in health care and other services for the elderly.

So far, government funding for these emerging programs is limited -- slightly more than $2 million, far less than will be needed to assist the tens of thousands of foreign workers who are losing jobs and thinking about giving up on Japan. But Ozeki said the prime minister will soon ask parliament for considerably more money -- exactly how much is still being figured out -- as part of a major economic stimulus package to be voted on early this year.

The government's effort to keep jobless foreigners from leaving the country is "revolutionary," according to Hidenori Sakanaka, former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau and now director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, a research group in Tokyo.

"Japan has a long history of rejecting foreign residents who try to settle here," he said. "Normally, the response of the government would have been to encourage these jobless people to just go home. I wouldn't say that Japan as a country has shifted its gears to being an immigrant country, but when we look back on the history of this country, we may see that this was a turning point."

Sakanaka said the government's decision will send a much-needed signal to prospective immigrants around the world that, if they choose to come to Japan to work, they will be treated with consideration, even in hard economic times.

There is a growing sense among Japanese politicians and business leaders that large-scale immigration may be the only way to head off a demographic calamity that seems likely to cripple the world's second-largest economy.

No country has ever had fewer children or more elderly as a percentage of its total population. The number of children has fallen for 27 consecutive years. A record 22 percent of the population is older than 65, compared with about 12 percent in the United States. If those trends continue, in 50 years, the population of 127 million will have shrunk by a third; in a century, by two-thirds.

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