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.
Japan will have two retirees for every three workers by 2060, a burden that could bankrupt pension and health-care systems.
Demographers have been noisily fretting about those numbers for years, but only in the past year have they grabbed the attention of important parts of this country's power structure.
A group of 80 politicians in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said last summer that Japan needs to welcome 10 million immigrants over the next 50 years. It said the goal of government policy should not be just to "get" immigrants, but to "nurture" them and their families with language and vocational training, and to encourage them to become naturalized citizens of Japan.
The country's largest business federation, the traditionally conservative Nippon Keidanren, said in the fall that "we cannot wait any longer to aggressively welcome necessary personnel." It pointed to U.N. calculations that Japan will need 17 million foreigners by 2050 to maintain the population it had in 2005.
Among highly developed countries, Japan has always ranked near the bottom in the percentage of foreign-born residents. Just 1.7 percent are foreign-born here, compared with about 12 percent in the United States.
The Japanese public remains deeply suspicious of immigrants. In an interview last year, then-Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda suggested that the prospect of large-scale immigration was politically toxic.
"There are people who say that if we accept more immigrants, crime will increase," Fukuda said. "Any sudden increase in immigrants causing social chaos [and] social unrest is a result that we must avoid by all means."
Here in Ueda, a city of about 125,000 people in the Nagano region, a recent survey found that residents worried that the city's 5,000 immigrants were responsible for crime and noise pollution.
"The feeling of the city is that if foreigners have lost their jobs, then they should leave the country," said Kooji Horinouti, a Brazilian immigrant of Japanese descent who works for the Bank of Brazil here and heads a local immigrant group.
It is not just the residents of Ueda. The Japanese government, until this month, had done little to train foreign-born workers in the country's language or to introduce them to life outside the factory towns where most of them work, according to Sakanaka, the immigration expert.
By contrast, the German government in recent years has offered up to 900 hours of subsidized language training to immigrants, along with other programs designed to integrate them into German society.
Japan had moved much, much more slowly.
It changed its highly restrictive immigration laws in 1990 to make it relatively easy for foreigners of Japanese descent to live here and work. The change generated the greatest response from Brazil, which has the world's largest population of immigrant Japanese and their descendants.
About 500,000 Brazilian workers and their families -- who have Japanese forebears but often speak only Portuguese -- have moved to Japan in the past two decades.
They have lived, however, in relatively isolated communities, clustered near factories. Because the government hired few Portuguese-speaking teachers for nearby public schools, many Brazilians enrolled their children in private Portuguese-language schools. With the mass firings of Brazilian workers in recent months, many of those schools have closed.
Paulino and Lidiane Onuma sent their 6-year-old daughter, Juliana, to the Novo Damasco school here in Ueda, where she has not learned to speak Japanese.
Her parents, too, speak and read little Japanese, although they moved to Japan as teenagers. There has been no government-sponsored program to teach them the language or how to negotiate life outside their jobs.
"Japan is finally realizing that it does not have a system for receiving and instructing non-Japanese speakers," said Sakanaka, the immigration policy expert. "It is late, of course, but still, it is important that the government has come to see this is a problem."
Had they known there would be language and job-training programs in Ueda, the Onuma family might not have sold their car and bought those tickets for Sao Paulo.
"If those programs existed now," Lidiane Onuma said, "I might have made a different choice."
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.