In April this year Japan opened its gates to foreign workers en masse. It’s a dramatic about-face for a nation long jealous of its cultural exclusivity. The exclusivity is no longer affordable. Aging rapidly, Japan needs workers. With so few children being born, where will they come from, if not overseas?
They’re already here, in record numbers steadily growing: 1.46 million as of 2018, says the labor ministry – a 14 percent rise over the year before. They span the economic and social spectrum. Entrepreneurs seek and find opportunities. Some blue collar workers tell tales of exploitation bordering on slavery. Spa! (Oct 29) gives us an overview.
Chinese investors in Japan long favored new urban “tower mansions” – high-rise high-end apartment buildings. It recalled Japan’s buy-up of American real estate in the 1980s. Both splurges caused anxiety in the host countries.
Rising Japanese prices and a depreciating Chinese currency caused a shift downscale. Over the past two years the focus has been away from high-rises towards more modest properties – some of them describable as positively run-down, with many vacant rooms and owners often too old to be interested in refurbishing. Enter the Chinese, who are younger and have ready cash – 80 million yen, let’s say, for purchase, plus another 30 million for renovation. Some investors go oven farther down-market than that, buying up decrepit properties for 15 million yen, putting 7 million into them and renting them out cheap, figuring on an 8 percent profit over time. This is good news for foreign workers on a tight budget, who often find Japanese landlords unwilling to rent to them.
Prominent in Japan’s used car business over the past five decades have been immigrants from Pakistan. Spa! says it all began in the 1970s with one Pakistani entrepreneur buying four Japanese used cars for resale in the homeland. Other Pakistanis followed, and it burgeoned from there, centered largely in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture. With Pakistan’s import regulations tightening lately, dealers are looking elsewhere – to Africa, for instance: Tanzania, Zambia, Congo, Uganda and Kenya among others. Used buses are in particular demand – so much so that Japanese are getting in on the action. Used Japanese vehicles have an excellent reputation worldwide – they’re said to be like new, thanks to the regular mandatory inspections all vehicles are put through.
How inviting the field is we gather from the story of Akhtar Naheed, CEO of Kawaguchi-based LATIF International – “a leading exporter,” says its website, “of used vehicles (including) sports cars, dumps and trucks, buses, construction and agricultural machinery…” Naheed came to Japan in 2003 as an MBA student at Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific University. Graduating, he went into management consulting, earning 700,000 yen a month – which he threw over, the car business seeming, and proving, the better, if less safe, bet.
That there’s money to be made in Japan, no one doubts. That there are skills to be acquired is widely believed, which is why the government-affiliated Technical Intern Training Program has drawn so many trainees, mostly from Asia, since its inception in 1993. Early on it acquired a reputation it never lost – as a cover for cheap labor under conditions scarcely distinguishable from slavery.
One story is very much like another, all alleging abusive treatment. “I worked all day every day for 300 yen an hour until finally my body broke down,” says a Chinese factory worker in her 30s. “I got burned while working,” says a Vietnamese cleaning plant employee in his 20s; “they said it was a barbeque accident. It was never treated properly.” He shows Spa! the scar.
Earlier this year the British multinational investment bank HSBC Holdings conducted a survey ranking countries in terms of popularity with foreign workers. Switzerland was first, Singapore second, Canada third, Vietnam 10th (which is interesting in view of how many Vietnamese come to Japan to work), the U.S. 23rd, China 26th, Japan 32nd. Something will have to change, if Japan hopes to fill its native labor shortage with foreigners.© Japan Today