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Just when it needs more of them, will foreign workers shun Japan?

16 Comments
Image: maroke/iStock

"Japan is no longer the country of choice." That's how business magazine Toyo Keizai (Dec 2) begins its cover series about the time in the not-so-distant when foreigner workers shun Japan for other countries.

A 36-year-old Vietnamese man named Nguyen, who works for an organization that sends technical trainees abroad, tells the reporter that ambitious young workers have set their sights on South Korea, which offers higher wages and takes the acceptance of foreign labor more seriously.

"In descending order of preference, right now it would be South Korea, Japan and Taiwan," Nguyen tells the magazine. "But Taiwan is rapidly catching up with Japan. In 2022, per capita GDPs of the three countries, between U.S. $32,000 and $33,000, were roughly at parity."

Toyo Keizai cites data by the research arm of the Mitsubishi UFJ Bank showing that the average monthly wages for foreign technical trainees were ¥212,000 in Japan, as opposed to the equivalent of ¥272,000 in South Korea and ¥142,000 in Taiwan. Wages for the latter, however, have been climbing rapidly, and from April 2022, Taiwan made moves to accord residence status to foreign workers with specific technical skills.

In the case of Japan, the system of bringing in foreign technical trainees, as initiated from 1993, was regarded as part of Japan's overseas development assistance program, and such trainees were never intended to become part of the nation's labor pool. This is also why so many were relegated to "3K" jobs -- rendered in English as "3D," for dirty, difficult and dangerous -- in such sectors as agriculture, fisheries, foodstuffs, construction, textiles and so on.

On October 18, a panel of government-appointed labor experts issued its recommendations for revising the present system of designating foreign worker status, which would affect limitations on duration of stay, the right to change employers, and allow for a foreign worker's family members to enter the country. It also clarified that the aim of the new system should not be positioned as part of the international development assistance program, but to augment Japan's labor pool.

The bureaucrats' counterproposal was lukewarm at best, requiring those wishing to change employers to have worked for the same employer for one to two years, and be able to pass a qualification test in the Japanese language.

At a November 16 press conference held by the Labor Lawyers Association of Japan, attorney Shoichi Ibusuki pointed out, "Without the right to change employers, foreign trainees are forced to stay at their jobs, even when incidences of sexual harassment, power harassment, non-payment of wages and other problems occur."

The number of foreign workers rose from 710,000 in 2013 to 1.82 million in 2022. Over the next five years, the Immigration Services Agency estimates a total shortfall of 345,150 foreign workers in 12 business fields, the big three of which are foodstuffs production, care providing and industrial manufacturing.

Toyo Keizai also raises four essential questions about foreign workers and the ways they may impact on the national economy. First, if more foreigners come here to work, will Japan's labor productivity increase? Second, are the policies aimed at entry of foreign workers equivalent to a de facto immigration policy? Third, what effect will foreign workers have on the Japan's pension and insurance schemes? And fourth, what effect has the lower value of the Japan yen had on foreign workers who remit money home?

Over 32 pages, the magazine presents loads of statistical data, while maintaining an objective, common-sense position on the issue. But one observation in particular, on the matter of immigration, stood out: "It can be said that the 'stealth immigration policy' to which Japan currently adheres—in that its economic needs are addressed while direct debate on immigration is avoided -- continues unchanged."

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16 Comments
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Shun a country that rejects foreign workers and expose them to systematic abuse by companies? that would be an obvious result, and there is nothing indicating this will be corrected. Japan depended on workers not having a better option to choose, unfortunately for the country the same situation as with professional jobs with higher pay is being repeated and people now have better destinations to choose from.

-13 ( +23 / -36 )

"It can be said that the 'stealth immigration policy' to which Japan currently adheres—in that its economic needs are addressed while direct debate on immigration is avoided -- continues unchanged."

But why can't the debate be had? Is the worry that Japanese would rather vote for oblivion? If so, why is that? Because they believe what they have been told: that Japan, as an island country, is too special and unique for outsiders to ever understand and contribute? What a paradox. Solved for the moment only by corporations deceiving the people in yet another way. Let's have the debate and get it all out in the open.

-3 ( +22 / -25 )

At a November 16 press conference held by the Labor Lawyers Association of Japan, attorney Shoichi Ibusuki pointed out, "Without the right to change employers, foreign trainees are forced to stay at their jobs, even when incidences of sexual harassment, power harassment, non-payment of wages and other problems occur."

In the West undocumented migrants are treated this way by exploitative employers for fear of their immigration status being reveled.

In Japan Inc. it is business as usual and the authorities are supporting the exploitative employers.

-16 ( +15 / -31 )

will foreign workers shun Japan

hmm, long hours, low pay, short vacation time, treated like 2nd rate citizens?

what’s not to like? Nothing to worry about, Japan……..

-9 ( +23 / -32 )

Not sure South Korea is a better place to work though. Their working culture and the passive racism is way worst than Japan's.

However, how about Singapore, Malaysia, or Hong Kong? Last I've heard they have way better salaries and working conditions than both Japan and South Korea together.

Anyone can advise?

12 ( +14 / -2 )

Just to get back to Japan I'd work any job in which I am trained. Alas, I'm too old to be hired anymore. Maybe they could use me as a greeter in a department store. I'd go.

5 ( +8 / -3 )

I wonder why Japan thinks only Vietnamese & Filipinos are the only choice?

There's always Nepalese, Bhutanese, Thai, Burmese, etc.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

But none of this applies to the English teaching in Japan does it). English teachers in Japan don’t give a jot about salaries, they don’t give a damn about the collapsing yen, they are just so thrilled to be in Japan.

But other groups of foreigners do care about money and the pathetic yen. With so many choices of countries, they will give Japan a miss.

-18 ( +5 / -23 )

In the West undocumented migrants are treated this way by exploitative employers for fear of their immigration status being reveled. 

Especially most of them being illegal, expect that to happen.

In Japan Inc. it is business as usual and the authorities are supporting the exploitative employers.

This is bad because everyone comes in legally, follows all the rules, and then gets abused and exploited.

-8 ( +6 / -14 )

There are over 200,000 Brazilians living in Japan, the minimum wage in Brazil is R$ 1,320 that makes only 39,600 yen a month. Here in Japan, I have been working with Vietnamese, Filipinos, people from Thailand, China, Nepal, India, Peru, Bolivia, Africa, all very happy to be here despite the weakening of yen. The main problem of working is the irregular time shift that makes it very difficult to create a routine to study Japanese or another technical course. But I heard

9 ( +14 / -5 )

Shimizu San,

wake up. Japan treats foreign workers as modern slaves under the disguise of student visa holders. Rape of female workers is common, the government ignores the 29hr max work time.

true, the foreign workers are a bit better off than in their countries but instead of exploiting their need to make money Japan could actually treat them like human beings

-11 ( +9 / -20 )

Japan just can’t accept multiculturalism and hill the cronies in the LDP rule the roost nothing will change!

-11 ( +5 / -16 )

"Japan is no longer the country of choice."

Never was.

-11 ( +4 / -15 )

Reap what you sow, etc. Insularity and xenophobia will bring these consequences. Maybe the majority of young Japanese these days don't possess these unfortunate traits, but it's the dinosaurs who hold the power that make things this way.

-4 ( +6 / -10 )

It's not the foreigners, who are always in the lead. Sorry.

-9 ( +0 / -9 )

"It can be said that the 'stealth immigration policy' to which Japan currently adheres—in that its economic needs are addressed while direct debate on immigration is avoided -- continues unchanged."

Avoiding difficult and necessary conversations while focusing on unproductive and short sighted tasks are the very reason for the problem with the Japanese workplace in the first place. People that come to live and work here will very soon find themselves staring straight at this unspoken pink elephant in the room. There is little will to change however, nor to improve so foreign workers often find themselves just seen as a nuisance for asking silly questions

That is the reality and we all know it. Starts in the schools , follows in to the workplace. They know they COULD do things better but there is zero sense of individual agency and no one wants to take responsibility to try and change anything. The motto is , ‘Why bother when you can get away with expediency.’ It’s not good, but it’s not an absolute disaster, so just leave it.

Living in Japan certainly has its charms but living in a real life and even sillier version of the Office certainly ain’t one of them. Do your research well before you make the move people. You can get somewhere if you work hard and smart, and a bit of luck, but it aint for the light hearted.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

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