BBC News, Oct. 5
In the third of a special series on Japan,
BBC News Onlines Sarah Buckley reports on how an ageing population is
forcing people to reconsider attitudes to immigration.
The name Sony summons visions of all things Japanese.
Yet its chairman, Iwao Nakatani, recently called for mass immigration, opening
Japan to different faces and influences.
Mr Nakatani is worried because Japanese are living
longer, yet having fewer children. The result is a shrinking workforce which
threatens economic growth.
In recognition, the government is thinking of
loosening its restrictive immigration policy.
But any changes may come as a shock to a nation
where registered foreigners make up just over 1% of its population.
Yoko Nakamura, a 52-year-old woman in Tokyo, said
that living in Europe and Australia had shown her the advantages of Japans
Everyone has the same hair colour and the
same eye colour. You feel maybe the guy next to you is feeling the same way,
so its a good feeling to be homogenous, she said.
It is difficult to know how common this attitude
is. Of those interviewed on the streets of Tokyo, as many were enthusiastic
as alarmed about an influx of foreign workers.
For many foreigners living in Japan, however,
discrimination is a real problem. Treatment appears to be determined by a range
of factorsfrom socio-economic status to ethnic background.
Gemba, a Senegalese who works in a topless bar
in the red-light district of Kabukicho, said: Every day, I feel discriminated
against. Japanese people dont like foreigners.
If you are inside a train, the Japanese
will not sit close to the foreigners.
He said he had overheard people talking about
him in Japanese as though he were stupid.
But the situation is complex, affected by factors
like profession, income and appearance.
Aarthi Muniswamy, an Indian IT worker from Chiba
prefecture, said her nationality carried positive associations in Japan.
In some parts of Japan they think people
from India are very brainy, she said.
Faced with calls to relax immigration restrictions,
the government has shown some flexibility. The immigration bureau is in talks
with the Philippines about accepting Filipino care workersbadly needed
to help look after Japans elderly.
The difficulty, however, comes when considering
unskilled labourers, who are currently not allowed to work in Japan.
And they are just the kind of people Japan needs
most as its population ages, according to Tony Laszlo, director of an anti-discrimination
organisation in Tokyo.
In 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, you have
to ask yourself who is going to be finding the holes in the tunnel and patching
them up so people dont die, who is going to be climbing the buildings
to wash the windows, who is going to be building bridges and fixing bridges,
and the answer is you dont have these people, he said.
Illegal labour could take up some of the slack.
Japanese authorities say there are 250,000 illegal immigrants, the majority
of whom entered the country on a temporary visa and over-stayed. Many of these
people are thought to work as unskilled labourers.
But the government wants to halve that number
in the next five years, and it does not appear ready to legalise unskilled foreign
Isao Negishi, assistant director to Japans
immigration policy planner, argued that doing so would threaten Japanese peoples
jobs in sectors like constructionan industry where work is currently scarce.
As the population continues to age, however, economic
arguments against bringing in unskilled labour will weaken. Emotional arguments,
though, will stand.
It is likely that any unskilled workers will come
from countries which are geographically closenamely China and Korea. And
of Japans neighbours, it is these countries who still hold the strongest
grudge against Japans wartime behaviour.
Mr Laszlo said that relations with Korea had improved
markedly over the last two or three years. The 2002 World Cup, which Japan and
South Korea jointly hosted, helped ties, and there has been a recent upsurge
in interest in South Korean culture.
China, though, continues to have delicate relations
with Japan. The outrage sparked by a Japanese orgy in China last December, and
the riots following Japans victory over China in the Asian Cup earlier
this year, have scratched wartime era wounds.
Hideko Yamamota, a 48-year-old Chinese woman born
in Japan, said she had suffered discrimination.
One of my teachers said: Why should
I help a Chinese person get a job? I was very upset. If theres crime
and you are there, then you are questioned by police.
In light of such testimony, Japans government
faces a difficult choice between relaxing its immigration policy and possibly
upsetting social stability, or jeopardising the countrys long-term economic