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Chapter Eight

For Japan’s migrant population, life on the sidelines takes a heavy toll

With falling fertility rates and an ageing population, Japan’s demographic challenges are especially acute. Around 28 per cent of the national population are now 65 or older, a proportion that is set to rise further in the coming years while the number of younger Japanese declines. As a result, there is likely to be a growing need for foreign workers to fill the gap. Yet to date, in a society that has traditionally seen itself as homogenous and self-contained, immigration remains a divisive issue.  

A new visa system, facilitating the arrival of up to 345,000 immigrants over the next five years, came into effect in April 2019.  This policy, the first time the Japanese government has publicly acknowledged the need for immigrant labour, sparked widespread resistance across the political spectrum. Many lawmakers expressed fears that migration on this scale would undermine Japanese identity and pose a threat to national security.  

Activists taking part in a demonstration for foreign workers' rights.

Activists taking part in a demonstration for foreign workers’ rights.

This is despite the fact that immigration to Japan has been ongoing for more than a century, beginning with the colonization of the Korean peninsula and the subsequent importation of over a million Koreans as labourers, often by force, by the end of the Second World War. Many of their descendants, even those resident for multiple generations, are still classified as ‘foreigners’ – a situation that reflects the country’s contradictory attitude to its minorities.  More recently, in the early 1990s, Japan permitted the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Brazilians and Peruvians of Japanese descent, known as nikkeijin. Shortly after, in 1993, the Technical Intern Training Programme (TITP) began: this initiative, presented as an opportunity for citizens in neighbouring countries such as China and Vietnam to gain work experience and professional development opportunities in Japan, remains in place to this day.  

The new law, for all the controversy it has generated, does not in fact represent a fundamental shift in the government’s attitude to immigrants: its architect, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has himself stated that ‘this is not an immigration policy’. It does not contain any provisions to strengthen protections for migrants, for example, nor extend their limited rights to education and health care. Ultimately, it continues a long political tradition in Japan of viewing immigrants as an expediency, to be used as needed without welcoming them as long-term residents, let alone citizens.   

According to Makiko Ando, Deputy Secretary-General of the Solidary Network with Migrants Japan (SMJ), the Japanese government has tended to regard its migrant population as an expendable resource and generally felt little responsibility for their wellbeing while in the country. This was evident back in 2009 when, in the wake of the global financial crisis and widespread job loss, the government offered nikkeijin – resident in Japan for almost decades and overseeing some of the dirtiest, most demanding work – a one-off payment to leave. Now, too, as demand for labour gears up ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and beyond, Ando says that the government is focusing on how to bring in ‘fresh, young’ immigrants while taking steps to remove many migrants who have been resident in Japan for a long time, particularly those who are currently undocumented. ‘The Japanese government,’ says Ando, ‘thinks, “They are undocumented – they violated the law. We will get a new labour force so we don’t need them anymore.”’ The government, she adds, ‘sees them like criminals’ – hence its plans to promote a ‘clearance’ ahead of the Olympics.  

Given the lack of official support and protection, SMJ was founded in 1997 to champion migrant workers and advocate for greater recognition of their contribution to Japanese society. More than two decades on, however, many of the same barriers remain – not only issues around labour exploitation, such as unpaid wages, long hours and dangerous working conditions, but also broader challenges around hate speech, exclusion and invisibility. Migrant women, in particular, are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment from their employers and are also exposed to high levels of domestic violence. These are complex problems that require a range of responses, from counselling and health care to legal assistance and public advocacy. Fortunately, SMJ brings together a wide range of stakeholders, from academics and lawyers to politicians and activists, who contribute their expertise to its various programmes.  

Activists participate in the annual March in March in Tokyo, calling for equality and human rights for foreign workers.‘I am making your convenience store’s bento!’ An activist holds a placard at the march.

While a significant part of its activities focus on addressing the day-to-day needs of migrant workers, such as access to education and health care, SMJ also plays a leading role in lobbying on their behalf with the Japanese government. One of their central objectives is the abolition of the TITP programme, until now one of the main gateways for foreign workers to enter Japan. Hundreds of thousands of ‘technical intern trainees’ have been brought into the country through the scheme, lured by the promise of training and career development within a Japanese company. The reality, however, typically falls far short of their expectations, and recruits are often tasked with very different duties to those agreed in their contracts. Frequently overworked and underpaid, many also suffer other human rights violations including verbal abuse, physical violence and sexual assault.  

Similar in some respect to the difficulties facing foreign labourers in the Gulf, migrant workers entering Japan through TITP typically sign a contract that ties them to a single employer, and can face imprisonment, fines and deportation if they try to find work elsewhere. This leaves them with few options if they experience misconduct or harassment. The situation is not aided by the fact that trainees are recruited through a complex arrangement between brokers and sending organizations in their country of origin, on the one hand, and supervising agencies and companies on the other. This creates an opaque and unaccountable system that can easily enable exploitation.  

This is illustrated by the restrictions that migrants, particularly women, face when it comes to relationships and sexual activity while in Japan. In principle, Japanese law is clear on this issue: not only are migrants free to pursue relationships, like anyone else, but any attempt by their employers to prevent them from doing so is itself a crime. In practice, however, many migrant workers face pressure to fall in line with these expectations. According to Ando, while the formal contracts signed between recruits and their Japanese employers do not mention penalties for workers if they fall pregnant, the contracts signed with their brokers in their country of origin may include other stipulations along these lines. She cites the example of one Chinese migrant whose contract with her Japanese employer amounted to three pages, but was also forced to sign another contract in Chinese with her sending organization that was almost three times as long – and included, among other provisions, a ban on relationships and the threat of deportation if she became pregnant.  

The effect this has in the lives of migrants can be tragic. One case that Ando has been engaged in involved a young Chinese woman who, after she gave birth, abandoned her baby because she feared that otherwise she would be deported from Japan. She was currently being held in a police station, after being linked back to the baby, who was still in social services and had yet to be reunited with its mother. In another case a Chinese woman, after falling pregnant, was told to go home. She was then taken to the airport but managed to get in touch with her boyfriend using a stranger’s mobile phone at the airport before she boarded the plane: many others, however, have been forced in similar circumstances to leave the country.  

Another problem that TITP migrant workers experience is that, having been recruited for a specific role or sector, they find on arrival that they are tasked with something else entirely – work that is often much more dangerous or demanding that what they signed up for. Notoriously, this has included trainees being assigned decontamination duties after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima and other areas affected by radioactive waste. In this instance, following a number of well-publicized incidents where migrants had been compelled to engage in this work, SMJ and others successfully lobbied the Japanese government to ban the use of TTIP trainees in decontamination work.

In general, however, Ando reports that the government has been reluctant to engage with SMJ and other civil society groups on these issues. There is still no dedicated, adequately resourced body responsible for identifying and responding to violations of migrant rights, nor much in the way of data collection or consultations with migrant workers themselves. What information the government has gathered, however, mainly through employers rather than migrants, suggested widespread and continued violations: a recent survey of companies employing technical intern, for instance, found that more than 70 per cent had committed violations of labour laws such as excessive working hours, inadequate safety measures and unpaid overtime. An added problem is that, when data is available, the government has often drawn the wrong conclusions. An official survey of TITP recruits two years before, for example, found that some 86 per cent of technical intern trainees who had disappeared from their workplaces had done so to find a better salary elsewhere. This was taken to suggest that the decision was largely economic, but this ignored the fact that 67 per cent of the technical intern trainees in question were also being paid less than the minimum wage, making it a human rights issue. 

Activists participate in the annual March in March in Tokyo, calling for equality and human rights for foreign workers.Activists participate in the annual March in March in Tokyo, calling for equality and human rights for foreign workers.

Echoing previous statements by the UN, Ando describes the current TITP programme as a system of ‘official trafficking’. While some have called for the TITP programme to be reformed, as far as she and other colleagues at SMJ are concerned there is one option only – to bring an end to the system in its entirety. ‘We want to abolish it’, Ando explains. ‘The whole system is wrong’. She points to the fact that, while some amendments to the system were made back in 2017 to prevent abuses, there has been little sign of improvement. A programme that has presided for more than 25 years over protracted and systematic human rights violations cannot easily be retrofitted into a humane migration platform.  

Ultimately, though, the problems extend beyond the TITP to the wider issue of how Japan continues to view immigration. Given that the new migration policy replicates many of the worst aspects of TITP, such as the restriction on changing their workplace, it is likely that the exploitation and abuse of foreign workers will continue in the years to come. While the policy has provoked much debate, says Ando, this has primarily focused on the question of numbers and whether the 345,000person quota is too little or too much. SMJ, on the other hand, believes this is not the most important issue. Rather than having a position on what levels of immigration the country should have in future, the organization is calling for a greater focus on ensuring that whatever migration does take place is well organized, grounded in human rights and – above all – places the needs of migrants themselves at the heart of this process.  

In the meantime, with SMJ’s support, foreign workers continue to advocate for recognition of their place in Japanese society. Each year, during the ‘March in March’, hundreds of migrants fill the streets of Tokyo to protest their exclusion. Despite everything, says Ando, the demonstrations are generally a highlight for those taking part. For a group whose lives are generally spent on the sidelines, it is a rare opportunity to be seen and heard.