Mount Fuji

Stranger in a Japanese land 

Foreigners, particularly long-term foreigners, are under no illusions that they are liked or even particularly tolerated in Japan. The argument goes back and forth about whether the Japanese are racist or merely intensely anti-foreign. The consensus seems to be that race has little or nothing to do with it, and that the Japanese are very anti-foreign. Still, the sum effect is exactly the same as racism.

But the Japanese have a problem. Like most other advanced industrialized nations, population growth in Japan has leveled off to nearly nothing. In a few years it will be zero, and some age groups, particularly the young, are becoming a distinct minority as the pyramid gets top-heavy with the aged and aging.

In Europe and the USA, there are some chances for immigration or for guest workers from other countries to come in. The result is that countries like the USA and Holland, for example, which also have aging populations, are spared the brunt of the problems that Japan now faces.

Not only is each young worker being called upon to, in effect, carry a number of elderly or retired workers, but the supply of labor is drying up and there are fewer and fewer young laborers entering the pool of workers every year.

Immigrating to Japan is difficult, indeed, nearly impossible. Visas are not given for unskilled labor. However, the government has set up a fiddle where some laborers are allowed in for limited periods as "trainees." This is a program designed to allow visas for trainees of Japanese companies operating overseas, but has turned into a scheme to get cheap foreign labor in and exploit it.

The way it works is this. A Japanese company wants foreign "trainees." The company contacts one of the semi-governmental organizations involved, and "refers" a trainee to them. How companies come up with these trainees is a good question. Perhaps they just pop into some convenient locked storage through a process of transcontinental osmosis. The agency then "dispatches" the laborer to the company, and the company pays the semi-governmental agency $1,800 a month, of which $800 is given back to the trainee to live on.

Japanese law says that you are not allowed to hire a foreigner full time for less than $2,500 a month. But the "trainee" label gets you out of this. The $1,000 that has been deducted from the $1,800 pay, is kept for "instruction fees," "pay for round-trip ticket," and other similarly dubious charges reminiscent of nothing more than the company store. One suspects that more than just a bit of this gets kicked back to the companies.

Basically, if you are out in the deep countryside, you can live on $800 a month, barely, particularly if you sleep eight to a room. Forget about it in the big city. You can no more live for $800 a month in Tokyo than you can in New York.

In justice to some employers, it should be said that they provide company dormitories at nominal fees and also offer subsidized meals in the cafeterias. And then some provide nothing at all. Still, when you come from a country where the per capita income is $300 a year, $800 a month is huge money, and not a few workers, by becoming masters of frugality, manage to send home money every month. Also, from the second year of the "trainee" contract, the amount of money paid increases as the companies pay the laborers directly. So, it’s on balance a good thing, with a harsh first year.

Whether or not any of the trainees actually master a skill or not is open to debate. Mainly, what they manage to learn during the first year is enough Japanese to function on a Japanese work site. Then they have value for the next two years.

During this entire process, large amounts of the money that should be going into the pockets of the trainees, anywhere from 1/3 to 2/3 of their actual wage, sticks to the fingers of the semi-governmental organization that arranges this whole thing. This is one of the types of institutionalized robbery that the Japanese are so happy with.

The money taken out of the pockets of these "trainees" goes to support large numbers of ex-top-level bureaucrats who "retire" and draw a full pension while working for these semi-governmental organizations.

Unsurprisingly, these organizations have become mired in scandal, with money washing up in odd corners of the Japanese legislature, the Diet, and a Diet member being arrested for bribery this week in connection with doing political work for one of these organizations. Supposedly $20 million in bribes and gray money was spread around the Diet to encourage the passage of key bits of legislation in favor of "trainees."

The thought of perhaps making regular work visas available and allowing even foreign laborers to sell their labor freely on the open market is apparently too horrendous for the government to contemplate. After all, what next? They might even want to live here.

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Editor's note: Bill Stonehill hails from Chicago, Illinois. Trained as an engineer and China specialist, he has now been living in Tokyo for well over 20 years. He imports Swiss watches, is expert at taking them apart, and if anyone knows what makes Japan tick too then he does. From 1999 until 2001 he wrote a regular Japan column for the Morrock News Service (sadly discontinued), which was enjoyed by Web-surfers around the world. We greatly appreciate the author's allowing us to republish some of his very best articles here in Japan Perspectives.