Japan accepts 50,000 immigrants annually

On a quiet autumn Sunday, five young men kill time at the port of Ayukawahama. There is nothing to be done. The former port district of Ayukawahama was washed away by the tsunami in 2011; What remains are fallow land, parking spaces, a snack bar and a gas station. The tourist season is also over, but foreigners rarely get lost on the remote Oshika Peninsula, which juts far out into the Pacific.

The five young men are clearly not Japanese. You come from Indonesia, are 18 or 19 years old and work as "technical interns" on fishing boats. They do not want to give their names, with good reason: For five years, captains in the Ishinomaki district, to which Ayukawahama belongs, have employed almost one hundred such interns on 25 fishing boats. "Without them our fishery would not have got back on its feet so quickly," fisherman Yuji Kimura recently told the newspaper Asahi. He heads the agency that brings Indonesians to Ishinomki to learn the fishing trade, as it is officially called. The Visa category of "technical interns" was once introduced to enable Japanese companies to train and educate employees from overseas branches in Japan. But everyone knows that the program is being abused. The young men are recruited as cheap workers for so-called 3K jobs. 3K stands for "kitsui, kitanai, kiken": tough, dirty and dangerous.

"The fishery is considered 3K," says Fischer Kimura, "fewer and fewer Japanese want to do it." 3K is not an exaggeration: According to the Justice Department, 174 foreign interns died while working between 2010 and 2017. The job is also badly paid. Many young foreigners receive the equivalent of three euros an hour, which is not even half the statutory minimum wage. They have little free time and no private life; if they leave the job, their residence permit expires. Recently, in a hearing before a parliamentary commission, some of them complained that they came to Japan believing they were being trained, but had not learned anything. A Vietnamese accused his employer of having been forced to decontaminate the ruins of the Fukushima I nuclear power plant.

There are currently 258,000 "technical interns" working in Japan, mostly in the provinces. Most Japanese ignore the phenomenon, in the cities the foreigners are almost invisible. The locals themselves are becoming fewer and fewer, and in 2017 almost 400,000 more people died than were born again. So far, only a fraction of the population decline has been made up for by immigration. Some Chinese students who graduate from Japanese universities are allowed to stay, they become naturalized after a while. The number of Westerners in Japan is also increasing; in Tokyo, for example, they are employed in the financial industry. There are also smaller contingents for computer programmers from India and for nursing staff.

Twenty years ago the proportion of foreigners in Japan was only around half a percent; it has now risen to 2.2 percent. But that's not enough to make up for the labor shortage that Japan suffers from, and not just in the dangerous 3K jobs. There is a lack of service providers and engineers. Nevertheless, Tokyo has so far strictly rejected regulated labor immigration. But a solution to the population problem is becoming more and more urgent. "We need ten million immigrants by 2050," says Hidenori Sakanaka, former head of the Japanese immigration office. That would be 300,000 newcomers annually. "There is no other way." In 2005 Sakanaka founded his "Institute for Immigration Policy", which studies how to successfully organize immigration. If Japan brings people into the country and tries to integrate, especially with language lessons, then "they are not just workers, they also become consumers." As such, they could help overcome Japan's three-decade-long economic slump.

Takaji Kunimatsu, former police chief of Tokyo and ambassador of Japan to Switzerland before his retirement, agrees. "We have to create career paths for immigrants. If they show understanding for our society, we should accept them as permanent roommates." So far this has not been the case: Even those foreigners who were born in the country and speak Japanese without an accent are still treated as outsiders, often discriminated against - even ethnic Japanese who grew up abroad.

Until recently, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had also ignored all calls from business for more immigrants. Two years ago, he said Tokyo would invest in robotics because of its shrinking population. In addition, women and pensioners should be encouraged to work: The Japanese did not want foreigners, so the reasoning. The head of government has now recognized that women, retirees and robots are not enough. At the beginning of December, he pushed an immigration law through parliament: Japan is to bring up to 345,000 guest workers from eight East Asian countries into the country over the next five years. The law distinguishes between untrained people who stay for five years and are not allowed to bring relatives with them, and specialists: They can come with their families and apply for permanent residence after ten years.

Parliament protested, and even young MPs from Abe's party were reluctant to agree. According to a survey, two thirds of the Japanese know behind them. Abe therefore promised that the program would be stopped if crime rose and that the government would take action against exploitative intermediaries or employers. The industrial association welcomed Abe's turnaround, as did some agricultural and fishing cooperatives: They depend on foreigners. Economists, on the other hand, complain that 345,000 immigrants in five years are too few. Lawyer Shoichi Ibusuki, who represents foreign interns against Japanese employers, fears: "The new system for the unskilled will repeat the mistakes of the 'technical interns' program."

Many Japanese believe that Nippon threatens mass immigration if it opens its borders. The example of nurses from Southeast Asia, for whom there is already a program, seems to contradict this. Of 986 nurses who applied in the previous year, 472 received a work visa - 247 came. Tokyo had expected much more, the quotes the Japan Times a government spokesman.

The new law provides for a quota of 5,000 nurses a year: "But Vietnam and the Philippines fear that Japan will send people back because they are too little Japanese. So they don't come at all," said the government spokesman. And it is said of untrained Vietnamese that they now prefer to go to South Korea or Taiwan to work instead of Japan.