As of October 2010, there were 649,982 foreign workers employed in 108,760 companies in Japan, up 15.5 percent and 14.1 percent from the previous year. The number included 259.362 I the manufacturing sector, up 15.6 percent from the previous year. By nationality, Chinese workers accounted for 287,015 of the total, followed by 116,363 Brazilians and 61,710 Filiinos.

Many Japanese businesses have become to depend on the controversial foreign trainees program and to a lesser extent exchange students, whose work hours are limited to part time by law. By some estimates these two groups combined number about 300,000. Most of them are from mainland China. The students who work part time tend to get between $8 and $12 an hour. Many of them work in restaurants or retail businesses. The trainees tend to work at factories and farms and on fishing boats.

The number of foreign workers in Japan reached 1 million in 2006, compared to 700,000 in 1996. There were 486,000 registered foreign workers as of October 2008, 2.2 times more than were reported in June 2006. Many lost their jobs as a result of the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 and had to leave the country. In 1999, foreign workers accounted for only 0.2 percent if all workers, compared to 11.7 percent in the United States and 8.8 percent in Germany. Most are Japanese Brazilians and Southeast Asians. Japan has had difficulty attracting foreign professional from abroad.

Faced with a labor shortage and a declining population, Japan needs foreign workers. It is estimated that Japan needs to take in 600,000 immigrants a year and 10 million people over the next 50 years to fill its labor shortages and make up for problems associated with Japan’s declining population. The idea of so many foreigners coming to Japan is appalling to inward-looking Japanese. There are worries that their presence would boost crime and threaten Japanese culture. One 57-year-old construction worker who lived in an area where Chinese are used as farm workers told the New York Times, “Though I’m in Japan. I feel this is not Japan anymore.”

Japan has strict laws intended to keep foreign labor out. Under current legislation, the government does not allow unskilled foreign workers to work in Japan. There is some discussion about setting up a guest worker program like that found in Germany. In addition to supplying cheap labor for badly needed services such as car for the elderly immigrants could pay enough taxes to support the social security system.

A government report released in 2006 said that for Japan to reinvigorate its economy it will need to accept more foreign workers. Japan has been begun encouraging some foreign overseas Japanese to come to Japan to work (See Foreign Nurses Below). Japan is also encouraging overseas Japanese to come to Japan to work.

Jobs Done by Foreign Workers in Japan

Foreign workers in Japan include Southeast Asian prostitutes, Filipino workers, and American and European English Teachers. You can find Indian-owned restaurants, Ghanian-owned sportswear shops, South Asian video shops. On the streets you can find Israelis selling jewelry, Iranians selling drugs, Turks selling ice cream and Arabs selling kebabs. There are large numbers of Koreans and Chinese working in all kinds of businesses. Tokyo boasts a number of Irish pubs and even has a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

To cut costs troubled air carrier Japan Airlines hired Irish pilots and Canadian co-pilots who earn 50 percent less than their Japanese counterparts as well as stewardesses from Thailand, Korea and the Philippines, who also are paid significantly less. Only two percent of Japanese merchant ships are manned solely by Japanese crews. For every two Japanese there are three Koreans or Filipinos.

The jobs taken by illegal immigrants are described by the "Three Ks": kitanai (dirty), kitsui (hard) and kiken (dangerous). Many of these are construction jobs. Large numbers of foreign worker are employed in the construction industry, primarily doing jobs that many Japanese regard as too dangerous to do. Most are from Asian countries.

Many Chinese workers work under the foreign trainee system, ostensibly set up in the mid 1990s to help young foreigners in Japan learn skills they can use back home but in reality has become a way for Japanese to employ foreign labor are pay them less than minimum wage. The system was set up Japanese bureaucrats and companies to exploit foreign workers and take advantage of them.

Large numbers of foreign women enter Japan with entertainer visas. Many of these work in hostess bars or end up as prostitutes. Many are from the Philippines. There are also many from Thailand, China and Russia.

Many Japanese companies are seeking local talent in China, Indonesia, Thailand and other Asian countries among students in Japan to fill positions at their branches in those countries. Particularly in demand are workers able to handle the transfer of technology from Japan and communicate management policy of the Japanese headquarter to local workers.

Efforts to Accept Foreign Workers in Japan

In April 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Soon, Japan is expected to enter a period where it will be difficult to sustain society without utilizing the knowledge and skills of foreign workers due to the shrinking workforce resulting from the declining birthrate and aging population. The government and the private sector have intensified efforts to cover the expected labor shortage by encouraging women and the elderly to participate in the labor market. However, these efforts are not enough to catch up with the speed of decline in the nation's workforce. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 20, 2012]

St. Luke's International Hospital has joined hands with Mitsubishi Estate Co. to open a clinic in Tokyo's Otemachi district that targets foreign residents working in Japan as early as this autumn. The clinic, to be named St. Luke's MediLocus, will have a special section that specializes in treating foreign outpatients, primarily those working in and around the Otemachi area and their families. The clinic will also provide various medical services, such as detailed physical examinations. Four foreign-owned financial institutions and 10 domestic financial institutions with foreign employees are located in Otemachi and the neighboring Marunouchi district. The government plans to develop the area as a center for international finance. [Ibid]

A number of local governments have begun brainstorming ideas to ensure harmony between Japanese and foreign residents. Gaikokujin Shuju Toshi Kaigi (Council for cities with large groups of foreign residents) is a group of cities with a significant population of foreign workers who have recently arrived in Japan, such as Japanese-Brazilians. These foreign workers are referred to as "newcomers." Twenty-eight cities, including Ota in Gunma Prefecture and Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture, have joined the group to discuss common challenges. Following the Great East Japan Earthquake, member cities have provided disaster-related information to foreign residents in their native languages and organized operations to provide mutual assistance during disasters. [Ibid]

Japanese Government Launches Program to Attract More Skilled Foreign Workers

In April 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The central government has long been criticized for its reluctance to accept foreign workers, and only recently has the government clarified its stance to accept more highly skilled foreign workers. In May, the government will introduce a system which will grade the academic and business careers of foreigners who wish to work in Japan. Those who attain high scores will be given preferential treatment. The government's efforts to develop a system to accept more foreign workers are now gradually being implemented.[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 20, 2012]

In February, Masaharu Nakagawa, state minister in charge of the declining birthrate, proposed it was necessary for the government to discuss whether the nation should accept more foreign workers and immigrants. At one point, the issue became an important part of the government's agenda during then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's administration. However, the movement lost steam after he resigned in 2008. [Ibid]

In 2004, the Chinese government began establishing overseas bases--dubbed the Confucius Institute--to teach the Chinese language. Now, there are more than 800 locations around the world, with 18 in Japan. In 2008, the Confucius Institute at Kogakuin University in Tokyo was the first to be established at a technical institution in Japan. Since then, the number of students enrolled in the institute's language and cultural programs has increase eightfold to 300. [Ibid]

Meanwhile, the Japan Foundation has established a network to connect overseas Japanese language institutions, such as universities with Japanese classes, to promote the language. However, as of January, only 116 institutions had joined the JF Nihongo Network. "We wanted workers, but we got people." This famous quote from Swiss writer Max Frisch is frequently used when discussing foreign worker issues. The public needs to sincerely consider what measures are necessary to attract foreign nationals, who have the potential to boost the domestic economy and reinvigorate society, as people, not just workers. [Ibid]

Even Skilled Foreign Workers and Talented Students Being Shunned

Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, “Given the dim job prospects, universities here have been less than successful at raising foreign student enrollment numbers. And in the current harsh economic climate, as local incomes fall and new college graduates struggle to land jobs, there has been scant political will to broach what has been a delicate topic. Now, in a vicious cycle, Japan’s economic woes, coupled with a lack of progress in immigration policy and lack of support for immigrants, are setting off an exodus of the precious few immigrants who have settled here.” [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, January 2, 2011]

“Tan Soon Keong, a student, speaks five languages “ English, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien “ has an engineering degree, and three years of work experience in his native Malaysia, a track record that would seem to be invaluable to Japanese companies seeking to globalize their businesses. Still, he says he is not confident about landing a job in Japan when he completes his two-year technical program at a college in Tokyo’s suburbs next spring. For one thing, many companies here set an upper age limit for fresh graduate hires; at 26, many consider him too old to apply. Others have told him they are not hiring foreigners this year.” [Ibid]

“Mr. Tan is not alone. In 2008, only 11,000 of the 130,000 foreign students at Japan’s universities and technical colleges found jobs here, according to the recruitment firm Mainichi Communications. While some Japanese companies have publicly said they will hire more foreigners in a bid to globalize their work forces, they remain a minority.” “I’m preparing for the possibility that I may have to return to Malaysia,” Mr. Tan said at a recent job fair for foreign students in Tokyo. “I’d ideally work at a company like Toyota,” he told the New York Times. “But that’s looking very difficult.” [Ibid]

“Japan is losing skilled talent across industries, experts say,” Tabuchi wrote. “Investment banks, for example, are moving more staff members to hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore, which have more foreigner-friendly immigration and taxation regimes, lower costs of living and local populations that speak better English. Foreigners who submitted new applications for residential status “ an important indicator of highly skilled labor because the status requires a specialized profession “ slumped 49 percent in 2009 from a year earlier to just 8,905 people. [Ibid]

“The country is losing its allure even for wide-eyed fans of its cutting-edge technology, its pop culture and the seemingly endless business opportunities its developed consumer society appears to offer.” “Visitors come to Tokyo and see such a high-tech, colorful city. They get this gleam in their eye, they say they want to move here,” said Takara Swoopes Bullock, an American entrepreneur who has lived in Japan since 2005. “But setting up shop here is a completely different thing. Often, it just doesn’t make sense, so people move on.” [Ibid]

Foreign Workers Complain About Their Treatment in Japan

Many foreign residents are apparently dissatisfied with the government's efforts. They feel frustrated, especially in regard to the government's lack of support in easing language barriers. In March 2012, Indonesian men and women training to become certified care workers in Japan voiced their hardships at a meeting held by the Liberal Democratic Party. "When I took the national examination, I couldn't understand some words because there were no Indonesian equivalents," one trainee said. "I've suffered physical and mental strain as I've had to study kanji ranging from primary school levels to technical terms all by myself," another said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 20, 2012]

Based on economic partnership agreements with Indonesia and the Philippines, Japan began accepting nursing and care worker trainees from Indonesia in fiscal 2008 and the Philippines in fiscal 2009. However, the government did not begin printing kana syllables beside difficult kanji on national examinations until fiscal 2010. [Ibid]

At a symposium held by the Japan Institute of International Affairs in February 2012 in Tokyo, one expert said: "When Japan began accepting Japanese-Brazilians, some children dropped out of school due to the lack of support for those who cannot speak Japanese. When the economic conditions deteriorated, Japanese-Brazilian workers were the first to be fired by companies. "If the government had taken sufficient measures to accommodate Japanese- Brazilians, I believe they could have been a bridge between Japan and Brazil--which is undergoing remarkable economic development.” [Ibid]

Foreign Nurses and Aides in Japan

The Japanese are beginning to woo immigrants to take care of the elderly, something they desperately need to get on top of taking care of Japan’s aging population. Nursing homes and other facilities that care for the sick and aging are increasingly hiring foreign care givers and nurses to meet their labor demands. The care givers and nurses are paid about ¥140,000 a month and are able save about ¥50,000 or more a month after expenses for food and dormitory are taken out of their salary. This a lot of money in places like Indonesia and the Philippines. In many cases the Indonesian workers are among the popular workers at the facilities where they work. They are often seen by their employers and people they serve as outgoing and cheerful.

In August 2008, 205 Indonesian caregivers arrived in Japan, representing Japan’s first full-fledged effort to accept foreign workers in the medical and nursing care fields, which are facing serious labor shortages. The workers were required to pass a Japanese proficiency exam to gain entrance to the country and can be shipped back to Indonesia of they fail to pass the exam required of Japanese workers.

Filipinos and Vietnamese have also come to Japan to work as caregivers and nurses. In May 2009, 273 Filipino health care workers arrived in Japan. They are given six months language training are to come on two-year contracts and are required to return home after that time. They are paid ¥2.2 million a year, well below the ¥3.8 million that salaried workers receive

Nursing Exam in Japan

After three or four years Filipina and Indonesian nurses are expected to take the same test that Japanese nurses and caregivers have to take and often have difficulty passing. Indonesian nurses and other foreigners who have come to work in Japan and have to meet language requirements struggle with the written language, especially the kanji (Chinese characters).

A number of Filipino and Indonesian care workers have returned home, say the national language exam was simply too hard and they had little chance of passing at. As of early 2011 only 3 of the 600 nurses brought here from Indonesia and the Philippines since 2007 have passed it. The exam is kept in place in part because it protects tiny interest groups such as local nursing association afraid that an influx of foreign nurses would lower industry salaries.

Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, “Maria Fransiska, a young, hard-working nurse from Indonesia, is just the kind of worker Japan would seem to need to replenish its aging work force. But Ms. Fransiska, 26, is having to fight to stay. To extend her three-year stint at a hospital outside Tokyo, she must pass a standardized nursing exam administered in Japanese, [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, January 2, 2011]

“So Ms. Fransiska spends eight hours in Japanese language drills, on top of her day job at the hospital. Her dictionary is dog-eared from countless queries, but she is determined: her starting salary of $2,400 a month was 10 times what she could earn back home. If she fails, she will never be allowed to return to Japan on the same program again.”

“I think I have something to contribute here,” Ms. Fransiska said during a recent visit, spooning mouthfuls of rice and vegetables into the mouth of Heiichi Matsumaru, an 80-year-old patient recovering from a stroke. “If I could, I would stay here long-term, but it is not so easy.”

“If you’re in the medical field, it’s obvious that Japan needs workers from overseas to survive. But there’s still resistance,” Takayoshi Shintani, chairman of the Aoikai Group, the medical services company that is sponsoring Ms. Fransiska and three other nurses to work at a hospital outside Tokyo. “The exam,” he said, “is to make sure the foreigners will fail.”

Only 47 of 415 Foreign Trainees Pass Nursing Exam in 2012

In March 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “A total of 47 Indonesian and Filipino nurses passed this year's national licensing examination for nurses under a project to accept foreign trainees, the health ministry announced. Under the project based on economic partnership agreements starting in fiscal 2008, a total of 572 trainees have taken part in the program. Of them, only 19 passed the exam through 2011. This year, 415 trainees took the exam, and 11.3 percent of them passed. [Ibid]

The pass rate for the exam has gone up 7.3 percentage points from the previous year and reached double-digits for the first time. But, it is still far lower than the 90 percent average pass rate of all examinees. As the low pass rate for foreign trainees has been seen as a problem, Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoko Komiyama said the government plans to take special measures for them, such as including hiragana for each kanji character in the test and giving extra test time, starting next year. [Ibid]

The foreign trainees were originally scheduled to pass the exam within three years, working at medical institutions as assistant nurses. If they cannot pass the test in that period, they would lose their eligibility to stay in Japan.As a special measure, however, the trainees, who failed the exam and whose eligibility for stay is about to expire, have been allowed to stay an extra year from last year if they attained a certain score on past exams. [Ibid]

Held only once a year, the national exam for certified care workers has 120 multiple choice questions taken over 3-1/2 hours. To pass the examination, applicants must answer about 60 percent of the questions correctly. Applicants are required to have both Japanese language skills and knowledge of Japan's social security system, such as nursing care insurance and pensions. Knowledge of dementia and various disorders is also a must. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 20, 2012]

In 2012, the health ministry attached phonetic notations to some difficult kanji characters such as "mahi" (paralysis) and "gyakutai" (abuse) for foreign applicants. It also attached English translations to difficult names of diseases such as "ninchisho" (dementia) and "tonyobyo" (diabetes). [Ibid]

At a health care facility for the elderly in Aichi Prefecture, three of four caregiver candidates from the institute failed the examination.The chief secretariat of the facility said, "According to our applicants, there were some difficult kanji among those without phonetic notations, and the test time was short." "It seems especially difficult for them to understand legal terms with many kanji characters," the secretary general added. [Ibid]

Foreign Trainees Study for Nursing Exam

Hirofumi Noguchi and Keishi Takahashi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Both Yuliana and Valentine graduated from universities in Indonesia and are certified nurses there. They came to Japan in August 2008. After a six-month Japanese language program, they continued to study for the examination to acquire qualification as caregivers in Japan while working at Sawayaka-en. [Source: Hirofumi Noguchi and Keishi Takahashi, Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers

Yuliana said, "When I came to Japan, I couldn't understand Japanese at all." At the facility, they took short quizzes on kanji characters for 30 minutes to one hour every day and repeatedly studied them until they mastered the characters. They also spent half a day learning Japanese from a native speaker twice a week. After returning home from work, they usually studied for another two to four hours a day. Even on their days off, they took Japanese lessons from Japanese volunteers they asked personally. [Ibid]

Foreign Trainees Turned off by Nursing Exam

Among the 59 applicants who failed the examination, 47 scored above a certain level. As a special consideration for these people, the government will extend their four-year stay in Japan by one year if requested. Among the 78 foreign nurse candidates who failed the state examination for certified nurses in 2011, 69 people were given the choice of extending their stay in Japan. Eventually, only 27 people, or less than 50 percent, decided to stay in Japan. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun , March 30, 2012]

A serious problem in the nursing care field is a shortage of workers. There are currently 1.4 million nursing care workers, but according to the health ministry, another 900,000 will be needed by 2025 due to the country's aging population. But the number of caregiver candidates entering Japan under EPAs to accept foreign workers has been decreasing yearly. In fiscal 2009, 379 candidates came to Japan, but this plunged to 119 in fiscal 2011. [Ibid]

The fall is partly due to a decrease in job offers for foreign nationals at nursing care facilities in Japan. This is because accepting these candidates is a heavy burden for facility operators. For example, the operators have to pay foreign caregiver candidates wages that are at least as much as those paid to Japanese workers. Employers also are responsible for supporting caregivers to help them pass the national caregiver exam.In fiscal 2010, the ministry started giving assistance to operators, including subsidies to support the candidates' study. But a nursing care facility operator in the Tohoku region said this support is inadequate. [Ibid]

The ministry says the government "accepts [foreign caregiver candidates] as an exception, not for the purpose of dealing with a labor shortage." Japan accepts foreigners who have professional skills or expertise, such as university professors and interpreters, by providing them with residency status. [Ibid]

However, residency status is not given to nursing care workers because the government says professional expertise in this field has yet to be established. The government's position is that foreigners are not allowed, in principle, to stay in Japan to work in nursing care facilities. Therefore accepting foreign caregiver candidates is an exception to this rule. [Ibid]

Most foreign caregiver candidates entering Japan previously worked at medical facilities in their home countries, and are qualified for various professions such as nursing. Most operators that employed the candidates say it is difficult to find skillful workers locally and regard the EPA project as a method to secure employees. This contrasts with the government's stance. [Ibid]

In October, Japan agreed to accept caregiver and nurse candidates from Vietnam as part of the EPA, and the first group may come as early as 2014. Thailand and India also requested that Japan accept candidates from their countries. "Excellent workers won't come unless Japan sends a clear message that it wants foreigners to work here," said Wako Asato, an associate professor of Kyoto University. [Ibid]

Japan Makes Exam for Foreign Nurses Easier

The Japanese government decided to give foreign candidate nurses and caregivers extra test time at national qualification examinations starting in 2013 and to attach Japanese syllabaries to all Chinese characters used in questions in consideration of the language hurdle. ''I hope to see to it that no one shall have to give up their desire to work in Japan as nurses and caregivers simply because of the language barrier,'' Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoko Komiyama told a news conference. (Mainichi Shimbun, March 23, 2012]

Problems Faced by Brazilian Workers in Japan

Many foreign workers have a hard time. Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, “Akira Saito, 37, a Brazilian of Japanese descent who traveled to Toyota City 20 years ago from São Paolo, is one foreign worker ready to leave. The small auto maintenance outfit that Mr. Saito opened after a string of factory jobs is struggling, and the clothing store that employs his Brazilian wife, Tiemi, will soon close. Their three young children are among the local Brazilian school’s few remaining pupils. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, January 2, 2011]

For many of Mr. Saito’s compatriots who lost their jobs in the fallout from the global economic crisis, there has been scant government support. Some in the community have taken money from a controversial government-sponsored program intended to encourage jobless migrant workers to go home. “I came to Japan for the opportunities,” Mr. Saito said. “Lately, I feel there will be more opportunity back home.”

Serious Problems Faced by Foreign Workers in Japan

Thirty-four foreign trainees died in fiscal 2008-2008, with many of the deaths blamed on overwork. Most of the dead were in their 20s and 30s. Sixteen of the deaths were suspiciously attributed to brain and heart disorders, unusual for men that age. Five were killed in accidents at work. Four were killed in traffic accidents.

Groups of foreign immigrants are often shuttled into modern ghettos rather than absorbed into Japanese society. A volunteer Japanese teacher who works with Brazilian workers at Toyota told the Times of London, “We Japanese have no history of welcoming foreigners. We are just not mature enough as a nation to understand the concept of integration.”

Thai Workers at Japanese Firms in Thailand Get Japanese Visas

In November 2011, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: The Japanese Embassy in Bangkok has started issuing short-term work visas for Thai employees of Japanese firms in Thailand affected by widespread flooding so they can temporarily work at parent companies in Japan. Visas were granted to seven Thai employees working for Mik Denshi Kohgyo Co., an electronic parts maker in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo. The visas were processed at the embassy's Japan Visa Application Centre in Bangkok. [Source: Susumu Arai, Yomiuri Shimbun, November 16, 2011]

The seven are employed at the company's factory at the Nava Nakorn industrial park in Pathum Thani Province, central Thailand, which has been submerged by the floods. Hideyuki Shiga, 47, head of the factory, "Our employees in Japan are mainly engaged in product development, while our Thai employees concentrate on manufacturing," he said.” "We hope to respond to customer demand as soon as possible by sending our Thai employees, who are experienced in manufacturing, to Japan," Shiga added.

Under current legislation, the government does not allow unskilled foreign workers to work in Japan. However, given the serious flooding in Thailand, it intends to issue visas for such workers to stay in Japan for up to six months under the condition they return to Thailand when factories there resume operations. The government is expected to issue working visas for several thousand Thai employees.

Japan’s Foreign Trainee Program

Many Japanese businesses participate in Japan’s controversial foreign trainees program to obtain a supply of cheap labor. Most of the trainees are from mainland China. They tend to work at factories and farms and on fishing boats, especially where Japan faces an acute labor shortage such as on the country’s hardscrabble farms or small family-run factories.. Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, “From across Asia, about 190,000 trainees “ migrant workers in their late teens to early 30s “ now toil in factories and farms in Japan. They have been brought to the country, in theory, to learn technical expertise under an international aid program started by the Japanese government in the 1990s. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, July 20, 2010]

The trainee program is operated by the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization (JITCO). “For businesses, the government-sponsored trainee program has offered a loophole to hiring foreign workers, Tabuchi wrote. “But with little legal protection, the indentured work force is exposed to substandard, sometimes even deadly, working conditions, critics say. After one year of training, during which the migrant workers receive subsistence pay below the minimum wage, trainees are allowed to work for two more years in their area of expertise at legal wage levels.” [Ibid]

“On paper, the promised pay still sounds alluring to the migrant workers. Many are from rural China, where per-capita disposable income can be as low as $750 a year. To secure a spot in the program, would-be trainees pay many times that amount in fees and deposits to local brokers, sometimes putting up their homes as collateral “ which can be confiscated if trainees quit early or cause trouble.” [Ibid]

Regarding conditions for foreign trainees in Japan, the U.S. State Department said in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report in June 2011 that in Japan "the media and NGOs continued to report abuses including debt bondage, restrictions on movement, unpaid wages, overtime, fraud and contracting workers out to different employers--elements which contribute to situations of trafficking." The Japanese government has not officially recognized the existence of such problems, the report said.It also said Japan "did not identify or provide protection to any victims of forced labor." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 29, 2011]

Problems with Japan’s Foreign Trainee Program

Critics say foreign trainees have become an exploited source of cheap labor and are often treated poorly.”The mistreatment of trainees appears to be widespread,” Shoichi Ibusuki, a human rights lawyer based in Tokyo, told the New York Times. The Justice Ministry found more than 400 cases of mistreatment of trainees at companies across Japan in 2009, including failing to pay legal wages and exposing trainees to dangerous work conditions. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, July 20, 2010]

Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, “Interviews with labor experts and a dozen trainees indicate that the foreign workers seldom achieve pay rates they are supposed to get. For almost three years, Catherine Lopez, 28, a trainee from Cebu, the Philippines, has worked up to 14 hours a day, sometimes six days a week, welding parts at a supplier for the Japanese carmaker Mazda. She receives as little as $1,574 a month, or $7.91 an hour “ below the $8.83 minimum wage for auto workers in Hiroshima. [Ibid]

Ms. Lopez says Japanese managers at the supplier, Kajiyama Tekko, routinely hurl verbal abuses at her cohort of six trainees, telling them to follow orders or “swim back to the Philippines.” “We came to Japan because we want to learn advanced technology,” Ms. Lopez said. Yukari Takise, a manager at Kajiyama Tekko, denied the claims. “If they don’t like it here,” she said, “they can go home.” [Ibid]

The 2011 U.S. State Department The majority of trainees are Chinese, who according to the report "pay fees of more than 1,400 dollars to Chinese brokers to apply for the program and deposits of up to 4,000 dollars and a lien on their home." The report said a NGO survey of Chinese trainees in Japan found "some trainees reported having their passports and other travel documents taken from them and their movements controlled to prevent escape or communication." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 29, 2011]

Chinese Trainees Subjected to Poor Working Conditions at a Japanese Factory

Reporting from Hiroshima, Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, “Six young Chinese women arrived in this historic city three summers ago, among the tens of thousands of apprentices brought to Japan each year on the promise of job training, good pay and a chance at a better life back home. Instead, the women say, they were subjected to 16-hour workdays assembling cellphones at below the minimum wage, with little training of any sort, all under the auspices of a government-approved “foreign trainee” program that critics call industrial Japan’s dirty secret.” [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, July 20, 2010]

“My head hurt, my throat stung,” Zhang Yuwei, 23, told the New York Times. She operated a machine that printed cellphone keypads, battling fumes that she said made the air so noxious that managers would tell Japanese employees to avoid her work area. Ms. Zhang says she was let go last month after her employer found that she and five compatriots had complained to a social worker about their work conditions. A Japanese lawyer is now helping the group sue their former employer, seeking back pay and damages totaling $207,000. [Ibid]

“ Ms. Zhang says she paid $8,860 to a broker in her native Hebei Province for a spot in the program,” Tabuchi wrote. “ She was assigned to a workshop run by Modex-Alpha, which assembles cellphones sold by Sharp and other electronics makers. Ms. Zhang said her employer demanded her passport and housed her in a cramped apartment with no heat, alongside five other trainees.” [Ibid]

“In her first year, Ms. Zhang worked eight-hour days and received $660 a month after various deductions, according to her court filing “ about $3.77 an hour, or less than half the minimum wage level in Hiroshima. Moreover, all but $170 a month was forcibly withheld by the company as savings, and paid out only after Ms. Zhang pushed the company for the full amount, she said. In her second year, her monthly wage rose to about $1,510 “ or $7.91 an hour, according to her filing. That was still lower than the $8.56 minimum wage for the electronics industry in Hiroshima. And her employers withheld all but $836 a month for her accommodations and other expenses, according to her filing. And as her wages went up, so did her hours, she said, to as many as 16 a day, five to six days a week.”

Deaths Among Participants of Japan’s Foreign Trainee Program

Twenty-seven foreign nationals who came to Japan in government-authorized training programs died in fiscal 2009. Most were in their 20s or 30s. Nine died of brain or heart disease, four died at work, three committed suicide, three due in bicycle accidents and the remainder died of unknown causes. By country, 21 came from China, three from Vietnam, two from the Philippines and one from Indonesia. Thirty-five died in 2008.

Government records show that at least 127 of the trainees have died since 2005 “ or one of about every 2,600 trainees, which experts say is a high death rate for young people who must pass stringent physicals to enter the program. Many deaths involved strokes or heart failure that worker rights groups attribute to the strain of excessive labor. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, July 20, 2010]

In June 2008, a 31-year-old Chinese man, Jian Xiaodong from Jiangsu Province, employed as a trainee at a plating factory in Ibaraki Prefecture, died of heart failure in his sleep at the firm’s dormitory.. He was paid about $1000 a month and between $4 an hour and $8 an hour for overtime and put in as much 150 hours of overtime a month with only one day off every two weeks even though he was not supposed to work overtime as a trainee. Relatives of the man claim he died of overwork and are asking for compensation.

In July 2010, labor inspectors in central Japan ruled that Jiang died from heart failure induced by overwork. Jiang worked in a factory run by the Fuji Denka Kogyo metal processing company. His family filed a suit seeking $700,000 in damages. The company was blamed for overworking Jiang. The recruiter that hired him and the Japanese government were blamed for not making sure Jiang was treated properly.

Cracking Down on Abuse and Improving Conditions for Japan’s Foreign Trainees

Under pressure by human rights groups and a string of court cases, the government has begun to address some of the trainee program’s worst abuses. In July 2010, for example, a placement agency was barred from doing business for three years after it failed to act on behalf of Chinese trainees it had placed who were forced to work long hours at a sewing factory over a long period of time. The United Nations has urged Japan to scrap the trainee program it altogether. Jorge Bustamante, a United Nations labor rights expert said foreign worker internship program was routinely abused, saying it bordered on “slavery.”

JITCO, which operates the program, said it was aware some companies had abused the system and that it was taking steps to crack down on the worst cases. The organization plans to ensure that “trainees receive legal protection, and that cases of fraud are eliminated,” JITCO said in a written response to questions. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, July 20, 2010]

Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, “ As part of the government’s effort to clean up the program, beginning July 2010, minimum wage and other labor protections have for the first time been applied to first-year workers. The government has also banned the confiscating of trainees’ passports. But experts say it will be hard to change the program’s culture.

Economic strains are also a factor. Although big companies like Toyota and Mazda have moved much of their manufacturing to China to take advantage of low wages there, smaller businesses have found that impossible “ and yet are still pressured to drive down costs. “If these businesses hired Japanese workers, they would have to pay,” said Kimihiro Komatsu, a labor consultant in Hiroshima. “But trainees work for a bare minimum,” he said. “Japan can’t afford to stop.”

Problems Faced by Foreign Agricultural Workers in Japan

Chinese who work in the lettuce fields near the town of Kawakami, about 160 kilometers northwest of Tokyo, are paid $775 a month, about half of which goes to the agency that arranged their employment in Japan, for seven months. Because the 4,000 or so Japanese are not comfortable having 600 or so Chinese living among them there they have been given instructions not to go out after 8:00am, not to ride their bicycles accept to work and, in some cases, not talk to Japanese women.

A 27-year-old Chinese man who came to Japan in a government-run job training programs told the Daily Yomiuri he was totally taken advantage of. “The promise of “job training” is totally false...I was forced to do a farming job from 5 in the morning though 10 at night every day, without any days off...My pay was little more than ¥100,000 a month, and my employer banned me from using my cell phone and confiscated my passport. I can’t afford to return home, as doing so before I finish the three period under the training system would mean I’d forfeit the deposit, or guarantee money, that I managed to raise from relatives.”

Other workers have complained of sexual harassment and having their wage illegally skimmed. One the big questions regarding foreign workers is what rights and services should be given them:: insurance, legal rights, protection against harsh bosses.

Problems Faced by Foreign Fishermen in Japan

Japanese boats that spend long periods of time at sea rely on foreign workers, many of them from Indonesia. Many get paid less than the minimum wage for foreign workers of $375 a month. Sometimes they are paid considerably less than that. One Indonesian seaman told the Yomiuri Shimbun the most he was paid was $280 a month. “Sometimes, I’m only paid $150,” he said. Most are hired by brokers in their home country and presumably some of their pay goes to them.

Not only are foreign fishermen poorly paid, they also works like dogs, One told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “I slept only three to four hours a day, It was grueling work with no breaks. The toughest part was constantly being tossed about in a narrow cabin by waves for four to six weeks.”

Some of them come to Japan as trainees and are paid around $1,000 a month during their training period but their pay drops to between $300 to $700 a month, including overtime, when they start working a seamen. Many find the work to difficult and run away. Other flee their boats in Japan and find a better paying jobs.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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