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Japan begins to embrace foreigners

Laid-off immigrant workers are leaving. That's bad news for a country

February 08, 2009|Blaine Harden | Harden writes for the Washington Post.

UEDA, JAPAN — The last thing that aging Japan can afford to lose is young people. Yet as the global economic crisis flattens demand for Japanese cars and electronic goods, thousands of youthful, foreign-born factory workers are getting fired, pulling their children out of school and flying back to where they came from.

Paulino and Lidiane Onuma have sold their car and bought plane tickets for Sao Paulo, Brazil. They are going back with their two young daughters, both of whom were born here in this factory town. He lost his job making heavy machinery for auto plants; she lost hers making box lunches with black beans and spicy rice for the city's Brazilian-born workers, most of whom have also been dismissed and are deciding whether to leave Japan.

"We have no desire to go home," said Paulino Onuma, 29, who has lived here for 12 years and earned about $50,000 annually, far more than he says he could make in Brazil. "We are only going back because of the situation."

That situation -- the extreme exposure of immigrant families to job loss and their sudden abandonment of Japan -- has alarmed the government in Tokyo and pushed it to create programs that would make it easier for jobless immigrants to remain in a country that has traditionally been wary of foreigners, especially those without work.

"Our goal is to get them to stay," said Masahiko Ozeki, who is in charge of an interdepartmental office that was established this month in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Taro Aso. "As a government, we have not done anything like this before."

Japanese-language courses, vocational training programs and job counseling are being put together, Ozeki said, so immigrants can find work. There is a shortage of workers here, especially in healthcare and other services for the elderly.

So far, government funding for these programs is limited -- slightly more than $2 million, far less than will be needed to assist the tens of thousands of foreign workers who are losing jobs and thinking about giving up on Japan. But Ozeki said the prime minister would soon ask parliament for considerably more money -- exactly how much is still being figured out -- as part of a major economic stimulus package to be voted on early this year.

The government's effort to keep jobless foreigners from leaving the country is "revolutionary," according to Hidenori Sakanaka, former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau and now director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, a research group in Tokyo.

Sakanaka said the government's decision would send a much-needed signal to prospective immigrants that, if they choose to come to Japan to work, they will be treated with consideration, even in hard economic times.

There is a growing sense among Japanese politicians and business leaders that large-scale immigration may be the only way to head off a demographic calamity that seems likely to cripple the world's second-largest economy.

No country has ever had fewer children or more elderly as a percentage of its total population. The number of children has fallen for 27 consecutive years. A record 22% of the population is older than 65, compared with about 12% in the United States. If those trends continue, in 50 years the population of 127 million will have shrunk by a third; in a century, by two-thirds.

Japan will have two retirees for every three workers by 2060, a burden that could bankrupt pension and healthcare systems. Demographers have been noisily fretting about those numbers for years, but only in the last year have they caught the attention of leaders.

Here in Ueda, a city of about 125,000 in the Nagano region, a recent survey found that residents worried that the city's 5,000 immigrants were responsible for crime and noise pollution.

"The feeling of the city is that if foreigners have lost their jobs, then they should leave the country," said Kooji Horinouti, a Brazilian immigrant of Japanese descent who works for the Bank of Brazil here and heads a local immigrants group.

About 500,000 Brazilian workers and their families -- who have Japanese forebears but often speak only Portuguese -- have moved to Japan in the last two decades.

They have lived in relatively isolated communities, clustered near factories. Because the government hired few Portuguese-speaking teachers for nearby public schools, many Brazilians enrolled their children in private Portuguese-language schools. With the mass firings of Brazilian workers in recent months, many of those schools have closed.

The Onumas sent their 6-year-old daughter, Juliana, to the Novo Damasco school in Ueda, where she has not learned to speak Japanese.

Nor do her parents speak or read much Japanese, although they moved to Japan as teenagers. There has been no government-sponsored program to teach them the language or how to negotiate life outside their jobs.

"Japan is finally realizing that it does not have a system for receiving and instructing non-Japanese speakers," said Sakanaka. "It is late, of course, but still, it is important that the government has come to see this is a problem."

Had they known there would be language and job-training programs in Ueda, the Onuma family might not have sold their car and bought those tickets to Sao Paulo.

"If those programs existed now," Lidiane Onuma said, "I might have made a different choice."

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