Chinese Migrants in Japan: a Heartwarming Tale

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 12/07/2007 05:46:00 AM
Being a not-so-tireless migration advocate, I am dismayed by the seemingly endless barrage of anti-migration sentiment and action, such as here in the United Kingdom where even the Prime Minister has come out with a blatant line of "British jobs for British workers." Just imagine what the uproar would be in the States if Republicans started proclaiming "American jobs for American workers" as their 2008 campaign mantra. Anyway, this interesting story from the latest issue of TIME Asia is indeed a heartwarming development in that traditional bounds of xenophobia are being broken down in a mutually beneficial fashion. Yes, China and Japan may bicker over the latter's inundation with giant jellyfish, but there are other areas where cooperation is possible.

I have posted a bit on Chinese attempts to gain technological expertise through allegedly underhanded means [1, 2], but this exchange appears less clandestine. Chinese now working in the area of Japanese high technology may be able to ply their familiarity with Japanese business practices in the future as they return to the Middle Kingdom. Conversely, Japanese companies get Chinese employees who know that fast-growing market. Perhaps more importantly, skilled migrant labor from China can alleviate a bit of Japan's pending demographically induced worker shortage, though it should be fair to point out that China's "one child policy" probably means that China too will have similar challenges in the near future. From TIME:

For centuries, East Asia's two great powers took turns trading regional supremacy, each thriving only when the other was at its weakest. More recently, China and Japan have been locked in a political deep freeze, seemingly unable to overcome the legacy of a devastating war more than six decades ago. Yet today, the two countries are both economic juggernauts — and their futures are inextricably linked. Upwards of 20,000 Japanese now live in Shanghai alone. The flood the other way is even more impressive: at half a million strong, Chinese legal immigrants now make up the largest group of recently arrived foreigners in Japan — and, no, they're not just stirring woks or taking the graveyard shift at convenience stores. More than 80,000 Chinese students are studying at Japanese universities, two-thirds of Japan's total foreign college-student population. Upon graduation, they are entering the Japanese workforce, crowding lucrative fields such as IT and biotech. Sheer numbers work in China's favor; each year Japan graduates 100,000 science majors, while China pumps out 2.5 million.

This influx of Chinese white-collar workers is forcing Japan to rethink its very national identity. Traditionally, the island nation has been inward-looking and xenophobic. Today, however, grappling with a labor shortage caused by decades of declining birth rates, Japan knows it must import workers if it is to remain the world's second-largest economy. And so the deluge of highly educated Chinese is challenging Japan to re-evaluate its attitude toward foreigners — particularly those who hail from what was once dismissed as a communist backwater but today is crucial to Japan's economic prospects. In 2004, trade between the two countries reached $205 billion, with China for the first time overtaking the U.S. as Japan's largest trading partner. With their bilingual skills and transnational degrees, Japan's new class of Chinese immigrants is poised to profit from this new East Asian reality. "People like us are building a bridge," says Zhang Liling, a native of the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou who has lived in Japan for 18 years and runs a television company that delivers Chinese programming to her adopted homeland. "We can develop good personal relationships so that political disagreements won't be the only thing that define the situation between Japan and China..."

The 1989 Tiananmen crackdown hardened many students' resolve to stay abroad. When the pro-democracy protests escalated in Beijing, Chen joined other expatriate Chinese students in their own demonstrations. After earning his Ph.D. in genetics, he stayed in Japan, developing biotech products for Japanese companies. But three years ago, Chen decided that he, too, should profit from China's economic boom. The possible taint of his Tiananmen activism had worn off; plenty of other former protesters were now striking it rich back home. Today, Chen helms a consulting company that helps Japanese pharmaceutical firms conduct clinical trials in China. "Without us, Japanese companies would be helpless," he says. "They don't know how business is done in China."

Chen's adopted city of Kobe has tied its future to China. Since the mid-19th century, Kobe, like the Japanese cities of Yokohama and Nagasaki, has been home to a small Chinatown, a legacy of the Chinese sailors and merchants who flocked to its once thriving port...The aftermath of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe couldn't have been more different. Eager to revitalize a city that was struggling economically even before the massive tremor, the city government began courting Chinese investment. Today, on Kobe's refurbished Port Island, delegations of Chinese businessmen tour a vast technology park where city officials are offering tax breaks in the hopes of creating a new high-tech Chinatown. Chen's company headquarters are already here, as are dozens of other Chinese firms specializing in everything from scrap metal to biotech.

Many of these Chinese-run companies thrive by acting as cultural interpreters. With slowing sales at home, plenty of Japanese firms are looking to China's growing middle class to sustain profits. Who better than expatriate Chinese engineers to advise researchers, for instance, that Chinese like their cell phones painted gold or red? (Japanese, by contrast, prefer white or silver hues.) "With the U.S. and Japan, everyone expects there to be big differences in terms of business culture," says TV director Zhang. "But with China and Japan, even Japanese are often surprised that we don't operate the same way." To smooth the waters — even the channel between the two countries is called the East Sea by the Chinese and the Sea of Japan by the Japanese — head-hunting firm Meitec runs six-month training programs in five Chinese cities for engineers who wish to work for Japanese companies. Some later relocate to Japan. Mandatory lessons include collaborative teamwork (Chinese engineers often prefer the competitive thrill of individual research); practical engineering skills (universities in China tend to emphasize theoretical learning over actual application); and the all-important art of the apology (Japanese engineers are quick to admit fault while Chinese staff can be less contrite). Over the past 21/2 years, Meitec has brought 156 Chinese to Japan; only one has returned home. "Our engineers are not cheap Chinese labor," says Kanji Fukuda, head of Meitec's Global Business Group, who notes that Chinese receive the same salaries as their Japanese counterparts. "They are workers who are just as skilled as our Japanese engineers and actually offer added value because of their Chinese backgrounds."

This new breed of Chinese immigrant is transforming the Yokohama Yamate School, Japan's largest Chinese-language academy. Founded in 1898, the school originally catered to the children of dockworkers or small-time traders, most of whom weren't eligible for Japanese citizenship. Qualified teachers were so rare that classes had to be conducted in a hodgepodge of Chinese dialects depending on who was available. But over the past decade, as the student population has nearly doubled to more than 400, principal Pang Minsheng has witnessed an educational revolution. Many of the students' parents are now IT executives or research scientists, not menial laborers. "These people are the intelligentsia of China, who went to the best universities," says Pang, who has gone on a hiring spree in China to cater to the growing student population. "They want only the same for their children, and they feel confident about China's place in the world."

Such newfound national pride is shared by many of the Chinese university students now flocking to Japan. While Tiananmen-generation scholars went as penniless scholarship recipients, the latest arrivals were raised in Chinese cities whose skyscrapers and Internet caf├ęs aren't so different from Tokyo's. They are not looking for political or economic refuge. Le Yiping is a polished 25-year-old studying transportation and logistics at the University of Tokyo, one of Japan's premier colleges. "I plan to go back to China after graduation because the business opportunities there are very good," she says — though she admits that other Chinese friends have made similar vows, only to remain in Japan. While Le is here, however, she's on a mission to change her homeland's negative reputation. "Japanese have an image of China as still poor," she says, shaking her head. "But that's just not true anymore."

This perception gap may be the single biggest obstacle to closer regional ties. Japanese society remains suspicious of foreigners. Government surveys conducted in 2005 and 2006 found that nearly two-thirds of Japanese harbored negative feelings toward China, the highest percentages in more than two decades...Equally frustrating for many Chinese living in Japan is a new scheme that requires most foreigners to undergo fingerprinting every time they enter the country.

It's easy to think that, at their heart, Japanese instincts don't change. Japanese officialdom tends to treat foreigners who live in Japan as temporary residents, not potential immigrants. This predicament isn't confined to Chinese. Koreans, Brazilians and Peruvians who have lived in Japan for decades have a hard time gaining citizenship. But for highly skilled Chinese workers who could just as easily have emigrated to the U.S. or Europe, such restrictions are particularly galling.

After all, if you're Chinese, the attractions of moving to Japan are multiple: Tokyo is only a short flight away from the Asian mainland, and since Mandarin and Japanese share a common writing system, it's easier for Chinese to gain fluency in Japanese than in Western languages. Still, no amount of linguistic proficiency makes up for potentially abusive immigration policies. Take Tokyo's practice of attracting foreign labor under so-called practical-training visas, which allow for three-year internships. In 2005, more than 55,000 Chinese entered Japan under this scheme. But last year alone, the program, by the government's own count, suffered from 4,639 cases of worker-rights abuse in which unscrupulous employers took advantage of uninformed immigrants. Hikaru Morita, a senior consultant for Temp Staff, a temp agency that began offering Japanese companies highly skilled Chinese office workers in 2004, acknowledges: "Chinese are seen as working harder than Japanese, but the visa situation does make things difficult."

Even Chinese CEOs in Japan aren't shielded. Song Wenzhou, who moved to Japan as a university student in 1985, founded a software business that made headlines in 2000 when it became the first company helmed by a foreigner who arrived in Japan as an adult to be listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange's NASDAQ equivalent. He's now rich and dines with Japanese Prime Ministers. But Song recounts how he was recently stopped on the subway by police who suspected he was an illegal immigrant. "It's not just the Japanese government," Song says. "It's in the air, this anti-foreigner feeling. Even if Japan loosens immigration, it'll be because of economic necessity, not because of a real change of attitude..."

That idea of a borderless world makes sense to Kuang Yinghuan, who arrived in Japan in 2002 as part of a high-school exchange program that each year brings 200 top students from China's northeast to Japan. Five years on, Kuang's Japanese is impeccable and he's a first-year graduate student at the University of Tokyo. "When I first came here, people made fun of me because I didn't speak Japanese well," he says with a grimace. "But now, when I tell them I'm a University of Tokyo student, they think of me as that, not just as a Chinese." Kuang then breaks into a Chinese-style, open-mouth guffaw — followed quickly with the head-bob of a discreet Japanese bow. At just 23, he's already the perfect embodiment of a new East Asia based not on rivalry but opportunity.