While large-scale migration is still officially frowned upon, backdoor routes to employment in Japan are becoming commonplace. Still, there are emerging cultural frictions, in this case between the natives and the Chinese migrants who perform unskilled labour in the Land of the Rising Sun. If I were a dyed-in-wool Marxist, I'd probably be crying "exploitation":
Another interesting IHT article concerns the perhaps lamentable trend of bourgeoisification among younger Japanese students. Unlike their predecessors who excelled at engineering and were undoubtedly part of their country's emergence as an industrial powerhouse, many of today's jaded generation prefer more Western pursuits like finance or hoity-toity creative fields. Not only are the remaining graduates in engineering fields being heavily courted by Japanese firms, but so too are some gaijin (foreign) engineers. Still, xenophobia dies hard:
With one of the world's most rapidly aging populations and lowest birthrates, Japan is facing acute labor shortages not only in farming towns like Kawakami but also in fishing villages, factories, restaurants and nursing homes, and on construction sites. Closed to immigration, Japan has admitted foreign workers through various loopholes, including employing growing numbers of foreign students as part-timers and temporary workers, like the Chinese here, as so-called foreign trainees.
But that unofficial supply route has left some businesses continually scrambling for a dependable work force and the foreigners vulnerable to abuse. With Japan's population projected to decline steeply over the next decades, the failure to secure a steady work force could harm the nation's long-term economic competitiveness.
"It's not only in farming but everywhere else," said Kenichiro Takano, an official at Kawakami's agriculture cooperative. "If we don't at least start by allowing in unskilled laborers for a limited period and for a limited number of times, and then come up with long-term solutions, Japan won't have a sufficient work force. The deadline is approaching."
The labor shortage has grown serious enough that a group of influential politicians in the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party recently released a report calling for the admission of 10 million immigrants in the next 50 years.
Junichi Akashi, an immigration specialist at the University of Tsukuba who advised the group, said its members had come to realize how Japan had come to depend on foreign laborers. "There is no doubt about that," Akashi said. "They've increased sharply in the last two to three years."
The foreign work force in Japan rose to more than one million in 2006 from fewer than 700,000 in 1996. But experts say that it will have to increase by significantly more to make up for the expected decline in the Japanese population. The government projects that Japan's population, 127 million, will fall to between 82 million and 99 million by 2055. Moreover, because the population is graying, the share that is of working age is expected to shrink even faster...
By all accounts, the Chinese workers here, who are technically considered foreign trainees and are not counted among Japan's foreign workers, are treated well compared with others in the same category.
The foreign trainee system was established in the mid-1990s, in theory to transfer technical expertise to young foreigners who would then apply the knowledge at home. After one year of training, the foreigners are allowed to work for two more years in their area of expertise. But the reality is that the foreign trainees — now numbering about 100,000 — have become a source of cheap labor. They are paid less than the local minimum wage during the first year, and little emphasis is placed on teaching them technical skills. Advocates for the foreign workers have reported abuses, unpaid wages and restrictions on their movements at many job sites. Nakamura, the Liberal Democratic politician, said the foreign trainee system was "shameful," but added that if it were dismantled, businesses would not be able to find Japanese replacements.
The problem is likely to worsen, because Japan has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. "Japan is sitting on a demographic time bomb," said Kazuhiro Asakawa, a professor of business at Keio University. "An explosion is going to take place. They see it coming, but no one is doing enough about it." The shortage is causing rising anxiety about Japan's competitiveness. China turns out some 400,000 engineers every year, hoping to usurp Japan's place one day as Asia's greatest economic power.
Afraid of a hollowing out of its vaunted technology industries, Japan has been scrambling to entice more of its younger citizens back into the sciences and engineering. But labor experts say the belated measures are limited and unlikely to fix the problem.
In the meantime, the country has slowly begun to accept more foreign engineers, but nowhere near the number that industry needs. While ingrained xenophobia is partly to blame, companies say Japan's language and closed corporate culture also create barriers so high that many foreign engineers simply refuse to come, even when they are specifically recruited. As a result, some companies are moving research jobs to India and Vietnam because they say it is easier than bringing non-Japanese employees here...
...Kizou Tagomori, director of recruitment at the computer maker Fujitsu, said it and its affiliates routinely fell about 10 percent shy of their annual hiring goal of 2,000 new employees. Fearing chronic shortages, the company has begun hiring foreigners to work in Japan.
Starting in 2003, Fujitsu began hiring about 30 foreigners a year, mostly Asians who had graduated from Japanese universities. Yet, many managers were reluctant to accept them initially. Tagomori said they are now gaining acceptance. Fujitsu's 10 Indian employees in Japan won over some of their co-workers by organizing a cricket team, he said.
But Fujitsu remains an exception. In an Economic Ministry survey last year, 79 percent of Japanese companies said they either had no plans to hire foreign engineers or were still undecided. The ministry said most Japanese managers still feared that foreigners would not be able to adapt to Japan's language or corporate culture.
To combat these attitudes, the ministry launched the Asian Talent Fund, a $30-million-a-year effort to offer Asian students Japanese language training and internships in order to help them find work here. "If these students do well, they can change Japanese attitudes drastically," said Go Takizawa, deputy director of the ministry's Human Resource Policy Division.
Nonetheless, labor experts warn that Japan may be doing too little, too late. They say it has already gained a negative reputation as discriminating against foreign employees, with weak job guarantees and glass ceilings. Experts say engineers from India and other countries will often opt for more open markets like that in the United States.
Indeed, a growing number of Japanese companies are having more success by building new research and development centers in countries with surpluses of engineers. Toyo Engineering, which designs chemical factories, said it and its affiliates now employ more engineers abroad - 3,000, mostly in India, Thailand and Malaysia - than in Japan, where they have 2,500 workers.
With corporate Japan still reluctant to accept foreigners, a half-dozen staffing companies have stepped into the breach by hiring Chinese and South Korean engineers to send to Japanese companies on a temporary basis. One of the biggest is Altech, which has set up training centers at two Chinese universities to recruit engineering students and train them in Japanese language and business customs. Of Altech's roughly 2,400 engineers, 138 are Chinese, and the company plans to hire more at a rate of 200 per year.