Foreign workers fear exploitation as Olympic projects gather steam

My first Labor Pains column of the new fiscal year will look at the government’s recent proposal for bringing in foreign workers.

Various proposals on easing immigration restrictions for foreign workers have been bandied about in recent years, but they were inevitably scrapped because “Japan is but a tiny island nation.” (In fact, Japan is the fifth-largest island nation in the world, after Australia, Indonesia, Madagascar and Papua New Guinea.) Incidentally, there are currently 2.03 million foreign residents and more than 700,000 foreign workers in Japan, so the country is already quite multinational and multiethnic in composition.

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外国人労働者、5%増の68万人 10月




Japan to start grading skilled foreign workers in spring

The government announced Wednesday that it will start grading skilled foreign workers this spring and granting those with higher marks preferential treatment amid intensifying international competition for human resources.

Justice Minister Hideo Hiraoka told a press conference that he hopes an increase in foreign workers with high-level skills will help to complement Japan’s workforce.

Under the new system, the government will classify professions into three categories — academic research, work requiring highly specialized skills, and management and administration.

It will award up to 30 points to people with doctoral or masters degrees, and up to 25 points to specialists based on the length of their working experience.

Those who obtain 70 points will receive preferential treatment, such as securing a permanent visa if they reside in Japan for around five years in principle, shorter than the current 10 years, and their spouses will also be allowed to work in Japan, the ministry said.

Immigration changes to come as new law takes effect in July

The revised immigration law will take effect next July 9 and the government will start accepting applications for new residence registration cards on Jan. 13, the Cabinet decided Tuesday, paving the way for increased government scrutiny through a centralized immigration control of foreign nationals.

The current alien registration cards, overseen by local municipalities, will be replaced with the cards issued by the central government.

According to the Justice Ministry, foreign residents can apply for the new card at their nearest regional immigration office beginning Jan. 13 but won’t receive it until July. However, valid alien registration certificates will be acceptable until the cardholder’s next application for a visa extension takes place.

At that point, the old card will be replaced with the new residence card, which will have a special embedded IC chip to prevent counterfeiting.

The government claims that centralized management of data on foreign residents will allow easier access to all personal information of the cardholder, such as type of visa, home address and work address, and in return enable officials to more conveniently provide services for legal aliens.

For example, documented foreigners will have their maximum period of stay extended to five years instead of the current three years. Re-entry to Japan will also be allowed without applying for a permit as long as the time away is less than a year, according to the Justice Ministry.

Permanent residents, meanwhile, will have to apply for a new residence card within three years from July 2012. Required materials necessary for an application have not been determined yet.

Schizophrenic Constitution leaves foreigners’ rights mired in confusion

So what rights do foreign residents have under the Constitution? Well, according to the Supreme Court, they are entitled to all the same rights as Japanese people, except for those which by their nature are only to be enjoyed by Japanese people. Does that help?

This Delphic guidance comes from a very important 1978 Supreme Court ruling in what is known as the McLean Case. Ronald McLean came to Japan as an English teacher in 1969 but quickly got involved in the local anti-Vietnam War protest movement. When he sought to renew his visa, the Ministry of Justice refused. He challenged the denial in court, asserting that he was being punished for engaging in lawful political activity, exercising his rights to free speech, assembly and so forth.

He lost (of course), and although the case is supposedly significant because in it the nation’s highest court enunciates the general principle that foreigners enjoy some of the rights enumerated in the Constitution, it does so with a caveat: that even those rights are limited by the scope of the regime of immigration laws which allow them to enter, reside and work in Japan.

Take the case of Kathleen Morikawa, an American resident in Japan who was fined for refusing to be fingerprinted as part of the alien registration process of days gone by. When she applied for a re-entry permit for a short trip to South Korea, her application was denied and she sought recourse in the courts. In 1992 the Supreme Court declared that foreigners had no constitutional right to enter or re-enter Japan, and that the Justice Ministry’s refusal to issue a re-entry permit was an acceptable exercise of administrative discretion in light of her refusal to be fingerprinted.

“Ignore the law and pay the price” is a fair comment here, but what I find noteworthy about the Morikawa case is that it did not seem to matter that she had a Japanese spouse and Japanese children. That the Justice Ministry can punitively strip Japanese nationals of their ability to travel or even live with a family member would seem to be at least as important constitutionally as whatever rights foreigners may or may not have.

The fact that many of us may be willing to live in Japan essentially at the sufferance of the government does not mean that our Japanese spouses, children and other kin should not have their own independent constitutionally protected rights to a family life free from arbitrary bureaucratic caprice. Article 13 of the Constitution refers to a right to the “pursuit of happiness,” but meaningful court precedents tying this provision to a right to family life are thin on the ground.

Recent revelations by a former prosecutor about being taught by his superiors that “foreigners have no human rights” raise further doubts about whether Japan is really up to the legal issues implicit in globalization.

Finally, since Japanese courts often justify their decisions using references to shakai tsūnen (commonly accepted social norms), even constitutional decisions can tend to reflect a distinctly majoritarian bent. In some countries a judiciary committed to defending minorities and unpopular viewpoints combined with clearly defined constitutional protections is expected to function as a bastion of human rights. Whether this can be expected of Japanese courts is debatable.

The fact that many of us expats are still here nonetheless may thus be because of the inherent kindness of the Japanese people rather than any high expectations of their government. At the end of the day, perhaps that is what popular sovereignty is all about.

Japan’s population marks slowest growth in 2010

Japan’s population stood at 128,057,352 as of Oct. 1, 2010, up 0.2 percent from five years earlier, marking the slowest growth since the once-in-five-years census began in 1920, the final results of the survey showed Wednesday.

When non-Japanese residents are excluded, the population dropped by about 371,000, or 0.3 percent, decreasing for the first time since 1975, when it began compiling the population of Japanese citizens separately from non-Japanese, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry said.

“While Japan has entered an era of population decline, its total population has been flat because of an increase in foreign nationals,” a ministry official said.

The number of non-Japanese residents rose 5.9 percent, or about 93,000.

Vietnamese to be trained as nurses

The government plans to allow Vietnamese nationals to work as nurses and caregivers in Japan under a bilateral economic partnership agreement, officials said Wednesday.

The government has already allowed Indonesian and Filipino nationals to work as nurses and caregivers under bilateral free-trade agreements with Jakarta and Manila.

While more than 1,300 candidate nurses and caregivers have traveled to Japan from the two countries, only 19 have passed Japan’s qualification examination for nurses, due largely to language difficulties.

Expats in Japan face hard choices

Oregonians living in Japan like me have taken a hard look at our futures since the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and the unfolding nuclear and economic crises. Radiation leaks, contaminated crops and water, plutonium released into the air and ocean, have made expats in Japan question whether to stay or head back home, especially in the face of pressure from family and loved ones.

Relatively few Americans live in Japan, fewer still from Oregon. Through work, I’ve become friends with a few Oregonians who share the same circumstances and tough choices.

I’m from Portland, 42, and live in Inuyama. I’ve been in Japan for 10 years, mostly teaching English, but also freelancing as a photographer, writer and video producer.

My two friends and I have a number of things in common. We enjoyed our lives in Oregon, but things weren’t panning out as well as we had hoped and we sought a new adventure, which America-friendly Japan provided. Living here has been a series of trade-offs, exchanging one set of headaches and concerns for different ones.

The question is, in the face of health concerns and financial hardship, is it time to trade them back again?

Stay or go?

Keary Doyle of Florence, 57, lives by himself in the rural town of Yamagata. He has been in Japan since 2000, and while he’s mulled a return home in recent years, the unemployment rate stops him. He worked as a logger and in the mills, but those jobs dried up.

“I don’t see the prospects of me going back being very economically viable,” he says.

Even though Japan’s job market is challenging as well, there are always teaching positions for native English speakers like Doyle. But going back to America expecting to teach English, especially without a college degree in education, is almost impossible. Like me, he wonders, “If I went back, what would I do for work?”

Keary lives approximately 300 miles from the reactors, a relatively safe distance, but it’s difficult to feel at ease. Simply because the nuclear crisis isn’t in the daily headlines doesn’t mean the radiation danger is any less real for those living near it.

Jeff Kreuger of Gladstone, 34, has greater reason to worry. He lives in Nagano prefecture, 200 miles from the reactors, and has a wife and 1-year-old daughter.

“A lot of family and friends were saying ‘Get out of there quick,'” he says about the beginning of the crisis. “I wanted solid information on how dangerous it was here in Nagano.”

He found a Japanese website with real-time monitoring of radiation and another showing winds blowing airborne radiation to sea.

“I haven’t found evidence yet that would lead me to think we should evacuate,” he says. “And if we did go to Oregon, how would we live? Would I be able to find a job and support my family?”

He wonders if things would pan out because when he returned to Oregon in 2004, before he was married, he only managed to get a part-time job at a coffee shop, which came without health care and other benefits.

“For me, it was a hardscrabble existence,” he says. “I was living from paycheck to paycheck,” and found it difficult to pay for rent, food, car repairs and general living expenses.

When his previous employer in Nagano wanted him back to continue teaching English at the junior high school, tempting him with a rent-free apartment, car and no taxes on his generous salary, the decision was easy. Three years later, he married his Japanese girlfriend, Miho.

Whether it’s career, love life or vacation and employment benefits, we all have far greater potential to have those things here than in Oregon, which has brought us all to the same conclusion: The relatively minimal danger here while the disaster is brought under control, compounded by the grim economic forecast, is far less risky than a permanent move back to Oregon in the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, we all pine for the Northwest: the absence of sweltering summer humidity and the friendliness of everybody everywhere. Instead, we visit our loved ones and friends as often as we can.

We have to settle for the sight of the Cascade Range when flying in, the Columbia River and all those green trees and grass, and wide open spaces.

10% of foreign residents have left disaster-hit prefectures

The number of foreign residents in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures [the hardest hit by the March 11 earthquake-tsunami disaster] dropped 10.5 percent to 30,092 between the end of December and the end of March, according to the Justice Ministry.

The number of foreigners declined 1.9 percent nationwide during the same period.

“Many foreigners returned to their countries after the disaster and have not returned to Japan as they are concerned about the nuclear crisis” at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, an official in the ministry’s Immigration Bureau said.

The number of foreign residents also decreased by 944 in the three prefectures between the end of March and the end of June.

Foreign trainees at companies and other entities at the end of June decreased by 67.9 percent in Miyagi Prefecture from the end of December. The figure dropped 18.5 percent in Iwate and 19.2 percent in Fukushima.

Bye-bye to the gaijin card, welcome to the Juki Net in ’12

According to the Immigration Bureau, the Ministry of Justice and immigration lawyers, the new law will bring about a few major changes.

First of all, the alien registration card (soon to become the “residence card”) will no longer be issued at the local level. From July of next year, the Ministry of Justice will take over responsibility for the residence card.

After the law goes into effect, new arrivals with a valid medium- or long-term visa will receive a residence card at their port of entry. In cases where the port authorities do not have the means to do this — presumably at smaller air and sea ports rather than the main regional hubs — the card will be mailed to you.

Current medium- and long-term residents in Japan will receive the new card when they next apply for a visa extension from July 2012 (permanent residents must apply for the card by July 2015).

The new law will essentially combine the systems for Japanese and non-Japanese under the Juki Net system, a nationwide registry established in 2002 that includes basic information about all citizens. Very controversial, it has been the subject of numerous lawsuits filed by plaintiffs across the country over privacy concerns. The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the Juki Net does not infringe on the right to privacy guaranteed by the Constitution.

When the new law comes into force, non-Japanese will be put into this national system, which is why the residence card will be issued directly by the Immigration Bureau rather than local government.

Procedures for updating details on the residence card will also change when the new law goes into effect. Currently your local government office handles most personal information changes, but under the new law nearly all notifications will need to be made at your nearest immigration office.

For example, changes of name or nationality, employer or school information, and family relations (e.g., separation, divorce, death of spouse) will all be handled by the Immigration Bureau. Address registration and changes will still be handled by city hall.

Additionally, if your residence card is lost, damaged or stolen, rather than going to city hall, you will need to visit the immigration office for re-issuance. The time frame in which you have to do so, however, will remain the same: 14 days.

The new system will extend the maximum period of stay from three years to five.

Under the new law, medium-to-long-term residents with a valid passport and residence card will no longer need to apply for a re-entry permit if they leave and return to Japan within one year.

Additionally, the validity term of the re-entry permit for those who plan to be away for longer than 12 months will be extended from three to five years.

Items on the new residence card will no longer include the name of the householder, place of birth, passport number, occupation, and employer’s name and location.

To find more information on the upcoming changes (in English), visit and