Department stores and sweat shops

It’s one Japan for rich Chinese shoppers, another for low-skilled workers

Many Japanese strive to keep up egalitarian appearances. Porsche drivers keep their cars tactfully hidden away. Houses of the well-heeled are unflashy. In the finest department stores, even the demure “elevator girls” are treated with impeccable politeness.

But when it comes to the way Japan treats its nouveau riche neighbour, China, different rules apply. Two events this month betray the double standards with which Japanese officialdom treats China’s rich and poor. On July 1st Japan relaxed visa requirements for well-off Chinese tourists. It was not stated how much anyone needed to earn to apply for one. But as long as they had at least a gold credit card and a solid professional or civil-service job to go back to, they were free to come to Japan, to shop until they dropped.

Far from the bright lights of Japan’s shopping districts, however, young Chinese working in small industrial firms get anything but red-carpet treatment. On July 5th Kyodo, a news agency, reported that 21 Chinese were among 27 foreign trainees who died last year on a government-sponsored skills-transfer scheme for developing countries that over the past four years has brought in an average of 94,000 workers a year, mostly from China.

Of the 27, nine died of heart or brain diseases, four died while working and three committed suicide. A few days earlier officials confirmed that a 31-year-old Chinese trainee who died in 2008 after clocking up about 100 hours a month of overtime was the victim not of heart failure, as originally reported, but of “karoshi”, the Japanese affliction of death from overwork.

Japan International Training Co-operation Organisation, the outfit set up by five government ministries to oversee the skills-transfer programme, refuses to discuss the deaths. But Lila Abiko, of the Lawyers’ Network for Foreign Trainees, an NGO, says many guest-workers do so much low-paid overtime—with the support of their employers—that they literally work themselves to death. The mortality rate from heart disease and other stress-related ailments among trainees in their 20s and 30s is almost double that of Japanese of the same age, she says. “Japan is the richest country in Asia, yet this programme is exploiting poor Chinese like slaves.”

Japan’s shrinking population is at the root of both phenomena. As domestic spending declines, Japan needs wealthy Chinese tourists to help prop up the local economy, and low-skilled Chinese trainees to help man its factories. Figures for both have climbed .

The worse the demographics become, the more useful it may be for Japan to have China on its doorstep. But for the moment, the best many Chinese can say about Japan is that they love its products. That is not the basis for an enduring affinity.