Drop in number of Japan’s foreign workers amid economic crisis

Brazilian community hard hit as jobs shrink and Japanese compete for vacancies

The samba vibes that filled the streets of Kawasaki City in July were suitably festive, but their feverish beat failed to conceal the fact that Japan’s Brazilian community – the third-largest group of foreigners after the Chinese and Koreans – has been hard hit by the economic crisis. The number of immigrants fell by 1.4% in 2009 to 2.2 million, for the first time since 1961. The drop was mainly due to the departure of Brazilians. In one year their number fell by 14.4%, down to 267,450.

Japan’s Brazilian community largely consists of poorly qualified workers and their families, packed into major industrial centres. Just over half of them are factory workers compared with 39% for immigrants as a whole, essentially on short-term contracts.

Most are nikkeijin, descendants of Japanese who moved to South America after 1908. They came to Japan when the law on immigration changed in 1989, allowing them to obtain a visa even without specific qualifications. This was intended to compensate for the decline in the active population that started in the 1980s. With less than 4,000 before 1990 their number exceeded 310,000 by the end of 2007.

When the crisis struck Japan in autumn 2008, firms started by laying off the nikkeijin. Unemployment in the group rocketed to 40%, against 5% before the crash. In the Hello Work job centres the sudden influx of so many unemployed, with few qualifications and a shaky grasp of the language, caused panic. The government even set up a scheme to help them return home, and some 11,300 nikkeijin took advantage of the deal.

The situation seems more stable now. In Hamamatsu, Shizuoka prefecture, home to Suzuki and Yamaha works, “the rate of unemployment has returned to traditional levels”, according to the local branch of the Foundation for International Exchanges (HICE). But it notes that the number of Brazilians has fallen from more than 20,000 18 months ago to 14,655 in June. No one is in any hurry to replace them. The five-year plan for immigration control, published in March, suggests a review of the conditions for granting visas to nikkeijin.

The crisis has brought “a deep realisation of the social and economic costs that come with accepting foreign workers”, writes Masahiko Yamada, minister of labour. The downturn has rekindled debate on immigration, despite the fact that the working population could decline to 55.8 million by 2030, as against 66.6 million in 2006. This would further dent the welfare budget, already running at a loss.

In 10 years the number of immigrants has increased by 40%, but they still only account for 1.7% of the population as a whole. Nor is there anything to suggest they will substantially increase. Existing policies aim to attract highly qualified workers and students suitable for top university courses – preferably from Asia to sustain trade in the already booming region.

Immigration is expected to compensate for real needs identified by the authorities. Economic partnerships agreed with the Philippines and Indonesia before the crisis provide for the arrival of dozens of medical orderlies to make up for staff shortages in hospitals. But the deals are already in doubt, because the crisis is encouraging Japanese to take such jobs.

All this suggests that before shipping in foreigners, Japan should encourage those with untapped abilities – young people, women and senior citizens – to enter the job market. Yamada believes that measures along these lines should stabilise the active population for the coming 10 years.

Japan is still reluctant to open its borders. Outsiders still have a negative image in a country that sees itself as ethnically homogeneous.