Japan to Immigrants: Thanks, But You Can Go Home Now

When union leader Francisco Freitas has something to say, Japan’s Brazilian community listens. The 49-year old director of the Japan Metal and Information Machinery Workers called up the Brazilian Embassy in Tokyo April 14, fuming over a form being passed out at employment offices in Hamamatsu City, southwest of Tokyo. Double-sided and printed on large sheets of paper, the form enables unemployed workers of Japanese descent — and their family members — to secure government money for tickets home. It sounded like a good deal to the Brazilians for whom it was intended. The fine print in Portuguese, however, revealed a catch that soured the deal: it’s a one-way ticket with an agreement not to return.

Japan’s offer to minority communities in need has spawned the ire of those whom it intends to help. It is one thing to be laid off in an economic crisis. It is quite another to be unemployed and to feel unwanted by the country where you’ve settled. That’s how Freitas and other Brazilians feel since the Japanese government started the program to pay $3,000 to each jobless foreigner of Japanese descent (called Nikkei) and $2,000 to each family member to return to their country of origin. The money isn’t the problem, the Brazilians say; it’s the fact that they will not be allowed to return until economic and employment conditions improve — whenever that may be. “When Nikkei go back and can’t return, for us that’s discrimination,” says Freitas, who has lived in Japan with his family for 12 years. (See pictures of Japan and the world.)

With Japan’s unemployment rate on the rise — it reached a three-year high of 4.4% in February — the government is frantic to find solutions to stanch the flow of job losses and to help the unemployed. The virtual collapse of Japan’s export-driven economy, in which exports have nearly halved compared to the first two months of last year, has forced manufacturers to cut production. Temporary and contract workers at automotive and electronics companies have been hit especially hard. Hamamatsu has 18,000 Brazilian residents, about 5% of the total in Japan, and is home to the nation’s largest Brazilian community. After immigration laws relaxed in 1990, making it easier for foreigners to live and work in Japan, Brazilians have grown to be the country’s third largest minority, after Koreans and Chinese. But as jobs grow scarce and money runs out, some Nikkei ironically now face the same tough decision their Japanese relatives did 100 years ago, when they migrated to Brazil.

Japan can scarcely afford to lose part of its labor force, or close itself off further to foreigners. Japan, with its aging population that is projected to shrink by one-third over the next 50 years, needs all the workers it can get. The U.N. has projected that the nation will need 17 million immigrants by 2050 to maintain a productive economy. But immigration laws remain strict, and foreign-born workers make up only 1.7% of the total population. Brazilians feel particularly hard done by. “The reaction from the Brazilian community is very hot,” says a Brazilian Embassy official. The embassy has asked Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to “ease the conditions” of reentry for Brazilians who accept the money. (Paradoxically, the Japanese government had recently stepped up efforts to help Brazilian residents, with programs such as Japanese-language training and job-counseling.) This particular solution to unemployment, however, is perceived as a misguided gift. “Maybe there were good intentions, but the offer was presented in the worst way possible,” says the Brazilian official. The program applies to Brazilians who have long-term Nikkei visas, but restricts their right — and that of their family members — to reentry until jobs are available in Japan. The terms are vague and will probably stay that way. Tatsushi Nagasawa, a Japanese health ministry official says it’s not possible to know when those who accept the money will be allowed back into Japan, though the conditions for reentry for highly skilled positions might be relaxed.

The Brazilian community plainly needs some help. The Brazilian embassy normally pays for between 10 and 15 repatriations each year, but in the last few months it has already paid for about 40. Since last September, Carlos Zaha has seen many in his Hamamatsu community lose their jobs. In December, he helped start Brasil Fureai, or “Contact Brazil,” an association to help unemployed Brazilian residents find jobs. He’s thankful to the Japanese government for the offer of assisted repatriation, but says the decision will be a rough one for workers. “I don’t think [the government] thought this through well,” Zaha says. “If someone is over 50 years old and is already thinking of returning to Brazil then it might work. But there are many people in their 20s and 30s, and after two or three years they’re going to want to come back to Japan — and they won’t be able to.”

Lenine Freitas, 23, the son of the union leader, lost his job at Asmo, a small motor manufacturer, one month ago, but says he plans to stay in Japan and work. Freitas says that there would be no problem if the Japanese government set a term of, say, three years, after which Brazilians who took the money could return. But after nine years working at Suzuki Motor Corp., he thinks that the government should continue to take responsibility for foreigners in Japan. “They have to help people to continue working in Japan,” he says. “If Brazilians go home, what will they do there?”

And if Nikkei Brazilians, Peruvians and others who have lost their jobs go home, what will Japan do? Last week, Prime Minister Taro Aso unveiled a long-term growth strategy to create millions of jobs and add $1.2 trillion to GDP by 2020. But the discussion of immigration reform is notoriously absent in Japan, and reaching a sensible policy for foreign workers has hardly got under way. Encouraging those foreigners who would actually like to stay in Japan to leave seems a funny place to start.