Media starting to tally the economic effects of foreigner flight

News reports immediately following the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant accident of panicked foreign residents lining up for the first flight home — in many cases advised to flee by their own governments — had the initial result of helping to feed the sense of angst among Japanese that has pervaded much of the postquake reporting.

Compared with the week before the March 11 disaster, the Immigration Bureau data confirmed departures by foreigners nearly doubled the week following the quake, from 139,782 to 244,274. Exits by those holding official or diplomatic passports, for example, were 192 and 1,320, respectively.

In terms of their overall proportion, foreign students may have been the largest segment to leave the country. Some 60,000 — about one third of foreign students here — were reported to have departed during the second half of March, but this period coincided with the end of the academic year, a time when many would be traveling in any case.

Another article by former Mainichi Shimbun editorial writer Susumu Ishihara suggested that the “hollowing out” of foreign human resources would have a serious impact on the nation’s economic future. Citing research by Kwansei Gakuin University professor Yasushi Iguchi, even when excluding Zainichi ethnic Koreans and other foreign nationals with special permanent resident status, some 920,000 foreigners are working in Japan.

In Ishihara’s somewhat orthodox view, multilingual foreigners are needed to help Japanese companies shift to a more globalized strategy. He suggested the government adopt speedy initiatives to encourage foreign students to come back.

Meanwhile, on the cover of its May 2 issue, Nikkei Business asks, “The vanished foreign labor force: Can the workplace be defended by Japanese alone?”

While the number of foreign workers relative to Japan’s overall workforce is minuscule, the article recognized that non-Japanese make valuable contributions in such diverse sectors of the economy as food services, finance, textiles, convenience-store retailing, agriculture, manufacturing, information technology, education, tourism and air transport.

The magazine pointed to what it views as common factors among companies whose foreign workers chose not to leave after the disaster, compiled mnemonically as A-B-C-D, which stand for “Accountability” (dispelling anxiety by working to keep the foreign staff informed); “Bonds” (building relationships that will make them want to stay); “Career” (making the acquisition of “knowledge” their motive for staying on the job); and “Diversity” (discarding the awareness of differences because the workers are foreigners).

Nikkei Business was also unequivocal in its denunciation of so-called benri-zukai (utilization based on expedience), i.e., bringing in foreign workers to address labor shortfalls and discarding them when no longer needed.

Subsequent to the business downturn from autumn 2008, some 21,675 Brazilians of Japanese ancestry who were laid off from jobs in ailing industries accepted a one-time lump sum payment of ¥300,000 from the Japanese government to return to Brazil. The offer was contingent on their not coming back to Japan for at least three years, which means they are banned from returning before March 2012 at the earliest, even if new positions come open.