Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Latin-Japanese Workers Feel Cool Welcome

Facing a shortage of unskilled laborers, Japan sent out calls for foreign migrant workers, particularly those with Japanese ancestry, but many who responded face discrimination

BORN to Japanese immigrants in Brazil, Kazuhiro Otsubo never thought he would suffer discrimination in Japan.

After all, the second-generation Japanese-Brazilian says, he was welcomed to Japan under a new race-based immigration policy that grants a visa to any foreigner with at least one Japanese parent or grandparent.

About these ads

The special visas, first available in 1990, have made him one of more than 150,000 Japanese-Brazilians who have migrated to the homeland of their ancestors, earning wages 10 times those in inflation-wracked Brazil. Thousands of Japanese-Peruvians, too, have migrated to Japan, favored solely because they have the right blood lines.

For foreigners without Japanese ancestry, especially Asians, the door to Japan remains largely shut.

While a racist immigration policy did work in his favor, Mr. Otsubo, whose father left Japan for Brazil after World War II, finds that just looking like a Japanese is not enough to be treated like one in a factory or in daily life.

"Before I came, I heard that the Japanese people were very kind," says the Japanese-Brazilian, who welds pipes for an auto-parts factory in the city of Oizumi. "But it's not true. I may look Japanese, but I am always asked why I speak and act differently. The kindness disappears the second that I open my mouth."

Other Japanese-Brazilians, many of whom say they enjoy life in Japan while earning big money, report an unexpected prejudice.

"Yes, there's a lot of discrimination," says Katsumi Yonezawa, who heads a group of about 70 small firms that directly recruits Japanese-Brazilian workers from Sao Paulo to Oizumi. "But how can we stop it? It's difficult."

In some factory lunchrooms, Japanese-Brazilians are segregated from Japa-nese workers, and sometimes not given the best food. They are more often asked to work overtime than Japanese workers, to take the dirtiest or most dangerous tasks, and they are laid off first.

About these ads

Mr. Yonezawa's group, which is mainly affiliated with Subaru auto-making, has hired a second-generation Japanese-Brazilian woman to deal with complaints. His organization is the exception in Japan because it directly recruits from Sao Paulo, bypassing brokers, and provides special benefits to workers from Latin America. And the city of Oizumi, which is estimated to have the highest percentage of foreign workers in Japan, offers such services as Portuguese in classrooms.

At the same time, Yonezawa says, "Company loyalty is small among Japanese-Brazilians." One in 5 break their contracts, usually to find better jobs elsewhere.

The Japanese government, too, recently set up a complaint office for Latin-Japanese workers and holds special courses for employers in how to avoid discrimination in managing such employees.

The worst offenders are Japanese brokers, often associated with gangster organizations, who recruit both Japanese-Brazilians and Japanese-Peruvians and "sell" them to small Japanese companies in need of part-time workers.

The brokers extract a heavy percentage of the wages paid to each worker they recruit, and often keep a worker's passport until transportation costs and finders fees are paid back.

"There are few honest brokers," Yonezawa says. Paying off the broker

Carlos Hirano, a second-generation Japanese from Sao Paulo who speaks little Japanese, could only find a job through a broker. Under a deal with between his broker and his employer, he earns $11 an hour while an additional $4 an hour of his earnings is paid out to the broker. He works 13-hour days, six days a week, and receives no bonus, pension, or housing subsidy as Japanese workers do.

Like many Japanese-Brazilians in Japan, Mr. Hirano is a professional, a lawyer, reduced to manual work in Japan for lack of opportunities in Brazil. It is common to find doctors, lawyers, and dentists from Brazil working as factory hands, golf caddies, maids, or ditch-diggers in Japan.

"The Japanese people have to resolve this problem of discrimination," says Toyoie Kitagawa, a Toyo University professor who has studied Japanese-Brazilians both in Japan and Brazil.

He says the special visa policy is a mistake.

"It's clear racism. The second-and third-generation Japanese-Brazilians are clearly Brazilians in personality," Dr. Kitagawa says. Brazil is home to some 1.2 million people of Japanese ancestry, a result of mass migrations from Japan earlier in this century.

"I understand why there is such hatred toward the Japanese - Brazilians resent an immigration policy that is racist," Yonezawa says. Kitagawa adds, "Brazilian officials have been very careful not to charge racism because they know better than to strain relations with Japan."

Japan's race-biased immigration policy has some serious side-effects. Many Japanese-Peruvians buy fake ancestry papers or have surgery on their eyes to make them look oriental.

"This practice is very odd to Japanese," says Yonezawa. More than half the Peruvians coming to Japan do not have Japanese ancestry, says Yasuyuki Suzuki, a former Japanese diplomat who works at the government-linked Overseas Japanese Association. And in Brazil, many "paper marriages" are arranged to help non-Japanese Brazilians get to Japan.

Dr. Kitagawa says a black market in hiring Japanese-Brazilian exists because of a "double lock" in which both countries outlaw certain types of recruitment.

In Brazil, an old law named "206" that was designed to discourage emigration of workers prohibits foreign recruitment for profit. At the same time, Japan outlaws recruitment of unskilled labor within the country.

The result is a trans-Pacific head-hunting operation that can exploit labor from a poor country while relying on a legal immigration loophole to feed workers to thousands of small Japanese companies seeking to overcome a shortage of part-time workers.

"Importing Japanese-Brazilian is a nice legal way to hire workers, especially for jobs which many young Japanese will not take," says Shoichi Ikuta, chief of industrial labor planning at Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

Japanese-Brazilians are now the second largest foreign group after about 600,000 Koreans, whose ancestors were forced to immigrate to Japan prior to 1945.

With Brazil's economy hurting and Japan with a labor shortage, says Mr. Suzuki, "the migration of people is like water flowing downhill." Declining population

The importing of Latin-Japanese is seen as a test for Japan's ability to absorb foreign workers in the future. By the year 2020, Japan will have a population in which 65 percent of the people are more than 65 years old, a higher ratio than other developed countries. Without an influx of foreign workers, Japan will lose much of its economic vitality.

"Japan has to open up to foreigners," Kitagawa says. "There is a silent agreement among government officials to let this import of Japanese-Brazilians serve as a test for the day when Chinese workers will need to come to Japan in great numbers."

The numbers of workers brought legally from mainland China and other Asian nations has tripled in four years, reaching to 46,000 last year. They are legally dubbed "trainees." Spoiled employers

But the government is reluctant to go further.

"Look, Japan has small houses and not much land," says Mr. Ikuta. "And look at Germany's problems with all those Turkish workers. Germany introduced foreign workers to get low wages but it spoiled the companies. They failed to invest in higher technologies. We want to avoid that."

Japan must become more accepting of foreigners, Suzuki says. "We must internationalize at the people's level," he says, "without leaving everything up to the government."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.