IT seemed a company outing like any other - 15 men and women on a minibus, talking, laughing, singing, munching. Autumn is the season for excursions in Japan, when companies large and small take their employees to a spa or to see the countryside, practicing togetherness and forgetting, at least for a day and a night, the weekly grind of work at a desk or on the factory floor.
But the karaoke songs heard over the bus's public address system weren't only in Japanese, and if you listened carefully to the poker players at the back you would hear snatches of English, Iranian, and an African dialect.
The company can't be identified because half of its employees are illegal foreigners, and the police, if they chose, could slap a $20,000 fine on the owner.
Even in these days of deepening recession, there are a whole range of industries in Japan that would go out of business if it weren't for the illegal foreigners they hire. Young people scorn work they deem dirty (kitanai), difficult (kitsui) or dangerous (kiken), - the three D's, or, as they are known in Japan, the three K's. Construction is one such field. Services, such as restaurants, laundries, and cutting up frozen fish in a supermarket, are another. Small factories - foundries, paint shops, plastics makers - are others. The sleekest and most modern car assembly plant Toyota operates would soon run out of parts were it not for ``just in time'' deliveries from hundreds of parts-makers large and small, who rely at least partially on foreign labor.
The total number of foreign workers in Japan is not large, compared to the millions in France or Germany, to say nothing of the United States. Still, the number of foreign workers in Japan comes to nearly 600,000 - about 1 percent of the workforce. Of these, nearly 300,000 are illegal workers who came as tourists or students and then overstayed. Skilled workers can get visas, but the so-called unskilled - what the Japanese call ``simple labor'' -
are barred. Yet this is precisely the type of 3D work where shortages are the greatest.