Here’s this week’s Media Mix, about Japan’s very qualified response to the idea of allowing more immigrant workers into Japan to alleviate the labor shortage. Of course, the last time the government tried to import laborers without actually giving them work visas was in the early 90s, when it approved a special residency permit for South Americans of Japanese ancestry. Encouraged by the thought that they could make a lot of money, they flocked to Japan, and by 2007 there were 320,000 Brazilians alone living in Japan. Then the Lehman Brothers-led recession hit the economy, and many of these immigrants lost their jobs. The government, desperate to get rid of them since they were seen as a burden on the welfare system, bribed them into returning to Brazil, offering them cash to leave with the condition they wouldn’t come back to Japan for a certain number of years. Over the next three years, more than 100,000 did, taking the skills they acquired in Japan with them. By the end of 2014, 180,000 remained.
The Brazilian experiment is the perfect example of the government’s safety valve approach to labor shortages. The Brazilians were not given work visas, they were given residency permits that allowed them to look for work. That way the government could say they weren’t importing laborers, though that, in fact, is what they were doing. It’s the same thing with the trainee program described in the column. These people are not here to make a living. They’re here to learn skills, though in most cases they do repetitive work.
The distinction has become moot as Japanese industries now require more workers. The government tries to cover its ass by extending the “training period” for foreign trainees, but its the Brazilian experiment that really shows the failure of this policy. According to Asahi Shimbun brokers and “temporary employment agencies” in Brazil are receiving many requests from Japanese companies for Brazilians of Japanese ancestry, since the special residency permit is still available. One agent says he gets requests for about 200 workers a month. In the early 90s, when Brazil’s economy was very bad and Japan was thought of as a very desirable place to live and work, it would have been very easy for him to find those workers, but not any more. At most he can find about 30 people a month. The Japanese companies’ desperation is apparent in the lack of conditions they impose. In the 90s, they would insist the workers speak at least some Japanese. Now, they say they will take anyone, “even people with tattoos,” says the broker. And it’s not as if there aren’t Japanese-Brazilians looking for work. It’s just that they have a “wait and see” attitude now. They were burned once before, encouraged to immigrate to Japan, even bring their families, and then treated as second-class members of society and “cheap labor.” They’d rather take their chances in Brazil, which is, after all, home.