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Race-based policy misses the mark


Debito Arudou has written a very interesting and eye-opening article for the Japan Times. In his article, he sheds light on the plight of cheap foreign labor and the race-based policies that initially took root over a century ago. Debito is also organizing a nationwide screenings of “Sour Strawberries” in late August and early September. Please feel free to contact him at debito[at] to arrange a screening.

Japan’s employment situation has gotten pretty dire, especially for non-Japanese workers. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry reports that between last November and January, more than 9,000 foreigners asked the Hello Work unemployment agency for assistance — 11 times the figure for the same period a year earlier.

The ministry also claims that non-Japanese don’t know Japan’s language and corporate culture, concluding that they’re largely unemployable. So select regions are offering information centers, language training, and some degree of job placement. Good.

But read the small print: Not only does this plan only target 5,000 people, but the government is also trying to physically remove the only people they can from unemployment rosters — the foreigners.

Under an emergency measure drawn up by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party only last month, from April 1 the Japanese government is offering nikkei — i.e. workers of Japanese descent on “long-term resident” visas — a repatriation bribe. Applicants get ¥300,000, plus ¥200,000 for each family dependent, if they “return to their own country,” and bonuses if they go back sooner (see ).

History is repeating itself, in a sense. These nikkei beneficiaries are the descendants of beneficiaries of another of Japan’s schemes to export its unemployed. A century ago, Japan sent farmers to Brazil, America, Canada, Peru and other South American countries. Over the past two decades, however, Japan has brought nikkei back under yet another wheeze to utilize their cheap labor. This time, however, if they take the ticket back “home,” they can’t return — at least not under the same preferential work visa.

Let this scheme sink in for a minute. We now have close to half a million nikkei living here, some of whom have been here up to 20 years, paying in their taxes and social security. They worked long hours at low wages to keep our factories competitive in the world economy. Although these policies have doubled Japan’s foreign population since 1990, few foreigners have been assimilated. Now that markets have soured, foreigners are the first to be laid off, and their unassimilated status has made them unmarketable in the government’s eyes. So now policy has become, “Train 1 percent (5,000) to stay, bribe the rest to be gone and become some other country’s problem.”

Sound a bit odd? Now consider this: This scheme only applies to nikkei, not to other non-Japanese workers also here at Japan’s invitation. Thus it’s the ultimate failure of a “returnee visa” regime founded upon racist paradigms.

How did this all come to pass? Time for a little background. Click here to read the rest of this article.


  1. I read this story a while back in the Japan Times. The comments all denounced this as “another” incident of discrimination in Japan. While being a foreigner in Japan, I am sympathetic to their cause, but Japan did not start this concept. Googling “Spain pays immigrants to leave” will give you a story from a British newspaper, the Guardian, from last summer with a similar concept being applied in Spain. Does it make it right? Loaded question. Mobile labor is a product of capitalism and globalization has made it more transnational. I think what Japan is doing in trying to correct its labor market is a lot more humane than say the way Malaysia treats Indonesians (rounding them up and putting them in cages to be deported). Still, I think the solution is short-sighted and inefficient in the long term. As the current recession has taught us, it is easy to get too caught up in the boom. Moderate policies during the boom as an ounce of prevention. It’s a lot cheaper than a pound of cure.

  2. Thanks for the comment! This article interests me on many fronts:

    1. I am curious to see if this will have a major impact on Japan’s immigration policy
    2. I wonder if this will cause a problem with Japan’s goal to bring in more skilled foreign labors to work in the health and other industries.
    3. I wonder how Japan will deal with long-term foreign residents that “may” seek long-term government assistance due to an inability to find suitable employment.

    I do not take the article as “another” incident of discrimination. The U.S., for example, has “lured” foreign labor to its shores for centuries – much like the nations you mentioned. At some point though, there are/were various mechanisms to entice these foreign workers to assimilate in the country depending on the period. However, in Japan, I see this current move as a demonstration of taking the easiest economic and less troublesome route in dealing with unemployed workers that have not -for various reasons- quite made it in Japan. This is what bothers me the most.

    BTW, I like your post on PC, Japanese Style. Mind if I introduce it to the BT readers?

  3. Zurui:

    As with everything, there is one way and then the way they do it in Japan, right? My points were broadstroked to show this sort of incident is not limited to Japan. I like your questions and am interested to see how things pan out myself. Studying current events is like watching 24: some people like watching it and waiting for the next episode while others just wait for it to come out on DVD to watch it all at once. Who wasn’t interested in knowing how the missile (satellite) crisis would turn out?

    Feel free to pass on any posts from my blog you like. By the way, the “study” I mentioned was from a post on this blog. I first heard that comment about the “female” radical being used in negative words back in ’06. The other Japanese woman there with me had the same reaction as myself: give me an example. That was then followed by the ever-present “he~~” and “neat factoid,” not that sexism was built into the language.

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