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FOCUS June 1996 Volume 4

Migrant workers in Japan

04-HR issue Yuka Ishikawa

In Japan, the number of foreign workers is estimated to be about 1.7 million people. The rapid economic development from 1970's to 1980's made Japan an economic superpower. This economic success stirred up the idea among people in Third World countries that Japan is a rich land of opportunity. Many foreigners, therefore, have come to Japan in search of jobs since then. After the Japanese economy became so strong, most Japanese moved into white collar jobs, creating a new demand for labor in the blue collar industries. The construction, manufacturing, and service industries have been employing foreigners in great numbers ever since.

Japan revised the Immigration Control Law in 1989 so that most foreigners who come to Japan to work are not accepted and unwelcome. According to this law, only the children of people with Japanese nationality and the third generation Japanese descendants in other countries can legally work in Japan. Foreigners who would like to work in Japan must belong to the skilled category. Most foreign workers, however, do not fall under this category. Most of them are working illegally in Japan by overstaying their tourist or student visas. It is common for such workers to develop personal relationships with Japanese people, to marry and have children. As a result, these workers wish to become legal permanent residents of Japan, enjoying the rights and privileges of their spouses. They are hardworking members of society providing essential services and labor, yet they are in constant fear of being discovered by the police or immigration authorities. As long as the present laws and immigration policies remain the same, these foreign workers will have to continue living as second-class citizens and outlaws. As a nation, Japan must think about ways of accepting these valuable members of society as human beings, and not simply as foreign laborers.

Before discussing the reality of foreigners in Japan, one must understand the definition of who is a foreigner in the Japanese context. This definition has two parts, each describing a different group of people. One group defined as foreigners are Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese-Koreans, Japanese-Chinese, Japanese-Taiwanese who have been living in Japan since World War II or were born in the country. The second group consists of people who came to Japan since the 1970s.

As to the first group, many of them were forced to come to Japan by the Japanese Government during the World War II. After the war ended, some of these people could not return to Korea or China or Taiwan for various reasons. In Chinese or Taiwanese case, before the war, they came to Japan as traders or merchants. Now, a fourth generation of these original "Oldcomers" live in Japan. However, they are not considered Japanese though they were born in Japan. This means they do not enjoy the rights and privileges of Japanese citizens. For example, these so-called "foreigners" cannot work for some government institutions or offices because of the "nationality" policy adopted by the government. Today about 750,000 "Oldcomers" are living in Japan.

As to the second group, about one million of them are living in Japan today. Among this group, 284,744 are staying illegally. Among these illegal residents, people from Thailand rank number one with 43,014 people; followed by 41,122 people from the Philippines, 25,036 from China, 14,693 from Peru and 14,638 from Iran. (data from Japan Immigration Association, November 1995)

Most of the male foreigners are working in the construction of houses, buildings, and roads, and in cleaning and maintenance jobs. Their jobs are typically low salaried, in dangerous or dirty conditions, physically demanding, and without insurance benefits. There are many women who intended to work as entertainers but forced into prostitution. There are also those, especially from Thailand, who are trafficked into Japan by Yakuza. They are often not told by the recruiters of the sex industry about the nature or conditions of the work they will have in Japan. After arriving in the country, they are often detained and forced to work as prostitutes to pay back the overpriced expense of 3 to 3.5 million yen.

There are many other problems in the immigration system in Japan. For example, the reasons for forced deportation is not made public. There are also well-known reports of violence against foreigners by Immigration Officers.

On April 28-29, 1996 the first Forum on Migrant Workers' Problems was held in Fukuoka, Japan. About 400 people participated in this forum. On the first day, the discussion focused on the Japanese immigration policy, the HIV/AIDS issue, the situation of migrant workers in Korea, and so on. Next day, there were 11 small discussion groups on international marriage; children of Japanese and foreigner couples, the sex traffic and foreign women, the medical system for foreigners in Japan, the full implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the rights of foreigners, and so on.

At the last session on the second day, the participants adopted a set of recommendations directed to the Japanese government and the general public. The recommendations state that, in order to solve these problems, Japanese government personnel should learn to respect the human rights of foreigners through seminars, workshops, and other means. Secondly, a Migrant Workers Policy should be made by revising Japanese laws concerning foreign workers' issues. The International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families should be ratified and become the basis of that policy. Also, since Japan ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, harder work is needed to implement it in the country. Finally, the discriminatory consciousness which many Japanese people have against foreigners should be countered by human rights education as envisaged by the goals of the United Nations' Decade for Human Rights Education.


Takeshi Nagano, "Japanese Chinese - History and Identity", September 1994 , Tokyo, Japan
The Immigration Newsmagazine, Japanese Immigration Bureau, April 1996, Tokyo, Japan
Masaaki Satake, "Asian Workers in Japan", Treatises, Shikoku Gakuin University, July 1990, Shikoku, Japan
Takashi Ebashi, "The Foreign Workers and Japan", April 1994, Tokyo, Japan