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  5. Breaking the Barrier: Japanese NGOs Take Up the Challenge

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FOCUS September 1996 Volume 5

Breaking the Barrier: Japanese NGOs Take Up the Challenge

(This is the first in a series of articles on Japanese non-governmental organizations that have programs related to human rights. The series is meant to introduce the programs and activities of these organizations as they take up domestic and international issues. The series may likewise bring out problems faced by them in their operations. - Editor's note.)

In this article, Japanese NGOs focusing on problems faced by foreigners in the Kansai region of the country are featured. These NGOs have a significant exposure to the long-standing issues of the foreigners.

Foreign workers in Japan, specifically those without proper visas or work permits have been marginalized in a relatively affluent society. They have been deprived of social benefits such as medical services; denied residency permit; remained invisible workforce in economically significant industries; and suffered from the social stigma of being a different people and thus given different (discriminatory) treatment. The gap between those who have the full benefits of an industrialized country and those who remain in the fringes has become too anomalous to be ignored. Breaking the barrier that separates the "illegal" foreigners from the mainstream has become an obsession for most of the Japanese NGOs. This is none other than their call for justice.

The Kansai-based NGOs recognized the need to take action after realizing the suffering of foreigners in their own areas. Their programs generally fall under three main categories: counselling services; case handling; and policy/law reform advocacy. Most groups maintain a multi-lingual telephone hotline that can respond to queries about problems that range from ordinary transactions between foreigners and the Japanese (e.g., getting an apartment), to marriage requirements, labor problems, and immigration issues. They accept calls in English, Tagalog, Thai, Chinese, Korean, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic languages. Immigration, labor and civil/criminal action cases are handled in a limited extent. And with the growing realization that problems have to be tackled by addressing their structural causes, reform in the policies and procedures (and later on laws) of relevant agencies of the Japanese government is getting increasing attention.

These NGOs are generally operating with the help of members and supporters who volunteer time and effort in implementing programs. Running with very minimal financial resources, they nevertheless provide significant help to many foreigners in the Kansai region.

Way back in 1982, calls for help from Filipino women who have fallen victim to the prostitution industry prompted the Catholic Diocese in Osaka to establish Bahay ni Maria (House of Mary). A 24-hour telephone counselling service was set up. Assistance in getting travel documents from the Philippine consulate and processing of documents in the immigration office was also provided. Since then, Bahay ni Maria has helped hundreds of Filipina women in returning back to the Philippines. When marriage between Filipino women and Japanese men rose in number, the counselling service begun to cover problems about marital relationships, education of children, labor, medical needs, among others. It is now planning to establish a shelter for women. As a counterpart measure, Bahay ni Maria has a livelihood program in the Philippines to assist Filipino women who returned from Japan have economic support (and hopefully deter them from returning to Japan to work). The workers of Bahay ni Maria (mainly religious nuns) have been conscious of the dangers posed by their work since most of the prostitution houses are under the control of organized criminals, the Yakuza. They have fortunately been spared of any serious retaliation against their work.

Asian Friends or the Foreign Migrant Worker Support Organization is an association of unionists, church workers, students, professionals and other individuals . It was formed as a response to the growing number of human rights violations of legal and illegal migrant workers. It was started in 1988 by the so-called daily workers - people hired on a daily basis mainly by construction companies. It has its base in the daily workers area in Osaka city called Kamagasaki where about 25,000 Japanese daily workers and a few thousand foreign workers wait every morning for jobs.

Asian Friends aims to raise the level of public awareness on the plight of foreign migrant workers in Japan. It provides service to foreign migrant workers through telephone counselling, and emergency evacuation and lodging facilities. It is also setting-up an emergency financial assistance system.

Most of the migrant workers seeking its help come from the Philippines and Thailand. Many migrant workers from Taiwan, Korea and Peru were previously served until they put up their respective organizations.

Its operation is mainly run by volunteers. Telephone counselling service therefore is mainly done in the evening.

Since Asian Friends deal with foreign daily workers, they generally service male migrant workers. Other groups take up the problems of foreign women migrant workers.

The Asian People Together (APT) is a project of Kyoto YWCA. Formed in 1987, it is a voluntary organization that extends help to people from other Asian countries residing in the Kyoto area. Many of the people who seek their help are foreign migrant workers. Its over-all aim is to improve Japan's relationship with its Asian neighbors through positive interaction with fellow Asians who live in Japan. By serving the needs of foreigners, it hopes to help create a Japanese society that is open, just, and respectful of human rights .

It provides assistance by finding interpreters for those with problems communicating in Japanese language in their transactions with Japanese people, referring trustworthy lawyers for their legal problems, and referring doctors who can understand their situation. It covers issues relating to labor, family and civil transactions. It also maintains telephone counselling service.

Lately, it started an advocacy program that aims to change the policies and programs of government agencies dealing with the foreign residents. It is initially concentrating on the immigration office's policies, rules and procedures. It wants the immigration office to treat foreign residents with decency such as providing adequate and humane detention facilities and services, and improved policies in dealing with foreigners such as foreign women who have been victimized by Japan's sex industry, or who have children born of Japanese fathers. Above all, it wants the issue affecting foreigners to be seen in a bigger perspective. Women entertainers, for example, who have been arrested for working without permission should be seen as victims rather than offenders. The violators of the law, the sex industry syndicates, should therefore be dealt with properly rather than disregarded.

It has also begun a program of linkaging with professional groups such as medical, social work and bar associations which can provide assistance to foreign residents in Kyoto area. Though the initial response to its request for help is not always encouraging, it still hopes to get their full support in the near future. The bar association, for example, has set up a toban bengoshi system - lawyers on call for foreigners in need.

As part of its case handling work, it has international linkaging activities that seek the support of NGOs in the countries where the foreigners seeking help come from. Link with an NGO working on migrant women workers in Thailand is a good example of its international linkaging work.

General Union was started five years ago by a small group of Japanese and foreigners living in Kansai. It aims to protect the rights of workers, whether Japanese or foreigners, against employers who violate labor laws. It does not limit itself to a particular industry, profession or type of work - any full or part-time workers are qualified join it.

The membership of General Union, so far, is mainly composed of foreign workers. They are also mainly English language teachers in private and public schools. In response to the present situation of its membership, General Union has been supporting the English language teachers in fighting for unreasonable requirements on workload, non-payment of overtime work, non-crediting of unused holidays, low salary, failure to provide salary increase, non-renewal of employment contracts, among others.

Counselling is provided by General Union through it telephone hotline service or visits to its office. It has been maintaining its telephone counselling service for three years now. Case handling is also done by the union. It helps negotiate with the employers, represents cases before the government labor office, engages in concerted actions such as strikes to pressure the employers to negotiate and agree to the demands of the workers based on law. It prefers, however, to deal with problems affecting a number of workers in one place to maximize the limited resources of the union.

Its over-all aim is to promote unionism as the best way of protecting the rights of workers. It is actively recruiting members and helping set up branch unions in different schools in the Osaka area.

Due to its present membership, it is the only organization that handle the problems of the so-called native English speakers who work as English teachers in Osaka area. It documents the various forms of violations of labor standards and laws which affect many of them. It is said that though they are not in the same situation as the Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern workers, they still suffer from discrimination. They are treated as contract workers who do not have the full benefits of regular workers. Illegal terms of employment such as the three-year tenure for those working in public schools are imposed on them. This only shows that workers who come from Western countries are also victims of discrimination contrary to popular perception.

General Union, in line with its aims, is trying to reach out to other foreign workers engaged in different professions or in other industries especially the non-English speaking people.

General Union hopes that its effort will contribute to the betterment of the general working condition of all workers in Japan. Its focus on foreign workers can provide a perspective which can help better define a mutually beneficial employee-employer relationship in the country regardless of type of industry or business of the employer, and of nationality of the worker.

The Rights of Immigrants Network in Kansai or RINK is a network organization in the Kansai region of groups and individuals concerned with foreigners. It was formed in 1991. RINK aims to make the government, and society in general, recognize that foreigners do have rights equal to those of the Japanese people. It therefore acts to fight discrimination against foreigners. It has made a clear stand of protecting the rights of foreigners regardless of the legality of their stay in the country

RINK has the following programs:

  1. advocacy for foreigners' legal rights;
  2. counselling and information dissemination;
  3. litigation; and
  4. public information.

RINK concentrates on family, labor and other legal problems affecting foreigners. It has lawyer-members who provide assistance for free. It has telephone counselling service which entertains calls from foreigners in several languages. In its public information program, print (newspaper) and broadcast (radio and television) media have been used to announce activities such as its annual three-day free legal service.

A number of the cases handled by RINK involve immigration problems of non-Japanese women who have children with their Japanese partners; citizenship status, educational needs, social benefits of these children, and general labor problems.

Aside from providing direct services to foreigners, RINK is also a network of organizations in Kansai region which take up the foreigners' issue. All the groups presented above are either members or supporters. It was in a meeting of these groups in 1991 that the idea of a network organization which can advocate for the rights of the foreigners came up. It has been concentrating on the immigration policies which create two kinds of foreigners - the skilled mainly from Western countries including New Zealand and Australia and the unskilled mainly from Asian and Latin American countries. RINK sees this dual classification of foreigners as creating a discriminatory image against the "unskilled" foreigners among the Japanese public.

With its consistent handling of cases before the immigration office through the years, RINK has established a good link with the immigration office that helps its advocacy work.


Human rights norms tell us that foreign migrant workers have the same rights as workers of the receiving country. The situation in Japan unfortunately indicates the contrary. These NGOs aim to break that gap and make human rights norms a reality.

The different experiences of Kansai NGOs in helping foreign workers do point to a common direction - the need to change the basic notion of foreign workers among the Japanese public and their government. These NGOs believe that such change will help promote a more humane Japanese society.