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Ten years ago, when I lived in the countryside of Japan, I seldom met foreigners. Even in Tokyo, I am a tall white American who sometimes makes the local people look different.


But when I came here again last month, I was amazed at the enormity of the change. Every hotel, shopping mall and cafe has at least one foreign worker. At the service desk and the game hall, some young workers are not labeled with Japanese names on their work plates.


On Saturday, Japan’s parliament accepted that proposal in a contentious and unprecedented move to let in more immigrant workers than ever before – 300,000 throughout the next five years, starting in April. The new bill comes at a time of historic change in Japan. And how everything shakes out could shape the country for generations.


Spike in seniors, spike in foreigners


Bhupal Shrestha is a university lecturer living in Tokyo’s Suginami ward, a residential area known for its narrow alleys lined with second-hand clothing and antique shops. He’s lived in Japan for 15 years, but the road to a “permanent resident” visa hasn’t always been a smooth one.

什雷斯塔(Bhupal Shrestha)是一名大学讲师,住在东京的杉并区,这个居住区以狭窄的小巷以及两旁的二手服装店和古董店闻名。他在日本生活了15年,但获得“永久居民”签证的道路并不一帆风顺。

He says he’s experienced “discrimination on basic things, such as searching for rooms for residences or businesses, opening bank accounts, applying for credit cards”. He also says it’s hard for immigrants themselves to have much say in the government policy that affects them.


But the big problem is this: the number of native Japanese is going down.


The population contracted by nearly a million people between 2010 and 2015 alone. Last year, it fell by another 227,000. In parallel, the number of residents over 65 hit a record 27% – a number that will rise to 40% in 2050.


In May, the job availability ratio hit the highest it’s been in 44 years: 160 jobs for every 100 workers. That means there are now lots of available jobs that older Japanese can’t do and that younger Japanese don’t want to do.

今年5月,空缺岗位率(job availability ratio)达到了44年来的最高水平:每100名工人面对160个职位空缺。这也就意味着,现在很多工作是日本老年人不能做,年轻人不愿意做的。

“Very dire” is how Shihoko Goto, senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a US think-tank, describes the situation. But she says in the past immigration “has really not been seen as part of a broader solution to some of the issues Japan is facing”.

“非常可怕,”美国智库伍德罗·威尔逊中心(Woodrow Wilson Center)的高级副研究员后藤志保子(Shihoko Goto)这样描述当前形势。但她表示,对于“日本所面临的一些问题”,过去并没有把移民“纳入更广泛的解决方案”。

To date, Japan has got around the issue of importing foreign workers by using a temporary “technical intern training programme”. This allows young labourers or students to work in low-wage roles for three to five years before going home.


But the programme has been criticised for exploiting workers in areas ranging from meagre pay to bad working conditions. Last year, it emerged that a 24-year-old Vietnamese man on the programme ended up handling radioactive nuclear waste as part of the Fukushima clean-up. It’s been criticised in the press for years, with some outlets dubbing it “servitude in disguise”.


Now, Abe wants to allow low-skilled workers to stay for five years, and introduce a renewable visa for skilled workers, who would be allowed to bring their families. He wants the new visa schemes to launch in April.


Abe resists calling these workers “immigrants” though, and critics of his plan fear it could provide an easier path to permanent residency. There’s also concern that foreign workers would crowd cities and not live in rural areas where they are needed the most. Rights advocates, meanwhile, fear that Japan still has not learned how to adequately protect foreign workers from exploitation.


Takatoshi Ito, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, says he believes that Japanese society “is waking up to globalisation”. “So far, most [foreign workers] are helping economic growth, taking jobs the Japanese are not willing to take.”

哥伦比亚大学(Columbia University)国际与公共事务教授伊藤隆敏(Takatoshi Ito)表示,他认为日本社会“正在认识到全球化的重要性”。“到目前为止,大多数(外国工人)都在帮助经济增长,接下的是日本人不愿干的工作。”

But Nakai, the immigration lawyer, says securing a visa is just the beginning and that assimilating into Japanese culture can be difficult. He points to gaps in language and cultural knowledge as key challenges migrant workers face.


“If taxpayers agree, the government at least should provide free or cheap Japanese language courses over the archipelago as a first step,” Nakai says. Others think there isn’t much outreach in general.


“I think there are very few exchange events organised. There isn’t even communication between residents of the same apartment [block],” says Bhupal Shrestha. “When there is no understanding between neighbours, a multicultural society can’t be made.”


Culture clash


Chikako Usui, a sociologist at the University of Missouri in St Louis, says a variety of factors, from Japan’s isolationist history to its self-perceived homogeneity, give immigrants a rough go.

密苏里大学圣路易斯分校(University of Missouri in St Louis)的社会学家臼井近子(Chikako Usui)说,从日本的孤立主义历史到其自我认知上的同质性,种种因素都给移民带来困难。

Those moving to Japan need to know what they’re getting into, says Shrestha. He enjoys living in Japan, but says it is a place where “hard work is worshipped and rules are followed”. “It is better to come with some knowledge of Japanese culture and rules of daily life,” he says.


Meanwhile, the government will likely spend much of 2019 wrestling with an acceptable foreign worker solution. Until it can do that, the labour problem isn’t going anywhere.