Foreign residents in Japan shout slogans in this file photo as they hold banners during a demonstration in Tokyo on May 24, 2009, against proposed changes in immigration laws which they say could lead to tighter monitoring of immigrants. (Photo: AFP)
Japan suffers from being stereotyped as a country that struggles to accept immigrants. But then, we frequently tend to confuse the oft-repeated statistics of the huge amount of asylum seekers who get rejected every year with the actual number of economic immigrants.
Foreign workers in Japan now stand at almost 2 million people (1,822,725) with 25 percent (462,384) being Vietnamese, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country. Despite the Covid pandemic decimating foreign populations in other countries, the number of immigrants in Japan increased by almost 100,000 between 2021 and 2022.
Nagasaki, due to its high number of old people, is the number one prefecture in terms of the growth of immigrants, as many Vietnamese tend to find jobs in its healthcare sector.
A labor crisis in the manufacturing sector in recent years has led to significant efforts being made to increase the number of foreign workers with new policies and initiatives aimed at facilitating their entry and employment.
I recently visited the town of Oizumi in Northern Kanto, which has undergone substantial demographic changes in recent years.
It all started more than 30 years ago, in 1990, when a change in Japan's immigration legislation permitted second and third-generation Japanese descendants and their families to live in Japan without having to worry about work restrictions.
Oizumi on its part actively engaged in encouraging such people from Brazil and Peru to relocate to the town, which resulted in the growth of a substantial foreign immigrant population, the majority of whom are of Japanese heritage.
Gunma prefecture has gone from 4,000 foreign residents in the nineties to over 62,000 now, with Isesaki City, Ota City, and Oizumi Town, together hosting 51 percent of the foreign immigrants.
The whole of Gunma is a cradle for foreign workers.
Panasonic, whose factory makes all sorts of products including refrigerators for medical purposes, is constantly in need of new recruits.
Subaru, which also has a factory in the same prefecture, is another giant magnet for immigrant workers who provide a substantial flow of financial contribution to sustain projects directed towards social integration and overall benefit the whole community.
Gunma is, in fact, a quite lush prefecture in terms of public budget if compared to similar ones with a comparable population.
For example, now all of the town's municipal elementary and junior high schools have started teaching Japanese as a second language to students, and the town hall publishes bulletins in Portuguese in order to inform visitors about the municipality and the laws for residing in Japan.
Japanese and foreign residents are encouraged to volunteer to clean up the town, and a foreign volunteer group has been trained for emergencies and natural disasters. There is a "cultural interpreter" registration system in place for people to communicate information about the town with family and co-workers in their native tongue.
The top growing community in Gunma is now the Vietnamese followed by the Filipinos, and not only did they choose to work in Japan, they also chose to stay long-term.
For foreigners living abroad, smartphones have helped a lot, and have had a double effect. While they create a bubble that prevents immigrants from fully integrating into the community, they also make it easier to stay connected with their families and friends back home, access information in their native language, and enjoy the comforts of home without having to travel back. They can easily communicate with their loved ones through voice and video calls, instant messaging apps, and social media platforms.
And so if in the nineties at least 70 percent of them used to visit their home countries after only three years, now that figure has dropped to only 18 percent.
But the presence of foreign workers has highlighted a more alarming aspect for Japan. As pointed out to me by Ishikawa Construction’s Director of Management, Amagasa Kazu, the skills of the Vietnamese they hire are way better than the Japanese. He actually feels the education system in Japan is now failing to produce good engineers.
Now that’s a huge change in attitude toward immigrants in a country that used to have the highest barriers to their entry anywhere in the world.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.