IT seemed a company outing like any other - 15 men and women on a minibus, talking, laughing, singing, munching. Autumn is the season for excursions in Japan, when companies large and small take their employees to a spa or to see the countryside, practicing togetherness and forgetting, at least for a day and a night, the weekly grind of work at a desk or on the factory floor.
But the karaoke songs heard over the bus's public address system weren't only in Japanese, and if you listened carefully to the poker players at the back you would hear snatches of English, Iranian, and an African dialect.
The company can't be identified because half of its employees are illegal foreigners, and the police, if they chose, could slap a $20,000 fine on the owner.
Even in these days of deepening recession, there are a whole range of industries in Japan that would go out of business if it weren't for the illegal foreigners they hire. Young people scorn work they deem dirty (kitanai), difficult (kitsui) or dangerous (kiken), - the three D's, or, as they are known in Japan, the three K's. Construction is one such field. Services, such as restaurants, laundries, and cutting up frozen fish in a supermarket, are another. Small factories - foundries, paint shops, plastics makers - are others. The sleekest and most modern car assembly plant Toyota operates would soon run out of parts were it not for ``just in time'' deliveries from hundreds of parts-makers large and small, who rely at least partially on foreign labor.
The total number of foreign workers in Japan is not large, compared to the millions in France or Germany, to say nothing of the United States. Still, the number of foreign workers in Japan comes to nearly 600,000 - about 1 percent of the workforce. Of these, nearly 300,000 are illegal workers who came as tourists or students and then overstayed. Skilled workers can get visas, but the so-called unskilled - what the Japanese call ``simple labor'' -
are barred. Yet this is precisely the type of 3D work where shortages are the greatest.
So Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Thais, Malaysians, Bangladeshies, Pakistanis, Iranians, and lately, Africans have been coming to Japan, with visas or without, and somehow managing to stay on - mostly as hewers of wood and drawers of water. The Chinese and Koreans are near neighbors of the Japanese, and there has been a lot of history between them, including Japan's imperialistic adventures on the continent.
But the other Asians, particularly those who come from an Islamic background, are a new phenomenon. When Iranians began assembling in large numbers in front of Yoyogi Park on Sundays, they became an object not only of curiosity but of fear.
As an Iranian I met last year said with some feeling, ``Why is it that every time the Japanese read about a foreigner, it's always about the crimes they commit?''
And yet, despite the misunderstandings and the discrimination they frequently encounter, to many Iranians, Japan is a far freer country than their own. That's the irony of the status Iranians and other illegal Asians in Japan enjoy. They could be arrested and deported any day. But meanwhile they enjoy most of the privileges of a democratic and civil society.
So, in the Japan of today, there is room for a company like the one mentioned at the start of this article. Its owner-president runs what he calls a ``mini-United Nations.'' He has had Filipinos, Indians, and Pakistanis working for him in the past, and now Ghanaians in addition to the Japanese and the Iranians who are the mainstay of his workforce. He started out hiring foreigners because he couldn't get young Japanese to stay. But recently a 23-year-old Japanese has joined his company because he says, ``I like the atmosphere. It's international. It's not hierarchical, like my previous company.''
Measured against the totality of Japanese society, these changes are small. But faced with necessity, bit by bit, a people who for hundreds of years prided themselves on their ethnic homogeneity, are beginning to give up some portion of their insular, closed-to-foreigners mentality.
It makes Japan a richer place.