FOREIGNERS are urging Japan to open its doors to the outside world. But the Japanese are not just being asked to accept products from overseas. They are also being faced with an influx of people. For the past year Japan has engaged in a debate over how to deal with the tens of thousands of unskilled foreign workers - most of them from Asia - who come here in search of work. Some are here legally. But many - the government estimates more than 100,000 - work as illegal aliens.
The Asian workers are drawn by Japan's riches and its powerful currency. And Japanese employers seek their labor, protecting them from immigration authorities, to do the back-breaking, low-wage jobs that Japanese increasingly shun. Some Japanese businessmen, politicians, and opinionmakers call for Japan to legalize the workers, to absorb them as a matter of economic necessity, and to fulfill Japan's international responsibilities. Others oppose any change, warning that the influx threatens Japan's culturally homogeneous society.
Neither side can avoid the fact that foreign workers have become a part of daily life in Japan. Men from Bangladesh and Pakistan haul cement or work in tiny back-alley factories. Women from Thailand and the Philippines serve food in restaurants or entertain Japanese men as bar dancers and prostitutes.
The foreign workers' issue is making Japanese aware of the disparity between their high living-standards and that of hundreds of millions of Asians around them. The powerful lure of Japan hit home last summer when officials found that most of a rush of boat people from Vietnam were actually Chinese who disguised themselves as political refugees to come to Japan to work.
``As long as Japan enjoys a huge economic advantage over third world developing countries, it will remain an attractive labor market to any foreign workers,'' says Reynaldo Parungao, labor attach'e at the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo.
Japan became especially attractive to foreigners following the 1985 Plaza Agreement, which led the way to an increase in the value of the yen. Laborers from Pakistan and Bangladesh who once found employment in the Middle East flooded into Japan, using a liberal policy exempting them from the need to have tourist visas. Japan's per capita gross national product in 1987 was 45 and 99 times respectively as high as that of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
``The bottom line is [the workers] can quickly earn enough money to live, without working for 10 years in their home countries,'' says Issei Morimoto, special assistant at the Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau.
There is strong opposition to any attempt to open the Japanese labor market. Such critics cite the example of West Germany's ``guest workers'' - the Turks, Yugoslavs, and others who were drawn by a labor shortage in the 1960s and who then stayed. The same thing will happen in Japan, they openly say, creating ghettos of foreigners who cannot be absorbed into Japanese society.
In letters to newspapers and other public forums, Japanese express concern that the alien presence will exacerbate the housing shortage, strain social services such as education and social security, and bring crime to Japan's relatively peaceful society.
``Will Japanese people share the burden [of the workers] with their taxes? Have we reached a consensus on that?'' asks Takehiro Sakamoto of the Japan Federation of Employers' Associations, the business group dealing with labor relations. Asian entries could bring religious and cultural frictions, he says. ``Japanese people are homogenous and the language is different.''
Less delicate expressions of racial prejudice against the Asian workers are easy to find. Recently, a Japanese newspaper printed an internal police memo which warned police dealing with detained Pakistanis that they ``have a unique body odor,'' have skin diseases and ``tell lies in the name of Allah.''
The government refuses any change in its long-standing policy barring the acceptance of unskilled foreign workers.
``Should the government change its policy, improved conditions for acceptance in such fields as education, social welfare, and so on, and national consensus must exist?'' the Justice Ministry's Morimoto asks.
The government is sharply divided over the issue. Hard-line opposition to change is shared by the Justice Ministry (which supervises immigration), the National Police Agency, and the Labor Ministry. The Economic Planning Agency and the Foreign Ministry favor opening the door under certain conditions.
Consensus on the public level is also unclear. According to a recent public opinion poll by Japan's daily, Asahi Shimbun, 56 percent of people say unskilled foreign workers should be accepted under certain conditions while 33 percent say ``No.''
The government has tried to tighten its enforcement of immigration laws. Last January it stopped the mutual visa exemption with the South Asian nations.
But most experts say there is no way to really stop the entry of Asian workers. Many come in legitimately with a valid 15- or 30-day tourist visa or as students and simply stay on. The situation is complicated by the increase in visa applications, reflecting growing interest in Japan, that has overwhelmed the immigration bureaucracy. The Immigration Control Law was revised this month to ease entry of skilled workers.
The changes will only make the situation worse, says the Philippine Embassy's Mr. Parunguo. ``It will really create a lot of problems for foreign workers. They'll be running like rats all over the place, hiding here and there.''
Such efforts, some Japanese say, run counter to Japan's responsibility, as an economic superpower, to help other Asian nations.
``When Japan was poor, affluent countries took care of us,'' says Shizuka Kamei, a parliamentarian from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. ``Japan should improve the current legal system so that people can stay here longer and work legally,'' the conservative politician says.
This stance is supported by smaller manufacturing firms, construction companies, and fast-food outlets which are suffering from a serious labor shortage. A study group of the Industrial Bank of Japan estimated that Japan will face a 2.7 million person labor shortage in the year 2000 if Japan continues its economic growth.
But, Rengo, the Japan Trade Union Confederation, says inviting the unskilled only slows down a necessary shift from less advanced labor-intensive industries to high-tech industries that require fewer workers.
The union federation, Japan's largest, also accuses Japanese employers of exploiting the Asian laborers, particularly in the construction industry.
A construction worker's ``labor condition is inferior - dangerous, dirty, and low paid,'' says union official Toshiyuki Kato. ``It's nonsense they invite those workers without improving it.''
One measure under consideration by the Japanese government would expand the trainee system. But, worrying that companies already abuse such programs as a ruse to bring in low-wage factory labor, the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry this month suggested that Japan accept employment of up to 600,000 unskilled foreigners who will work here and learn upgraded skills under the same conditions as the Japanese. The proposal qualifies that such workers return home within two years.
``The responsibility of Japan toward Asia is to deal with this issue,'' says Surichai Wungaeo, social scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. ``To be proud of itself as a country, it should face this reality squarely.''