Can Japan Open Up Its 'Village Society'?

JAPAN, the rich man of Asia, has 3 million jobs that need to be filled. But unlike the United States, it's a country that prides itself on ethnic homogeneity. It faces a dilemma between its desire to keep its cozy consensual society and its need for workers to do jobs that most Japanese avoid as dirty, dangerous, or difficult - the so-called "three D's."

The dilemma is moral as well as economic. What is Japan's responsibility toward its Asian neighbors? Can Japan exist as an island of wealth in the midst of a sea of poverty?

Japan is beginning to find itself in situation faced by Europeans in the 1950s and '60s when the Germans were importing gastarbeiter (guest worker) from Turkey and the British and French had an open door policy toward immigrants from their colonies. These immigrants, for the most part, took the dirty, tiring jobs that money alone no longer induced many Europeans to accept.

At the start of Japan's boom years, in the 1960s, the Japanese had no need to emulate the Europeans because they had a plentiful supply of young, eager, well-educated workers. But as the boom continued, population growth dwindled, and workers became choosy, as their European counterparts had. Still, Japan's strict immigration laws, restricting work permits to a handful of teachers and professionals, continued.

Japan can open its arms to President Bush and talk about global partnership. But it remains a village society where everyone knows his neighbor. Japanese carmakers long resisted the idea of building cars in the US, ascribing their competitive edge to the harmonious cooperation of workers and management.

Only after maverick Honda proved that US workers could do as well as Japanese did Nissan, Toyota and others start up their transplants. Today, the Japanese have set up transplants or joint ventures around the world - in Britain, Spain, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, to name a few. The idea of Americans or British or Thais working with Japanese to make a car or a computer chip with a Japanese name no longer sounds outlandish in Japan.

But foreigners being hired to come to Japan to make these products? Impossible, Japanese said. When the exodus of Vietnamese boat people began, the Japanese were shamed into accepting a token number of refugees. Even so, an overwhelming majority cling to the idea that the homogeneity, the ethnic purity, of Japanese society must be preserved at all costs. Japan's Korean minority of about 700,000, most of whom speak Japanese and have lived in the country for a couple of generations, still faces severe disc rimination. Even Japanese of Brazilian descent, who have special immigration status, have difficulty.

Yet the Labor Ministry's statistics show that last year, Japan had a shortage of 3 million jobs in industries ranging from manufacturing to restaurants. The construction industry reported that for every 100 available jobs, 38 went unfilled.

The result has been a sharp increase in illegal immigrants, from countries like Iran and Pakistan, whose citizens can come to Japan as tourists without visas. Foundries and building contractors hire these workers, knowing that they are breaking the law, but feeling forced to for business reasons.

On Christmas Day the newspaper Asahi Shimbun carried a story about a group of Iranians, 22 in all, who had been working illegally for a small construction company. When a slump left the company without new building contracts, the company president simply disappeared. The Iranians went to the police for help, knowing they would be deported but having no alternative.

Less than 1 percent of Japan's 120 million people are legally resident aliens. Estimates of illegal immigrants vary, but most analysts believe there are at least 100,000, if not more. Being illegal, they have no insurance for work-related accidents or illnesses.

A few dedicated volunteers have taken up the foreign workers' cause, but most Japanese don't want to hear of a solution that would allow substantial immigration into their country. The moral dilemma persists, and while outsiders may preach at the Japanese, it is one that eventually they will have to solve themselves.

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