IRANIANS are the latest additions to increasingly polyglot Tokyo, fueling controversy about whether Japan should open its doors legally to unskilled workers. Unskilled workers are already in Japan - perhaps 200,000, perhaps more - no one knows for sure. But they remain illegal.
Yoyogi Park, adjoining Meiji Shrine, is one of Tokyo's few places of restful greenery. Every Sunday, the open space leading into the park is jammed with mostly young Iranian males, in open-necked shirts, jeans, and sports shoes. They're drinking soda pop, or eating a piece of chicken, or exchanging tidbits about jobs here or what's going on at home.
Last year, nearly 50,000 Iranians entered Japan, most of them as tourists permitted to stay up to three months. Almost all went straight to work in small factories or service establishments that are unable to attract young Japanese who shun occupations regarded as difficult, dangerous, or dirty (the three Ds). Despite their illegal status, the Iranians in Yoyogi Park seemed animated, relaxed, unconcerned about a possible police crackdown.
One mustachioed 30-year-old I talked to worked in a Nissan battery factory an hour's train ride from Tokyo. Another, a youngster still in his teens, ironed in a dry-cleaning shop - eight hours a day, six days a week, earning 8,000 yen (about $64) per day. "Sukunai - too little," he said, in passable Japanese.
"Aren't you afraid of the police?" I asked. "No," he replied. "They leave us alone. Not like in Iran."
Under a new immigration law passed two years ago, it is not only illegal to work without a permit; for an employer it is an offense punishable by a 2 million yen ($16,000) fine to hire an illegal worker. Tramping the grimy alleys of eastern Tokyo where small workshops abound, I came across dozens of foreign workers - Iranians, Pakistanis, Indians. The owner of one plastics factory employing seven Iranians, a Pakistani, and an Indian, said the police never snooped around his premises. "If they arrest me,"
he said, "I'll tell them they're being unfair." What about all the other factories around here? "The police just don't have the manpower to arrest us all. It's only when a foreigner commits a crime - shoplifting, or using a fraudulent telephone card, or whatever, that they swoop down on him. They arrest him, try him, and deport him."
This employer, who didn't want his name used, said he started hiring foreign workers five years ago, when despite repeated advertisements, no Japanese would come work for him - or if they did, they quit almost immediately. "I like Iranians," he said. "They work much harder than the Japanese. I wish I could hire them legally. But our laws allow only skilled workers in."
Because the Iranians' status is illegal, this owner said, some of his fellow-employers pay them low wages, or refuse to look after them in illnesses or work-related accidents. "We should let them in legally," he said. "Let them compete in the job market. Then maybe some of our Japanese youngsters won't be so picky and choosy about the jobs they will take."
Most Japanese are not as generous. They're not keen on having foreign workers disrupt their cozy consensual society. Commentators warn of Germany's problems with Turkish guest workers, and of France's problems with its North Africans. But, as in Europe, it's becoming increasingly difficult for Japan to keep foreign workers out. Even in an economy sliding into recession, young Japanese refuse 3D jobs.
Immigration laws have been relaxed somewhat to let in trainees and workers with particular skills. Unskilled workers - the kind most needed by construction companies, or small workshops, or service establishments - are still legally unwelcome. But, as everyone can see, they're already here.
Many Japanese aren't happy about that presence. But neither would they welcome the kind of police controls that would be required to keep foreigners out - controls that would be bound to affect the lives of ordinary citizens. Can a truly democratic society erect an airtight enclosure around its citizens and tell others to keep out? If not, where shall the line be drawn? It's a dilemma the United States, with its porous borders, has faced for decades. Now even isolated island Japan is finding it's not so isolated any more.