Magazine article Monthly Review

Foreign Workers in Japan

Magazine article Monthly Review

Foreign Workers in Japan

Article excerpt

In the mid-1980s, Prime Minister Nakazone insistently articulated a vision of an "internationalized" Japan that was to claim political and social influence in global affairs commensurate with its economic power. Simultaneously, pundits and politicians focused on the increasing number of illegal workers from underdeveloped Asian countries and speculated about their impact on Japanese economy and society. The fate of migrant labor became perhaps the most widely discussed social problem of the late 1980s.

The call for "internationalization" and the debate over foreign workers are in fact two side of the same coin: the reconsideration of Japan's place in the world and how Japan, as a self-defined homogenerous society, is to deal with the outside world. I wish to suggest that these discussions take place in the context of a degree of amnesia regarding the Second World War--the last effort to "internationalize" Japan--and its legacy: the existing "foreign" populations of Koreans and Chinese.

The Rise of Foreign Workers in Japan

It is not surprising that some of the world's over 20 million migrant workers should seek to enter Japan to improve their economic well-being. The attraction of Japan is obvious; Japanese per capita GNP is 33 times that of the Philippines, 64 times that of Pakistan, and 132 times that of Bangladesh. (1) It is not impossible for a worker from Pakistan or Bangladesh to earn in one day, even as a casual day laborer, what she or he would take months to earn back home.

The structural inequality between Japan and its neighboring countries is the ultimate cause for migrant workers to enter Japan. However, there are concrete push and pull factors that contributed to the rise of foreign workers in Japan in the mid-1980s.

The motivation to become a migrant worker in Japan, even at the risk of hardship and deportation, is pressing in countries where the majority of the labor force is landless and employed in the rural sectfor. In the 1970s, over 80 percent of the rural labor force in the Philippines, Pakistan, and Bangladesh were nearly or completely landless. Indeed, many Asian workers had become migrant workers in the Middle East after the oil boom of the 1970s. At its peak in the early 1980s, some 2 million workers from Pakistan alone were in the Middle East. However, due to the downturn in the oil industry since then, 60,000 Pakistani workers have been leaving the Middle East annually. In this context, Japan emerged as one of the promising destinations for migrant workers.

One might well question why Japan had not relied on foreign workers earlier, like other advanced industrial countries. For example, West Germany had concluded a series of agreements with neighboring governments to bring in low-wage labor beginning in 1955. By 1974, non-Germans constituted 10.9 percent of the total West German labor force. (2) In contrast, there were virtually no migrant workers in Japan until the mid-1980s. A simple reason was the abundance of low-wage labor within Japan: the two main sources being farmers and women. Many farmers became seasonal migrant workers during the off season. Most seasonal jobs, such as in mining and construction, were grueling and demanding but poolry paid. Furthermore, women constituted a large pool from which low-wage and part-time workers could be drawn according to the fluctuations of the economy. These two groups of low-wage workers had, however, declined by the mid-1980s. The rural exodus had created a serious labor shortage in the countryside, and most women had already become integral to the industrial labor force. The shortages of low-wage workers had, therefore, become acute in the expanding economy of the 1980s.

Thus, it is not altogether coincidental that the rise of foreign workers on the Japanese soil should occur in the mid-1980s, with the pull factors being Japan's continuing economic success and the decline of its low-wage labor pool, while the push factors were rural poverty in neighboring Asian countries and the unemployment of migrant workers in the Middle East. …

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