Magazine article Newsweek

The Japan That Can Say Yes: Japan; Insular, Homogenous; Has Never Put out the Welcome Mat to Foreign Workers. Now, in an Act of Self-Preservation, It May Be Forced To

Magazine article Newsweek

The Japan That Can Say Yes: Japan; Insular, Homogenous; Has Never Put out the Welcome Mat to Foreign Workers. Now, in an Act of Self-Preservation, It May Be Forced To

Article excerpt

It began with a journey to earn a few quick bucks. In 1990 Iranian watchmaker Behrooz Kheyri Idehloo planned to work in Japan temporarily, then stock up on watch parts and head back home. He quickly found a steady, well-paying job installing air conditioners, and a boss who taught him rudimentary Japanese. Things were going so well, Idehloo decided to bring his wife and son into Japan on three-month tourist visas. When the visas expired, the family stayed, settling in a town north of Tokyo. Even though they are illegal immigrants, their life is good: dad exports auto parts, and mom works in a textile factory. "I may look different," says their son, Ramin, a lanky 14-year-old who goes to a Japanese school, "but I feel that more than half of me is Japanese."

Foreigners settling in Japan? For centuries, Japan has not only been one of the most closed societies in the world, it has viewed that insularity as a source of economic strength and cultural superiority. Not long ago politicians were celebrating Japan's racial purity and warning that gaijin (foreigners) would threaten the country's stability. In 1986 the then prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, reportedly told colleagues that America's "intellectual level" was beneath Japan's because of "people like blacks, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans."

But that was when Japan dominated the global economy. Now, America's economy rules, thanks in part to immigrant brains and hustle, and Tokyo's is in a decadelong funk. The sluggish economy and a demographic crisis--Japan's birthrate is the lowest in the G7--have at last forced a national immigration debate. Undocumented immigrants like the Idehloos have been tolerated, as long they were willing to forgo legal rights; now a consensus is emerging that the immigration system should be modified to permit outsiders to reside legally in Japan. In the meantime more and more foreigners are arriving--and staying.

These newcomers do so-called 3-K jobs: work that's kitsui (hard), kitanai (dirty) and kiken (dangerous). Their sweat now ensures the survival of such key industries as autos, electronics and food processing. No one knows for sure how many immigrants there are. About 1.5 million foreigners reside legally among Japan's 120 million citizens. Labor-rights groups estimate that an additional 500,000 undocumented aliens live and work in the country.

Ethnic enclaves, a mix of legal and illegal immigrants, have sprung up everywhere. There's a Chinatown in Yokohama, a community of Koreans in Osaka and a large Shanghai-Chinese settlement in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. In nearby Ikibukuro, Tokyo's answer to New York City's Lower East Side, immigrants cluster to work, play, eat and worship. Down one alley near the train station, a five-story walk-up hosts (bottom to top) a Ghanaian-owned sportswear store, an Indian restaurant, an Irish pub, a South Asian video shop, and a mosque. Increasingly, Japanese authorities tolerate these growing pockets of diversity. Several industrial cities even court new blood by offering bilingual education and other migrant-friendly services.

The largest group of legal immigrants is, in fact, Japanese. Known as Nikkeijin, they are second- and third-generation descendants of Japanese who fled overpopulation at home and settled in Latin America. …

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