The Singaporeans still hate the Japanese

Japan: The half-hearted immigration policy of the rapidly aging industrial nation

Toshi Nakazawa is 89 and uses a wheelchair. The white-haired Japanese woman is beaming all over her face and doesn't want to let go of the hand of her Indonesian nurse. "She is so pretty and she works so hard," says the old lady in a broken voice. She proudly shows a hand on Nakazawa's shoulder in photos that show the carer Meida Handajani at a celebration in the traditional costumes of her home country. The 31-year-old is popular at her workplace, a nursing home in northeast Tokyo - even though Japanese seniors are not used to foreigners. After a change in the law in the 1990s, Japan has a share of foreigners of just around two percent; before it was much less. In Japan, foreigners are treated with a mixture of curiosity and helpfulness on the one hand, and distrust, disdain and rejection on the other. The latter mainly affects immigrants from other Asian countries as well as from Africa and South America, not least because some of Japan had colonies there. Another reason is that Japanese people feel very insecure around foreigners. They are afraid of making mistakes in dealing with others and of getting into an embarrassing situation. The situation becomes all the more uncomfortable for them when a foreign counterpart reacts differently than the average Japanese. There are unwritten rules for proper behavior in Japan that everyone has internalized; There are no deviations. Foreigners often do not know these rules, which leads to fear, anger and insecurity on the Japanese side. The 250 years in which Japan, with few exceptions, closed itself off to foreign travelers during the Edo period (1603 - 1868) still have a noticeable effect today.

Japan could do well with immigrants. The Japanese population is aging and shrinking faster than in almost any other industrial nation. In seven years, when the Summer Olympics take place in Tokyo, it is estimated that the nation of 128 million people will already have four million fewer people.

The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper estimates that by 2025 at least 900,000 additional geriatric carers will be needed. Tokyo therefore has cooperation agreements with Indonesia and the Philippines under an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). These agreements give citizens of both countries the opportunity to work in Japanese old people's homes. But the experiment with workers from overseas threatens to fail - because of the language barrier, too high demands and a government that only half-heartedly pursues immigration policy.

It is true that the Japanese media repeatedly report on the ticking demographic time bomb, rarely with a brief reference to more immigration than opportunity. But the country is far from a real solution. The lack of social discussion about immigration also contributes to this. Japan would rather stay what it is: a largely isolated island kingdom.

Foreign geriatric nurses should be able to write perfect Japanese

Despite all the hurdles, the nurse Handajani feels at home in Japan, she wants to stay. She liked Japanese culture like the popular manga comics and TV series even as a child in Indonesia. In 2006 she was already in the country as a language student. She regards her protégés, the old people in the home, as her family. Her employer is also happy that she is there: “Japan cannot make ends meet with Japanese nurses alone,” said the nursing home's HR manager, Takahiro Murakami.

Meida Handajani's case is a positive exception. Most of their compatriots who took part in the same program turned their backs on Japan, either of their own free will or because they had to. The reason: After a minimum of three and a maximum of four years in a Japanese nursing home, the foreign nursing staff must take the same exam as their Japanese colleagues. Existence is a prerequisite for being allowed to stay. However, the exam is of little use in everyday life, because the written Japanese tested there differs greatly from the oral. Only 36 out of 95 participants in Handajani's course passed the test, including her. In a similar program for nurses, the failure rate is even over 90 percent. It could not have been due to the specialist knowledge: All of them had already completed relevant training in their home country. Fewer and fewer nurses are now applying for the program.

Debito Arudou, who writes a very critical column about the life of foreigners in Japan for Japan Times, questions the seriousness of the government's efforts. After all, if written Japanese is so important, she can invite nurses from countries with characters such as China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan. Instead, Vietnam is to become the next program partner.

Integration is also difficult for foreigners of Japanese descent

However, good language skills alone are not enough for integration in Japan. That was what the “Nikkei” or “Nisei”, (Latin) Americans of Japanese descent, had to find out. They were called “dekasegi” (literally: “working away from home”) to work in factories, especially in the auto industry, since the 1990s. Around 300,000 Brazilians with Japanese roots and often good language skills immigrated from Brazil alone. It was hoped that this would make them easier to integrate, but it turned out to be a fallacy, as most of them saw themselves as Brazilians rather than Japanese and were viewed and excluded by the Japanese population as foreigners.

When the Japanese economy fared badly after the global economic crisis as a result of the bankruptcy of the financial services provider Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and even had to lay off Toyota employees - up until then that was unimaginable for the industry leader - the Japanese government offered the “Nikkei” workers 300,000 yen (2,100 euros) and 200,000 yen (1,400 euros) for each family member for plane tickets back to Latin America. The condition: You are not allowed to return "indefinitely", it was initially said. After a storm of protest, the government weakened the condition to "at least in the next three years to the same legal status". In October 2013, the return ban was lifted again, but under controversial conditions: From now on, "Nikkei" wishing to enter the country have to submit a one-year contract with a Japanese company. In the relevant industries, however, quarterly contracts are not uncommon. Japanese companies generally have to prove when hiring foreigners that the position cannot be filled by a Japanese.

Immigrants are supposed to take on "dirty, exhausting and dangerous" jobs

The Indonesian in the nursing home, the Brazilian on the assembly line, the Chinese at the cash register of the 24-hour shop, the American in the language school, the Filipina in the hostess bar, the Russian model - depending on the industry, certain nationalities accumulate. This is due on the one hand to the aforementioned invitation and exchange programs, but also and above all to the fact that the immigrants fulfill certain clichés about their compatriots and their characteristics that are widespread in Japanese society. In addition, immigrants from developing countries, unlike many Japanese, are ready to do “3K work” (from “kitanai, kitsui, kiken” for “dirty, strenuous and dangerous”), even for little money. Certain visas, such as the “trainee visa”, are often used by entrants, mostly Koreans and Chinese, as well as Japanese companies to employ cheap labor, for example in 24-hour shops, in agriculture or in fish factories. If you want a work visa in Japan, you have to prove at least 150,000 yen (1,100 euros) per month, which is more than many geriatric nurses get.

Immigrants as requested by the government: highly educated, well paid, young

But the Japanese government would prefer none of the aforementioned groups to immigrate in large numbers. Instead, since May 2012, it has been trying to attract particularly highly qualified people using a points system. A doctorate and many years of work experience despite young age promise a high score. But the decisive factor is the expected salary. The top earners enjoy preferential treatment when applying for a visa. "For Japan to continue to be economically successful, we must welcome highly qualified foreign workers," said Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki. His ministry is responsible for the immigration authorities.

Not only highly qualified, but also very rich foreigners should be allowed to stay longer more easily, similar to Australia and Thailand. The Japanese government said in June 2013 that it would set up express processing at international airports for wealthy foreigners over 50. So far, foreigners are no longer allowed to stay in Japan if there is no compelling reason for them, for example work or study in Japan. Critics like the author and activist Debito Arudou say that Japan's immigration policy is only aimed at temporary stays anyway. Ayako Komine, researcher at the Free University of Berlin, argues against it that Japan is superficially opposed to long-term immigrants, but in reality foreigners are always tolerated in the country despite the strict immigration laws, for example if the immigrants have been living in the country for a long time without a valid visa their children are integrated in the Japanese school system.

For some, hope for a better life ends with imprisonment

Those who stay longer than the visa allows, risk being detained indefinitely. Japan refuses to set a maximum length of detention until the visa status is established. For this, the country has been criticized by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch. Japan has 19 detention centers for foreigners that can accommodate around 4,000 people. According to data from the immigration authorities, of 1,104 detainees in 2012, 236 were detained for between 6-12 months, 75 for 12-18 months and 24 for 18-24 months.

Asylum seekers face many months in custody until their applications are processed

Not only illegal migrant workers, but also asylum seekers have to expect to spend several months behind bars until their application is processed. Japan is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol on the Status of Refugees and can therefore determine refugee status. In a leaflet from the representation of the UN refugee commissioner in Japan it is explicitly stated that the asylum application can also be made if the person is already in the country, but also that the person can either be deported or detained until it is determined.

In the Japanese media, prisoners report that they lived for months or even years with several other people in cramped shared rooms, received poor or no medical care and had to ask permission for the slightest activity, such as picking up a pen. The chances of asylum in Japan are slim. According to the Immigration Service, of 1202 applicants in 2010, only 39 were granted refugee status, while 363 were allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds. The numbers were even more extreme two years later: of 2545 asylum seekers, only 18% -0.7% were allowed to stay. Some unexplained deaths also have a deterrent effect: in 2010, an asylum seeker married to a Japanese woman who was supposed to be deported died. About ten officers are said to have detained him on the plane where, according to reports from human rights organizations, he was choked to death on a towel in his mouth. In October 2013, 57-year-old Anwar Hussin from Myanmar died in custody of a stroke. According to interest groups, detention center employees refused to call a doctor immediately, allegedly because he was on lunch break.

Foreigners in Japan

According to data from the Immigration Service, 2.13 million registered foreign nationals were living in Japan at the end of 2010, 2.4 percent fewer than the previous year, but 1.3 times more than ten years earlier. They made up just 1.67 percent of the population of Japan, which in 2010 amounted to 128.06 million people. According to estimates by the Japanese authorities, there are also around 100,000 immigrants whose stay is undocumented, including three quarters who stayed in the country longer than their visas would have allowed.

While invitation programs like that of Meida Handajani continue to run slowly, initially with no time limit, Japan must continue to find solutions to the shortage of nurses and nurses at high pressure. Because the demand cannot be met with Japanese. Handajani's HR manager Murakami demands: “The government must soften the system so that more foreigners can pass the exam.” In addition to Handajani, three other foreigners work in the home. “You are so gentle and happy,” enthuses Murakami. "You fit in very well with the Japanese seniors." For the time being, Handajani has prepared to stay in Japan. “To be here is the fulfillment of a dream,” she says. She also wants to further improve her technical knowledge. But Japan fan Handajani cannot imagine staying in Japan forever: one day she wants to go back to Indonesia and teach geriatric care there.