104 Indonesian nurses, caregivers to depart for Japan

A total of 104 Indonesian nurses and caregivers are to depart for Japan on Monday despite a still low number of foreign workers in Japan who have passed local examinations for health professionals since the program started in 2008.

Wearing batik clothes and able to speak some Japanese, the group attended a pre-departure ceremony at the residence of the Japanese ambassador to Indonesia hours before flying to Osaka or Tokyo.

“As the length of Japanese language training has been increased from six months at the beginning, and now to nine months, and to 12 months by next year, we all hope more candidates can pass the local examinations,” Indonesian Minister of Manpower and Transmigration Muhaimin Iskandar said.

He added there have been only 17 Indonesians who have passed the examinations in Japan to qualify as professional nurses.

The new staff will augment their three months of Japanese language training in Indonesia with another six months in Japan.

The number of Indonesians now in Japan under the program is 686, while 64 nurse candidates have returned home after failing in the test, which is in Japanese, and deciding not to have another try.

Besides Indonesia, the Philippines has also sent health professionals to Japan under a similar program.


Tokyo finally grasps the migration nettle

When it comes to immigration reform, the Japanese government seems, for once, to have heeded the wisdom in the political adage, never waste a good crisis.

Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun has revealed the government will introduce a points-based skilled migration program by the end of the year. It’s a reform that’s been considered for a long time, but the tsunami and nuclear crisis seems to have convinced the government to finally seize the day.

Immigration in Japan, which is nearly ethnically homogenous, is always a touchy issue. Public opposition or, perhaps more accurately, caution, has seen Japan’s political leaders take tiny and often misguided steps towards opening the country up to greater immigration.

Now, all eyes are on the disaster, so voters are less likely to oppose, or even notice, the introduction of a long-overdue migration system of the kind that has served Australia, Canada and the US so well.

The timing is also serendipitous because the exodus of foreign nationals after the quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis has seen a host of jobs become available, many of which can’t be filled with local staff.

Japan’s leading businesses are also pushing for this kind of reform as they look to boost their global competitiveness to keep pace with their rivals in China, India, South Korea and elsewhere in Asia.

The Yomiuri report suggests that points will be awarded to skilled migrants based on their education, work experience and annual income. It is expected to apply to the academic, technology and corporate sectors. Bonus points will be given for Japanese language skills.

The government also intends making it easier to obtain permanent residency and easing work limits for spouses for some visa holders.

It can’t come soon enough for the beleaguered economy, which is battling population decline, weak demand, structural problems and now an unprecedented combination of natural and nuclear disaster.

With Keynesian-style stimulus programs off the table as the government finally begins to tackle debt levels, increasing immigration is increasingly being viewed as one way to spark economic growth.

Hidenori Sakanaka, a former top immigration official turned NGO leader, said the recent disaster made it even more vital for Japan to open up to immigration. “A falling birth rate and an ageing population mean that the country has far too few young, productive workers,” the head of Tokyo’s Humanitarian Immigrant Support Centre said in a recent article published in the Wall Street Journal.

“This will become even more noticeable as the current working generation begins to retire. Unless radical policies are implemented, it is simply a matter of time before manufacturing, consumption, tax receipts, fiscal health, the pension and welfare system, and the very ability of people to make a living will all collapse under the inexorable dual pressures of rapid ageing and rapid declines in the young working population.”

He said immigration would be vital for reinvigorating industries, including fishing and agriculture where the tsunami has upped the pressure on a geriatric workforce in the affected areas.

Mr Sakanaka said Japan needed to bring in 10 million workers over the next 50 years to stem population decline, and a skills-based system that offered pathways to permanent residency and citizenship was the best way to do it.

“To start, Japan needs a total overhaul of its system for foreign students and trainees,” he said. “Currently those students have few or no prospects for staying permanently. Only 30 per cent of foreign students graduating from Japanese universities stay in Japan. That number must be closer to 70 per cent.”

He also hit out at Japan’s guest-worker schemes that have allowed the exploitation of “trainees” from China on ultra-low wages on short-term visas.

“A country with a declining population does not need guest workers,” Mr Sakanaka said.

“At a minimum, any foreign worker in steady employment should be able to apply for permanent status.

“Japan must recognise that globalisation is here to stay and should stake its very survival on accepting people elsewhere in the world as its brethren and transforming itself into a much more multicultural, diverse society.

“It will be a large task, but Japan is past the point where easy solutions will do.”

It remains doubtful, however, that immigration reform will be tackled in the short term on the scale required to address population decline and boost economic growth.

More likely it will serve to plug certain skill gaps and serve to boost public acceptance of migration, which will hopefully lead to increases in other classes of migration including Japan’s woefully low acceptance of humanitarian refugees.


18 tax offices in 4 central Japan prefectures kept files on foreigners

Eighteen tax offices in four central Japan prefectures kept files on foreign residents, including their nationalities and alien registration numbers, the Mainichi learned on June 24.

The Nagoya Regional Taxation Bureau says the 18 tax offices in Aichi, Shizuoka, Gifu and Mie prefectures compiled the files to avoid duplicate income tax return applications and to determine the identity of each foreign taxpayer. Foreign taxpayers, however, are not required to mention their nationalities and alien registration numbers in their income tax returns.

The Japanese law on the protection of personal information held by administrative agencies only approves the holding of data necessary to conduct official business, and experts say the tax offices’ actions may constitute a violation of that law.

According to the taxation bureau, the tax offices started compiling files on foreign taxpayers in electronic format in fiscal 2001, listing 10 items for each individual including name, date of birth, place of residence, tax manager (taxpayer’s proxy), and reference number, along with a space for notes.

Informed sources say there are many foreign workers at automobile factories and other plants in the region. The tax offices kept files on foreigners of Japanese ancestry and Westerners, but did not do so on Chinese and others with names in Chinese kanji characters.

The tax offices prepared the data based on information gleaned from income tax returns, and logged alien registration numbers only when foreign taxpayers used alien registration cards to identify themselves.

The files were sent to the internal affairs and communications minister under the law, and account ledgers mentioning things like the purpose of collecting the information can be seen via the Internet.

Each of the tax offices are thought to have kept such files on more than 1,000 foreign taxpayers, but the number of those identified by nationality or alien registration number is not known.

“The tax offices kept files as a matter of convenience, probably because the names of foreigners are confusing. The files were not meant for tax probes,” a Nagoya Regional Taxation Bureau representative said, adding that the files were destroyed at the end of March this year due to a switch to a nationwide tax data monitoring system.

Meanwhile, a National Tax Agency official told the Mainichi, “Other tax offices are not keeping such files. The agency has never issued such an order.”

The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s personal information protection office says it is up to each administrative entity concerned to determine if such individual information is necessary or not.


Govt to set point system for foreigners

The government will introduce a point system by the end of the year to give preferential treatment–such as easing the conditions for permanent residency–to non-Japanese with advanced expertise who want to come to Japan, according to a government source.

The government is likely to award points to non-Japanese who meet certain criteria concerning their educational background, work experience and annual income.

The business world has asked the government to introduce the system amid heightened competition with other Asian nations to acquire competent manpower.

According to a rough draft by the Justice Ministry, the point system is expected to cover foreigners working in the fields of academic research, advanced expertise and technology and business management.

The government is likely to provide an evaluation system to conduct an objective rating on a 100-point scale.

For example, under the category of business management, the government is likely to allocate 35 points for a candidate’s academic background; 15 points for working career; 35 points for annual income and 15 points for the candidate’s status at his or her current company.

The government is expected to add bonus points according to Japanese language skill and previous places of employment. The pass line is expected to be 70 out of 100 points.

The government also has been considering requests made by non-Japanese already living in Japan for changes to the current system.

The changes being discussed include:

— Easing the conditions to obtain permanent residency, so that persons may apply after living in Japan for a consecutive three to five years, instead of the current 10 years.

— Extending the period of stay to five years for people holding visas of up to three years.

— Allowing such workers to be accompanied by their financially-dependent parents and their employees, such as maids.

— Eliminating the 28-hour per week work limit for dependent spouses.


An Immigration Stimulus for Japan

Allowing in more foreign workers would boost growth, especially in quake-ravaged areas.

Recent economic data showed that Japan was slipping into recession even before the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11. In the aftermath of that natural disaster, putting the country back on an economic-growth track is doubly important as the government and businesses try to finance reconstruction. Given the urgency of the challenge, any and all pro-growth policy options should be on the table. That includes a controversial but important measure: immigration reform.

Population is a central problem confronting Japan. A falling birth rate and an aging population mean that the country has far too few young, productive workers. This will become even more noticeable as the current working generation begins to retire. Unless radical policies are implemented, it is simply a matter of time before manufacturing, consumption, tax receipts, fiscal health, the pension and welfare system, and the very ability of people to make a living will all collapse under the inexorable dual pressures of rapid aging and rapid declines in the young working population.

The only solution is to import more workers. I estimate that Japan needs to welcome some 10 million immigrants over the next 50 years to avoid the negative consequences of population decline. That would bring immigrant numbers to about 10% of the population, the level in the U.K., France and Germany.

Such numbers would spur growth because new markets and demand would arise for clothing, food, education, labor, finance, tourism and information. Robust immigration policies would encourage foreign investors to reassess long-term economic prospects, starting another virtuous cycle of interaction with the outside world.

Immigration will be critical to reinvigorating Japan’s most important industries. Take farming: The farming population of Japan declined by 750,000 between 2005 and 2010, bringing it to merely 2.6 million, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The average age of a farmer is 65.8 years.

This makes it a certainty that in 10 years, the farming population will decline by roughly half. The fishing industry faces the same fate. The population of fishermen and the volume of their catches are headed in the same direction: down, rapidly.

This demographic trend was already afflicting areas such as the rice-growing areas in Miyagi Prefecture that are now reeling from the March 11 disaster. Unless radical reform is implemented, the decline will only accelerate as older farmers balk at rebuilding and younger workers continue to flee. It will simply not be possible to rebuild local industries using only Japanese employees that have only a few more years in the workforce left.

Nor is the list of regions in need of immigration confined to those affected by the disaster. Aichi Prefecture, the heart of Japanese industry and home to iconic companies such as Toyota, is a case in point. The population that supported the economy in these areas in the past has declined. For instance, in Aichi prefecture not only did the total population decline between 2000 and 2009, but the percentage of working-age persons (age 15-64) dropped to 65.5% from 69.8%. Similar rapid trends have affected Niigata Prefecture, a rice-growing center, and the Sanriku Oki area, one of the finest fishing grounds in the world.

The problem extends deeper than mere numbers of workers. One consequence of a shrinking population is that visionaries and risk-takers—entrepreneurs in business, politics, education, journalism and the arts—become scarcer and scarcer. That compounds the phenomenon that a society that was highly homogeneous to begin with has educated its people with standardized content in a culture that discourages too much free thinking. Lack of fresh faces makes the country seem increasingly sterile.

Because Japan has traditionally been such a homogeneous place, many have feared the prospect of greater immigration. Yet a pro-immigration policy doesn’t have to undermine Japanese values or culture. If policy makers have the will to encourage greater immigration, they can find ways to do it well.

The centerpiece of any immigration policy would be to ensure the country attracts highly skilled workers and provides them with a clear path to integrate into Japanese society. To start, Japan needs a total overhaul of its system for foreign students and trainees. Currently those students have few or no prospects for staying permanently. Only 30% of foreign students graduating from Japanese universities stay in Japan. That number must be closer to 70%.

Not only must the government do more to attract students in a wider range of fields, including vocational areas such as agriculture, but policy makers must make it easier for those workers to stay permanently. A country with a declining population does not need guest workers. This would involve simplifying the procedure for gaining permanent residency and even citizenship. At a minimum, any foreign worker in steady employment should be able to apply for permanent status.

In some respects, boosting immigration can seem like a daunting task. The government needs to reform the pension system to cover workers who immigrate in mid-career; landlords must be more willing to accept non-Japanese tenants; citizenship laws need to offer citizenship from birth to the children of immigrants. Policy makers also will need to work to change the culture within companies. For instance, foreign workers often are discriminated against in terms of salary and promotion opportunities. Government should press the private sector to end this sort of practice.

These reforms would be significant, but none would require sacrificing the best features of Japanese life. For instance, government should actively encourage immigrants to master the language—and everyone should remember that children born to immigrants likely will grow up fluent if we ensure they’re allowed to integrate into society. And despite caricatures of frightening or violent foreigners in the popular imagination, immigration won’t compromise public safety as long as Japan is attracting highly skilled, employed immigrants and allowing them and their families opportunities for social and economic advancement.

Japan must recognize that globalization is here to stay, and should stake its very survival on accepting people elsewhere in the world as its brethren, and transforming itself into a much more multicultural, diverse society. It will be a large task, but Japan is past the point where easy solutions will do.

Mr. Sakanaka is executive director of the Humanitarian Immigrant Support Center in Tokyo. He previously served as the Chief of Entry and Residence at the Nagoya and Tokyo Immigration Bureaus.


Foreign refugees pitch in to help

Volunteers head north to assist tsunami victims

Myo Myint Swe, a 42-year-old refugee from Myanmar, said that since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, he wanted to help those in the Tohoku region affected by the devastation.

A 20-year resident of Japan who received his refugee status in 2005, Myo said he knows how difficult it is to be forced into fleeing home and seeking refuge elsewhere, but felt that in some ways the situation for people in Tohoku could be worse.

“We’re refugees because of human-made disasters. In the case of the people in (the) Tohoku region, they are evacuees of natural disasters. But while we have someone to cast our anger at, people in Tohoku, they lost their families and homes but don’t have anyone to blame because it’s an act of nature,” he said. “It may sound a bit strange coming from me, but I really feel sorry for them.”

Myo was among a group of volunteers that included other refugees as well as foreign exchange students and Japanese nationals who took part in a Tohoku disaster relief project organized by the Japan Association for Refugees, a nonprofit organization supporting asylum seekers.

According to JAR spokeswoman Mihoko Kashima, the volunteer project that began in late April and will continue until the end of this month was inspired by the voices of refugees like Myo who said they wanted to help people in Tohoku. So far, more than 70 people have traveled to Rikuzentakata through the program, including about seven refugees, she said.


Chinese exodus hurts industries dependent on foreign trainees, interns

According to the Japan Textile Federation, about 40,000 foreign interns, 99 percent of whom were from China, worked at textile-related companies before the March 11 quake. Many returned to China after the disasters, creating big difficulties for the companies.

At a sewing plant in Tokyo, four interns returned to China in late April, leaving the plant with none. There were five before the quake.

While the plant continues to operate with its 21 Japanese workers, it has seen a 30-percent decrease in finished women’s clothing.

Under such circumstances, some companies are moving away from their dependence on foreign interns.

For example, a sewing company in the Tohoku region that serves as a subcontractor for a major apparel company had 29 Chinese women working as interns before the quake.

After the disaster, all 29 eventually returned to China, although only 10 had completed their contract periods.

The company president tried to convince the 19 who still had time remaining on their contract periods that they were safe from the radiation of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. But some refused to work.

In late March, they all returned to their homeland. The president now fears clients will lose trust in the company if it has to cancel orders. Sales in the month after the quake have decreased by about 10 million yen ($122,000).

The president is now thinking about using only Japanese workers.

“If the expenses for (going to China to) recruit and train are added to their wages, Chinese interns now cost more than Japanese workers,” the president said. “I intend to do away with accepting interns over the next three to five years.”

A Chinese who has helped bring interns to Japan said parents were hesitant about sending their only child to a Japan that is no longer considered a safe neighbor.

While the number of interns and students accepted in the past was an attempt to make up for the lack of labor and Japanese students due to the declining birth rate and aging population, it now appears the trend to avoid Japan by foreigners could be a long-term one.

That will hurt other industries, such as restaurants and convenience stores that depend on Chinese workers.

For example, the ramen chain Hidakaya had about 1,400 part-time workers at its 250 or so branches throughout Japan. About 90 percent of those workers were Chinese.

About 700 of them have returned to China, forcing about 50 Hidakaya branches to shorten business hours by an average four hours.

According to officials of Cerebrix Corp., which dispatches part-time workers to convenience stores, about 3,000 Chinese worked at about 1,000 stores in six Tokyo wards before the quake. Almost all have returned to China after the disasters, and most of those stores had to scramble through late March to find replacement workers.

According to the Justice Ministry, about 470,000 foreigners, including about 170,000 Chinese, left Japan between March 12 and April 1.


Media starting to tally the economic effects of foreigner flight

News reports immediately following the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant accident of panicked foreign residents lining up for the first flight home — in many cases advised to flee by their own governments — had the initial result of helping to feed the sense of angst among Japanese that has pervaded much of the postquake reporting.

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