10% of foreign residents have left disaster-hit prefectures

The number of foreign residents in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures [the hardest hit by the March 11 earthquake-tsunami disaster] dropped 10.5 percent to 30,092 between the end of December and the end of March, according to the Justice Ministry.

The number of foreigners declined 1.9 percent nationwide during the same period.

“Many foreigners returned to their countries after the disaster and have not returned to Japan as they are concerned about the nuclear crisis” at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, an official in the ministry’s Immigration Bureau said.

The number of foreign residents also decreased by 944 in the three prefectures between the end of March and the end of June.

Foreign trainees at companies and other entities at the end of June decreased by 67.9 percent in Miyagi Prefecture from the end of December. The figure dropped 18.5 percent in Iwate and 19.2 percent in Fukushima.


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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原発事故:戻らぬ中国人労働者 縫製業は減産も


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Loyal Filipinas refuse to abandon elderly patients

“How can I leave these people who are relying on me?” [Juanay, a 45-year-old Filipino woman undergoing on the job training to become a certified caregiver] said.

Fanai is not the only Filipina who chose to stay on at the home despite the natural disaster and the aftershocks, coupled with the ongoing crisis at the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Sandra Otacan, 35, said she had no idea the nuclear plant was situated in the same prefecture.

Shirakawa sits well beyond a 30-kilometer radius from the plant, the zone the central government asked people to evacuate or stay indoors due to potential radiation exposure.

Still her family in Mindanao island said repeatedly that Japan is dangerous when they talked to her on the telephone.

Otacan said she tried to reassure them, saying readings of radiation levels are low.

Yoshio Sugiyama, who heads the general affairs division of the home, said he is grateful to the women for staying on.

“I was preparing for the eventuality that they would immediately return to their country,” Sugiyama said. “But none of them said they would go home. They are dedicated, careful and kind. I take my hat off to their approach to their work.”

Yukie Noda, an 88-year-old resident, also expressed appreciation for the women’s devotion. “They must be feeling anxious, being away from their family,” she said. “They are really kind and do their job with passion. I have great respect for them.”


Flight of Chinese workers leaves Japanese businesses in the lurch

With many of the tens of thousands of workers who had helped fill Japan’s labor needs having returned to China after the earthquake and tsunami, the country faces another obstacle to recovery.

As the manager of a sleek restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district, Yu Yoshida never expected he’d be in the kitchen wearing a white chef’s hat and wrapping little dumplings. But that’s exactly what he was doing this week as customers in this still disaster-shocked city start to drift back, a welcome but also worrisome prospect for the 33-year-old manager.

That’s because 15 of his workers, all Chinese nationals, bolted within a few days of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, leaving Yoshida with a crew of just seven to wait tables, bus dishes and cook. Yoshida said he doubted that the departed employees, all foreign students working part time, would ever return. He knows it won’t be easy finding replacement help, not with Japan’s declining population and many young people unwilling to do such work.

“I’m in trouble,” he said, letting out a short grunt. For now, “we can cope with the existing staff,” he added, “but if [more] customers come back, I’ll be in trouble.”

Many other Japanese businesses face a similar bind. In recent years tens of thousands of Chinese students and so-called trainee workers have been helping fill the labor needs of this country. But after the twin disaster and the damage to a big nuclear power plant in the northeast, many of them returned home. China was the first country to organize mass evacuations, providing transport for at least 3,000 of its citizens from Tokyo and northern Japan last week. Other Chinese simply took off on their own, in some cases paying triple or more the regular airfare to get out in a hurry.

But if their departures left businesses in a lurch, it also exposed a more deep-seated and now urgent problem for Japan: a shrinking domestic workforce that could hamper the nation’s recovery after the destruction left more than 27,000 dead or missing and up to $300 billion in economic damage, according to Japanese officials.

With Japan’s economy in the doldrums for many years and its society aging, the construction industry hasn’t had much work and will now find it tough to get all the technical and manual help it needs, experts agree.

Hidenori Sakanaka, a longtime critic of Japan’s closed immigration policy, views the disaster as an opportunity to fix the nation’s demographics problem. “In order to recover, we have to rely on foreign workers,” said the executive director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, a private think tank.

Many Japanese businesses already had come to depend on the controversial foreign trainees program and to a lesser extent exchange students, whose work hours are limited to part time by law. Sakanaka estimates that those two groups combined number about 300,000. Most of them are from mainland China.

There are also hundreds of thousands of Americans and other foreigners, centered in Tokyo, who work in finance, technology and other better-paying industries. Many took off after the disaster as well, but most of them are expected to return.

That’s probably not the case with Chinese students or trainees. Yoshida, the Ginza manager, said most of his Chinese workers told him by phone they were leaving, saying nothing about returning.

At Shahoden, a high-end Chinese restaurant in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area, all six of its Chinese workers returned home. “If they want to go back, they should go back,” said Shahoden’s manager, sounding miffed by the whole thing. “There’s no problem, we can adjust,” he insisted, identifying himself only by his last name, Nakazato.

Such Tokyo restaurants tend to pay their part-time help about 1,000 yen per hour, about $12 at current exchange rates.

Others who work full time in fisheries and factories earn far less and are widely seen as exploited, in part by Chinese intermediaries who connect them with employers.

Hong Mengli, 22, was recruited to work in a Japanese fishery nearly two years ago through a partnership between her local government in southeastern China and the Japanese town of Ishinomaki, which was hard hit by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the wall of waves that came down moments later.

She worked six days a week packing seafood on ice; her co-workers included 13 other young Chinese women. It was similar to the work that dominated Hong’s hometown. But at $900 a month, her salary was three times more than what she would have earned in China.

“That was my goal,” Hong said. “To save money and send it back home.”

Hong’s first impression of Ishinomaki after her arrival was how clean it was compared with China. “There’s no trash on the floor,” she said. “Everything is so organized.”

When the earthquake hit March 11, Hong and her co-workers were not especially alarmed. But Ishinomaki lay next to the ocean. Everyone who lived there was trained to head for the elementary school on higher ground. Hong grabbed her bicycle and rode as fast she could. It was only after she arrived that she realized the enormity of the disaster.

“A huge wave came ashore and just swept all the houses and cars away,” Hong said. “The water took away the walls on the first floor of our dormitory.”

For the next five days, Hong slept on the floor of the school with dozens of evacuees. Because the city was a prime destination for Chinese labor, about two-thirds of the facility was filled with fellow expatriates. The local volunteers handed out rice balls and made what they called a Chinese soup with tofu, vegetables and egg to comfort the foreign workers.

Officials from the Chinese embassy then arrived and bused the group about 200 miles away to the western city of Niigata. There, about 90 Chinese workers stayed in a sports auditorium waiting for a chartered flight to Shanghai paid for by their government.

In China, Hong’s family waited for her at a bus stop on the side of the highway outside Wenzhou. About a dozen other families were there too, ready to greet the evacuees.

“Everyone was crying,” Hong said.

Though a year and two months were left on her contract, she said, the manager voided all the agreements with the Chinese workers because rebuilding the business wasn’t certain.

At the time of the disaster, Hong was resolved never to return to Japan. But now that she’s back in China, she feels lost and overwhelmed over having to find work.

“In Japan, I had a stable job,” she said.