The fate of foreign workers as Japan enters the 21st century

Shimokawa Masatsugu (Ando Isamu, SJ Jesuit Social Center)  
Social and Pastoral Bulletin issue: No. 91 / August 15th, 1999

A short while ago a new Immigration Revision Bill passed the House of Representatives (Lower House) and it will most probably go through the Upper House, in a matter of weeks. The whole matter passed “unnoticed” in the Japanese media and the public, as different from other bills discussed in the Diet, like the ones concerning the Japanese anthem and flag, for instance. Nevertheless, the bill directly affects the lives of thousands of foreign workers in Japan. Rumors about the matter are starting to spread and people are panicking. In Adachi-ku (Tokyo), home to several thousand foreign workers, the ‘Musubi no Kai’, a small anonymous organization established this year to assist foreign workers in that region, has started to conduct public gatherings to provide right information and advice.

This revision bill, prepared by Japanese Immigration, is the continuation of the revision of the immigration law begun already 2 years ago. In fact, Immigration tried to stop stowaways coming into Japan, concerned by the increasing illegal smuggling activities of yakuza groups, like the “Snake heads”. The results have been rather dubious, showing that the solutions must be found some other way. In any event, the new revision of the bill presents a stricter policy.

Actual Figures of Foreign Workers in Japan
According to Labor Ministry investigations, there are 660,000 foreign workers in Japan, accounting for about 1 per cent of the working population. Of those foreign workers, an estimated 277,000 have overstayed their visas. The number has gradually declined after reaching its peak of 299,000 in 1993. However, exact figures are not known because smugglers do not pass through the Immigration Offices. (From the Editorial of Asahi Evening News, January 3, 1999) Although 6 months have already passed and as a consequence of business recession many workers have lost their jobs and decided to return to their countries, the new Revision Bill stresses that there are, at present, about 270,000 illegal overstayers.

From the point of view of Christian communities, the Catholic Tokyo International Center (CTIC) has published interesting results of a survey, comparing the Catholic population of native Japanese and expatriates, in the Tokyo diocese. The Tokyo diocese includes Tokyo metropolis and Chiba prefecture. There are 81,020 Japanese Catholics (55%) and 66,766 expatriate Catholics (45%) in all. In the 5 wards, East of Tokyo, Japanese Catholics are 4,498 (42%) and the expatriate 6,232 (58%).

Japanese official immigration policies, compared to other western countries and international standards, show different perceptions. The classical example has always been the situation of Koreans in Japan. More recently, in the late 70s and 80s the Japanese official reluctance to accept refugees, and the actual strict situation of foreign workers show that Japan is not in favor of accepting people from outside. Changes have occurred but they are due to pressures from abroad, as in the case of accepting refugees. During the 80s the lack of manual workers opened a little the interpretation of strict immigration laws. At present though, since there is not much work available for foreign workers, Immigration seems to have a free hand, using other social issues like the increasing of crimes committed by foreigners in Japan. In fact, proportionately speaking, figures show the opposite: there has been a reduction, according to studies done.

Remarks of the UN Human Rights Committee Concerning Japanese Immigration
The UN Human Rights Committee made public (5 November 1998) its concluding observations to the Japanese government, after a careful study of the Japanese official report and other counter-reports. With regard to immigration practices it states in article 19, “The Committee is concerned about allegations of violence and sexual harassment of persons detained pending immigration procedures, including harsh conditions of detention, the use of handcuffs and detention in isolation rooms. Persons held in immigration detention centers may remain there for periods of up to six months and, in some cases, even up to two years. The committee recommends that the State party review the conditions of detention and, if necessary, take measures to bring the situation into compliance with articles 7 and 9 of the Covenant.”

Again in article 10, the Committee states: “More particularly, the Committee is concerned that there is no independent authority to which complaints of ill-treatment by the police and immigration officials can be addressed for investigation and redress. The Committee recommends that such an independent body or authority be set up by the State party without delay.”

Such remarks and recommendations are by no means new, but improvements are far from sight. In fact, the new revision bill, if passed, will create more confrontation with the International Human Rights Covenant, of which Japan is a Signatory State party.

The New Immigration Revision Bill
Briefly said, from now on, illegal entry into Japan and its following overstaying will become criminal offences. Due to the period of prescription of the law, persons overstaying more than three years, if they surrender voluntarily to immigration or have been caught by immigration officials, are deported without fine or sentence. And this is, in spite of a law that allows a maximum of 3year imprisonment and fines up to 300,000 yen.

If the new bill becomes a law, illegal entry and illegal overstaying will also be considered crimes, with the same legal punishment as now. The difference will be that, since they are criminal offences, detention and fines could be strictly exacted. Groups of Japanese supporters, volunteers as well as company managers could be, indirectly, in trouble with the officials and the police, from now on.

Overstayers and stowaway persons face deportation. There is no change from the actual system, but the real difference will be that, reentry will only be allowed after 5 years from the date of the deportation.

According to the present law (Denial of landing, Article 5, n.9) “Any alien who falls within one of the following categories shall be denied permission for landing in JapanÅc Any alien who has been deported from JapanÅc and one year has not elapsed from the date of the deportation.” This article of the new law, not to allow reentry before 5 years have elapsed, will hit hardly illegally overstaying foreigners with Japanese spouses and those holding stable jobs in Japan. According to the National Network of Solidarity with Migrant Workers (1999/4/16), there were over 150,000 expatriate spouses with proper visas in 1997, and during the same year 15,000 more entered Japan legally. Thoughtful consideration should be given to people who, entering Japan illegally and/or illegally overstaying their visas, happen to marry a Japanese citizen or a legally admitted refugee. Five years is a long period of time, enough to break family links and, of course, to make business managers lose their interest in those foreign workers they want to retain, because they know them well.

According to the new bill there will be a period of 6 months before the law goes into force. Considering the present political atmosphere, since the bill has already passed the House of Representatives and the Liberal Democrats are in alliance with the Liberal Party and the new Komeito, there should be no major problem for this new immigration bill to become a law, sometime before this October. If that is the case, the law will be implemented around April next year 2000.

Implications of the New Immigration Law
From the side of the foreign workers, there will be a lot of discontent without knowing what to do. Many will start thinking of leaving just before the law is implemented, hoping they can get reentry for Japan within a year.

Nevertheless, since they are deported nobody can assure Immigration will give them reentry permits, after a year, once the law takes effect.

Many will remain underground, betting they will not be found. Their perception being that there is no way to implement the new law. The ground for this is that, about 80% of people deported in Japan freely surrender. Exposure cases are only 20%. Jails and detention centers are already full and immigration does not have enough people to take charge of new tasks. On the other hand, yakuza organizations and other groups, which the new law is to be applied to, will not easily stop their lucrative business of smuggling people into Japan.

It is clear, though, that the new situations created by the immigration law will be a new blow to the human rights of foreign workers, regarding human respect, just working conditions, possibilities of renting apartments, and securing their health and sometimes even their lives. Will expatriate Catholics, for instance, feel free to manifest their faith, as a group, in Japanese public churches?

Japan is now making history that, later in the 21st century, will receive harsh historical judgement. Japan is in need of friends from abroad, especially from Asian countries, but she is creating enemies among those who really know Japan, and the Japanese language. Is this needed in the name of national interest? Is the new bill up to the international role Japan should play in the coming century?

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