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January 2012, Volume 19, Number 1

Japan, Korea

Japan had 2.2 million foreign residents at the end of 2010; they were 1.7 percent of Japan's 127 million residents. The March 11, 2011 earthquake reduced the number of foreigners living in Japan.

Some 680,000 or almost a third of Japan's foreign residents are Chinese nationals who arrived in the past two decades, while 578,000 or 30 percent are Koreans, often descendents of Koreans brought to Japan when Korea was a Japanese colony.

Like most industrial countries, Japan has a welcome-the-skilled and rotate-the-low-skilled foreign worker policy. Foreign students who graduate from Japanese universities and foreign professionals can get work permits if Japanese employers offer them jobs.

Japan plans to introduce a point system in Spring 2012 to admit up to 2,000 more foreign professionals a year in academic research, high-level technological expertise, and business management and administration. Those earning at least 70 points will be able to earn permanent residence status in five years and obtain work permits for their spouses. Up to 30 points will be awarded for having a master's degree or more, up to 25 points for having work experience in labor-short occupations, and points will be awarded for Japanese earnings.

Low-skilled migration is restricted. Foreigners in low-skilled jobs include perhaps 500,000 foreign students working part time, several hundred thousand ethnic-Japanese Brazilian and Peruvian Nikkeijin, and several hundred thousand industrial trainees. In addition, there are about 100,000 unauthorized foreigners.

Efforts to introduce mid-skilled foreigners such as nurses into Japan have had limited success. Under agreements with Indonesia and the Philippines, nurses from these countries can be hired by Japanese hospitals and care institutions, which bear the cost of training them to Japanese standards. However, few have been able to pass required Japanese tests, fewer than 20 of the 400 who took the tests in 2011.

About 100,000 foreign trainees a year enter Japan. They are considered non-workers during their first year in Japan and paid a "training allowance" that is lower than the minimum wage. They are entitled to at least the minimum wage for their next two years.

A study of Vietnamese trainees who became unauthorized workers in Japan emphasized that most arrived in Japan in debt. Before departure, Vietnamese trainees must post a safety deposit of $5,000 to $10,000 that is forfeited if they leave the employer to whom they are assigned or overstay their visa in Japan. Many trainees quickly realized they could earn and save more as unauthorized workers than as legal trainees.

Korea. Korea had 1.4 million foreign residents in September 2011, including 600,000 migrant workers, 90 percent legal. The second-largest group were foreigners marrying Korean citizens (half of the foreign spouses were Chinese), followed by foreign students (three-fourths of the foreign students were Chinese).

Over 53 percent of the migrant workers in Korea are Chinese, including ethnic Korean Chinese, followed by 11 percent Vietnamese, and five percent each Filipinos and Indonesians.

Korea's Employment Permit System (EPS) has since 2004 admitted foreigners from 15 other Asian countries as workers, a change from the previous trainee system in which foreigners were paid less than the Korean minimum wage because they were also supposed to receive training in Korean factories useful at home. Korean employers now pay EPS workers at least the minimum wage of about $1,000 a month during their maximum five to six years in Korea. Migrant workers can change Korean employers three times.

Beginning in July 2012, EPS migrants can leave Korea for three months after three years of satisfactory work and return for another three years.

Belanger, Daniele. Et al. 2011. From Foreign Trainees to Unauthorized Workers. Vietnamese Migrant Workers in Japan. Asian and Pacific Migration Journal. Vol 20. No 1. Faier, Lieba. 2009. Filipina Women and the Remaking of Rural Japan. UC Press.