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July 1994, Volume 1, Number 6

Japan: Chinese Illegal Immigrants and Guestworkers

Over 4,000 Chinese entered Japan illegally, primarily to work, in the past five and one-half years, according the Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau. Many of the illegal immigrants are believed to have been smuggled aboard freighters and other vessels by the Chinese mafia, called Snake Head.

The number of migrants being smuggled into Japan in groups is rising. In 1990, 18 Chinese arrived in two groups; in 1992, 396 arrived in 14 groups; and, in 1993, 335 arrived in seven groups. Between January and May, 1994, 250 Chinese in eight groups were smuggled into Japan.

Some Vietnamese set out in boats for Japan, transiting through Hong Kong, because of a rumor that Japan is welcoming foreign workers with financial assistance and extended visa stays. The UNHCR is working in Hue, Vietnam to halt the spread of the rumor. Last month Japan announced that it would return any boat people who arrived in the country after March 5, without screening them for refugee status.

Thirty-one nations agreed at a meeting in Geneva in February that Vietnamese would no longer be given preferential treatment over asylum seekers form other countries.

Japanese Guestworkers

Haruo Shimada, Japan's best-known labor economist, recently released a 220-page book that showcases his proposal to develop a work-and-learn program through which unskilled workers could fill vacant jobs, learn skills and, if they settled, be accepted and integrated into Japanese society. The book has eight chapters grouped into three parts--overview, a work-and-learn temporary worker proposal, and long-term solutions to the problem of illegal immigration and labor shortages in Japan. Getting the Japanese to accept foreigners may not be easy--a Tokyo poll reported that 64 percent of residents dislike having foreigners in their neighborhoods, and 57 percent agreed that the Japanese discriminate against foreigners.

Most of the book is devoted to explaining why guestworkers are inevitable, and why the foreigners admitted must have legal status, be paid appropriate wages and housed and trained by their Japanese employers, and why Japan must be prepared to integrate those who will settle after their three- to five-year work-and-learn programs.

The book provides a valuable summary of recent Japanese immigration policy and data, and carefully explains a leading proposal to deal with illegal immigration. It is hortatory, however, and may not do full justice to those who oppose foreign workers in Japan. The need or demand for (foreign) workers depends on their cost, and if EMPLOYERS had to bear all of the costs that would be implicit in the work-and-learn proposal--everything from preparatory Japanese language training to on-the-job training in Japan--they may decide they do not need many foreign workers--automating, adjusting workplaces and wages to attract local workers, or investing abroad might seem more attractive. If society as a whole bears these costs, then employers who offer 3D jobs--dirty, dangerous, and difficult--are being subsidized to maintain such jobs.

The central issue facing countries such as Japan is simple. Demographics make it clear that the supply of workers in the future will be limited--even if wages and workplaces were radically altered, low-fertility Japan would soon run out of the workers needed for a growing labor force. What is not clear is how sensitive the demand for additional workers is to rising wages, i.e., how needed are unskilled foreign workers? Industrial nations are not testing the sensitivity of the demand for unskilled foreign workers to labor shortages because illegal workers are showing up everywhere, making such tests unnecessary. If their presence is inevitable, as Shimada asserts, then it is better for legal and humanitarian reasons that they be legal rather than illegal, which is what gives rise to proposals for managing foreign workers.

Neither the traditional immigration countries of North America nor the guestworker countries of Western Europe have managed to find a happy compromise between wanting foreign workers but not foreign residents. This book in several places says that "just a little more effort" to open the work-and-learn program to "hundreds of thousands" of unskilled foreign workers will enable Japan to succeed in managing migration.

"Illegal Chinese entrants to Japan total 4,132 in 5 years," Japan Economic Newswire, June 11, 1994. "False rumor prompts Vietnamese to set sail for Japan," Japan Economic Newswire, May 30, 1994. Shimada, Haruo. 1994. Japan's "Guest Workers:" Issues and Public Policies. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press. Wall Street Journal, June 6, 1994, A9.