Unions and others have called for the training program, established in 1993, to be abolished and replaced with a formal system for employment of foreign workers.
That will better meet the demand for low-skilled laborers as young Japanese flock to the cities and shun work that is dirty, dangerous or difficult, they say.
“We need to stop the deception,” said Ippei Torii, vice president of ZWU All United Workers Union, which has battled on behalf of interns. “If we need to bring in foreign workers, then we should call them workers and treat them so.”
Former Tokyo Immigration Bureau director Hidenori Sakanaka, who has become a champion for immigration, said Japan needs 10 million immigrants over the next 50 years or its economy will collapse.
“That’s really our only salvation,” said Sakanaka, now head of a think tank. “We should allow them to enter the country on the assumption that they could become residents of Japan.”
The chances of that happening are low. Immigration is perceived as a threat to Japan’s prized social harmony, and opponents paint scenarios of rising crime and other problems.
About 20 years ago, Japan granted special visas to Latin Americans of Japanese descent, but many had difficulties fitting in. After the 2008 global financial crisis, they were offered money to return home.
The training program got public attention earlier this year, after a Chinese intern stabbed to death his boss and another Japanese employee at a fishery in Hiroshima, but its ongoing problems have not been front-page news.
The government strengthened laws covering the program in 2010, including prohibiting trainees from paying deposits to labor brokers. Japanese employers are expected to pay the third-party agencies. A panel of experts and officials is reviewing the program again to see if it needs further changes.
“There are some who go against the objectives of this program and use it as a source of cheap labor,” said Jun Nakamura, an immigration bureau official. “We have tried to strengthen the legal framework.”
After not receiving their regular wages for 16 months, Wang and about a dozen others at the distribution company in Gifu confronted their boss, Akiyoshi Shibata, demanding their back pay. They said he gave them a choice: return to China or drop their complaints, apologize and stay on.
Wang and three others chose to go home. A few days later, they were taken to the airport, where Shibata paid them each ￥750,000 (US$7,500), barely enough to cover the broker fee, said Gifu Ippan Labor Union official Zhen Kai, who helped in negotiations between the two sides.
In a telephone interview, Shibata said he withheld ￥50,000 every month from each trainee’s wages for the first year as a security deposit due to problems he had encountered in the past, including cases where trainees ran away. He said he paid the remaining regular wages on time and in the end paid them all they had earned.
After “all this trouble,” Shibata said he has decided against using foreign interns any more.
“I think it may be better to scrap the program since there’s a risk both sides will just be unhappy,” he said.