Japan is offering money for a plane ticket home to some foreigners who have lost their jobs, a sign of just how bad the economic slump is.
The program, which began on Wednesday, applies only to several hundred thousand South Americans of Japanese descent on special visas for factory work. The government’s motivation appears to be three-fold: help the workers get home, ease pressure on the domestic labor market and potentially get thousands of people off the unemployment rolls.
“The program is to respond to a growing social problem,” said Hiroshi Yamashita, an official at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, referring to joblessness, which has climbed to a three-year high of 4.4 percent.
But there may not be too many takers for the ¥300,000 (US$3,000) handout, plus ¥200,000 for each family member. The money comes with strings attached: The workers cannot return to Japan on the same kind of visa.
Given Japan’s strict immigration laws, that means most won’t be able to come back to work in Japan, where wages are higher than in Latin America.
The government’s offer highlight Japan’s complex views on foreigners and cultural identity.
Many Japanese consider their culture homogenous, even though there are sizeable minorities of Koreans and Chinese, as well as Ainu, the indigenous people of northern Japan.
In the early 1990s, Tokyo relaxed its relatively tight immigration laws to allow special entry permits for foreigners of Japanese ancestry in South America to make up for a labor shortage.
They took the so-called “three-K” jobs, standing for kitsui, kitanai, kiken — meaning “hard, dirty, dangerous” — jobs that Japanese had previously shunned.
Before their arrival, many such jobs had gone to Iranians and Chinese. But the government saw their influx as a problem and was eager to find a labor pool it felt would more easily adapt to Japanese society, said Iwao Nishiyama, of the Association of Nikkei & Japanese Abroad, a government-backed organization.
So by virtue of their background, these foreigners of Japanese descent — called Nikkei in Japanese — were offered special visa status.
“They may speak some Japanese, and have a Japanese way of thinking,” Nishiyama said. “They have Japanese blood, and they work hard.”
The workers are mainly descendants of Japanese who began emigrating to Latin America around the turn of the last century.
Nearly all work in manufacturing jobs. Major companies, like Toyota Motor Corp, have relied on them to keep a flexible plant work force.
Foreign workers in Japan are entitled to the basic unemployment and other benefits that Japanese workers get. Though rates vary, Japan provides about ¥7,000 a day in unemployment.
Still, Nikkei are sometimes victims of discrimination in Japan, as they are culturally different and aren’t always fluent in Japanese.
Now, as the economy worsens, many find themselves out of work.
The government doesn’t track the number of jobless foreigners, but the number of foreigners showing up at government-run centers for job referral has climbed in recent months to 11 times the previous year, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare said.