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Japan needs workers, but has closed door to unskilled immigrants

TOKYO—If there were such a thing as the Japanese dream—of the rags-to-riches, immigrant-makes-good type—Roberto Alva would be living it.

A mechanic who left Peru hoping to earn enough money to open an auto shop back home, Alva, 42, rose from migrant worker to machinist to magazine publisher to owner of a Web content and cell phone company. While he hasn't struck gold, his planned brief stay turned into 14 years in Osaka, where he's bought a house with his Japanese wife and three daughters.

But Alva's success story can't be called the Japanese dream because the Japanese government has no plan to attract more immigrants like him, even though the country has an aging and shrinking population and needs workers. Compared with other industrialized nations, Japan has attracted few outsiders, and Alva's immigrant-makes-good story is eclipsed by the reality of newcomers who are scraping out livelihoods on the country's social and economic fringes.

Bureaucrats instead have hoped to increase the country's birthrate, the average number of children a woman bears. In 2004, Japan's birthrate dropped to a record low of 1.29, one of the lowest in the world.

Japan's population is projected to peak next year, then decline quickly.

And an increasing number of young people aren't joining the work force, instead remaining dependent on their parents.

Japan hasn't decided whether to import the people needed to plant rice, assemble auto parts and wash restaurant plates. While a French pastry chef or a systems engineer or a corporate manager can get a visa, the door is closed to unskilled laborers.

Of the 1.9 million people who hold foreign passports, about 1.5 percent of the population, more than half are ethnic Koreans and Chinese, many of whom were born in Japan and have adopted Japanese "pass names."

The next largest group is Latin Americans, at an estimated 350,000. Entering through a side door cracked open 15 years ago for overseas descendants of Japanese, they're clustered in auto industry towns and staff many assembly lines. At work they're joined by illegal entrants, those who overstay their visas and foreign students laboring to pay off loans.

Japan's de facto labor and immigration policy, critics say, leaves such workers vulnerable to exploitation and the nation unprepared for the future.

"Japan has not had a clear vision," said Hidenori Sakanaka, who before retiring in March was one of the few central government officials to speak forthrightly about immigration. "The government needs a long-term strategy, rather than letting things take their own course."

Sakanaka, the former head of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, said the Japanese need to choose between becoming a "big Japan" through immigration or being a "small Japan." Estimates vary, but some say becoming a "big Japan" could mean importing as many as a half-million workers a year until 2050.

A major business group, the Federation of Economic Organizations, has called not only for accepting more foreigners, but also for making them feel welcome. It's proclaimed that Japan should "build a society where people from around the world can live in comfort and participate in meaningful ways, with full rewards for their talent and effort."

In a "small Japan," two-thirds of the population would be age 60 or over by 2050. They still would require foreign labor to do the backbreaking and hazardous jobs that young Japanese shun today. Last year, after long negotiations, Japan agreed to accept Filipino nurses, provided they study the language and pass a training course.

Japan can retool its economy and send jobs abroad. But some jobs, in construction and service industries, for example, can't be exported, said Hiroshi Tanaka, an economics professor at Ryukoku University.

Polls show that Japanese remain ambivalent about admitting more outsiders. The main worry is crime, a fear fanned by news reports of sensational murders and rising crime rates.

But "instead of just working on decreasing the number of foreign criminals, we have to have a good, formal immigration policy and system," said Keizo Yamawaki, a professor in Meiji University's School of Commerce. Further, he said, the absence of a legal source for manual laborers allows the underground labor market to thrive.

The government doesn't appear to be crafting a clear policy. "The political will has to come from the Cabinet or the prime minister himself," Yamawaki said.

Without leadership, a national consensus isn't developing.

"How Japanese people look at and think about foreigners is very important," Sakanaka said. Illegal entrants are estimated to exceed 200,000, and most of them work in low-wage jobs. Reforming a system that promotes lawbreaking is essential, he said, if Japanese are to start thinking about foreigners as fellow residents who contribute to the country.

Opening Japan to immigration means much more than creating a new visa category. The notion that non-ethnic Japanese may call Japan home isn't widely accepted—even though that's already happened. The myth of homogeneity overlooks the presence of millions of non-Japanese—primarily Koreans and other Asians, but Westerners, as well—who settled during Japan's colonial period and after World War II. Among them are famous athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and everyday people such as Alva.

Few in the latest wave of immigrants, who've come since the 1980s, have assimilated as well as Alva. Working long hours and too busy to study the language, they're less interested in adapting to Japan and more interested in saving money to return home.

Alva thinks differently. He taught himself to read Japanese, first by studying license plates as he waited for buses.

He notes that Brazilians and Peruvians are staying, not heading back as they'd planned. "We have to integrate ourselves into life here," he said.

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(Noguchi is a special correspondent in Japan. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Emi Doi in Tokyo contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): JAPAN-IMMIGRATION

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