Japan Studies

Back to Contents of Issue: June 2001

Attitudes are hardening toward foreign workers in Japan.

by William Hall

POLICE STATISTICS SHOW AN increasing number of crimes are committed by foreigners; masked robbers speak in a foreign accent; and Japanese gangs run forced prostitution rings with foreign women -- these are but a few of the recent stories in the Japanese media about foreigners and crime, particularly crime by foreigners working illegally in Japan. Also, with unemployment levels among Japanese nationals at post-war record levels, the question of foreign workers taking jobs from Japanese nationals has begun to cause concern.

At the same time, Japanese remain reluctant to work in the so-called 3K jobs: kitsui (difficult), kitanai (dirty), and kiken (dangerous). Further, with a rapidly aging population and a decline in the number of young people entering the workforce, labor shortages in a wide range of fields are looming. Thus, the issue of the acceptance of foreign workers in Japan is one that will not go away. So what are the current perceptions of the Japanese population in regard to foreigners and foreign workers?

In February 2001, the Cabinet Office released the results of a study entitled "Opinion Poll on Issues in Regard to Foreign Workers." The study involved a nationwide attack sample of 3,000 personal interviews with randomly selected Japanese nationals age 20 years and above. A 69 percent completion rate was achieved, yielding 2,070 completed interviews (961 males, 1,109 females). Field-work for the study was completed in November 2000. A similar study was conducted in November 1990 at the end of the bubble economy period, providing a useful benchmark to measure changes in attitudes in the ensuing decade.

Initially, respondents were asked how frequently they had opportunities for contact with foreigners. As can be seen in Table 1, the level of contact with foreigners is low -- only 5 percent have interaction with foreigners on a daily basis, and a further 5 percent occasionally speak to or greet a foreigner. Thus, 90 percent of the population has little or no interaction with foreigners. There are no major differences in these percentages by gender or age, with the exception that contact with foreigners drops off rapidly for those over 60 years of age.

Response Nationwide
Interact with foreigners in normal daily activities 4 5 11
Occasionally talk to or greet foreigners 4 5 11
See foreigners near workplace or in local neighborhood 16 16 25
Occasionally see foreigners in the street or on the train 35 32 41
Hardly ever see foreigners 42 42 11

Even in Tokyo, where the great majority of foreigners are concentrated, nearly 80 percent of the Japanese population has almost no contact with foreigners, a significantly different situation to that in immigrant countries such as the US and Australia, or in Europe, where nationals of EU member states can move freely between countries. As well, inbound tourism in Japan remains comparatively confined, which further limits the opportunity to have contact with foreigners. It is perhaps little wonder then that Japan's attempts at "internationalization" and improving spoken English proficiency at the national level have not been successful.

Respondents were asked their opinion of the current situation in which a large number of foreigners enter Japan as tourists but stay illegally to earn money by working as "hostesses," construction workers, and so on. Respondents were asked to choose one or the other of the following responses -- "Not good" or "Not good but can't be helped." As can be seen in Table 2, there has been a major decline in tolerance for illegal workers in the decade since the end of the bubble economy. For example, in 1990, 32 percent of respondents replied "Not good" to this question, but, in 2000, the "Not good" percentage had risen sharply to 49 percent.

Response 1990 2000
Not good 32 49
Not good but can't be helped 55 40
Don't know/other 12 10

Those respondents giving "Not good" were asked their reasons for this response from among a multiple-choice list. Major reasons were "Because they are violating Japanese law" (56 percent), "Because public peace and order becomes worse" (52 percent), "Because activities such as prostitution are a violation of the foreigner's own human rights" (27 percent), and "Because unemployment of Japanese will increase" (22 percent). The high level of concern about law and order is probably a reflection of the rise in, and wide media coverage of, crimes committed by foreigners. Note, however, the relatively low concern about causing unemployment for Japanese, despite current record high levels of unemployment.

Respondents were then asked what sort of policy should be adopted in regard to these foreign workers, by selecting one answer from among three possible choices. Once again we see a significant hardening in public attitude towards illegal foreign workers. For example, the percentage favoring forced deportation in all cases has risen from 34 percent in 1990 to 50 percent in 2000 (see Table 3).

Response 1990 2000
Deportation in all cases, according to the law 34 50
Deportation only for gang activities, prostitution, and other serious cases 41 35
No enforcement in sectors with labor shortages 11 6
Don't know/other 14 10

Respondents were informed that, among foreigners who seek to enter Japan for employment purposes, those with specialist/technical skills and knowledge are permitted, but unskilled workers are not permitted. Respondents were then asked to give their opinion on this policy by choosing one from among three possible responses.

Once again we see a hardening of attitudes towards foreign workers -- although, overall, a majority of respondents still favor allowing unskilled workers to enter Japan under certain limits and conditions (see Table 4).

Response 1990 2000
Continue current no-entry policy 14 21
Conditional/limited entry for unskilled labor 57 51
Entry with no special conditions 15 16
Don't know/other 14 11

Among the key conditions for acceptance of unskilled foreign workers are that there is a limited fixed term of entry (46 percent); that there is a clear policy on who is responsible for costs associated with social insurance, housing, et cetera (30 percent); that unskilled foreign workers can be employed only by national or regional government bodies (25 percent); and that entry is limited to the worker alone with no permission granted to bring the worker's family (20 percent).

Respondents were then presented with the question: "There is a belief that, with the aging of society, there will be an increased need for workers in the field of care for the aged. Various policies have already been adopted in an attempt to secure sufficient labor, but what is your opinion of the idea of accepting foreign workers to work in the aged care field? Please choose one answer from among those shown on this card." This was the first time that this question had been asked, so comparable data from 1990 is not available.

Opinion on this topic was divided, with 48 percent negative to the idea, 43 percent positive, and 9 percent undecided (see Table 5). Those who gave a negative response were asked their reasons for doing so. The major reasons given were, "The ability to communicate in Japanese is necessary in caring for the aged" (70 percent), "Since caring for the aged involves all aspects of daily life, it requires an understanding of various Japanese systems and everyday customs" (58 percent), "Caring for the aged requires specialist knowledge and skills" (38 percent), "If foreign workers are accepted, they will take away employment opportunities for Japanese nationals" (18 percent), and "The field of caring for the aged is one which is expected to offer employment opportunities for Japanese nationals, and there is no special need to accept foreign workers" (17 percent).

Response Percent
Foreign workers should not be accepted 17
If forced to choose, then foreign workers should not be accepted 31
If forced to choose, then foreign workers should be accepted 32
Foreign workers should be accepted 11
Don't know 9

So what are the implications from the results? First, we can probably expect the Immigration Bureau to feel that it has public opinion support if it adopts a tougher line with illegal workers. Second, although economic projections indicate that an aging population and a declining number of young workers will necessitate an increase in the number of foreign workers in Japan, such an increase is likely to be incremental at best.

Source: Gaikokujin Rodosha Mondai ni Kansuru Yoron Chosa, Cabinet Office, February 2001

William Hall (williamh@isisresearch.com) is president of the ISIS/RBC/CORAL Group, which provides market research and consulting services in Tokyo.

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