A Mosaic in the Making

The number of immigrants is rising--and that's a good thing

When Oswaldo Nobutaka Teshima moved his family from Brazil to the outskirts of Tokyo 10 years ago, he represented Japan's first serious experiment with immigration. At the time, the government was under pressure to bring in foreign "guest workers" to fill manufacturing jobs that Japanese no longer wanted, as well as address a future shortage of service workers. Policymakers decided to woo immigrants of Japanese descent, believing they would fit more easily into Japan's closed society. And so thousands of ethnic Japanese from Brazil and Peru--Teshima among them--moved to a nation that many had never even visited.

Since then, Ota, the small city Teshima calls home, has developed a distinctly Brazilian flavor. Banco do Brasil occupies a prominent address. On some streets, Portuguese is heard more often than Japanese. And local shops sell Brazilian sausages and chocolates. Today, foreigners account for 4% of the city's population, and that's a lot for Japan. Teshima, who runs a grocery, says he, his wife, and three kids feel right at home. "My dad is more Brazilian than me," he says of the father who only recently joined his son in Japan.

HEALTHY MIX. Ota represents the cultural mosaic that Japanese society may become in 50 years. While still small, the number of immigrants nationwide is increasing. And that's a good thing, say economists. With its population rapidly graying, Japan will need to boost immigration sharply to keep pace with other developed nations. Right now, the change is "almost invisible," says Haruo Shimada, an economics professor at Keio University and special adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. "But as time goes on, we'll realize that it's a completely different world around us."

That makes many Japanese nervous. Not only are increasing numbers of foreigners legally moving to Japan but thousands of illegal migrants from China are also turning up on its shores. With the recession deepening and unemployment at 5%, a record high, xenophobes are on the march. Foreign-born nationals are being blamed for everything from rising crime to tax evasion. The police and media have been quick to stoke these fears. The national police chief said recently that foreign criminal gangs could fuel social instability. In an August editorial, Yomiuri, Japan's largest daily, urged the government to "prevent ill-intentioned foreigners from entering the country to pursue a life of crime." Post-September 11 jitters have fueled the unease.

The antiforeign backlash is long on emotion and short on facts. The number of crimes committed by foreigners actually fell 10% last year. Of course, tension between newcomers and longtime residents is unavoidable--especially in a nation where only 1.3% of the population are immigrants. In Ota, gripes range from the mundane--failure of immigrants to take the garbage out on time, say--to such serious issues as failure to enroll children in public school or pay taxes. Some feel cheated by politicians and big businessmen who championed foreign workers but left local authorities to handle their assimilation. Says Masayoshi Shimizu, the mayor of Ota: "The central government has been extremely irresponsible."

INEVITABLE. Big business sees it differently. That's because immigrants are willing to do the back-breaking, monotonous work that Japanese won't--and often for lower pay. Brazilian-Japanese build home electronics for Sanyo Electric, Subarus for Fuji Heavy Industries, and cars for Mazda Motor. "If we can get the same quality of labor at a lower cost," says Shigeharu Hiraiwa, a director at Mazda Motor Corp., "there's no reason not to hire more foreign workers."

The Koizumi administration is caught between public sentiment and economic reality. While Koizumi seems to have relegated immigration policy to the back burner, he and his advisers understand that Japan faces a catastrophe if it does not receive an infusion of new blood. Without immigrants, there will be insufficient workers to care for the growing legions of elderly. More companies will be forced to move offshore to such lower-cost centers as China. And foreign-run syndicates will exploit the situation to smuggle in even more illegals.

Meanwhile, reality seems to be sinking in--even in Ota, despite the chorus of complaints about the foreign habits of Japanese-Brazilians. For instance, local authorities plan to translate state-approved textbooks into Portuguese. Ota would be the first such Japanese city to do such a thing. Chances are, it won't be the last.

By Chester Dawson in Ota, Japan

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