Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cheap Foreign Labor, Through the Back Door

Japan’s Industrial Trainee and Technical Internship Program brings 80,000 to 100,000 foreigners to Japan each year [1] to work for up to three years in industries such as agriculture, textiles, and food prep [2]. Japanese immigration policy makes no general provision for unskilled foreign workers; technically, no visa category exists for unskilled labor. But by calling the participants “trainees” and “interns,” the program has created an ad hoc mechanism to bring these types of workers to Japan. JITCO, the organization that facilitates the program, explains that it was introduced in 1993 in response to Japan’s labor shortage, but also touts “international development” and “skills and technology transfer” as its goals [3]. However, since most interns and trainees work low-paid, unskilled jobs, we can surmise that the program’s primary function is to provide cheap labor to struggling Japanese industries.

It is easy to see the program as a cynical creation of lawmakers eager to woo manufacturing and agricultural constituencies. Indeed, the record on this score is not good. Around 67% of participants come from mainland China, while Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam account for 22% combined [4]. Employers can easily exploit these often impoverished trainees and interns. The Asahi Shimbun describes how employers require the (often willing) interns to work illegal overtime [5], and sometimes pay interns and trainees far below the minimum wage for their work [6]. Many program participants tolerate these abuses, because they expect to earn $500 - $700 per month, far more than they could earn in their home countries [7], although still far less than Japanese employees in similar jobs. These and other problems became so widespread that the US Department of State singled out the program in its Trafficking in Persons Report [8].

However, lawmakers and bureaucrats did not sit idle while these criticisms came to light. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry both investigated and recommended reforms. In response to this, in July 2009 the Diet overwhelmingly voted to strengthen legal protection for trainees and interns and increase government oversight of employers [9]. For example, employers must now provide trainees with written contracts in their native languages, which are inspected by immigration officials. Trainees will be informed of their legal rights and obligations, and JITCO employees will inspect each place of employment once a month. The new regulations come into effect in one year [10].

These actions will certainly require a deeper investment of both government and employer resources. Even if the program is really a handout to crucial political constituencies, this heartening commitment demonstrates that the government is not willing to hand over cheap labor regardless of the human costs.

1. Ministry of Justice, Kenshuu, Ginou Jisshuu Seido no Genjou Oyobi Seido Kaisei no Gaiyou ni Tsuite, March 34, 2009 [cited 2009 December 15]; Available from: p.3.

2. Ibid, p. 2.

3. Japan Internation Training Cooperation Organization, Seido no Enkaku, Haikei, Chuugokujin Kenshuusei no Seikouritsu ha 3 Wari “Ihou Zangyou” mo Kakugo Available from:

4. Ministry of Justice, Kenshuu, Ginou Jisshuu Seido no Genjou Oyobi Seido Kaisei no Gaiyou ni Tsuite, March 34, 2009 [cited 2009 December 15]; Available from: p.3.

5. Okubo, Maki, Chuugokujin Kenshuusei no Seikouritsu ha 3 Wari “Ihou Zangyou” mo Kakugo, Asahi Shimbun, 18 July, 2009, [cited 2009 December 15]; Available from:

6. Okubo, Maki, ed, “Osame no Nougyou” Jisshuusei ni Izon, Asahi Shimbun, May 5, 2009 [cited 2009 December 15]; Available from:

7. Ibid.

8. US Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 2009, June, 2009 [cited 2009 December 15]; Available from: .

9. Online Diet Record, [001/066] 171 - House of Councilors, Full Meeting #36 July 8, 2009 [cited 2009 December 15]; Available from:

10. Ministry of Justice, Kenshuu, Ginou Jisshuu Seido no Mondaiten to Kongo no Sochi, October 2, 2009 [cited 2009 December 10]; Google search "研修技能実習制度の問題点と今後の措置" to retrieve this document.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ambivalence towards Japan's New Jury System

Until this year, Japan was one of the only major industrialized democracies to use bench trials (trials by a judge or judges) in all criminal and civil cases [1]. To align Japan with the international standard, the Diet passed a law in 2004, effective this year, instituting a “lay judge” system [2]. Under the new system, panels of three professional judges and six “lay judges” chosen by lottery from the voter rolls try crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment [3]. Majority vote determines the verdict, with the stipulation that the panel cannot find the defendant guilty if all three professional judges are opposed [4]. Sentencing takes place through a more complicated formula. Although a majority vote (including at least one judge) can decide the sentence, because sentencing is not a yes/no proposition, situations arise in which no particular sentence has a majority. In this case, votes for the harshest sentence are added to votes for the second harshest sentence. If this creates a majority including at least one judge, the second harshest sentence will stand. If not, the votes for the first and second harshest sentences will be added to those for the third harshest sentence, and so on, until a majority including at least one judge is reached [5].

Attitudes towards the new system are ambivalent at best—a government survey conducted in 2008 on 10,000 people nationwide found that over 80% of respondents did not want to participate [6]. Nearly 40% of respondents in another survey expressed doubts that lay judges could make judgments as accurate and just as those of professional judges [7].

However, this does not mean that the new system is doomed to failure. Although these figures are high, not wanting to participate as a juror and lack of faith in the jury system are not unique to Japan. In the United States, reluctant jurors may request postponement or simply fail to appear for duty. Rates vary across districts, but a Florida court reported that more than 40% of those called for jury duty deferred or were truant. (Although some deferrers may have wished to serve, many jurors who did show up were no doubt reluctant.) [8]. Other countries have even higher rates; polls in Spain report that over 60% of respondents do not want to serve [9]. And although Americans, Brits, and Australians are documented as preferring jury trials to bench trials, a majority of Belgians and Spaniards respond that they prefer bench trials [10]. This preference has not led to the elimination of jury trials in either country—reluctance to serve and lack of faith in outcomes can coexist comfortably with a jury system. While public opinion may change the shape of Japan’s jury system, the system itself is here to stay, despite citizens’ ambivalent attitudes.

1. The Jury is Out, in The Economist. London: February 14, 2009.

2. Saibanin no Sanka suru Keiji Saiban ni Kansuru Houritsu, May 28, 2004. Updated November 11, 2007 [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:

3. Saibanin no Sanka suru Keiji Houritsu no Gaiyou, [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:

4. Iken ga Icchi shinakatara Hyouketsu ha dou naru no desu ka, in Saibanin Seido Q&A, [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:

5. 5nin Ijou no Kahansuu de Kettei Yuuzai ni ha Saibankan no Sansei Hitsuyou, in Kyodo News, March, 2009 [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:

6. Kabushikigaisha Inteeji Risaachi, Saibanin Seido ni Kansuru Ishiki Chousa Chousa Kekka Houkokusho, p.23, March, 2008 [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:

7. Naikakufu Daijin Kanbou Seifu Kouhou Shitsu, Saibanin Seido ni Kansuru Ninshiki, February 2005, [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:

8. Losh, Susan Carol, and Robert G. Boatwright, Lifestyle Factors, Status, and Civic Engagement: Issues of Age and Attitudes towards Jury Service, in Legal System Journal, 2002 [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:;col1

9. Roberts, Julian V. and Mike Hough, Public Opinion and the Jury: An International Literature Review, p. 31, February 2009, [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:

10. Ibid, p. 42.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Is Japan Discarding Foreign Workers?

In 2008, 258,498 foreigners lived in Japan on long-term residency visas [1], which allow descendants of Japanese citizens (Nikkei) and their families to live indefinitely in Japan [2].* As the economic outlook darkened in the fall of 2008, many of these visa holders lost their jobs. In response, the government began a program in April 2009 offering unemployed Nikkei residents 300,000yen, plus 200,000yen for every dependent family member, towards airfare to return to their home countries [3]. This program originally forbad aid recipients from returning to Japan indefinitely, but in face of harsh international and domestic criticism, the Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare reduced the limit to three years in May 2009 [4]. As of December 1, 2009, 16,460 people had applied for the payment [5].

The Japanese government argues that the program is merely one plank in the support platform for Nikkei Japanese, including counseling and retraining programs, and that the primary motivation is the welfare of those who might want to return to their home countries to ride out the economic crisis. On the other hand, many immigrants, researchers, and advocates deride the plan, claiming that companies and the government used foreign workers during good economic times, and are merely discarding them in bad [6].

Claims that the program is solely for the benefit of the Nikkei residents are obviously suspicious. The government must expect to save money on returnees—subsidized public health insurance, welfare, and unemployment benefits could easily run much higher than the cost of return airfares, even in the short term [7].

But to what extent is the program humanitarian as well as pragmatic? For Nikkei desperate to return to their home countries, the economic assistance is no doubt welcome. However, we must ask why this program applies only to Nikkei visa holders, and not to foreign workers in other visa categories. Unlike other visa categories, the long-term resident visa allows holders to remain in Japan indefinitely, regardless of employment status [8]. Most work visas for foreigners become invalid if the holder is unemployed for a certain length of time. Were the main goal of the program humanitarian, it should logically be extended to all unemployed foreign workers. Because it targets only those who might choose to stay in Japan, we can only conclude that the primary motivation is fiscal, and that the government is indeed attempting to “discard” long-term foreign residents.

*Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees are also covered by this visa category, although they make up only a small percentage of the total.

1. Ministry of Justice, Zairyuu Shikakubetsu Gaikokujin Tourokushasuu no Suii, July 2007 [cited 2009 October 19]; Available from:

2. Sakura International Legal Office, Teijuusha [cited 2009 October 19]; Available from:

3. Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, Nikkeijin Rishokusha ni taisuru Kikoku Shien Jigyou no Jisshi, March 31, 2009 [cited 2009 October 19]; Available from:

4. Igarashi, Makoto, Nikkeijin no Kikokushien Jigyou Sainyuukoku Seigen ha Gensoku 3nenkan, in Asahi Shimbun, May 5, 2009 [cited 2009 October 16]; Available from:

5. Nikkei Burajirujin Kukyou Shoku Ushinai Seikatsu Hogo Shinsei ga Kyuuzou, in Asahi Shimbun, December 15, 2009 [cited 2009 December 17]; Available from:

6. Tabuchi, Hiroko, Japan Pays Foreign Workers to Go Home, in the New York Times, April 22, 2009 [cited 2009 October 22]; Available from:

7. Nikeijin Shitsugyousha he no Kikoku Ryohi Shikyuu ni Sanpi no Koe, in Asahi Shimbun, April 12, 2009 [cited 2009 October 22]; Available from:

8. Nagoya International Center, Ima Gaikokuseki Rodousha ha? NIC he no Soudan kara, in Chikyuu wo Kangeru, Volume 18, Winter/Spring, 2009 [cited 2009 October 22]; Available from:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Increasing Japan's Birthrate

Japan’s government is desperate to boost its sluggish birthrate (1.37 in 2008) [1], and relies heavily on financial incentives to do so. Today, I’ll discuss the lump-sum birth payment, which is one of several such programs. The government called a recent increase in the payment an “emergency response” to the low birthrate [2].This “emergency response” raises two important questions: how far will this one-time payment of 420,000yen per child go for expectant parents? And, more significantly, is financial support really the best way to raise Japan’s low birthrate?

The lump-sum payment fills a gap in Japan’s regular health insurance; because the health insurance system does not cover healthy childbirth, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare offers parents the lump-sum at the birth of each child. As of October 1, 2009 the government will pay up to 420,000yen to the medical establishment where the child was born. If medical bills are less than the upper limit, parents apply to receive the remainder; if costs are higher, the parents must pay the further costs out-of-pocket [3]. Prior to October 1, 2009, the maximum government payment was 380,000yen, and parents had to pay all costs out-of-pocket before receiving the government reimbursement.

While parents certainly appreciate the extra 40,000yen that they now receive per birth, the increase can hardly make a significant difference to most families. According to a poll conducted in early 2009, the average hospital charge for giving birth was 424,000yen. This means that the new rate covers, or almost covers, the fees associated with giving birth for many mothers [4]. However, the increase will not defray other costs of pregnancy, such as pre-labor doctor visits and other personal expenses, not to mention the money required to feed, clothe, and educate the child.

Adults of child-bearing age are hyper-sensitive to the economic burden of raising a child. A full 86% of the respondents to a government survey of childless adults said they wanted to have 2 or more children, but most of these also felt that they would be unable to have as many children as they would like [5]. Far and away, the number one reason for this was the financial difficulties [6].

The survey data also suggest the depth of these economic difficulties. 75% of the male and 81% of the female respondents indicated that an annual household income of at least 5 million yen is necessary to have even one child [7]. However, this income is far out of reach for many families. Japan’s median household income is less than 4.6 million [8] and because incomes rise with age, a significant proportion of those below the median must be young families.

This financial pictures indicates that financial incentives should be a key government tool to increase the birthrate, but the new 420,000yen payment does not come close to closing the yearly income gap for families at our below the median income; much more ambitious measures will be required to make a real difference.

1. Asahi Shimbun, 08nen Shusshouritsu 1.37, 3nen Renzokuzou Hadome ha Kakarazu , June 3, 2009 [cited 2009 October 14]; Available from:

2. Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Anshin shite Shussan wo shite itadaku tame, Shussan Ikuji Ichijikin ni tsuite ha, Ika no you ni Minaoshimasu 2009 [cited 2009 October 5]; Available from:

3. Shussan Ikuji Ichijikin no Shikyuukaku to Shikyuu Houhou ga Kawarimasu September 14, 2009 [cited 2009 October 5]; Available from:,24316,39.html.

4. Takahashi, Y., Shussan Hiyou, Heikin 42 Man En Saikou ha Tokyo, Saitei ha Kumamoto, in Asahi Shimbun. May 25, 2009 [cited 2009 October 13]; Available from:

5. Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Shoushiki ni Kansuru Ishiki Chousa Kenkyuu. 2004 [cited 2009 October 8]; Available from: Figure 4-6 p. 59.

6. Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Shoushiki ni Kansuru Ishiki Chousa Kenkyuu. 2004 [cited 2009 October 8]; Available from: Figure 4-7-1 p. 60.

7. Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Shoushiki ni Kansuru Ishiki Chousa

Kenkyuu. 2004 [cited 2009 October 8]; Available from: Figure 4-8 p. 62

2. Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Kaku Sedai no Shotoku Nado no Joukyou 2004 [cited 2009 October 13]; Available from: .