Japan confronts a rising tide of immigrants

February 28, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Sunday in Yoyogi Park looks, sounds and smell distinctly un-Japanese these days.

It looks like a Middle Eastern bazaar with thousands of Iranians, dried beans on sale next to autofocus cameras, open-air barber stalls, people haggling everywhere.

There's a cacophony of Persian pipers, from half a dozen video machines advertising tapes of belly dancers. And the aroma is Near Eastern, not Far Eastern, coming from skewers of pungent red lamb, roasting over red-hot charcoal.

The weekly event reflects a rapidly mounting challenge to one of this country's most cherished articles of faith.

In schoolbooks and in pulp magazines, in TV newscasts and in political speeches, Japanese tell each other endlessly that "a homogeneous population" has been crucial to this country's 20th-century rise as a great power.

Now, for the first time in this island nation's history, that comforting notion confronts a rising tide of legal and illegal foreign job-seekers, much like the ones that have long been familiar in Europe and America.

Muscled construction workers from Malaysia, heavily bearded men from Iran, soft-voiced housekeepers from the Philippines, slim waiters from China, svelte bar hostesses from Thailand -- in less than four years the numbers have multiplied from tens of thousands to almost 300,000.

They come because they hear that in the world's No. 2 economy, even the most menial work pays many times what they earn at home.

"I might have gone to America if I could have, but it was easier to get into Japan on a student visa and then just start working," says Wei Guorong, 28, a Chinese waiter who arrived two years ago. "I can send almost $1,000 a month back to my family."

Japan often greets the new arrivals with discomfort. But three years into the country's worst economic slowdown since World War II, that unease deepens as growing numbers of Japanese have trouble finding work.

Police agencies repeatedly warn that foreigners are forcing crime rates up in a society long proud of safe streets. Hospital administrators complain they can't collect bills from illegal aliens who are too afraid of deportation to register for government health insurance.

To millions of Japanese, the new arrivals bring a kind of culture shock.

"When we say 'gaijin' [foreigner], we picture a businessman in a suit, or maybe a young American English teacher -- that's who we're used to seeing," says Saburo Takahara, a Tokyo stockbroker. "It's hard getting used to all these Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern laborers."

At least five government reports, including one in January by 13 agencies working under the prime minister's office, have called for crackdowns. Immigration bureau budgets and staffs have been increased.

Japan, which always seeks close relations with Middle Eastern oil states, agreed in the 1980s to a deal with Tehran that let citizens of either country visit the other without visas. It was canceled last spring as the number of Iranians overstaying entry stamps swelled past the 40,000 mark.

That cancellation, and help from Tehran's embassy here, brought the number of illegal Iranians in Japan down by more than 7,000 between May and November, the latest month for which figures are available. At the same time, Malaysia's government aggressively cut the number of exit permits it grants for Japan, which helped to trim the number of its nationals illegally here by 4,000.

And in some cases, the faltering Japanese economy provides the incentive for foreigners to leave.

'Always a job'

"I'm trying to save enough money for a plane ticket home," says Mohammad, an Iranian in his 20s who refuses to give the rest of his name for fear of tipping off the immigration authorities. "Life here is modern and exciting, and there's always a job if you're willing to do things Japanese hate, like cleaning floors or washing dishes. But it's not as easy to make money as it was a year ago."

But neither beefed-up enforcement nor a three-year economic slowdown has stemmed the tide of illegal residents.

Despite the big reductions in Iranians and Malaysians, new arrivals from other countries produced yet another increase between May and November, from 278,892 to 292,791. As recently as 1988, illegal aliens numbered only in the tens of thousands.

About a third of the immigration bureau's more than 1,900 staff members now work at least part of their time on illegal immigrants, but few are free to pursue it full time.

Most of the illegal workers in Japan arrive legally on tourist, visitor or student papers. Then they disappear into the economy and stay long beyond their permits. Japan's police, whose No. 1 priority is safe streets, do not make a practice of asking foreign-looking people for their ID cards if they are not breaking the law.

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