Saturday, August 19, 2006

Yes, yes, Mr. Ishihara. I'm sorry, what were you saying?

As one of my New Years resolutions, I promised myself to spend at least one day a week outside Tokyo Metropolitian District. So on weekends, I drop in on such Kantō locales such as Ōtsuki, Mashiko, Minakami, and Kanaya.

Whenever I am in such places and find myself of need of something to drink or a small pick-me-up (I am rather fond of Beck's coffee houses—but please don't tell anyone), I am jolted by the presence, behind the counter, of a Japanese.

“How is it possible,” I find myself asking myself, “that Japanese, particularly young Japanese, are at work in the retail services sector?”

It turns out my question to myself is not entirely mad.

Two Saturdays ago (August 5), the front page article of the evening edition of The Asahi Shimbun revealed what had long been an open secret: the restaurants and convenience stores of the downtown areas are dependent on Chinese workers. Without young Chinese to man the registers, take the orders and fill them out, much of the retail sector would shut down.

From my daily contact in Minato-ku with retail company employees whose name cards read, as the article states, “Chang”, “Wang” and “Sun” I have assumed that at least some of the workers working in the downtown areas must be illegals. The Asahi article insists that these workers are all legitimate--that they are students holding visas permitting them to work up to 28 hours per week or trainees with the right to work 4 hours per day.

Clearly for corporations like the gyūdon chain Matsuya Foods--which according to its own records has 1230 non-Japanese employees--the incentive would be to work within the law, employing only students with the proper papers. However, for the smaller establishments and some franchises like the convenience stores, the acute shortage of low-wage labor in inner city areas must present incentives to feign willful ignorance at the real eligibility of an applicant—especially since employers are relying on their foreign employees' networks of friends and acquaintances as a major source of new recruits.

(An aside--but another trend I have noticed is the increasing number of children working the registers of their parents' stores in the early evening hours and on weekends).

The Asahi provided the below graph below of the number of students with work visas.

Courtesy: The Asahi Shimbun
August 5, 2006.

A few items are worth noticing:

* 400% growth in less than 10 years

* Rapid growth took place during a time when Japan was wallowing in the worst economic and employment crisis of the postwar era

* The number of students seeking work permits declined in 2005 despite an increase in demand for employees (the result of a post-April 2005 crackdown on the more marginal of the Chinese pseudo-students, perhaps?)

* The staggering number of Chinese exchange students in the country (89, 374)

Now if this is a purely city center phenomenon--as the article indicates and my own observations during my perambulations about the countryside seem to confirm—then one has to start thinking about the application of the inner city model test case to the purported nation-wide looming triple threats of shortages in labor, students and young people. The model seems to working downtown—what about uptown and in the chihō? What is Japan’s carrying capacity in terms of a minority of Chinese young people— 1 million, 2 million, 5 million? Will they stay—probably a lot of them will want to—and how will the state receive them?

The immigration answer to the shōshkōreika mondai is not a hypothetical—it is upon us.

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