Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Even the Pharoahs Had to Import Hebrew Braceros

A few days ago a good friend of mine asked a nasty question:

"Fine. We are finding out what is going on from day-to-day. But what about the big picture? What's a few years down the road?"

I always mistrust myself on these kinds of questions. The farther one looks into the future, the more one sees what one hopes for, rather than what one can expect. There are many changes I feel should happen. They could indeed happen. But for me to say that they will...that is testing my ability to restrain my desires.

But I can say this--the reality on the ground is changing faster than the politicians or the bureaucracy are willing to acknowledge or accept.

Take, for example, the stunning two-part story printed on the front page of Sunday's Asahi Shimbun.

The correspondent travels first to Kawakami Village in Nagano Prefecture, the capital of upland lettuce and leafy greens agriculture. This spring the village has 4,800 permanent residents...and 615 young men from China's Shandong Jilin Province serving a 7 month stint as "trainees" (kenshūsei) under the government's special trainee visa program. The young men are turfed out, two to a farmer. They plant, water, mulch, spray--i.e., grow and harvest--leafy vegetables: lettuce in the winter and summer, white cabbage in the fall. They earn 530 yen an hour--less than the minimum wage. Under a special arrangement, they are underpaid for any overtime they do. They live in rather primitive, if not quite appalling, housing. They do, however, receive a monthly stipend (teate) of 85,000 yen for living expenses.

They stay for only 7 months. If they stayed and worked longer, they would come under the protection of several inconvenient labor conditions laws.

The young men of Shandong Jilin began arriving four years ago; 48 of them in the first year, replacing Sri Lankans, Indonesians and before them Iranians. Their numbers have grown year by year. Some of the "old-timers" among them have even taken Japanese names, for convenience's sake.

(An aside, but Okumura Jun was mulling over the tendency of Chinese to take local names just the other day.)

Why all these Shandong Jilin men in rural Nagano? The farming community has been suffering from an acute shortage of labor. There is no way to get young Japanese, even at wages many, many times higher, to do the backbreaking labor involved. In the past, even in the go-go 1980s, the local farmers could hire Japanese nationals to grow and pick their crops--but for the last 20 years they have become dependent on foreign labor.

Now the Asahi, true to form, does a great job in exposition, only to get the point completely wrong. Obsessing, as its editors always do, about the labor side of the equation (the title for the second story on the use of foreign trainees in the Kyūshū fishing industry: "Six tons of katsuo in the hold; 6 Indonesians on the deck") sees hypocrisy as the issue. "Even kokusan vegetables, part of the 40% of the food we eat that we purportedly grow ourselves, is actually produced by foreigners!" it declaims.

More important issues:

1) the rapid, almost painless acceptance of foreign laborers into communities that are supposed to be immutable and close-minded

2) the continued insistence by Diet members and local officials that there is a labor surplus in the countryside--when in truth the primary industries in rural areas are shorthanded and have to import workers from overseas

3) At some point, a number of these young men from Shandong Jilin are going to want to bring their wives with them and settle in these rural communities...which means in a few years, half the students at the local schools could have Chinese parents (the local elementary school in the entertainment district of Kabukichō, in Shinjuku, has a student body that is half non-Japanese where half the students have at least one non-Japanese parent - and we're not talking South American returnees here).

Do you think local officials and local Diet members are thinking out loud about how their philosophy of state will accommodate these facts on the ground?

The "bigger picture" here: government subsidies and contracts, paid for out of money drawn from the salaries of city workers, are provided to the rural areas "to create jobs." The superfluous construction projects raise the price of local labor to the point where farm labor wages become uncompetitive, leading Japanese agricultural proprietor/owners to import foreign labor at sub-minimum wages under special, government-run programs...which benefits...well who, exactly?

* * *

The archetypal rural Japan of Grandpa and Grandma and Uncle Hiroshi and his wife Satoko and their two kids Kiyoshi and Kana whom you go to see in August and at New Years--it is disappearing fast, as fast as the "one race, one nation" model is failing in the city centers.

However, listening to the hereditary princelings in the Diet and in local politics one would believe that the archetypal Japan is mere wounded, ready to rebound if only it gets one last little bump.

Quite frankly, it is stone cold dead. The local farmers know it. The local representatives of Nōkyō know it. Local community leaders in the failing townships know it.

But the edifice of government wants to pretend otherwise.

Amaterasu help us, the next census is not until 2010--which means the next redistricting plan will not be submitted until late 2012. Which means even longer until the next House of Representatives, one that somewhat more properly reflects the Japan that exists*.

That is five years from now.

Five years ago, there were no Chinese at all in Kawakami Village.

* Yes, this scenario does assume that

1) the commission redrawing the boundaries will pay attention to population rather than all the other, loosey-goosey "environmental" criteria it can use to draw electoral boundaries, and

2) the hereditary officeholders on both the national and local level will do all of us the great favor of keeling over dead or retiring

--which are both rather unlikely.

No comments: