[Viewpoint]Foreign infusionI visited a neighborhood park in Shinjuku, Tokyo, recently with my two daughters. As I talked with my children on a slide, a Caucasian woman, who was accompanied by her son, initiated a conversation. “Excuse me. Are you speaking Korean?” she asked.
The lady, who introduced herself and said she moved to Japan three years ago from the United States, began speaking to her new neighbor in fluent Japanese. She informed me about a wide range of information, from the recycling policy to the best bakery in the area. When I confessed I was worried about difficulties my children, who speak no Japanese, might have adjusting to the new environment she told me: “Be confident. Children tend to learn fast.” She even used the old Japanese saying “naseba naru,” which means “where there is a will, there is a way.”
The biggest cultural shock for me in Tokyo is the exceptional ability of foreigners to speak Japanese. On TV, foreigners’ fluency in the language is no longer a hot topic. The Japanese people have even expressed pleasant surprise that they no longer needed to struggle with English when communicating with foreigners. Yoichi Funabashi, the editor-in-chief and a columnist for the Asahi Shimbun, lamented that the Japanese no longer try to learn English because of such foreigners. He is envious seeing foreigners actively learning and using Japanese.
And yet, Japanese society has complicated issues. Two years ago, Japan became a “super-aging” society, where one out of five people was over 65 years old. According to a report by the Japanese government, the country’s population will go down by 2.8 percent by 2020, and the gross domestic product will see a 6.7 percent decline. The population will continue shrinking, and it will reach 100 million by 2050 and 60 million in 2100.
A report by the Nippon Keidanren, or Japan Business Federation, estimated that the number in the labor force will be about 42 million in 2050, down by 24 million from the current size. In order to make up for the labor vacuum, 32 million workers should be imported from overseas or the Japanese must increase the birth rate, the United Nations forecasted.
The Japanese government revised its immigration law in 1990 to make it easier for workers to enter the country. In 2000, 710,000 foreign workers were in Japan, and the number went up to more than 850,000 this year. More than 2.5 million foreigners are living in Japan. At the same time, the number of crimes committed by foreigners also skyrocketed. Last year alone, 35,800 crimes were committed by foreigners, up by 70 percent from 1993.
Tokyo has concluded that the only solution to this matter is engaging migrant workers as members of Japanese society. The first step to this end was Japanese-language education. Local autonomous governments began providing a wide range of language-education programs to teach Japanese to foreigners in the late 1990s.
As of now, interpretation services are provided by schools or local governments to foreign students who enter a Japanese public school. Some local governments offer not only Japanese language education but also other tutoring programs. Such a policy is to prevent problems associated with students who fail to adjust to new school life.
A foreigner who resides in Japan for more than a year will benefit from administrative services that are nearly comparable to those given to Japanese citizens. State health insurance is provided to such foreigners. In Shinjuku, the area of Tokyo most densely populated with foreigners, medical expenses are free for children until they complete middle school. Up to a 10,000 yen ($98.70) monthly child care subsidy is provided to families with a child. For a newborn, 350,000 yen in childbirth assistance is provided by the government, whether the parents are foreigners or Japanese citizens.
The number of crimes committed by foreigners peaked in 2004 and is now on its way down. Various opinion polls still show serious concerns about the increasing number of foreigners and the subsequent increase of crimes and social expenses, but it is a largely accepted that migrant workers should be welcomed to Japan because of the country’s need.
A weekend column in the Asahi Shimbun argued that foreign workers should be considered as immigrants. They should not be seen as foreigners who will leave Japan in the future, the newspaper said. It urged society to recognize them as permanent residents of Japan.
Last year, Japan’s total fertility rate was 1.29 while that of Korea was 1.08. With one of the lowest birth rates in the world, the clock is ticking for Korea.
*The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo
by Park So-young