As Japan considers allowing more foreigners, a tiny rural town wants to go further

Japan's population decline is well-known, but the problem is especially acute in remote, rural locales such as Akitakata.
Japan's population decline is well-known, but the problem is especially acute in remote, rural locales such as Akitakata.PHOTO: REUTERS

AKITAKATA, JAPAN (REUTERS) - Brazilian Luan Dartora Taniuti settled in the remote municipality of Akitakata in south-west Japan when he was nine. Leonel Maia of East Timor has been there nearly seven years. Filipina Gladys Gayeta is a newly arrived trainee factory worker, but must leave in less than three years.

Japan's strict immigration laws mean Mr Taniuti, who has Japanese ancestry, and Mr Maia, who is married to a Japanese, are among the relatively few foreigners the country allows to stay for the long term.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes to pass a law this week that would allow in more foreign blue-collar workers such as Ms Gayeta for limited periods.

But Akitakata's mayor, Mr Kazuyoshi Hamada, says his shrinking community, like others in Japan, needs foreigners of all backgrounds to stay.

The rural city has more than 600 non-Japanese, roughly 2 per cent of its population, which has shrunk more than 10 per cent since its incorporation in 2004.

"Given the low birth rate and ageing population, when you consider who can support the elderly and the factories... we need foreigners," said Mr Hamada, 74, who in March unveiled a plan that explicitly seeks them as long-term residents.

"I want them to expand the immigration law and create a system where anyone can come to the country."


Filipina Gladys Gayeta (left) is a newly arrived trainee factory worker, but must leave in less than three years. PHOTO: REUTERS

Japan's population decline is well known, but the problem is especially acute in remote, rural locales such as Akitakata.

Mr Hamada's proposal to attract foreigners as "teijusha", or long-term residents, is the first of its kind in immigration-shy Japan.

Mr Abe is pitching his plan as a way to address Japan's acute labour shortage but denies it's an "immigration policy".

"Hamada openly mentioned Japanese immigration policy and that is very courageous," said Mr Toshihiro Menju, managing director of the Japan Centre for International Exchange in Tokyo, a think-tank. "Akitakata is kind of a forerunner."

A STRUGGLING CITY

The population of Akitakata, formed from the merger of six small townships, dropped to 28,910 in November from 30,983 in 2014. About 40 per cent of residents are 65 or older.

Car parts factories and farms are crying out for workers, many houses stand empty, darkened streets are deserted by early evening and the aisles of a discount supermarket are mostly empty by 8pm.

 
 
 

Mr Hamada says long-term resident foreigners are the solution. But integrating them will be crucial; many cities were unprepared for earlier influxes of foreign workers, experts said.

Blue-collar foreign workers have typically arrived under three legal avenues: long-term visas begun in the 1990s for the mostly Latin American descendants of ethnic Japanese; a "technical trainees programme" often criticised as an exploitative backdoor to unskilled labour; and foreign students allowed to work up to 28 hours a week.

The country had 2.5 million foreign residents as of January 2018, up 7.5 per cent from a year earlier and about 2 per cent of the total population. The number of native Japanese dropped 0.3 per cent to 125.2 million in the same period, the ninth straight annual decline.

Akitakata's foreign population is about two-thirds trainees from places such as China, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. Most are allowed to stay only up to three years.

The rest are long-term residents, such as Mr Maia, and Brazilians like Mr Taniuti who stayed even after the global financial crisis prompted the central government to offer one-way tickets to his native country.

"When I feared having no job, I thought 'It's enough if I can eat,'" said Mr Taniuti, who five years later set up his own company, where his two brothers and father now work.

DIVIDED VIEWS

Akitakata residents are divided on whether to attract more foreigners, though less wary than in the past.

A 2017 survey showed 48 per cent of Akitakata residents thought it was "good" to have foreigners live in the city, up from 30.8 per cent in 2010.

That was similar to the 45 per cent nationally who backed Mr Abe's planned reforms in a November Asahi newspaper poll.

"I think our lives would be enriched with different cultures. But Japanese are not skilled at communication and language is the biggest barrier," said Madam Yuko Okita, 64, who works at her husband's local taxi service.

Mr Maia, 33, said that he got along well with locals - he is a member of a volunteer firefighter brigade - but that his half-Japanese daughter had been bullied at school.


Mr Leonel Maia of East Timor with his children at a fire station where he volunteers as a firefighter. PHOTO: REUTERS

A media report that Mr Hamada set a numerical target for an increase in foreign residents, which the mayor called "misleading", sparked a protest by a right-wing group from nearby Hiroshima.

Akitakata also may have a hard time attracting new residents of any nationality simply because it is remote and small.

"Akitakata is slow-paced. It's not attractive for young people. But it's a great place to raise kids," said Mr Taniuti, a father of two.

Ms Gayeta, 22, a trainee at a car parts factory, said there was little to do in Akitakata after work.

"There is no place to go, just yama (mountains)," she said, mixing English and Japanese.

NEXT STEPS

To be sure, little has changed in Akitakata since Mr Hamada announced his plan.

The city has an office where a Brazilian resident offers advice in Portuguese.

Proponents want to improve Japanese-language teaching for foreigners and are considering how to use abandoned homes to house them.

Mr Abe's proposed legislation, which he wants enacted this month to take effect in April, would allow 345,150 blue-collar workers to enter Japan over five years in sectors like construction that are suffering from serious labour shortages.

Opponents say his proposal is hasty and ill-conceived.

The law would create two new categories of visas for blue-collar workers: one for those who can stay up to five years but cannot bring family members; and another for more highly skilled foreigners who can bring families and might eventually be eligible for residency. Details are not spelled out in the law.

But the path to permanent residence is steep: one standard requirement is to live in Japan for 10 consecutive years, with exceptions for the highly skilled professionals Japan is eager to attract.

"The truth of the matter is the central government is not basing acceptance of foreign workers on the premise of long-term residence," said Meiji University professor Keizo Yamawaki, who helped Akitakata draft its plan.