Recently there has been a considerable increase in the amount of foreign workers in Japan. This is especially observable in convenience stores and bars, the construction industry, hospitals and farming. Currently the government estimate is that 340,000 foreign workers could enter Japan over the five years. But how are those workers treated? Under what conditions do they work? According to an increasing amount of reports, not too well.

But first of all, a look at the figures: although much has been made of this increase by some right wingers, it’s actually a relatively small increase by the standards of other developed countries. By comparison, according to the ONS (Office of National Statistics) in the UK: “Latest net migration statistics show that in the year ending June 2018, net migration to the UK was 273,000.” That is in just one year, not over 5 years as in the Japanese situation. So, the UK has an immigration figure 4 times more than the Japanese amount. Proportionally it’s even more than that, because the UK is a country with only half the population of Japan – therefore the immigration level is actually 8 times more than that of Japan. Which puts the increase in foreign workers in Japan into global perspective. It comes down to only 68,000 new foreign workers a year – in a country of 127 million that is not a lot, and far short of the labour increase that Japan needs to fill vacancies in all those areas.

However, the psychological and cultural impact on Japan is probably more than on countries in Europe that are well used to many immigrant workers.

One way that this is perhaps showing itself is in the draconian rules that foreign guest workers have to agree to.
Recent reports in the Japanese media have focused on an emotive issue that make an immediate physical impact: namely young female workers who become pregnant are being forced to choose between getting an abortion or returning to their home country. 

According to a recent investigation reported on in the Asahi Shinbun, there are perhaps already over 100 cases of forced return or abortion of ‘technical intern trainees’, with some host institutions talking of severe penalties or fines if a trainee becomes pregnant. The article tells of one such trainee, a 22 year-old Vietnamese woman, now being assisted by a human rights group in Tokyo: “I’m two months pregnant… I came to Western Japan to work at a paper factory and after one-month preliminary training ended, I realised that I was two months pregnant. When the supervisor knew of my pregnancy, I was forced to choose between having an abortion or returning to Vietnam.” The rumour is that the supervisor was urged by the person in charge of the training facility to give medicine for an abortion to the young woman.

A related rule which seems very common is that trainees and other workers who live in company owned buildings are not allowed to have members of the opposite sex in their rooms. To investigate this further, I asked various foreign workers and trainees about their experience with these rules. Linh, a 21 year-old trainee from Vietnam in my town of Kumamoto, told me: “We’re allowed to date people but we’re not allowed to bring our boyfriend or male to our rooms.” Diana, a 23 year-old Filipino lady who works in a hostess bar in Kitakyushu told me that not only are they barred from having anyone of the opposite sex in their rooms that the employers do not let them do almost anything on their own, in case they try to ‘escape’.

Meeting people for dates in private is completely out of the question.

Employed by the bar on account of her good looks which attracts in male customers she nevertheless appeared to be lonely, telling me in rather desperate tones:

“You don’t know what it’s like here. We have almost no freedom.”

It was largely women that I spoke to about this, as the rules seemed most targeted at them. But, a Vietnamese man in Tokyo, who asked that his name not be mentioned for fear of being traced, told me regarding the pressure to get an abortion or leave Japan: “I find them very strict, doing so could affect the health of women.”

However, some of the people voiced a surprising degree of support for these restrictive policies. Maria, a young Filipino trainee in Fukuoka said regarding the policy of not allowing people of the opposite sex into rooms: “Well, it’s a little bit unfair but overall it’s not so bad.” When I asked if she thought it was fair that the Japanese company asked pregnant girls to leave, she told me: “Of course. Because I still have unfinished contract. If I get pregnant, I can’t finish my training.” Maria went on to comment about the policy of not allowing male visitors in our rooms: “It’s okay because it’s for our own good. They just want us to be safe all the time.” 

Allowing for the idea that various companies may indeed have the welfare of their foreign employees partly in mind, this indicates a degree of faith in the good intentions of the employers which some may see as naïve. We may perhaps reflect that this has something to do with the traditional image in East and South East Asian countries of the employer as a paternalistic force, almost a surrogate parent to young workers. Some indication that the companies are thinking along more selfish lines was provided by a former staff member of a training facility in Western Japan, who the Asahi Shinbun notes as saying: “The company wants to make the interns work efficiently, production capacity drops during pregnancy. I have never heard of a company that gives maternity leave to trainees.”

Perhaps not yet in Japan, but other countries have such habits and rules already. For example, the National Health Service in Britain has extensive rules which help trainees continue their work when pregnant: “If a full-time trainee is unable to continue to work full-time because of ill health during pregnancy or breast-feeding, then reduced hours or sick leave can be arranged.” And it goes further than that to extend to a generous continuation of rights during pregnancy: “During maternity leave the trainee is regarded as if she is in work for the purposes of annual leave entitlement, incremental credit etc.” If the UK can provide such work benefits to pregnant trainees then what stops Japan, with a larger economy, from doing the same? A related issue is that various efforts are being considered to try to reverse the declining birthrate in Japan. Why, then – even setting asided the possible human rights abuses of these draconian rules – make it so difficult for foreign workers to contribute to that birthrate? What is at the root of that thinking?

Editor’s Note:
To see more of Seán’s writing, please check out his website:

Big thanks to Yukiko Kaikita for research help on this article.

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