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Waves of Foreign Workers

The first big wave of foreign workers came in the “bubble era” of the late 1980s when Japan admitted tens of thousands of Iranians to enter with tourist visas. Many of these Iranians stayed in Japan despite expiration of their tourist visas and began to work illegally. When the bubble economy burst, the government required Iranian visitors to meet the tighter entry requirements already required for people from most other developing nations.





The second wave came in 1990 when the government granted descendants of Japanese emigrants, in particular the children and grandchildren of those who left Japan to work as farmers in Brazil during the first half of the 20th century, special status to work freely in Japan for as long as they wished. The thriving of Japan's auto industry in the early 2000s presented labor shortages as many Japanese workers shunned factory jobs. To fill in these shortages, the large Brazilian community around Toyota City, Aichi prefecture became a vital part of the labor force. Many companies find factory work a perfect match for foreign workers who in many cases don’t speak Japanese well because the job involve routine tasks that require little explanation.

Though most Brazilians intended to stay just a few years to make quick money, many are deciding to remain in Japan. As a result, foreign workers have recently expanded to include fruit pickers, scallop packers and garment-factory workers. They support struggling businesses in rural Japan where the population is declining rapidly as young people move to big cities like Tokyo and Osaka.

The government-sponsored trainee system was originally created to allow large companies to train their overseas staffers in Japan. However, over time, the system has gradually expanded to include small companies with labor shortages. In 2006, Japan brought in 68,305 trainees, twice the number in 2001. The trainees initially receive a one-year visa, and they can extend their stay for an additional two years. Most choose to do so. Trainees cannot obtain trainee visas once the initial three years are up.



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