ICTs for Assisting Immigrants in Japan

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Non Profit Organisations (NPOs) in Japan use ICT for their services and assistance for immigriants, sharing certain characteristics, such as presence of active staff who selflessly devote time and energy.

As the number of people crossing national borders on a global scale increased, those migrating to Japan also have been increasing for the last 35 years. According to statistics of the Immigration Bureau of the Justice Ministry, the number of registered foreigners in Japan as of the end of 2004 stood at about two million. Because more and more people come to Japan for a longer period of time with their family members, problems and needs that they face in Japanese society are more diverse than before, and it is now one of our urgent tasks to establish effective services to fulfill the needs of this population.

Newcomers in growing numbers
The term ‘old comer’ refers to people and their children who came to Japan from Korea and Taiwan, when they were colonised by Japan before and during the World War II. The term ‘new comer,’ on the other hand, refers to those people who have been started coming to Japan in the last 35 years. In the last half of the 1970s, first, female foreign workers from the Philippines and Thailand began entering the country, the majority of them were working at adult entertainment businesses. They were followed by returnees from China and IndoChinese refugees. The trickling of these newcomers became a larger flow during the so-called bubble economy in the last half of the 1980s. The number of students, corporate employees, and illegal migrant workers increased from Asia and Arabic countries, highlighting labour shortage in Japan and the role of the foreign labour force that filled the void. Amid this situation, the immigration control law was revised in 1990, allowing people of Japanese descent to engage in ‘unskilled labour’. This revision has prompted an inflow of foreign workers from Brazil, Peru and other Latin American countries.

A growing number of these newcomers not only means more foreigners staying here and the greater diversification of nationalities, but also promotes their permanent residency. Most of those foreign students, corporate employees and illegal workers during the period of the bubble economy went home after staying in Japan for some time. This pattern does not exist among Chinese returnees as many of them come to Japan with the full intention of staying here permanently. People of Japanese descent often enter the country with their families, which encourages, whether they intend to do so or not, their stay in Japan for a long period of time.

Obstacles being faced
Immigrants in Japan face three barriers or obstacles-language, social systems and people’s mind. These barriers create many problems in their daily lives. First, the language barriers i.e. inability to speak Japanese, lack of opportunities to learn Japanese-impede psychological adaptation, employment opportunities, and economic independence. In Japanese society, language translation and interpretation services and information supply in languages other than English are often insufficient at government offices, courts of law, hospitals and other public facilities. As a result immigrants suffer many inconveniences. Besides language, cultural and religious differences often create problems in their lives and welfare-related areas, causing stress for them and making their social adaptation more difficult.

The obstacle of social systems means legal restrictions, based on the kind of residency permit and nationality, on the range of activities and services that are available to immigrants in Japan. For instance, while all Japanese can subscribe to the national health insurance system, no matter who you are, immigrants must stay in Japan for at least one year to be eligible. Further, doors are virtually closed to them if they want to become public servants or engage in regional or national politics. But things began to change for better during the 1970s, when the growing refugee problems helped to establish international human rights conventions. Such developments and the efforts of many Japanese and immigrants have brought about significant improvements in social systems for foreign residents over the past 20 years. These improvements are not fundamental rather, they are remedial.

Perhaps more serious than these obstacles is the barriers among people’s mind or prejudice among people in Japan. Prejudice and bigotry arise from the misunderstanding of or indifference to the lives of immigrants in Japanese society (for instance, many Japanese are unaware that immigrants pay taxes just like themselves). Lack of communication between Japanese and immigrants breeds misunderstandings and prejudice, creating unnecessary frictions over such matters as how bags of household garbage should be put out for collection. In an extreme case, a jewellry shop in Hamamatsu City in 1998 put up a sign saying, ‘No foreigners,’ an incident which led to a lawsuit.

Diversifying problems
As the number of immigrants grows and the length of their stay becomes longer, their needs for daily living also diversify, ranging from childbearing and rearing to school education, medical services, association with neighbourhood Japanese, housing, income, and jobs. In particular, the issue of child rearing and education is getting increasingly serious because of increasing cases of entry into Japan with families and international marriages. At elementary schools and junior high schools, officials point out a growing number of students of non-Japanese parents, who refuse to come to school because of language and learning difficulties. There are some private institutes where these children can study, using their own mother tongue, but fees at such places are often beyond the means of many parents. These children getting out of school and bored, sometimes become delinquents.

As for medical services, it is not easy for immigrants to receive needed services because of lack of information and communication difficulties. Other issues regarding medical services include differences in personal value about informed consent and patient’s basic human rights, and emergency medical service for those who overstay their visa. As for health insurance, many immigrants are without any coverage. While proprietors, who hire immigrants, are often reluctant to become providers of social insurance schemes, these foreign residents themselves are also reluctant to pay expensive insurance premiums for the schemes, packaged with the corporate insurance plan. Further, the government offices take a stance that workers should subscribe to social insurance, and not national health insurance.

Besides these insurance problems, migrant workers experience various frictions with their employers, such as wage nonpayment, absence of labour accident insurance coverage, engagement in dangerous work, and unlawful termination of work contracts. In the housing area, they are often refused to rent an apartment by landlords, subjected to unfair rent contracts, and often live in a sub-standard neighbourhood.

Support for immigrants
Being consistent taxpayers, immigrants have no reason to be discriminated in any formal assistance. In principle, administrative support and services are limited to those non-Japanese people who are registered as foreign residents. Those, without this registration or stay, permit, are eligible for none of these services. For those without access to any formal assistance, informal support from private volunteer groups and non-profit organisations (NPOs) are the only resources for their various needs. These organisations provide a wide range of services such as medical counselling, telephone counselling, ethnic media support, child support, and Japanese language classes. These informal assistances are very helpful, and have become indispensable to foreign residents with limited access to public support and services.

ICT use in informal services
Among these NPOs, some use ICT for providing services and assistances to immigrants in Japan. In Kobe City, the Takatori Community Centre (, which is made up of a network of 7 groups, is working to create a new community, where people with different languages, cultures, races, and nationalities can live together as equals. For instance, Tour de Communication, one of NPOs within the centre, make use of ICT services such as the creation of web sites, video and information material, computer classes, and computer maintenance in order to support citizens’ activities, community activities and minorities’ independence activities. With a Multi-Language Centre FACIL, another organisation at Takatori, and 16 nearby cities and international associations, the Tour de Communication made a Multilingual Living Guide  (, which includes necessary information such as in case of emergency, housing and removals, alien registration, health and medical services, welfare, education, tax, and so on, available on the net to support the lives of immigrants in Japan.

Another collaborative project called ‘Re:C’ of the Tour de Communication provides children of immigrant families, often isolated in school, because of differences in nationalities, languages, cultures, and religions, an opportunity to express their thoughts and experiences by using ICT. One of the video work, created by Japanese Brazilian girl, in which she expresses her ambivalent feelings about her ethnic identity (, won People’s Award at 2006 Tokyo Video Festival.

The Takatori Community Centre also have a community radio station FM YY ( which provides immigrants in the community with essential information on everyday needs in many languages and broadcasts its message of ‘multi-cultural coexistence and humane community creation’ in 8 languages.

As these examples show, more and more NPOs in Japan use ICT for their services and assistance for immigrants. These groups, however, share certain characteristics such as presence of active staff who selflessly devote time and energy, and the weak financial basis as they have to depend on private subsidies, donations, and membership fees. This situation makes it difficult for them to continue. Since Japan changed its immigration control policy in 1990 to host many migrant workers from outside, national and local government should either directly provide adequate assistance to immigrants or indirectly help them by providing funds to these NPOs.

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