Making the 'Japanese Dream' Open to All? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Making the 'Japanese Dream' Open to All?

Making the 'Japanese Dream' Open to All?

By Sean Culligan and Sanjena Sathian


Because America and Europe aren’t the only ones dealing with immigration crises. 

By Sean Culligan and Sanjena Sathian

From the bowing, the formal presentation of business cards and the salaryman three-piece attire all around, you’d think Ippei Torii’s business place were another Tokyo corporate office. The hustle is worthy of the private sector; the mannerisms are precise. But though he wears one, Torii is no suit. He is, in fact, in the business of challenging the suits, from construction magnates to government bureaucrats.

For more than two decades, Torii has been one of the most prominent activists advocating on behalf of Japan’s tiny migrant worker population, a group whose numbers hit a record high of more than a million people in 2016. As the representative director of the Solidarity Network with Migrants (SMJ), he’s a super-networker among foreigners, both legal and illegal, seeking advice or assistance on visas, advocates and difficult bosses, whom Torii may challenge directly. In many ways, Japan seems an appealing place to live, peaceful and prosperous. “There’s a kind of Japanese dream,” Torii says. “But then people come here and realize … it’s very difficult to live in Japan.”

The mélange of foreigners who make their way into the country do not all get the royal treatment. There are Pakistanis who come for school and stay on to make their fortunes, and middle-class Southeast Asians who seek (and often find) lucrative jobs in software. Others live in Tokyo’s gritty shadows. Women from China take under-the-table gigs at restaurants, hoping to flirt their way to wealth as hostesses. “Visa overstayers” from the Philippines, Taiwan or other Asian nations often arrive legally, under Japan’s three-year Technical Intern Training Program, but then don’t depart. They make do with construction gigs that pay poorly, where the bosses know they don’t have to deal with the messy business of rights

It’s among those vulnerable populations that 63-year-old Torii has made his impact. One of his key achievements: In addition to running SMJ, Torii runs the Zentōitsu Workers’ Union, which, under his care, has brought together foreigners and Japanese under the shared banner of workers’ rights. By working within the framework of labor conversations, Zentōitsu has brought foreigners medical care, negotiating muscle and a political face. German scholar Daniel Kremers of the Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien, one of the academics most steeped in Torii’s work (he also aided with interpreting for this article), says Torii’s work has helped bolster dwindling union membership.

Torii’s work on the darkest side of foreign work — human and sex trafficking — has won him recognition from the U.S. State Department. Over the past decade, a slew of cases surfaced alleging that much of the trafficking has taken place under the Japanese government’s own intern-training program, which purported to teach valuable skills but instead often shipped workers onto factory floors to perform menial work. The State Department’s latest trafficking report still marks Japan as a Tier 2 destination for traffickers and trafficked people, and cites the technical training program as one vehicle through which forced labor is made possible.

After years of criticism, the Japanese government has released a stack of anti-trafficking “action plans,” including providing education programs for the Coast Guard and counseling services for victims; the government says it’s prosecuted more traffickers each year since 2014, according to State Department data. But neither the U.S. nor most human-rights groups have deemed the government’s efforts to be enough. (The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare could not be reached for comment.)

In Torii’s eyes, trafficking and labor issues stem from the same source: a missing link, a lack of legal, honest pathways to work or citizenship for the foreigners arriving on Japanese shores.


Ippei Torii has made a name for himself in human rights and immigration conversations in Japan.

Source Sean Culligan/OZY

“His voice matters” to the politicians and policymakers he critiques, says Apichai Shipper, associate professor in Asian Studies at Georgetown University. “They ask him to come and speak, and they hear him — whether they listen and take his advice, that’s a different question.” Torii, for instance, has called for a complete overhaul of that training program in favor of protected migrant workers’ status — the latter would allow workers to switch jobs after their arrival without forfeiting their immigration status. In response, the government merely “tinkered” with the trainee program, says Shipper — it added an extra year to the training term. Labor advocates worry that the result will be a new iteration of trafficking, one that could crest as the country puts on its best attire for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

The looming Olympics lend a kind of short-term urgency to Torii’s work. Who, exactly, will provide the labor to build those stadiums and amphitheaters, and how will they be compensated? Of long-term concern is Japan’s demographic crisis. By 2030, the nation’s median age will be over 45, and a third of the population will reach 65, retirement age in America. The government under Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has been full of discussion about filling that labor gap. There has been loud talk of bringing more women into the workforce … and, more quietly, some talk of immigrants. Torii notes that government officials are careful to refer to “foreign” workers rather than “migrant workers.” The latter conveys the impression that they may come — to stay.  


The second floor of Torii’s office is packed like a DMV waiting room, or perhaps more like a group of anxious citizens queuing to petition the emperor. Roy Rajib, 32, arrived in Tokyo from Siliguri, in north India, three years ago. “I heard it was very peaceful,” he says of his desire to move to Japan, never mind that he didn’t speak the language, or even English, very well. He came to study but stayed on; he says he took a year to get a new visa but can’t tell me what kind of visa he received. It’s obvious why he’s here in Torii’s safe house, though: He’s walking with a cane after spending three months in the hospital; he says he broke his leg working his job (he can’t or won’t describe what he was doing) and received no worker’s compensation. He heard Torii and Co. could help him out. 


Torii specializes in cases like Rajib’s — mottled with gray areas, featuring foreigners afraid to provide all the details about their arrival and length of stay. The advocate has dwelled in the cracks in the system himself. Speaking in the thick Osaka accent he was raised with, Torii recalls his mother warning him always to tread carefully around authority; he says his father lacked documentation and was officially an invisible member of the Japanese family registration system called koseki. Either because something gets lost in translation or because he is content to let that mystery lie, Torii doesn’t elaborate, and he says he doesn’t really like to talk about the fact that he “didn’t have an official father.” Torii’s mother often warned him not to get into trouble, because the local paper would write about him, calling him “the kid without a father.”


Torii in his office in Ueno, Tokyo.

Source Sean Culligan/OZY

The dad stuff made Torii grow up with a staid dream: He says he just wanted to be normal. He dreamed of being a kaishain, a salaried worker, a corporation man. But then, a surprisingly rabble-rousing high school curriculum changed his mind. He says his public school in Osaka was filled with philosophical discussions — what is education, what is peace? — and by the time he entered university during the 1970s student movements, he was ready to endure some discomfort.

And he certainly did. During those protests and anti-Vietnam fervor, Torii was arrested and, he says, “could not keep going” in school. He dropped out and moved to Tokyo at 25 to become a full-time organizer. His causes were many: fighting on behalf of the burakumin, those at the bottom of the Japanese feudal caste system, and against discrimination he witnessed toward North and South Koreans. (Torii’s father, a trader who experienced “lots of ups and downs,” raised him around plenty of Koreans thanks to his work with pachinko — gambling — parlors and restaurants.) He worked (unsuccessfully) to protest against the building of Narita International Airport, which required the eviction of farmers from their land. 

Perhaps the key element that causes workers to trust Torii, however, is the fact that he has his own physical scars. Like the one down his torso from a furious negotiation on behalf of a foreign worker during which a company leader threw gasoline on Torii and lit a match, as Shipper recounts in his book Fighting for Foreigners: Immigration and Its Impact on Japanese Democracy. Or the fact that one of his fingers is a stub. In 1978, after leaving school en route to organizing, he found himself a job in a plastic factory. One day, a mold fell over and chopped his finger. He didn’t have to fight to get compensated for that, he says, but it made him more conscious of the need for labor rights. Two years later, he unionized at a small company in Arakawa. His accomplishments from those days are the quotidian ones of a grassroots worker — comfortable working conditions, regular holidays and the introduction of a weekend. But it wasn’t all pretty. Twice, he says, police riot squads came running during a peaceful strike. Another time, a group of them formed a human chain around the factory to call for a strike and higher wages. 

“After that,” he says, “the boss said, it’s better to talk to the unions.”


If Torii has a vulnerability, Kremers says, it’s that Japanese movements aren’t always able to unite around a common cause. In the face of Abe’s right-wing Liberal Democratic Party platform, Kremers says the Communists aren’t so cooperative with Torii, whose mission is a little too immigration-focused and not quite workers-of-the-world-unite; this leaves the activist to rely on less ardent socialists. And the hot issue for young liberals in Japan right now is the question of pacificism (just last summer, Abe announced that he may use his majority to consider rewriting the article that takes war off the table). “For young Japanese students these days, workers are not a sexy topic,” Kremer points out. Cast against such dramatic waters ahead in geopolitics, Kremers suggests the left isn’t likely to coalesce around Torii’s work. 

Ippei Torri

Torii’s office is often packed with migrant workers awaiting his counsel.

Source Sean Culligan/OZY

One must be charitable to the intentions of those who do want to preserve Japan’s peaceful exterior — often cited is its murder rate, one of the lowest in the world — and the accompanying sense of safety that comes with it. Parents let their prepubescent children take the subway to school. Japanese advocates of stringent borders are also often proud of the high barriers; a favorite target for critics is the nursing test, which is fiendishly difficult — Health Ministry Numbers show fewer than 10 percent of foreign testers have passed in certain years, usually out of a few hundred trainees attempting the test. Some argue the test should be that hard, that a nurse hoping to caretake for the elderly should have a high level of Japanese proficiency in order to help someone who only speaks Japanese.

Plus, Japan is gulfs away from some of the assumptions Americans make about citizenship — there is, for instance, no birthright citizenship here, a fact that reflects the idea that being Japanese is literally in one’s blood, rather than determined by the ground on which you stand. (Sometimes not even that — in the 1990s, Japan extended offers to Peruvians and Brazilians with Japanese heritage to work as guest workers. A few years later, the government offered them money and prepaid one-way tickets home to clear out when economic conditions got nasty.) 

I asked Shipper what a middle ground might look like between Torii’s camp and those who have reasonable fears about immigration. “We are already at a middle ground,” he says. For foreigners seeking to make a legal life in Japan, the routes remain limited: One can arrive as a student, a skilled worker, on the merit of Japanese ancestry or a spouse, or through that troubling technical intern program. Today, in a country of 127 million, there are only around 2 million registered foreigners living in Japan.


John Kerry honored Torii for his work against trafficking.

Source Sean Culligan/OZY

Mai Nguyenthi is sitting in another waiting room in Torii’s office, her demeanor and story alike both nearly opposite from Indian Rajib’s. The twentysomething Vietnamese IT engineer is by all accounts a high-skilled immigrant, one who speaks almost poetic Japanese and took a job with a Japanese company that chose to recruit in Vietnam (a rarity). “I felt a lot of pressure,” she says; she was lonely — the company had hired her to work in Tokyo but soon moved to Hokkaido, a rural northern island. Nguyenthi says her Japanese employer seemed to think she should act more, well, Japanese and that he penalized her for not understanding subtleties of body language, complaining that she made a “tired face” once, or that she didn’t appropriately acknowledge a customer another time.

We can’t divine either her or her boss’s intentions, but Nguyenthi brings things over to the other end of the spectrum — though Shipper says the majority of the migrants relying on Torii are Chinese trainees, in every bunch comes a Nguyenthi, someone who makes a pretty convincing case for being there, bulking up the labor class. 

Earlier, I had asked Torii who’d be coming by to see him soon, and from where. The nations’ names flowed like from a children’s atlas — someone from Bangladesh, Indonesia, China, Cameroon. His week was packed with meetings with multiple unions; he had site visits to make to construction sites. He departed my company quickly, but not before showing me the picture of him shaking hands with John Kerry. As I was finishing my interview with Nguyenthi, he stuck his head into the room, neat as clockwork. He nodded, satisfied, and made sure, once more, that I had his business card. 

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