2020 Tokyo Olympics: A Case Study in the Japanese Migration Problem

(Photo by Ken Kobayashi) 

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics games are fast approaching and the pressure is rising. Living up to the legacy of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics is presenting itself as an increasingly difficult task. Many across the world and especially the Japanese are nostalgic of the 60s and  70s, a golden era during which Japan’s economy was booming and Japanese technologies were spearheading the industry. In 1964, the Olympic committee oversaw a complete upheaval of the metropolis, 100 new km of tracks were built, a brand new sewage system was established, luxury hotels opened. The famous bullet train, the Shinkansen, was also inaugurated that year. The Olympics were an opportunity to showcase homebread technological innovations, computers with timing devices were used to determine the winners, brand new satellites enabled color tv. There was also a very clear goal and message carried by the 71 year old athlete Yoshinori Sakai, born in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb, who lit the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony. In short Japanese pride was high and secure.

Since then, the 1990s real estate bubble burst, Japan’s economy has significantly slowed down. Now the country is best known for an ageing population, negative interest rates and being repeatedly threatened by North Korean missile launches. In order to maintain a positive image abroad, Japan has been heavily relying on well curated soft power. Whether that be through the tourist industry, anime or its philanthropist missions across Asia. As the Olympics approach, Japan is coming under close scrutiny from international media. The profound dichotomies of Japanese identity puts the country in an awkward position. Its strong imperial military past has given place to a passive nation whose philosophy is encapsulated in the traditions of Teaism and Shintoism. The western model of capitalism well ingrained in the business world gives way to traditional asian practices inherited from China at home. No country has more introspective literature than Japan, and yet it remains profoundly insecure. 

Japan’s Domestic Situation

Japan is an ethnically homogenous nation, indeed this summer foreign residents represent 2.09% of the total population, climbing above 2% for the first time. A foreign minority that faces issues of racism and housing discrimination (see 2017 Japan racism survey). This lack of diversity, complex culture, and western normative understanding of Japan as a western country may cause clashes of expectations when the tourist influxes further increases due to the upcoming Olympics. 

One issue that is becoming increasingly salient is migration in all its forms. Historically, Japan has been averse to letting migrants in and the legacies of this mindset are becoming evident. During the first round of ticket sales for the Olympics, 70% of tickets for the events were reserved to Japanese residents. International applications had to be made via your country’s national olympic committee later that month. Online ticket reselling will enable the crowd to diversify, no particular effort was made to host an international crowd (see London Olympics). As international athletes will arrive, difficulties with english will resurface. Overwhelmingly business is conducted in Japanese, and it is not considered essential to be proficient in english. This is reflected in the city council’s struggle to adequately translate signboards – a running joke in the anglo-japanese communities-  which has caused the distress of numerous lost tourists. 

The Tokyo metropolis is also struggling with creating accessible accommodation for disabled athletes and instorring smoking bans in line with international expectations. While smoking has declined in Japan since 1996, the country ranks at the bottom of the world, according to the World Health Organisation. when it comes to anti-smoking regulations, the Tokyo Olympics is a golden opportunity to pass legislation, and to oppose tobacco lobbies in the Diet, Japan’s bicameral legislature. Japan’s judicial system is also notoriously harsh, Japan is one of the few countries that is considered developed that still has the death penalty. Clashes with law often arise during the Olympics, it is not unlikely that this will cause tensions. All of these issues surrounding the theme of migration caused by an important sporting event will most likely have strong effects on passing regulations as well as creating behavioural changes. But these seem trivial next to the current issues faced by the migrant workforce working on the future Olympic infrastructures across the country.

The Abuses Faced by Foreign Labour

The Technical Intern Training Program was first introduced in 1993 as a way for foreign nationals from developing economies (most notably Malaysia and Indonesia) to work in Japan for six months, with a maximum period of three years if they renewed their visas. The program was sold as a career opportunity for the trainees to develop new skills and practices that they could then bring back home in order to improve their home industries. 

Without a body that oversees the fair treatment of the trainees including contract, work hours and wage equality, the program is largely exploitative. Internationally, it is perceived as a cover up for supplying cheap foreign labor to sectors facing a manpower shortage. An amendment to the law was made in order for workers to be able to prolong their stay for an additional three years, a change that comes just in time for the Tokyo Olympics. Indeed Japan’s construction industry is one of the sectors that is suffering the most from a decrease in its workforce. Currently there are 4.3 job available for every construction worker. The increase in construction activity due to the currently-ongoing Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympic Games is only escalating the pressure. Changes in design are also putting a stress on workers. The original design proposed by Zaha Hadid, an extravagant spaceship-like stadium was replaced by the more simple, sustainable and less costly design of Kengo Kuma. These design changes come at the expense of workers who are left to deal with tighter and more rushed schedules, working night shifts and taking very few days off, which in exchange increase the risk of injuries and accidents.

Zaha Hadid’s Olympic Stadium Design
Kengo Kuma’s Design

In May this year, a particularly worrying report was published by Building and Woodworkers International, a global federation of construction industry trade unions. It was already known that trainees regularly accumulated debts due to obscure recruitment fees or deposits, that working hours were above legal limits, and that workers’ mental and physical conditions were poor. But due to the upcoming Olympics, the pressure is building and the pace has been increasing everyday. Some workers were pushed to purchase their own personal protective equipment for example. But a far more troubling finding is that workers reported a pervasive “culture of fear” discouraging workers from making complaints on working conditions, for fear that they might be reprimanded or lose their jobs. The report mentions that workers were forced to work up to 28 consecutive days, and many did not have written contracts. For those who this may surprise, oral contracts are legally binding in japan. 

Most alarmingly, two workers died, the first from what the Japanese call “karoshi”, or death by overwork. The second casualty occurred in January 2018 when a worker was crushed to death between a tower and metal scaffolding. Safety and risk conditions need to be reconsidered in regard to the specific vulnerabilities of these migrant workers who are not necessarily proficient in Japanese and therefore cannot understand work safety rules. 

Policy Silence and Relative Inaction

The Japanese workforce is rapidly decreasing yet the Diet and Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, persist in looking for internal solutions instead of allowing more foreign workers to settle in Japan. A notable example of this was the womenomics trend that overtook the Diet. Indeed, parliamentarians believed that, by encouraging women to join the workforce, the issue could be solved. But entrenched social perceptions and a disproportionate burden in maintaining family homes continue to keep the number of women in the workforce under the critical mass of 30%. It is as if Shinzo Abe is blind to the solution at hand, to allow more migrant workers to come in to supplement the shortage in workers. In the shadow of these more known issues, Japanese asylum policy is also one of the strictest in the world. In 2017, Japan accepted 20 asylum demands. There is  a persistent fear in Japan that adopting more liberal refugee policies could be a stepping stone to a large-scale influx of refugees fleeing from North Korea.

As the city prepares for the Olympics game and Tokyo citizens move into the drill system of teleworking to avoid congestion, last minute English classes and ubiquitous coverage of the events, without a doubt the issue of migration will fade into virtual existence. But the fear of foreigners and migrants in Japan will continue to persist long after the closing ceremony. Japan needs to acknowledge that many citizens associate refugees with an increase in crime rates, a potential decrease in their healthcare system, and threatening cultural changes, as these biases towards migrants and refugees need to be addressed urgently, on both a legislative and cultural level. 

Alexia Koch

Alexia is a 3rd Year Architecture and Interdisciplinary Studies student at The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, writing as a contributor for Sensus. Her particular interests of study and research include the intersection between social issues and architecture as well as geopolitics.



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