Assimilating into the Japanese Labour Market

Challenges Faced by Chinese Migrant Construction Industry Workers

Dennis C McCornac, Department of Economics, Loyola University Maryland [About | Email] and Rong Zhang, Department of Computer Technology Design, Nishinippon Institute of Technology [About | Email]

Volume 17, Issue 2 (Article 7 in 2017). First published in ejcjs on 27 August 2017.


The demographic changes in Japan brought on by a declining and rapidly aging population have fostered severe shortages in the labour force. This has significantly affected activities in construction, an industry that is considered hazardous with low pay and less than desirable working conditions. Unable to staff positions from the domestic labour force, many construction companies have turned to the foreign labour market to fill the gap. Better to understand the social and economic effects of this phenomenon, this paper examines the employment and living conditions of a sample of these foreign migrant workers. Based on interviews with both workers and managers, we focus on the problems encountered by construction workers adapting to the social and working environment and discuss what improvements should be made to better accommodate these individuals. This study suggests that more efforts are needed to embrace diversity if Japan wants to accept more migrant workers to boost its economy and realise faster progress in globalisation.

Keywords: Population Decline, Migrant Workers, Construction Industry, Globalization, Japan


The rapid pace in the decline and aging of the population in Japan has continued unabated. Although precise future population numbers are impossible to calculate, a recent study by the Population Division of the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2015) estimated that the population of Japan will dip below 100 million shortly after the middle of the 21st century, and by the end of the century, Japan stands to lose 34 percent of its population. These dismal estimates are further supported by the subsequent release of Japan’s official census (National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, 2015) showing the country’s population had shrunk from a population of 128,057,352 in 2010 to a little over 127,110,000 in 2015, a decline of almost one million people in five years.

In tandem with the declining population is the greying of Japan as the nation currently is “one of the most aged societies in the world” (Tsuya, 2015). The ratio of people aged 65 and older, for example, is expected to rise to 31.6 percent by 2030, a close to nine percentage point increase from 2010. Over the same period, the ratio of the productive-age population, comprising people aged 15 to 64, is expected to fall to 58.1 percent from the earlier 63.8 percent. This implies that by 2030 there will be just two workers supporting each elderly person, and by 2060 this figure will drop to 1.2 workers. Thus, to cope with this situation, Japan needs to implement drastic reforms of its financial structure and social security system, including medical and nursing care services (see Muramatsu and Akiyama, 2011).

Figure 1. Population trend by age group in Japan (1920-2060)

McCornac, Figure 1

Source: National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (2015)

The above factors have resulted in a shortage of labourers affecting a number of industries, particularly construction. In Japan, construction work is considered a dangerous, demeaning, and dirty sector or the 3Ds in English. The term 3Ds originated from the Japanese expression 3Ks: kitanai, kiken, kitsui, respectively 汚い “dirty”, 危険 “dangerous”, きつい “demanding” (Asian Century Institute, 2014). This stereotype has discouraged young Japanese from entering this industry (Seguchi, 2014), and according to the latest official data from both the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (2013), the total number of construction workers decreased from 4,080,000 in 1992 to 3,350,000 in 2012. Over the past decade, the proportion of workers in this industry aged 55 and above rose from 22.8% in 2001 to 33.6% in 2012, while workers aged 29 and below fell to a low of 11.1% in 2012 (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, 2014). The age distribution of construction workers in 2010 (Figure 2) shows the large number of workers, both skilled and non-skilled, nearing retirement age.

Figure 2. Construction Workers in Japan (unit: thousand people)

McCornac, Figure 2

Source: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, 2014

These supply-side developments do not bode well for the Japanese construction industry labour market in light of near-future demand side changes. With the awarding of the 2020 Olympics to Japan and the subsequent need for stadiums and infrastructure, it is estimated that toward the end of the second of half of the decade more than 25,000 construction workers will be required nationwide in Japan. Thus, it is essential that Japan address the current labour shortage. How best to address this situation, however, presents a dilemma for the government as measures to allow more migrant workers to enter the construction industry are required (Iwamoto, 2014).

The structural embeddedness of immigrant labour in the Japanese economy

Temporary Workers

In principle, Japan does not accept low-skilled temporary workers and the Immigration Control Law does not issue visas to those who are involved in low-skilled work (Library of Congress, 2015). Nevertheless, due to the shortage of unskilled workers over the past decade, firms have relied more on the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP) to staff positions. The TITP allows foreign technical trainees or interns to work at manufacturing, agriculture or construction sites on a temporary basis (see Japan International Training Cooperation Organisation, 2015), and under this program foreigners are granted a three-year visa to undertake training and internships (Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, 2015). No extension, however, is allowed when the three-year period expires and, if the individual wishes to return to Japan, the visa application process must be completed once again after the applicant returns to his or her home country.

In 2014, the Japanese government started discussing the possibility of extending the visa for interns and trainees to five years. Although the plan was to change the law in 2015 (Ministry of Justice, 2014), the new policy was strongly criticised as “a clear example of using and then discarding foreign labour” (Kakuchi, 2014). The National Union of General Workers of Japan (2015) protested and called on the Japanese government to stop this perceived new move to “exploit foreigners as slave labourers” (Roberts, 2016). To date, the new extension has yet to be implemented, albeit in September 2016, rumours surfaced that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was planning on introducing legislation to bring in more overseas workers to bolster the shrinking labour force (Reynolds and Roman, 2016). Current policies under consideration are expected to result in a doubling of foreign workers in Japan; there is speculation the government will soon pass a bill expanding a foreign “trainee” system under which workers are allowed entry for a limited period. New visa categories for sectors suffering labour shortages may also be implemented allowing participants to stay up to five years, up from the current three years (Reynolds and Roman, 2016).

Even though the original purpose of the establishment of the TITP was to highlight the potential benefits the trainees would contribute to their own countries after they return to their homeland, many Japanese companies have and continue to take advantage of this system to import cheap labour from abroad. Many of the trainees are subjected to harsh working conditions, paid much less, and forced to work longer hours than legal under the law (Pathways, 2015; Hays, 2013). The rights of the workers are not sufficiently protected and the unskilled workers are just being used for a temporary purpose under the current intern and trained program (China Labour Bulletin, 2011; Harney and Slodkowski, 2014; Fan, 2012; Pathway, 2015; Bhattacharjee, 2014; Ando and Horiguchi, 2013; Hays, 2013; Komine, 2014). This state of affairs exists because Japanese companies find it necessary to take advantage of this cheap labour to survive in a severely competitive environment.

Japan is not alone

It should be noted that this use of cheap imported labour is not unique to Japan and addressing issues of assimilating migrant labour is a complex issue for many countries. Over the past decade, South Korea, for example, has had to come to grips with an impending demographic crisis like Japan’s, by systematically beginning to open itself to immigration (Park, 2017). Unlike its neighbour Japan, however, Korea has accepted a dramatic increase in immigrants. As of 2016, for example, immigrants constituted 1.9 million persons or 3.8% of the population compared to Japan which has immigrants making up less than two percent of its population. Not all, however, can be classified as migrant worker as a significant proportion are marriage migrants from other Southeast Asian countries.

The current labour shortage in South Korea is primarily in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing and has been met by short-term migrant workers. These workers are only allowed to work for a limited number of years; not allowed to bring family members; and only allowed to change jobs with the consent of their employer. In the future, however, the demand for skilled labour is expected significantly to increase, and policies will need to be implemented to attract outstanding talent and help them settle, rather than focusing solely on short-term labour usage (Park, 2017).

In-Jin Yoon (2016) notes that the Korean approach to multiculturalism and assimilation has several distinctive characteristics. First, the Korean government’s policies and programs regarding immigrants are oriented toward migrant integration rather than multiculturalism. Their main goal is to assist immigrants to adapt to Korean society with little attention to their cultural rights. Thus, there is strong pressure for assimilation into Korean culture and society. The idea of a permanent migration remains an unlikely one in the near term considering that South Korea remains a “one-blood” country (Park, 2017)

The rise of foreign Seishain in Japan

Over the past few years, in an attempt to address the supply gap, the door to the labour market has opened for immigrants (Switek, 2014; Tahara, 2014). The Japanese government has taken positive steps toward this issue with both the implementation and enforcement of new laws relating to the employment of foreign workers. Regulations have been put into place requiring companies to make improvements in the total benefits provided to foreign workers, and more and more companies now find it necessary to hire foreign labours in the form of Seishain, which can be literally translated as “regular employees.”

A Seishain is guaranteed stable employment over the long term, and by working earnestly, he or she will not only receive an increased salary, but also opportunities for promotion. Once a Seishain is employed, for example, the company is responsible to take care of his or her monthly salary, bonus, and other benefits which should cover health insurance, pension, and unemployment insurance.

In return for job security, a worker hired with Seishain status generally has to bear more duties and responsibilities than employees hired in other forms, and often requires total commitment to the company in terms of time and loyalty (Sile, 2015). The scope of responsibilities for a Seishain, however, is not clearly defined (i.e., duties are all-inclusive), and it therefore goes without saying that Seishain must work according to the varying demands of their employer at different times (Hisamoto, 2010). The employment law, however, states that companies cannot terminate a Seishain employee without a sound reason.

Japan’s opening of its door to foreigners in order to maintain continued economic growth will present major challenges. There is no guarantee the Japanese government is well prepared to enact progressive policies for the acceptance of foreign employees. Acceptance of different norms and cultures will require drastic changes by Japanese society. The Japanese people are very proud of their perceived uniqueness and “cultural homogeneity” (Asian Century Institute, 2014; Kashiwazaki and Akaha, 2006), and adhering to the past principles of pursuing cultural uniqueness has created a difficult situation for policy makers who are reluctant to address the acceptance issue (Akashi, 2014). Addressing this issue will require Japan to commit to a policy of diversity and require that the rights of employed immigrants be sufficiently protected and that they are not simply being exploited on a temporary basis (see, for example, China Labour Bulletin, 2011; Harney and Slodkowski, 2014; Ito, 2013; Fan, 2012; Pathway, 2015; Fitch, 2006; Bhattacharjee, 2014; Ando and Horiguchi, 2013; Hays, 2013).

Purpose of Study

Better to understand the situation of Chinese migrant workers in Japan, this paper examines the employment and living conditions of a sample of Chinese regular (Seishain) foreign employees at local construction companies in Kitakyushu, Japan. We examine the conditions from the perspective of the foreign worker, analysing problems related to both their work and private lives and offer suggestions to improve the social and working environment of workers. We conclude that Japanese companies should invest more to take care of the psychological needs of foreign workers to make them feel secure both in the workplace and the local community. This will help decrease departures of foreign workers and serve as a key to a steady and long-term labour supply necessary for further development of the company and country. If Japan wants to accept accept more foreign workers to boost its economy and realise faster progress in globalisation, more efforts need to be made at both the national and local levels.


The data sources for this study are first-hand interviews and observations conducted by one of the authors of this study who is fluent in both Chinese and Japanese. Sixteen owners and chief managers of Japanese construction companies, each representing a different firm, and 21 foreign (Chinese born) employees, at least one from each company that employs Seishain, were interviewed for this research. In addition, conversations with family members of some of the employees were conducted better to understand the working and home environment.

The interviewer’s relationship with the owners and chief managers began in 2014, when she was authorised by the Kitakyushu Chamber of Commerce and Industry to host three information seminars on issues related to the future of the construction industry and foreign workers. The Japanese government, for example, is encouraging construction companies to compete in the international market. At present, the market share in the international market is low for Japanese construction companies and this ratio must be improved in the future in order to insure the survival of many of the small and medium size companies. Internationalism will require foreign staff to support development of these firms. Thus, issues such as the advantages, administration and treatment of foreign staff were the main topics of the seminars.

All of the construction companies are small- and medium-sized firms located in Kitakyushu, Japan, which ranks 13th in population among the 790 cities of Japan. Following the completion of the seminars, the interviewer accompanied the sixteen company owners and chief managers to China on a four-day field trip. During this trip a number of formal and informal interviews were conducted with the company representatives.

The relationships with the majority of the current employees began when most of these individual were students at the university in which the interviewer is employed. This university in Japan has a sizable Chinese student population and the interviewer is often requested to introduce graduates (both Chinese and Japanese) to construction companies during their annual recruitment. This is a common way of employment recruitment in Japan, and as The Japan Times (2013) notes, foreign students have become a reliable worker source for many companies (see also Murai, 2013). The interviewer also meets with graduates who are employed at these construction companies on an irregular basis and serves as an unofficial mentor to the foreign employees. These individuals consult her for advice regarding the problems they encounter both at their workplace and in their private lives. The mutual trust between the interviewer and interviewees enabled all parties to speak openly and freely. Thus, it is firmly believed by the authors of this study that the data are reliable and the opinion of respondents honest and truthful.

The major challenge for construction companies

Of the sixteen companies represented, five have hired foreign employees with two making use of the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP), receiving interns from China and Nepal, and three have hired Seishain, or regular employees, all from China. The primary motivation given for the reason to hire the interns was to cope with the difficulties of recruitment as Japanese workers are unwilling to do such jobs at the relatively low pay level. The managers indicated that their companies could not afford to pay their employees a higher salary due to the continuing economic recession. Hiring Japanese employees was almost impossible due to the younger generation avoiding the so-called “3Ks” occupations.

According to the managers of those companies which hired regular employees, the biggest problem with foreign labour is their Japanese language proficiency. Although highly motivated and hardworking, only about one-quarter are equipped with the language skills needed to function at work. The construction industry requires detailed understanding of such documents as blueprints which requires more precision and accuracy than other industries such as service or manufacturing. Thus, the majority must continue to improve their Japanese language ability after being hired. This places an excess burden on these workers. The majority of the companies do plan on hiring more foreign workers, but are still evaluating the costs versus benefits of such hires as the language issue remains a major concern.

Although most of the foreign students are struggling to clear the first band of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test, there is a trend toward attempting to pass the Business Japanese Proficiency Test (Business Japanese Proficiency Test, 2013) which is accepted by more companies. Many Japanese universities and colleges accept foreign students to learn fields such as architecture, but those who graduate with advanced Japanese language skills receive offers from large construction companies with established branches abroad. These companies offer higher pay and benefits, leaving small- and medium-sized construction companies at a competitive disadvantage in hiring qualified foreign workers.

Another difficulty faced by small and medium size construction companies is the lack of administrative staff experienced in dealing with issues involving foreigners. The Ministry of Justice does not provide a detailed description of the requirements for visa approval which makes the application process both confusing and complicated. The applicants, for example, need to submit a number of documents provided by the employer to the Immigration Bureau and the administrative staff of the company are expected to prepare these documents for the legal stay of foreign employees and their families. The Immigration Bureau generally requires applicant income to be higher than a Japanese employee in a similar position, although there is no clear indication of a specific amount. Often the salary negotiation becomes a game between the foreign employee and the companies, as the company wants to offer the minimum salary necessary to meet the standards of obtaining a working visa. Furthermore, immigration law requires applicants to be classified as skilled workers. Therefore, the companies often have to exaggerate the job requirements for certain positions and/or the qualifications of the applicants.

Those firms who have not yet hired foreign employees cite the lack of knowledge in foreign recruitment procedures and subsequent training as major factors affecting their reluctance. While they are familiar with the route to recruit Japanese undergraduates based on long-term cooperation relationships with local universities and colleges, the immigration law presents a roadblock to recruitment. The companies also know they will need to maintain a certain responsibility for these foreign employees as they serve as sponsoring agents.

Further affecting the reluctance of firms to hire foreign workers is the perception, often perpetuated by the media, that foreigners are a major source of crime in Japan. There is little mention of the contribution to society made by non-Japanese. While the government makes it very clear that Japan needs foreign employees in order to make up for the domestic labour shortage, there is little support for assimilating these individuals into society and meagre recognition of the role they play in the development of the country. A minimal amount of money is being spent to improve services for foreign residents and the main policy focus appears to be the control and administration of foreigners. As long as the government’s attitude toward foreign labour does not change and investment is not made to promote the recruitment and training activities of these workers, Japanese companies will hesitate or refuse to hire more of them. The present state of affairs will continue despite the great need for a foreign labour force.

Lack of guidance and administrative support to jobs seekers

One of the main reasons foreign graduates of colleges and universities in Japan prefer to remain in the country and obtain work is the higher salary level compared to what can be expected if they return to their home countries to seek employment. Although temporary worker or trainee positions may be available, the preference is for full-time steady employment with a long-term contract.

How to obtain such positions, however, is often problematic. Most of the job seekers are not familiar with the process of job search. In addition, seminars on how to navigate the employment system held at Japanese universities are targeted to Japanese students. Thus, foreign students have to rely on themselves to write resumes, contact recruiting staff from companies, and prepare for interviews. Since there is no standard guidance for recruiting foreign students, the personnel staff in companies usually treat these applicants the same as the Japanese applicants (Okuma, 2010).

A majority of Japanese companies rely on connections for employee recruitment and Japanese companies tend to recruit new employees through relationships with university or college teachers rather than through a labour agent. It is believed that teachers know their students well after four years of guidance and interaction. This has fostered an increase in the establishment of booths at recruitment fairs for college students because staffing has become more and more competitive for construction industries.

Further complicating matters is the lack of administrative guidance given to foreign employees on how to obtain a working visa to work legally in Japan. The Immigration Bureau, for example, does not promptly send out official notifications regarding changes in policies related to an application for a working visa. Since applications are investigated on a case by case basis it is imperative that the information be accurate. The Immigration Bureau, however, tends to trust information from the Japanese companies more than individual statements from the foreign employees. This has created a situation in which the foreign employees are highly dependent on their workplaces and have to be obedient in order to maintain their legal status in Japan.

Is false information being provided and accepted?

Japanese companies sometimes provide false documentation to facilitate the visa application process for their own benefit. While the most blatant example is companies overstating the salaries of the employees in the official documents they provide to the Immigration Bureau, the bureau may also accept documents they know are obviously false. When foreigners apply for working visas, for example, they have to meet one of two requirements: they either will do work which is related to what they have learned in college, or they can be interpreters or translators of their native languages. Since the demand for labour has been increasing in the construction industry, those that have construction related degrees take positions in design or work as supervisors. Those with degrees unrelated to construction are hired as unskilled labour as this is the only work available to them. Their unskilled labour working status, however, cannot be officially recognised as the immigration bureau does not grant visas for physical labourers. Therefore, when foreigners apply for visas, the company will submit documentation stating the individual is working in translation or interpretation because they are not architecture or construction-related degree students.

In one company, about ten foreign employees obtained work permits to serve as translators or interpreters despite the fact that the total number of employees at the company is only forty. In addition, some of the Chinese individuals had rather poor Japanese language skills which would make it impossible for them to serve in these positions. Thus, the immigration bureau appears to be in cahoots with the company to help them fill their urgent need for labour. The fact that such a situation exists was confirmed in the interviews with a number of managers and employees. One explanation is that the Immigration Bureau knows about the urgent need by these companies for labourers and is willing to issue working visas to help Japan address its labour shortage.

Poor working conditions

Although the government is taking action to enact a law to assure paid holidays to full-time employees (The Japan Times, 2014), foreign workers have an extremely heavy workload with limited vacations (The Japan Times, 2016).

The working conditions of both trainees and regular employees are often less than desirable and the rights of the workers are not necessarily protected. A male employee (D) talked of his experience of working at a construction site continuously for more than 150 days straight with most shifts being at least 12 hours.

The regulation of the company says that the time to start working in the morning is eight o’clock. But the president always comes to work before seven o’clock. Now we are taking it for granted that we should come before seven o’clock. It is the tradition here. Employees should not come to work later than the president and other bosses, and should not leave in the evening if the bosses are still there. The bosses only care about the progress in the projects. They criticise those who ask for leave even though the workers are legally allowed to do so. Sometimes, when we are behind the schedule of the project, we are required to work extra hours without pay. It is against the law here in Japan I am sure, but the president says that we have to do so if we want to survive. This is a horrible company (Interview with male employee D).

Combined with the pressures of deficiencies in the Japanese language and different cultural backgrounds, some foreign workers have even been subject to the phenomenon of Karoshi, literally translated as death from overwork. Japan has no legal limits on working hours, but the labour ministry recognises two types of Karoshi: death from cardiovascular illness linked to overwork, and suicide following work-related mental stress (See Carney, 2015; Honda et. al, 2013). All of the foreign workers also commented that they are the ones who are always assigned to do the jobs that epitomise the 3Ks: kitanai, kiken, kitsui, respectively dirty, dangerous, and demanding.

Accommodation to Japanese Culture

A particular difficulty faced by foreign employees is adapting to Japanese culture and the Japanese way of doing business in the workplace. Since many foreign employees cannot communicate fluently in Japanese, and knowledge of English is not a sufficient substitute, misunderstanding often occurs. The blame for any mistake, however, is almost always placed on the foreign employee and the Japanese employee has no incentive to reach mutual understanding. Some general contractor companies even make it clear in their contracts that no foreign staff are allowed to be involved in specific activities at the construction site. This is due to a lack of trust of the foreign worker and the belief that these workers cannot assure the same quality as a Japanese worker.

The general consensus by those interviewed is that the basic rule in Japanese companies is for the foreign employees to adapt themselves to Japanese culture. The feeling is that to survive in Japanese society, one must give up his or her own sense of value and ethnic identity as much as possible. This is consistent with the view that assimilation is the necessary policy for foreign cultures who reside in Japan (Herbert, 2010; Zhang and Cao, 2012; Zhang and McCornac, 2013; Takenoshita, Chitose, Ikegami and Ishikawa, 2014; Taniguchi and McMahill, 2015; Caprio, 2015).

Assimilation is not only expected in the workplace, but also during any interaction with Japanese staff. Foreign employees have to endure the criticism pertaining to any behaviour which does not fit in with the “Japanese way.” Chinese employees, for example, are forbidden to speak Chinese with each other at the workplace or at any place in which Japanese colleagues are present. In one instance during a pleasure trip organised by the company, the Japanese staff complained to management that the Chinese employees gathered together at dinner time and talked in Chinese. While an apology by the Chinese employees was forthcoming, these Chinese individuals did not really understand why this restriction was necessary.

Extra burdens faced by females

The situation of female foreign employees can be especially burdensome as these workers face more critical problems in their private lives. This is compounded by the social phenomenon based on history and tradition that women in Japan are generally given less status than men. Achenbach (2014), for example, points out that it is very difficult for highly skilled Chinese women workers in any profession in Japan to keep a good balance between work and family. After joining the labour market, many of them are faced with the choices of family separation and delayed marriage or childbirth.

Many of the owners of the constructions companies, all of whom are men, readily admitted that males are preferred employees, since in Japanese society males are usually not expected to share housework and take care of children. One company owner stated that he prefers to hire women who have no plans to get married as he is afraid women may not be able to devote as much time to the job as men once they bear children. These feelings were further conveyed to the recruitment agencies who were requested to avoid hiring females. If a female is hired, it must be made clear they are supposed to contribute the same as males with no conditions once they are employed.

One of the more difficult aspects of being a female worker in Japan is coping with a tight work schedule while also being responsible for the family. This is especially challenging when the children are infants. One of the Chinese woman employees told of the situation in which all employees at her company are obliged to go to work at seven o’clock even though the official start time is eight o’clock. Since the kindergarten where her youngest attends school was not open at such an early time, she often arrived at work later than the other employees. This generated feelings of guilt on her part and resentment by the other employees. One of her colleagues, an elder Japanese women, criticised her for being late for work and forced her to shorten her lunch break time to fifteen minutes in order to compensate for her loss of working time in the morning. In Japan, it is acceptable for the older woman to bully her Chinese colleague because seniority is given preference. The interesting thing is that the senior woman was not her boss and really did not have the right to supervise her from an official perspective. However, the Chinese woman was expected to obey the order from her senior colleague which was consistent with societal standards. In the words of one Chinese woman:

I was the very first foreign employee in this company, and now I am the mother of a three year old and also two months pregnant. Before I came to the company, I was told that my duty was to work as a secretary. There are three females at the headquarters where I work. One is the president’s elder sister, who is over 60 years old. She is the director of the office. Another female is in her 40s and has been working there for nearly 20 years. Both of them have never married. You know this is very typical with career women in Japan because it is just so difficult for them to handle duties both at home and at work. Since there is not sufficient work to do in the office, sometimes, I am told to work at construction sites. There are no private facilities for women at the sites and I often have to use the toilet at a convenience store nearby. When I got pregnant, I had difficulty asking for permission to leave for a medical check at the hospital. Since both of the females in the office have never had the experience of bearing a child, they would not understand my feeling when my son got ill suddenly and I had to spend days at the hospital to take care of him. The president was not happy with me when he found that I could no longer go on a business trip for a number of days. When I found myself pregnant again this year, the president and the director told me that I should not come back after giving birth. They said that they predict the situation will be more undesirable for me since the two children will make it more difficult to do my job. I am wondering what to do (Interview with female employee Ms. Z).

Many foreign employees are also not knowledgeable about the rights and benefits they have within the company. This is true not only for Chinese workers, but Japanese workers as well. According to a recent report in The Japan Times (2016), fifty-three percent of Japanese workers do not know how much annual paid leave they are allowed to take. Although the law indicates that all regular employees are eligible for paid leave, companies may refuse to offer such benefits. A number of Chinese individuals interviewed for this study told of their desire to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year by the traditional method of returning to their hometown and gathering with families and relatives. However, companies have made it very difficult or impossible for them to do so, based on the justification that work demand does not allow for such vacations. Foreign employees, like most Japanese workers, are trained to believe that work takes priority over other activities, with little consideration paid to individual convenience or benefit. Based on their cultural perceptions of Japanese society, most of the foreign employees working at Japanese companies are not expecting much in the form of job satisfaction other than the benefit of a salary paid to their accounts each month,

As described above, Japanese companies tend to evaluate their employees based not only on their performance at work, but on their private life as well. The main criterion is the adoption of a sense of values applicable to Japan. Despite efforts by foreign migrant workers to achieve these standards, there remains a strong prejudice against this group which affects negatively on the work environment. Many Japanese employees also fear these individuals will eventually become their rivals at work. Japanese craftsmen, for example, prevent skilled migrant workers from being involved in professional assignments. This fear of job competition results in migrant workers being assigned low-level and unskilled tasks such as removing garbage from the construction site. The Chinese employees interviewed expressed frustration with this state of affairs and said they tend to lose interest in work after six months because they are anxious to learn more, but are not given the opportunity.

Uncertain future for the foreign employees

Most of the employees are uncertain about their future because they do not know how to make improvements in their professional knowledge and skills. They are bound to doing only basic work duties at the construction site and are seldom offered any chance to conduct systematic learning. Since most of the employees majored in studies other than construction or architecture, they may lack understanding of their current work. Without receiving much training, they are being sent to construction sites to do purely physical work that Japanese employees refuse to do. The foreign employees depend on their seniors for further learning. However, such training is not scheduled at an organisational level and is heavily dependent on the personal convenience and willingness of the senior employees. Furthermore, since small- and medium-sized companies generally deal with a specific task rather than handling whole projects as done by general contractors, the scope of their work is very limited to activities such as refurnishing houses or equipment installment. Training for foreign employees is not included in the company’s daily work schedule since the benefits may be small.

Without receiving formal training, foreign employees do not have the opportunity to obtain skills necessary for promotion. This benefits the Japanese staff who are concerned about their own positions in the company. Keeping the skills of the foreign worker low reduces the threat of competition in the workplace. Although top level management may encourage the policy of hiring foreign employees, middle management hinders their development. Middle management, consisting entirely of Japanese individuals, support their Japanese colleagues who are under the perception they are being challenged by these foreigners. The conflict between the Japanese and foreign employees was made very clear in many of the conversations with the interviewees.

I graduated with a master’s degree from an architecture course at an engineering university. I was hoping that I could use what I had learned in school and do more challenging work. But I have been treated the same as other students who didn’t focus on architecture or construction in college. Most the time, I am supposed to do physical labour work. I know there is so much I need learn but my direct boss will not teach me. He gives me orders to do pure physical work every day. He has a prejudice towards Chinese people. He only accepted me as his apprentice on orders from the president of the company. I am certainly not satisfied with the current situation, but don’t see any possibility to improve my professional knowledge and skills in this field. I was told that I could work as an engineer after receiving necessary training at the construction site. But it seems to be more and more hopeless because I am not making progress. I want to change my workplace, but know we need the permanent residence visa to live a life without much worry here in Japan, I have to give up the idea right now. So now I have to endure the unfruitful days and wait for a chance in the future (Interview with male employee A).

One of the main goals of the foreign employees is to obtain permanent residence status so that they can settle in Japan. This will have a positive effect on many family issues such as offering a relatively effective and consistent education to their kids. Obtaining permanent residency, however, is not an easy task. The working visas last from one to five years, while foreign employees can only apply for permanent residence status after residing in Japan for more than 10 years with at least five years of working experience. This five year working experience also needs to be at only one company. If a worker transfers to another company within five years, the counting of their working years will start from the beginning again. Once the application is submitted the process can take 6 months or more. Thus, the foreign employee is somewhat held hostage by his or her company in order to qualify to live permanently in Japan. Without a permanent residence status, there is the possibility that a worker will have to go back to his or her home country in the case of a loss of employment.


The migrant worker issue is one of the more challenging problems facing Japan today as policymakers look to find solutions to the social problems fostered by the low birthrate and lack of labourers in Japan. Understanding this issue from both the perspective of the employer and employee will add to the discussion and this study has highlighted a number of concerns to be addressed.

Our analysis of a sample of Japanese construction company managers and Chinese workers employed in the construction industry has found that once Japanese construction companies decide to offer full-time jobs to foreigners, they are conscious that they should obey the laws regarding migrant workers. However, there is evidence of disguised prejudice toward anyone not Japanese. That is, while the workers are often treated as if they are Japanese, this hides that fact there is a lack of understanding and respect for diversity. The Chinese workers are culturally and linguistically different and cannot be expected completely to assimilate into Japanese society immediately upon obtaining employment. However, Japan mainly remains both a mono-lingual and mono-cultural society and it is still a big challenge for Japanese society to accept the diverse nature of foreigners. Assimilation, which has been the general policy toward foreigners, does not make them feel at home.

As firms in the construction industry in both Japan and the rest of Asia become active in hiring foreign workers, there is a need to explore the best methods to accommodate these workers (Ofori, 2010). Japanese companies should take into consideration, for example, factors related to the workers settling down in the country. Family is an important part in the life of foreign workers living in Japan and directly impacts their future career development plans. This is especially true for female workers and these workers will contribute more to the companies if solutions are found to the conflicts these worker, particularly mothers, have in their private lives.

As Liang (2014) stresses in her study of agricultural labour migrants’ experiences in rural Japan, a place of belonging is also of crucial significance to foreign workers. Japan should be more tolerant with different ethnic groups and help them establish a “root” place which belongs to foreigners and offers them peace, relief and comfort. The “root” place is a completely new idea. It is different from places such as the intercultural communication center, where Japanese culture is always the dominant. Migrant workers need to have a time of their own, a place they can escape from the stress in everyday life and a chance to tell about their true feelings and exchange information to help them out.

If workers do not feel emotionally secure at the workplace, they may transfer to another company or return to their home country (Murai, 2013). This could bring financial burdens to companies as a result of the labour turnover. While in the short run it may require increased efforts and costs to address the needs of foreign workers, the benefits over time will certainly outweigh any costs. Thus, it is time for Japanese companies and society to reconsider issues related to migrant workers and reinforce laws and regulations which could help in dealing with cultural diversity. By doing so, foreign workers to make a long-term contribution to the country.


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About the Authors

Dennis C. McCornac is a Lecturer in Economics at Loyola University Maryland. He has extensive experience in Asia, previously holding university positions in both Japan and Vietnam, and has also taught in the Middle East. His current research focuses on the relationship between education and development and the situation of migrant workers in Japan.

Rong Zhang is an Associate Professor at Nishinippon Institute of Technology, Japan. She has been teaching English and Chinese in Japan for more than 15 years and devotes her time to research on English Language Teaching (ELT), intercultural communication and its relationship to tourism, migrant workers in Japan, and higher education.

Email the author: Dennis C. McCornac, Rong Zhang

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