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  • Article on immigration

    New York Times
    September 23, 2001

    New Kind of Settler Finding a Way in Japan


    TOKYO, Sept. 22 With Japan's population set to shrink further
    and faster than that of any other economically advanced country over
    the next half century, foreigners like Steven Gan are acquiring
    something of the aura of pioneers.

    As a rare Westerner who settled here for the long term, Mr. Gan neatly
    fills the bill for a government that realizes that Japan must attract
    people from elsewherein dramatically increased numbers, and yet remains
    jittery about large-scale immigration.

    What is more, as Mr. Gan has built up a successful debt-collection
    business here, he has shaken up what had been a cottage industry with
    an unsavory reputation, and perhaps injected a bit of vigor into the
    country's sluggish economy.

    "For most people the image of the Japanese collection industry is the
    yakuza, or mafia," Mr. Gan said. "But as a foreigner I've been able to
    get beyond that, and lend some legitimacy to the business. There are
    over 7,000 collection agencies in the United States, but when I
    started out there were only five or six in all of Tokyo.

    For years Americans have complained that Japanese culture was
    impenetrable, that companies here only wanted to buy Japanese and
    that after a polite initial reception, those who sought to settle
    down here were often made to feel less than welcome. But Mr. Gan,
    and other Americans who have started their own businesses, bought
    homes or even gone to work for Japanese companies, say that things
    have been changing subtly in this society.

    With only 1.7 million foreigners in Japan, out of a population of 127
    million people, the country faces a huge task in attracting the
    600,000 immigrants a year that the United Nations estimates it will
    need in order to stabilize its population and prevent wrenching labor
    and fiscal crises.

    If nothing is done, according to the Japanese government's
    projections there will be 100 million people in 2050 and only 67
    million at century's end.

    Of the foreigners who live here, a million or so are Korean and Chinese
    residents who have long complained of discrimination. Many of the other
    foreigners here are actually people of Japanese ancestry who immigrated
    to Japan from Brazil and elsewhere during the economic boom years of
    the 1980's.

    Although Japan has recently set a priority of attracting skilled
    immigrants, and people who can make an economic contribution right
    away, there are only about 45,000 Americans living in the country,
    according to government statistics. Hong Kong, with a population of
    only six million, has roughly the same number.

    Though discrimination in housing and other areas, like the academic
    world, still exists, many of the new professionals from the West share
    the belief that the Japanese work world is not as impermeable or unfair
    as long reputed. Moreover, they say, the influx of outsiders is
    increasingly appreciated for introducing badly needed new ways of
    doing things.

    After spending a year as an exchange student at a Tokyo university,
    Jake Adelstein transferred there outright. Though he got his degree
    and was offered a job with the Sony Corporation, he decided to try his
    luck with the newspaper industry's famously difficult hiring
    examinations. "I never believed I would be hired by a Japanese
    newspaper, especially a major one like the Yomiuri, and never on the
    same terms as a Japanese person," said Mr. Adelstein, who is 32.
    "People had told me that was just impossible."

    He took a cram class to prepare for the exam. But when he showed up
    at the Yomiuri Shimbun for the first of his interviews in 1992,
    Mr. Adelstein said, "at the reception desk people kept hinting to me
    that I was in the wrong place."

    Japanese labor experts say that cases like these suggest that although
    a national effort is just beginning, the country will be able to attract
    talented immigrants. "Japanese companies cannot find human resources
    within their own organizations anymore, and there are few people who
    move from business to business with the skills that companies need,"
    said Jiro Nakamura, a professor of labor economics at Tokyo Metropolitan
    University, who said that Japan had little choice but to lure more
    foreign workers.

    William Stonehill, a Chicago native, also arrived in Tokyo planning to
    study, hoping to add a graduate degree in Japanese to one he had already
    earned in Chinese, and like Mr. Adelstein, he eventually decided to

    "When I looked around, I noticed that there were no imports here,"
    he said. "I had studied watch making, so I got into importing Swiss
    watches and German clocks. It is like wildcatting. You don't need a
    license or anything, so I got into business, walked into a shop and
    threw some stuff on the counter and asked if they would like to buy
    any of this merchandise."

    Before he got his start in watches, Mr. Stonehill said he had worked
    as a door-to-door salesman, selling courses in English and "terrorizing
    housewives to buy stuff for junior."

    "You ask a lot of foreigners in business here how they got started
    here, and they'll say the same thing. Nobody ever told them that it
    was impossible, so they just went out and started a business."

    Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company