As the Japanese government plans to accept up to about 340,000 new foreign workers over the next five years, coexistence may become an issue.
On a sunny Saturday morning, foreigners living in Oizumi, in the prefecture of Gunma, some 100 kilometers northwest of Tokyo, participated in a futsal event with local officials in the neighboring town of Ora.
In the past, Brazilians and Peruvians were the only foreigners who used to participate in such events. But over the past two years, technical intern trainees from Indonesia have joined in. "It's fun to meet and talk with many people," said a 20-year-old Indonesian technical intern trainee. "I hope there will be more opportunities like this." In his second year living in Japan, the young man has few opportunities to interact with Japanese people outside his workplace.
In Oizumi, where the manufacturing industry is thriving, the number of foreign residents surged after the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law was revised in 1990 to allow second- and third-generation descendants of Japanese emigrants to work in Japan.
"There are some people who don't like an increase in the number of foreigners."
As of the end of October, foreign residents totaled 7,589, accounting for more than 18% of the town's population. There has been friction between Japanese and foreign residents over issues such as waste disposal and nighttime noise.
According to a survey conducted in 2016 by the Gunma prefectural government, 58.3% of foreign residents in the prefecture said they wanted to settle in Japan, and 67% said they wanted to actively interact with Japanese people.
On the other hand, only 11.7% of Japanese respondents said they wanted to actively interact with foreign residents. "There are only a few opportunities for Japanese residents to associate with foreigners and there are some people who don't like an increase in the number of foreigners," said a Japanese woman who runs a liquor shop in Oizumi.
In this context, planned efforts to encourage face-to-face encounters between Japanese and non-Japanese residents can help build relationships. The town has encouraged residents to understand more about each other by issuing a magazine in Portuguese and starting Japanese-language classes at elementary and junior high schools. The futsal exchange event organized by the Gunma prefectural police is another such effort.
In Hamamatsu, closer to Tokyo, there were 24,214 non-Japanese residents as of Nov. 1, accounting for 3% of the city's population. At a public housing complex where many Japanese-Brazilians live, the city hires interpreters and encourages foreign residents to participate in the residents meetings and local festivals.
"We organized a barbecue at the summer festival, and Brazilians were the first to come and help us," one Japanese resident said.
In another part of Japan, language classes are being encouraged.
"Konokiwa ‘nagai" desuka? Is this tree ‘long"?," asked a Philippine woman.
"Korewa‘takai" ne. This is ‘tall"," replied a Japanese volunteer teacher, kindly correcting the woman's usage of adjectives while pointing at a picture of a tree.
The dialogue was heard at a meeting room of the Iwata housing complex in Toyohashi, in Aichi prefecture, 300 km south of Tokyo.
Non-Japanese residents, many of them Japanese-Brazilians, started settling down in the city in the 1990s. As of Nov. 1, the foreign residents' population was 17,122, accounting for about 4.5% of the city's population.
A local nonprofit organization began a Japanese-language class about nine years ago at the Iwata housing complex, which is managed by the prefecture, where foreigners are the lease signers of about half of all the households.