The term dekasegi (出稼ぎ) usually means someone who goes away from home to work. It’s also used as a term for Brazilians and other Latin Americans of Japanese descent. Like the word gaijin (外人 – foreigner), it’s widely used but has negative connotations, especially for those to whom it refers who have immigrated to Japan to work and now feel like outsiders.
Photo by hira3
Japan’s abandoned people
The Japanese government encouraged its people, especially those from poor rural areas, to move abroad in the early years of the 20th century to work. There were few jobs in Japan for those workers, and opportunities in the farms and coffee plantations of South America were plenty. The Japanese government had agreements with these countries and took pains to make it look like the immigrants weren’t manual laborers by presenting special certificates.
After they left Japan’s shores, they were pretty much forgotten. They came to call themselves kimin (棄民 – abandoned people). However, Japan remembered them when there was a domestic labor shortage in the late 1980′s. She welcomed them back with open arms, allowing anyone from these designated countries with a certain amount of Japanese blood to obtain Japanese citizenship.
A majority of the returning dekasegi took up work in factory towns, especially in Hamamatsu and Nagoya. They worked unskilled, low-paying jobs Japanese people didn’t want. Although invited to Japan to work, they found themselves very unwelcome in many of the local communities in which they settled. They faced intense discrimination and found it difficult to become integrated into Japanese society.
Economic problems and the dekasegi today
Now that the economy has taken a downturn, many dekasegi have found themselves out of work. As many as 70 percent in some areas are unemployed. The factories have been shut down and moved overseas to cheaper labor markets and as a result, dekasegi communities are collapsing. The Japanese government is now offering money to dekasegi if they’ll leave Japan. Many are taking up the offer and returning to countries that feel more like home.
This is particularly hard on dekasegi children. Japan has no infrastructure for handling foreign kids in its schools, which means little help for them in learning the Japanese language. The children also faced severe bullying. This led to the establishment of separate schools for dekasegi kids, which were funded privately because the Japanese government would not offer the support needed.
With the collapse of these communities, the funding is gone and many schools have closed. Although Japan guarantees compulsory schooling for all of its children through middle school, this doesn’t apply to the dekasegi.
In fact, Japan hasn’t passed even one policy to help dekasegi assimilate into its society. They were simply invited for their cheap labour and then left for dead when they were no longer needed.
For more information, here is a short documentary about the current situation of the dekasegi in Japan:
Adachi, Nobuko. “Racial Journeys: Justice, Internment and Japanese-Peruvians in Peru, the United States, and Japan.” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.
Kodani, Masao. “The History of the Buddhist Churches of America: Problems of Propagation and Projections for the Future.” Dharma Rain. Originally Published In: Senshin Buddhist Temple, Prajna: Light of Compassion, Vol. 41, No. 4, April 1995.
Available at here