Chinese workers in Japan: a complex picture

  • August 22, 2014
Chinese workers in Japan: a complex picture

Chinese workers in Japan are more than passive victims of difficult work conditions and are able to use their own networks and provide mutual support, according to new research.

Chinese workers in Japan are more than passive victims of difficult work conditions and are able to use their own networks and provide mutual support, according to new research.

The study,  “Place making” in Kawakami: aspirations and migrant realities of Chinese “technical interns”, was led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Meng Liang [2010] and was published in the peer reviewed journal Contemporary Japan.

The paper examines Chinese agricultural labour migrants’ experiences in rural Japan. The research is based on multi-sited ethnography, mainly in Kawakami, a village located in central Japan, from July to November 2012.

Meng Liang says: “I go beyond the labelling of Chinese migrants as passive victims of difficult work conditions and exploitation, which pervades much of the literature on international migration, and argue that Chinese peasant workers possess an agency to negotiate, navigate, and survive in the village. The strategy they take is to contest over local institutions to build up their own ‘places’, where they can find provisional security, a sense of relief, and mutual support. These ‘places’ further facilitate the formation of social networks among the workers, although this is officially repressed by the dominant society. A functioning social network plays a significant role to help workers adapt, overcome difficulties, and exercise their agency in a more effective way.”

Meng, who is doing a PhD in Asian & Middle East Studies at the University of Cambridge, says the Japanese press have tended to focus on the negative and depicted the relationship as solely one of exploitation, but her research has found a much more complex and nuanced situation based on mutual dependency.

“China has a huge labour surplus and a huge population of peasants,” she says. “It supplies the highest number of migrant workers to Japan. Working in Japan they earn more than in Chinese cities. They earn around £6 an hour. They may earn in one summer as much as they would earn in a year in China.”

There are problems, for instance, over communication, but her main concern is that immigration policy and Japanese and Chinese people’s perceptions of each other need to be informed by what is actually going on the ground, not sensationalist media reports.

Meng’s work focuses on a Japanese agricultural workers programme, the ‘Technical Internship Programme’, which worked through recruitment agencies in China to bring Chinese workers to Japan, and in particular on the Japanese village of Kawakami which accepts more than 600 Chinese workers per year (the local population is only around 4,000). Her fieldwork involved spending around 10 months in China and Japan. In China, she studied how workers were dispatched. Most came from rural areas of China.

Her research found a much more complicated relationship than is suggested by Japanese newspaper headlines with Japanese employers largely dependent on the Chinese workers because of Japan’s demographics.  She noted no obvious discrimination, although there was not much communication because the Chinese workers only have basic Japanese despite some use of translators. She noted that lack of communication can cause confusion and tension.

Workers normally get an initial work visa to stay for seven months, from April to November. Most then return to China and cannot reapply. However, if they pass a test they can extend their visa for up to three years, depending on the area they are working in. If they stay longer, a strong relationship may be formed between worker and employer. Meng says some employers treat their workers like members of the family and, for instance, buy them laptops.

For more information, click here.

Latest News

Gut bacteria links to immune responses in the brain

Bugs in the gut may hold the key to protective immune measures in the brain which could have implications for diseases such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, according to a new study led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Zachary Fitzpatrick. A paper based on his PhD research has recently been published in Nature and it highlights […]

Exploring the social barriers to take-up of green technology

How can rural communities be encouraged to take up green energy solutions? A new study co-authored by Gates Cambridge Scholar Ramit Debnath investigates the social barriers to uptake of household appliances fuelled by green energy. Based on research on more than 14.5K households in rural communities in Rwanda, the study, published in Renewable Energy, found […]

A new technique to decode the way the nervous system works

How do the billions of neurons in the human brain work together to give rise to thought or certain types of behaviour? A new study led by Gates Cambridge Alumnus Eviatar Yemini [2007] outlines a colouring technique, known as NeuroPAL (a Neuronal Polychromatic Atlas of Landmarks), which makes it possible – at least in experiments […]

An innovative approach to plant protection

Shauna-Lee Chai is passionate about working on wicked problems, about using her entrepreneurial skills to improve the lives of others and about seeing the big picture, something she says her experience as a Gates Cambridge Scholar contributed to. Her expertise is in invasive plant species and for three years she was Board Director of the […]