I was at my neighborhood beauty salon yesterday getting my hair cut when I threw out the question, “When you get old, would you rather have a robot or a foreign woman take care of you?” The consensus was definitely a human being of any nationality was better than a robot. One woman commented that she didn’t believe Japanese young people would want to do such jobs in the future, nor that they would have the patience to do them. She thought foreign women were the only real option.
While I was sitting there, I noticed the Korean drama playing on the TV and brought up the current disputes between Japan and South Korea. These women, like many Japanese people I know, really like Korea. The one cutting my hair had been to Korea on vacation, and they all love the food, dramas and culture. In fact, over the years, I have been a little sad to see America being replaced by Korea as the most popular foreign country here.
I asked them what they thought about some of the current controversies, and one older, fashionable woman said, “We Japanese are not taught about these kinds of things in school. We only know vaguely about what happened during the war.” Thus, I think it’s hard for most Japanese to understand the strong feelings behind issues such as the “comfort women.”
I remember when I first came here 12 years ago that one of my first friends, a young woman educated at a high-level university, said, “Isn’t it great that Japan has never lost a war.” She quickly retracted after I muttered a confused response, but I think that’s the tone and tenor of the education.
This is in stark contrast to Germany’s openly contrite response to WWII. I think one difference is that in Japan ancestors are worshipped as gods. I think it must be very hard to admit past atrocities when those who committed such acts are enshrined and the objects of prayers and petitions. It is probably this lack of “moral outrage” Japan has shown through the years toward its wartime behavior that continues to irk surrounding countries.
The continued furor over “comfort women,” or WWII sex slaves of the Japanese army, seems to stem from “apologies” like the one made by then-Prime Minister Abe in 2007. Referring to the grossly abused comfort women, he said, ”I…apologize for the situation they found themselves in.”1 Even though a full admission and apology had been made in 1993 by a high government official, he indicated that the comfort women from Korea and Taiwan had not been forced into prostitution. A further statement recently by Osaka’s popular mayor challenging Korea to provide evidence of comfort women only confirms what many suspect, that Japan really isn’t sorry.
The same lack of moral outrage has been shown by the Japanese government toward the huge and overwhelming sex slavery trade that plagues the world in this the 21st century. “Japan is recognized as having one of the most severe human trafficking problems among the major industrialized democracies…”2 It has been roundly criticized “…for not fully complying with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking…”3 Japan is finally making some progress in this area but only because of intense international pressure.
I think the clue to Japan’s lack of interest in this issue can be found in former Prime Minister Abe’s quote above. There seems to be an underlying belief that women who end up in this kind of situation have somehow brought it on themselves. And since there’s no real anti-trafficking law in Japan, then nothing wrong has been done. In Japan, wrong = against the law. This argument also plays a role in Japan’s reluctance to take full responsibility for the plight of comfort women from WWII.
What has struck me as ironic is that in the future most surely Japan is going to have to rely on foreign Asian women for true comfort. The rush to develop robots to take care of the aged notwithstanding, elderly Japanese are going to want a human face, human conversation and human sympathy as they near the end. There simply won’t be enough Japanese population to do the job. Japan already needs 200,000 nurses and is projected to lack 1.27 million caregivers by 2025.4
In response, Japan has created a program that reflects its conflicted attitude toward immigration. Japan knows it must have immigrants. On the other hand, it really doesn’t want immigrants. Since 2008, nurses and caregivers with impressive educational and professional backgrounds have been recruited from the Philippines and Indonesia to begin filling the health-care-worker gap. However, instead of focusing on helping these valuable workers make a smooth transition to life and work in Japan, the program focuses on a licensing test that requires they learn to read kanji well enough to pass the same test given to Japanese candidates.
As one Indonesian nurse put it, “…the exam is not a test of the qualifications of the nurses/caregivers but a test of the Japanese language.”5 They need to pass these tests while also working full time, learning to speak Japanese fluently, and trying to adjust to life in a new country. Caregivers only get one shot at the test after three years in the program, and if they fail, they have to leave Japan immediately. Let me admit that I could not pass such a test under such conditions, even under threat of death.
Needless to say, the program hasn’t been much of a success. It appears that since the program began, only a few Filipinos and 35 Indonesians have passed. Unfortunately, 5 of those Indonesians have returned home, and three more are planning to do so.6 (Probably, these super-smart Indonesians have realized they should return home and study to become brain surgeons.) Not a very good net increase in health workers after 4 years.
Somehow, Japan is going to have to accept the fact that it needs the help of 1000s of foreign Asian women for its own well-being. How wonderful if sometime in the future, Asian women in Japan are widely appreciated as bringing care and comfort to the elderly. I hope by then, Japan will be living in true harmony with its neighbors, something the vast majority of its citizens most surely want.