For as long as I can remember (c. 1998), the free smiles I received at Tokyo fast food outlets and convenience stores have beamed back from Japanese middle-class teenagers or freeter in their twenties with low ambition. The whole idea of having illegal workers in the back kitchens or immigrants at the cash register has essentially been unknown to Japan on a large scale.
But suddenly — and I mean literally, in the last three months — young Chinese men and women have become at least 10%-20% of service workers in restaurants and chain stores across Tokyo. Most of them are competent and relatively fluent in Japanese, and the only reason their nationality becomes apparent is the single kanji on their name-tag. The Yoshinoya down the street now has a Chinese cashier. I’ve been in the AM/PM under the live house Shibuya O-Nest when there were only Chinese workers. And it’s not just the low-rent locations: Many members of the wait-staff at the fancy buffet restaurant in the Keio Plaza Hotel are Chinese.
I’m not sure whether a law changed, whether the immigrant population is exploding, whether the decrease in young people has kicked into the labor market, whether the perceived economic upturn has created jobs for skilled Japanese labor, or what exactly happened in late 2005, but the exception has now become the rule. Immigrant labor has exploded onto the Japanese landscape.
And the impact of this trend on my daily life? Zero. Perhaps the “o-kyakusama wa kamisama” (The Customer is God) concept of service surplus will be difficult to maintain, but I’ve had Chinese workers speak to me in more keigo than I get with the bored Japanese punks at 7-11. And I don’t need the service surplus to start with. Maybe I can do without the American cynical and surly cashier culture, but if I don’t get a deep bow on my way out the door of Lawsons, I don’t ask for a refund on my Snickers bar.
I have to admit that it is a bit exciting to see non-Japanese workers operate in real, non-segregated Japanese society. Of course, there are the Bangladeshis who run my favorite Indian curry joint and the Iranians selling carpets, but this new class of foreigners are working in a very Japanese environment selling a very Japanese service. They are not doing something a Japanese worker cannot do; non-Japanese are now performing the exact same tasks as Japanese, and this form of social participation can make successful assimilation possible.
Despite U.N. advice to increase immigration, Japanese politicians have called for a cautious approach to their coming labor crisis. The hard rhetoric may be a cunning solution, however, as it calms the public about drastic social change while the environment moves slowly and naturally towards a more immigrant-inclusive direction. People may hate “immigration” in the abstract, but I don’t think they mind Ms. Shu down at Matsuya.