By Lindsay Whipp*
Elica Tozawa has devoted seven years to her modest school for Brazilian migrants in the rural Japanese town of Oizumi, north west of Tokyo, labouring with her seven teachers to clean up donated shipping containers for use as classrooms.
Now Ms Tozawa is having to watch as Japan’s worst economic downturn in decades empties those classrooms of some of their brightest talent because parents laid off by local factories cannot pay her Y25,000 ($273, €213, £191) monthly fees.
“Children who can’t afford to study here any more come to see me after school in floods of tears because they want to study. It’s so unsettling for them,” she says, sitting in her chilly container office amid trophies won by her school’s football teams.
The plight of Ms Tozawa’s pupils, the descendents of Japanese who emigrated to Brazil, underscores the widening distress being suffered by some of Japan’s most vulnerable groups amid its worst downturn in decades.
Brazilians flocked to Japan in the early 1990s, after Tokyo began giving immigrants of Japanese descent three-year renewable work visas.
Brazilians account for about a fifth of Japan’s 486,000 foreign workers but the precarious place they have established in their ancestral homeland is now threatened.
“It’s frightening how something like this community, that’s taken years to establish, can just disintegrate so rapidly over a few months,” says Arnaldo Shiowaki, general manager of the Oizumi branch of Alfainter, a travel agency. Mr Shiowaki says that those migrants who can afford to leave Japan are doing so, and fast – 94 per cent of the tickets he sells to Brazil these days are one-way. Routes that do not require transit visas are sold out until April.
The departures threaten to have a devastating effect on the local economy of Oizumi, which had a foreign population of 16 per cent before the crisis. Those residents spent money that will be missed by vendors of everything from daily necessities to clothes, cars, electronic goods and property.
“There was even a mini housing boom here until this [downturn] happened,” Mr Shiowaki said.
Saremi Asghar, an Iranian long-term resident of Oizumi and second-hand car dealer, says the impact of the downturn is already obvious, gazing out of his office at the town’s deserted main street at the shuttered tattoo parlour opposite.
“A few months ago, I’d look outside my window and at this time there’d always be people chatting in the streets,” Mr Asghar says. He also says that prices of second-hand cars at auction are falling steeply.
Ms Tozawa fears that the downturn will have a long-lasting human cost. Her school aims to ensure that pupils are bilingual in Japanese and Portuguese by the time they graduate, allowing them to win places in university and to integrate into both Japanese and Brazilian societies.
“This was a crucial year. My first students were about to enter their final year of high school and the top ones were set for universities and colleges … that’s now been thrown into question,” she says.
“This isn’t important just for the students themselves but for all younger pupils to whom they would [have] become role models.”
Some migrants are in even more desperate straits: homelessness is growing among the newly unemployed, residents say.
“A 23-year-old single mother with three children turned up recently and had nowhere to stay,” Ms Tozawa explains, adding she had arrived from Aichi prefecture, a manufacturing hub where companies including Toyota are based.
“One of the teachers here has put her up.”