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Japan sends expats packing

JAPAN is offering US$3,000 for a plane ticket home to some foreigners who have lost their jobs - a sign of how bad the economic slump has got.

The program, which began on Wednesday, applies only to several hundred thousand South Americans of Japanese descent on special visas for factory work. The government's motivation appears to ease pressure on the domestic labor market and potentially get thousands of people off the unemployment rolls.

"The program is to respond to a growing social problem," said Hiroshi Yamashita from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, referring to joblessness, which has climbed to a three-year high of 4.4 percent.

But there may not be too many takers for the 300,000 yen (US$3,000) handout, plus 200,000 yen for each family member. The workers cannot return to Japan on the same kind of visa.

With Japan's strict immigration laws, most won't be able to come back to work in Japan, where wages are higher than in Latin America.

"It is not necessarily a totally welcome deal," said Iwao Nishiyama, of the Association of Nikkei & Japanese Abroad, a government-backed organization that connects people of Japanese ancestry.

The government's offer - as well as the backdrop of history that has given birth to a vibrant community of South Americans of Japanese ancestry here - highlight this nation's complex views on foreigners and cultural identity.

Many Japanese consider their culture homogenous even though there are sizeable minorities of Koreans and Chinese, as well as Ainu, the indigenous people of northern Japan.

In the early 1990s Tokyo relaxed its relatively tight immigration laws to allow special entry permits for foreigners of Japanese ancestry in South America to make up for a labor shortage at this nation's then-booming factories.

They took the so-called "three-K" - "kitsui, kitanai, kiken" jobs - the "hard, dirty, dangerous" jobs Japanese had previously shunned.

Brazil has the biggest population of ethnic Japanese outside Japan, numbering about 1.5 million. Last year marked the 100th year of Japanese immigration to Brazil. Initially many ventured to toil in coffee plantations and other farms.


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