Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: The Ethics of Undocumented Migration

Jan 25, 2010

Undocumented Fujian Chinese Migrants in Japan

More than 600,000 Chinese nationals currently live in Japan, making up nearly 30 percent of all foreign residents in this country. While being the largest legal foreign population, the Chinese are also possibly the largest undocumented migrant group. Official data list the Chinese visa overstayers at 18,365, behind the Koreans at 24,198. However, the number does not tell us how many Chinese entered Japan clandestinely through human trafficking. The Ministry of Justice's 2009 data show that among people who were refused border entry in 2008, a third of them were from China. In particular, Fujian Province provided most of the clandestine entrants. In the period since the Japanese Coast Guard discovered organized human smuggling from China in 1990, 80 percent of apprehended illegal entrants into Japan have been Chinese, almost all from Fujian.

Most countries consider unauthorized immigration and undocumented stay criminal behavior and a social and security threat. In December 2003, in order to make Japan into "a strong society against crimes," the Japanese government started a campaign to reduce the number of illegal foreign residents by half in five years. Since then, under the slogan of "Internationalize by abiding rules (ruru wo mamotte kokusaika)," a designated month of "anti-unlawful employment campaign" has been launched every year. The police regularly raid locations where illegal immigrants are likely to concentrate, such as entertainment districts, construction sites, and some residential areas. Plainclothes roam in train stations and neighborhoods trying to identify suspects by looks. Five years later by the end of 2008, the number of unlawful overstayers (fuhou zanryusha) was reduced by 48.5 percent from 220,000 to 113,000. Among the deported foreigners, Chinese have consistently ranked number one.

Using fieldwork data through participant observation and interviews, this paper explains the causes of undocumented migration out of Fujian and explores the ethical frameworks within which Fujian undocumented migrants operate. It also discusses different concepts of rights involved in the act of irregular migration.

Causes of Undocumented Migration from Fujian

Economic Motivations
Economic motivations drive migration, legally and illegally. There is not sufficient arable land in Fujian for each productive person. Costal people once fished, but in recent years diesel became increasingly expensive and fishing became a losing business. In some areas, the waters were sold for commercial fish farming after economic reforms in China, and the local people no longer had access to it. Entrepreneurship and out-migration have been two traditional economic practices in this region. Lacking alternative sources for business loans, Fujian people obtain capital by pooling family resources, borrowing high-interest loans, and joining rotating credit associations. International migration provides an alternative means of accumulating capital.

Many of the Fujian immigrants I interviewed reported shouldering the responsibility for earning money to invest in family businesses as well as the household's general well-being. One man had an elder brother who was running a factory. He provided the capital they needed, and had a share in their business investments. "It is called division of labor," he said. Since these immigrants' remittances were frequently lost in their families' unsuccessful business investments, due largely to irrational economic behavior and lack of business experience, they were forced to remain in Japan to accumulate more cash. There were also interviewees who had come to Japan for the second or third time because the money they had previously made in Japan was lost in their failed business attempts.

One particular phenomenon among the Fujian immigrants in Japan is their debt-driven migration. Interviewees specifically pointed out that Japan was not the ideal destination for international migration because it was not an immigrant country and did not provide amnesty or opportunities to legalize status. The United States, Canada, and Australia were more attractive places for long-term settlement. However, they came to Japan because of their debts from failed entrepreneurial activities. Japan was closer by and was believed to have more temporary jobs. Many older male migrants came to Japan because of debts from failed businesses.

Relative Deprivation
Relative deprivation explains some of the psychological motivation for international migration out of Fuzhou areas. In Fuqing City and Changle County, tall new buildings built by migrant families stand like monuments displaying their wealth. Asked about their plans, many immigrants mentioned building a new house. One interviewee told me that he had worked seven days a week and 16 hours a day for the past three years in a bento company before the boss had to let him go because the police were going to come inspect his employees' documents. Not only did he pay off the fees for the clandestine boat trip within a year, he had already built a new house in his home village. Given a little more time, he would have had enough money to furnish the place. Immigrants from Fuzhou areas, despite their low status in foreign countries, were called overseas Chinese (huaqiao) by their fellow villagers. They were expected to demonstrate their success by throwing banquets upon return, giving expensive gifts to relatives and friends, and contributing at least twice as much as non-overseas Chinese to the construction and renovation of ancestor shrines and other local public projects. These outlays not only added an extra burden on migrants, but also produced more aspiring international migrants.

Aside from the relative deprivation in economic terms, some young people also consider going abroad to work a means to prove their personal worth. Despite his girlfriend's family's objection, 30-year-old Li decided to come to Japan in order to make his own money to establish his own family. In China, he did not go to high school, but went into business. But his business was not successful. By 25, his loss amounted to several tens of thousands of yuan (RMB). All the money was borrowed from his mother. He felt like a parasite. So he decided to come to Japan.

Social Networks
Available social networks perpetuate Fujian people's out-migration. Since the fifteenth century, Fujian merchants have been present in Japan. In 1969, Fujian immigrants numbered 6,193 and were the largest mainland Chinese immigrant group in Japan. Old overseas Chinese communities in Japan formed the base for transnational migration networks. What sustained and accelerated migration from Fujian to Japan, however, was close-knit kinship-based migration networks. Fujian immigrants were mostly from areas around the capital city Fuzhou, and the villages in these areas were naturally formed by and named after one or two extended families. Through these closed kinship networks, human smuggling became rampant in this region. Although international human smuggling out of Fujian is operated through an elaborate system involving underground societies and corrupted government authorities from different countries, the people in the smuggling ring often belong to a family or an extended family or are good friends, and local recruitment is invariably done through kinship and friendship networks.

I once asked an interviewee whether Fujian people were afraid of "snakeheads"—a term that non-Fujian people and the mass media equate with criminals. He was surprised. "Why? They are often relatives and people living in the same villages. Otherwise, why have there been so many young women willing to come abroad? Those women probably had never even left the village." Later I realized that "snakehead" was just a name for people whose business was sending immigrants abroad, legally or illegally. Some people called them "brokers" (zhongjie). In my fieldwork, I often heard remarks such as "my uncle was a snakehead," "a relative of mine was a friend of a snakehead," or "I used to hang out with snakeheads."

This said, the motivations for migration do not justify clandestine migration, a well-publicized criminal act. Slogans such as "Preventing Human Trafficking" were on the wall everywhere in Fuqing and Changle—the regions that send out most undocumented migrants all over the world.

The Ethical Frameworks of Undocumented Fujian Migrants

In the summer of 2003, I spent several weeks in Fuqing City and Changle County, visiting repatriated migrants and hoping to know more about the communities. I was impressed by how clandestine migration was a normal part of economic and social life there. Upon knowing that I would return to Japan, a Fuqing or Changle person would typically comment, "Oh, you have papers. My brother is there, but he has no papers." Fujian Chinese immigrants are aware that human smuggling is punished as a crime. However, it was not something people considered shameful to talk about. Having papers or not signals the degree of freedom instead of criminality. Even the documented Fujian immigrants in Japan, while complaining about their reputation being stigmatized by the clandestine migrants, show total understanding of their behavior. The justifications about undocumented migration out of Fujian typically fall into two categories—tradition and reciprocity.

Out-migration as a Tradition
In Fujian, the history of migration predates the emergence of nation-states. One interviewee offered the following explanation for the rampant undocumented migration out of that region. …If you wanted to know why there are so many people smuggled out of Fujian, you have to know the history for Fujian out-migration. Fujian had the most overseas Chinese. Along the coast, there was no good soil. Nothing grew there but yams. People were dirt poor. And many very poor people from Fujian, such as Lin Shaoliang, became rich overseas. Even now, it is still poor in many places there. Some islands don't even have electric power. These rich overseas Chinese came back in 1980s, investing in local industry and building things. The local people saw that, and believed that if one could go out they would make fortune abroad. So going abroad is deeply rooted in Fujian people's mentality.

The Fujian people I encountered loved to talk about the rags-to-riches story of the richest ethnic Chinese businessperson in the world, Lin Shaoliang, who left China for Indonesia in 1938, clandestinely. Fuqing city celebrates prominent overseas Chinese (huaqiao) like Lin, and plans to build a museum to document the migration history of this region. For the people living there, emigration is not only legitimate, but also glorious if you succeed.

Fuqing City, one of the main sending regions of migrants to Japan, boasts a population of 1.2 million, and 800 thousand of them live overseas. Most local people have grandfathers or granduncles living abroad. Out-migration in this region has a much longer history than the immigration control acts in any countries receiving Fujian immigrants.

Exchange and Reciprocity
Aside from seeing migration, clandestine or not, as a traditional and historical means for achieving prosperity, Fujian undocumented migrants in Japan generally feel it is a fair exchange between them and Japanese society—they are selling their hard labor to make a better living. Fair exchange and reciprocity seem to be the leading ethical principles in Fujian Chinese community. They take pride in working hard and feel their undocumented existence is totally justified by their labor contribution to Japan. They frequently talk about how no Japanese young people are willing to do the jobs they are doing, and how employers have tried to protect them from being deported. At least in their immediate environment, their existence is considered legitimate and necessary. They resent the fact that they have become the target of apprehension. The most common narrative is "I am just working to earn a living here. I am not committing any crime." In fact, one interviewee specifically interpreted the Japanese government crackdown on illegal foreign residents as a result of violent crimes committed by some Chinese migrants. He stated, Many Fujian people like me work for Japanese restaurants, working very hard, working very properly in order to gain trust. There are bad people coming to Japan, joining the gangs… There are good and bad people, but the problem is that Japanese people treat the Chinese all the same (yi bang da si). A friend of mine who was working in Ginza, not doing anything bad, was caught and sent back. He was just working conscientiously, but got sent back. It is like what Kuomingtang used to say, "(I) would rather kill one innocent than letting a guilty one escape (ning yuan cuo sha yi ge, bu yuan fang guo yi ge)."

Through reciprocity, Fujian migrants established trust and emotional bonds with the employers and their family members. Shohei, who worked for a small Tsukiji company, lived next door to his boss, was given their family name, and was practically a member of the family. Yuki, who worked for a bakery owned by an old couple, was given gifts and otoshidama and taken on trips to Hokkaido. Every week, she also helped the mother bathe the grandmother. Reports on employment of undocumented migrants tend to focus on the labor shortage and exploitation. However, given the social stigma attached to Fujian migrants, labor shortages or exploitation are necessary conditions but not sufficient reasons to hire Fujian migrants. Employers who have hired Fujian migrants are more likely to hire more of them. Not only do the Fujian networks channel more fellow Fujian migrants into these jobs, but the phenomenon also signifies trust in the relationship.

Fujian migrants' sense of exchange and reciprocity also reflects in their attitudes toward many illicit activities in the underground world. Outside the Fujian migrant society, the public talk with horror about snakeheads or underground banks. Snakeheads are consistently portrayed as exploiters, bullies, and violent criminals. What alarmed me the most when I was in the Fujian migrant community was how naturally they talked about them. As I mentioned before, the snakeheads the migrants have actual contacts with are often their kin. They are not necessarily loved, but Fujian people believe they offer an important service. Although recognizing the exploitation involved, one woman interviewee said, "It is their job. Being a snakehead is a hard job. They are in the same boat as you are. They are risking their lives together with you."

Most Fujian undocumented migrants also rely on underground banks to remit money. For undocumented migrants, the "underground bank" was what the Japanese government called it. It was a normal bank for the Fujian people. He thought people who were running the underground bank were brave for doing the Fujian people a service while the Japanese government was trying to crackdown on these illicit institutions. If the money was lost, the bank would have to compensate the remitter for the loss.

Concluding Thoughts

Undocumented migration from Fujian is both a puzzle and a threat to the rest of the world. There is a famous line: "Taiwan is afraid of Pingtan; Japan is afraid of Fuqing; the US is afraid of Changle; and the whole World is afraid of Fujian." With tragedies such as migrants suffocating in a truck in Dover and a boat capsizing in the Caribbean Sea, and when organized crime is attributed to gangs from Fujian, people and governments respond: "Why do they want to risk it all? How can we clean them out?"

This essay does not try to argue whether their practices are right or wrong. It merely provides some insights into the causes for their migration and the ethical frameworks for their practices. Unfortunately, their ethics clash with the legal institutions in the host societies, which operate on a different set of principles. Questions remain. Do the immigrants have the right to pursue a historical means of survival and a folkloric glory? Although their presence is unauthorized, they are making fair exchanges with the host society and more than reciprocate the gifts they receive. Their actions are criminal. However, some of the crimes are byproducts of the legal system itself, committed to make migration possible. Others, as with delinquencies by native residents, are a manifestation of social marginalization.

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