Immobility of Hyper-mobile Migrants during the Pandemic in Japan | Sachi Takaya

by Critical Asia

by Sachi Takaya, June 2022】

Approximately one year after the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic hit Japan, it was reported that more than 36,000 technical intern trainees remained displaced in Japan and were unable to return to their home countries.[1] These technical intern trainees are recruited from other countries and are expected to work in Japan for up to five years and return to their home countries upon the termination of their contracts. In principle, the technical intern trainee program is intended to “promote international cooperation . . . through human resource development.”[2] However, in reality, it functions as a Temporary Migrant Program (TMP) that temporarily accepts migrant workers into the so-called unskilled labor market. In TMPs, “residence and employment on the basis of a temporary work permit alone do not create an entitlement” for a migrant worker “to stay permanently in the host country.”[3]

Temporary migrant workers are often subject to a cap on the length of their stay and are prohibited from bringing family members to the receiving countries. This is because these countries want to prevent temporary migrant workers from becoming their “members.” In reality, the labor contracts of “temporary” workers, such as the domestic workers in Singapore and Hong Kong, are repeatedly renewed, sometimes for decades. Nevertheless, their long-term stays do not lead to permanent residency. Furthermore, some countries do not allow migrant workers under TMPs to marry their nationals and prohibit (legally or de facto) pregnancy and childbirth. Through these restrictions, the receiving countries try to mitigate the “social costs” of workers settling down to form families and raise children. Moreover, they may be wary of cultural cleavages that are thought to be created by increased immigration. In other words, the TMPs are “designed to achieve . . . malleable labor without incurring . . . unwanted members.”[4] As, a political sociologist, Kristin Surak argues, the TMPs are a means for nation-states to mediate the interests of both capital, which seeks obedient labor, and their people, who are averse to “unwanted members.”

Thus, temporary migrant workers are situated differently in the receiving countries from their “members,” that is, nationals and permanent/long-term migrants. As a result, temporary migrant workers are not given access to social welfare benefits. In Japan as well, welfare benefits for foreign nationals are limited to certain categories, such as permanent/long-term residents and spouses of the Japanese, and are not available to technical interns. The proportion of migrants excluded from welfare benefits is approximately 45% of the total population of foreign nationals.[5]

During the pandemic, this exclusion has impacted the lives of temporary migrant workers. As mentioned above, several technical intern trainees who were unable to return to their home countries after their labor contracts ended had no choice but to remain in Japan. After a while, many of them were reduced to poverty. They were housed by friends, in the dormitories of supervisory organizations, or in the shelters of religious institutions and were supported by civic groups to make ends meet. For example, according to a report issued by a non-profit organization that assisted migrants and refugees who faced poverty during the pandemic, one Vietnam man—who initially came to Japan as a technical intern but switched to another visa status—lost his job due to the pandemic. He had bought a plane ticket to return home, but he was unable to return due to airport closures. As his visa did not allow him to work, he became distressed and was supported by a non-profit organization.[6]

The Immigration Service Agency encouraged technical intern trainees who had finished their contracts or lost their jobs due to the pandemic to find other work; however, in reality, changing jobs was challenging. The language barrier made it difficult for many technical intern trainees to access information about other opportunities, and many supervisory organizations were not proactive in assisting them in their job search. A former technical intern trainee explained the challenges he faced in response to a local government survey: “It is difficult to change to another status of residence, and I have to wait at home for the supervisory organization to find me another job. It would be nice if I had savings when I lost my job, but I did not, so I had to ask others to help me make money. Some of my friends say they have no money and no food.”[7] Nevertheless, their difficulties were rarely highlighted. In January 2021—when the difficulties of the technical intern trainees in returning home were revealed—Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was questioned about the government’s response to those who had lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic, and in response, he stated that “in the end, the government has the welfare system.”[8] Notably absent from this statement was the recognition that many migrants, including temporary migrant workers, cannot receive welfare benefits. It clearly indicates the extent to which these migrants are neglected.

Moreover, the pandemic has highlighted the fragility of the TMPs.

TMPs, which are widespread not only in Japan’s technical internship trainee program but also throughout Asia and the Middle East, are aimed at quickly filling the market demand for labor from the perspective of capital requirements. To this end, “migration infrastructure”—“the systematically interlinked technologies, institutions, and actors that facilitate and condition mobility”—that mediates labor migration has been evolving since the end of the last century.[9] In a sending country, workers who wish to work overseas are on standby, ready to relocate. Once the demand from a receiving country is communicated to the sending country, workers are selected based on certain criteria, such as age, gender, and aptitude, and then transferred to the receiving country. An intermediate agency acts between the two countries, and migrant workers must pay the agency an administrative fee, including travel to the destination country. The fee amount varies by country; in Vietnam, where most migrant workers in Japan originate, the fee is more than one million yen. Agencies are typically private but often well connected to local officials in sending countries with migrant-export policies. In addition, the receiving country needs an intermediary to ensure that the workers are arranged to fulfill the labor needs in the “right” manner. In the case of Japan’s technical intern trainee program, there is a built-in supervisory organization that handles contracts between the companies and trainees, provides guidance to the companies, and offers consultation to the trainees. Thus, the TMPs are managed by a variety of actors in both the sending and receiving countries. These actors function as an infrastructure that facilitates the mobility of temporary migrants.

Under the program, temporary migrant workers, including technical intern trainees in Japan, are permitted to stay in the receiving countries only as long as they have a labor contract. While their role is confined by work, evidently, a person does not exist solely in the labor market. As discussions on social reproduction argue, productive labor in the marketplace depends on the non-market realm (typically, family), that is, reproductive labor.[10] In this sense, the TMPs, which seek to keep social reproduction (especially the reproduction of the next generation) away from the receiving countries and solely in sending countries, are inherently contradictory institutions. TMPs depend on bodies to make products, but they forbid or severely limit human reproduction. This might imply that capital and (migrant-receiving) states find sending countries as appropriate places of social reproduction when the free or inexpensive spheres of social reproduction in the receiving countries have been exhausted. Simultaneously, the hyper-mobility of temporary migrant workers under TMPs made the geographical separation of production and reproduction possible; as they are hyper-mobile, their reproduction is simply delayed, rather than prohibited, until their return.

Nevertheless, the pandemic has challenged this assumption. Technical intern trainees could not return to their home countries after their contracts ended because the infrastructure that enabled their hyper-mobility collapsed suddenly. The closure of borders and cessation of air travel paradoxically made visible the existence of the technological infrastructure that had facilitated their mobility. In short, the pandemic has highlighted the fragility of conditions for the hyper-mobility of temporary migrants.

In this context, the immobility of hyper-mobile migrants in the pandemic was an opportunity to reveal this vulnerability. However, even though temporary migrant workers suddenly found themselves immobile, society’s perception of them as “temporary workers” has been consistent. There was no change toward viewing their existence in limbo as an embodiment of the contradictions of TMPs and incorporating them into society to resolve these contradictions. They were simply abandoned. In other words, Japan passed off the retention of technical intern trainees not as a contradiction inherent in TMPs but as an “exceptional” pandemic situation.

As the pandemic eases and the world prepares to return to “normal,” will TMPs also return to “normal” operation? Will they conquer their frailty and regain hyper-mobility, which enables receiving countries to keep social production out of their horizons? To do this, will the technological infrastructure incorporate more sophisticated sorting functions and underpin hyper-mobility more efficiently? Conversely, will temporary migrant workers who recognize their immobility and vulnerability attempt to seek a way to overcome them? The consequences of the pandemic on mobility remain to be seen.

Sachi Takaya, University of Tokyo, Japan


[1] “Technical Intern Trainees who cannot return, more than 1000 people are unemployed,” The Asahi Simbun, January 21, 2021.

[2] Act on Proper Technical Intern Training and Protection of Technical Intern Trainees, Article 1.

[3] Martin Ruhs, 2006, “The Potential of Temporary Migration Programmes in Future International Migration Policy,” International Labour Review, 145(1-2), 7–36, p. 9.

[4] Kristin Surak, 2013, “Guestworkers: A Taxonomy,” New Left Review, 84, 84–102.

[5] Immigration Service Agency of Japan, Statistics of 2021. Migrants who are not granted welfare benefits include not only technical intern trainees but also foreign students, skilled workers, and their families.

[6] Solidarity Networks with Migrants Japan, I’m here. Survive in the Covid-19 crisis together: The report of the emergency fund for migrants and refugees under the pandemic, October, 2020, p. 16.

[7] Toyonaka city and Association for Toyonaka Multicultural Symbiosis, The report of the research on the impacts of the lives of migrants in the pandemic, January, 2022, p. 96.

[8] “Japan PM to people impoverished by coronavirus crisis: In the end, turn to welfare,” The Mainichi, Jan. 28, 2021.

[9] Biao Xiang and Johan Lindquist, 2014, “Migration Infrastructure,” International Migration Review, 48(s1), S122–S148.

[10] Nancy Fraser, 2014, “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode; For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism,” New Left Review, 86, 55–72.

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