A Study in Bad Social Science, re: Immigration

Or, A Response to “Why Does Japan Need Immigrants” from VisualPolitik EN.

This video is just so mismatched between it’s slick presentation with its authoritative host, and it’s completely bonkers research methods that I couldn’t help but write up a post for it.

Research methods are important.  You have to consider where and how you’re getting your information from which you are drawing your conclusions.  This is true regardless of whether you’re sharing those conclusions in a scholarly paper for Nature, or simply with your friends over dinner.  With that in mind, let’s go through the video.


First line:

“Japan, a country that brags about two things:  the first is their used underwear vending machines, which yes you really can find on the streets,”

No, they’re illegal, and the person who started them was arrested.  It’s simply a sanitation issue.  You can find legal, unused underwear vending machines (usually in gachapon style machines), but not just anywhere.  Unless by “on the streets” they mean “the street in front of a sex shop”, then, yeah I guess so.

“and the second is their immigration rate which is by far the lowest in the developed world.”

OK, Japan definitely does not “brag about” either of these things.  Apparently “brag about” means “Westerns often talk about,” but those are really very different things.

On to them talking about foreign trainees:

“This, in summary, is sort of like being an intern in Japan except you get about half the salary a Japanese intern would get.”

Depends on your definition of “Japanese intern,” but in any case the same minimum wage laws that apply to all workers in Japan also apply to these “trainees.”  Likewise for laws pertaining to overtime pay, breaks, paid vacations days, health insurance, etc.  There are no special exceptions; these trainee laborers are entitled to more benefits than native-born American ones are in America!

“Not only that but with this Technical Internal Training program your boss is even allowed to hold onto your passport and access your bank account.”

Now this is just factually incorrect.  Even a 2010 guide from the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization specifically tells trainees to keep control of their own passport and bankbook.  Maybe some shady employers try and force their foreign workers to turn them over, but that is explicitly illegal, i.e. they are not “allowed.”

“More worryingly than that, since they have started this program thousands of Asian immigrants have simply disappeared.”

Well that is not surprising, is it?  They ran off to become illegal immigrants working somewhere else.  They’re not under lock and key, there’s nothing to physically prevent them from “disappearing” into the country.

But no, they then go on to play a video clip from well known internet tabloid VICE (which they, for some reason, dub by simply reading the subtitles) where someone (apparently) says that for having a bad attitude they were threatened with death via a hitman who is a friend of a friend of their union representative.  What?  I mean it’s not exactly the most threatening threat I’ve ever heard (even of those personally directed at me).

But setting that aside, and setting aside the fact that it is apparently their union rep who is threatening them, how could you possibly think that these “missing” trainees are all murdered and buried somewhere.  Aside from the fact that getting a gun is almost impossible in Japan, what benefit is it to the company (let alone the union) to murder some low-wage earners?  The cost of a hitman must be astronomical in Japan, and what do you get at the other end:  your own neck hanged if it is ever found out that you did this.  On the other hand, you could simply fire them, send them back to their home country, and hire another one to replace them.  Sure you have to incur the start up costs of a new worker, but you have to do that even if you kill the previous one.  And there is no way simply firing them is going to be more expensive than the hitman.

Assuming the person in question was actually threatened, I feel bad for them, and support them in any effort they want to make in regards to reporting the person who threatened them.  But as far as VICE and VisualPolitik are concerned, the idea that any company would be routinely making good on such a threat is just laughably crazy.

Don’t believe everything you read in the tabloids people.

“So what if you enter with a tourist visa?  Well in that case you can stay in the country a year and a half as long as you can prove that your are studying Japanese.”

What?  No.  You need a student visa for long-term studies, and then you can study at a language school for up to two years.  A tourist visa is, for an American, only good for three months.  Where are they getting their information?

“There is really only one effective way for a foreigner to make a living in Japan:  [cut to some other video] ‘the easiest thing to live here is marrying a Japanese person'”

What what?  OK, yeah, spouse visas are great, but they’re not necessary.  You can get a work visa doing anything you are qualified to do and for which you can find a company to hire you.  For Americans, the obvious example is getting a four year degree and teaching English under an education or instructor work visa, but there are plenty of other categories.  For example you might have experience working as a chef in a particular cuisine and have a restaurant in Japan that wants to hire you to continue that work here.  Congratulations you are now making a successful living in Japan.

“Japan is the oldest country in the world.”

Japan also has the longest life expectancies in the word, so this isn’t surprising.

“In fact estimations say that in the next ninety years they’re going to lose about forty-four million people from their population, which is about the entire population of Canada.”

What does Canada have to do with anything?  Japan has a significantly larger population than Canada, yes.  So?  And ninety years is a really long time, by the way.  You might be getting a little ahead of yourself there, Nostradamus.

Next we have the old argument about how you need a mysterious and always unnumbered amount of working people paying into social security for every person collecting from it.  Therefore every country’s (and therefore the world’s) population must increase ever more rapidly forever until the end of time.  I think the flaw in this system is rather obvious.

From this they then state the benefits of bringing workers in temporarily (as they talked about Japan doing at the very beginning of the video).  But somehow this is framed as a criticism of Japan not doing the thing they just a few minutes ago talked about them doing.  That part is pretty confusing.

“Japan has seen the last twenty years go by with no economic growth.”

japan gdp

Really?  This common myth comes from the idea that Japan should experience double digit growth figures every year (like it did for many years after World War II) forever.  Obviously that is a ridiculous idea.  Japan experiences slow, sustainable growth, at quickly increasing efficiency rates.  The number of workers has been decreasing since the 90s, yet slow growth is still achieved.  That means the GDP per worker just keeps going up and up.

“We all imagine Japan as a country of technology and innovation.  The country where companies like Nintendo, Toshiba, Sony; the country where they were all born.  Nonetheless, the reality is these companies are really old.  Nintendo was founded in 1889, and Toyota was created in 1937.  Actually can anybody name any Japanese companies that were created in the 21st century?

Huh?  What does a person’s knowledge of not just Japanese companies, but the history and origin story of Japanese companies have to do with whether Japan is a country of “technology and innovation?”  Also what does a Westerner’s knowledge of such things have to do with anything?  (That is, even with America’s cultural hegemony, can a Japanese person name an American company that was created in the 21st century)?

But most importantly, even if (somehow) no companies were created in Japan since 2000, what would that prove?  You can’t just ask random questions and expect the significance of their answers to be self-evident.  Especially when we could be asking much better questions, like “What percentage of their profits do Japanese and American companies invest in research and development?” or even “Is this company doing any good for our society at all, or is it just concentrating wealth in a handful of billionaires?”

“But you could probably name five to ten American companies that were founded in the same period.”

I really couldn’t, and I am an American!  In fact, the only ones that come to mind are, naturally, ones that have been in the news for how awful they are:  Uber and Airbnb come to mind.  Which rather reveals the weakness of this question as a research method.

“The entrepreneurial rate amoung immigrant populations is two to three times higher than natives.”

OK, is this meaningful?  The video goes on to make much about this Horatio Alger-style “entrepreneurial spirit,” and it certainly fits in well with American ideals.  But is it really meaningful on a national economic scale?  Is constantly having lots of new companies (and conversely, constantly losing lots of older companies) a good thing?  Is the quality of something so easily judged by its newness?  If that was true, no one would want to go to Harvard or Oxbridge, because what do those old fogies know.  I’m gonna go to Crazy Go Nuts University!  It was only founded a couple of years ago, so they must be on the cutting edge of everything!

Of course, the place this entrepreneurial spirit is most obvious is in a pre-industrial society.  Almost everyone works for themselves there as some kind of independent farmer, craftsman, or merchant.  You might apprentice yourself (or be apprenticed) to a blacksmith, work for him for many years, then start up a new blacksmith business of your own.  But despite almost everyone in society being an entrepreneur, this wasn’t exactly a time of constant technological innovation and runaway economic growth.

As the video goes on to explain:

“Just take a walk around your neighborhood and you’ll see hundreds of Chinese stores, Mexican restaurants, and all other kinds of small businesses created by immigrants.”

The video host obviously lives in, for America, an unusually dense and diverse city.  I find it hard to imagine your average suburban nodding their head in agreement to that last statement.

Also, on the point of flawed research methods, I can do this exact same thing here in Japan.  Clearly my ability to find Thai, Korean, Indian, and Chinese restaurants run by Thai, Korean, Indian, and Chinese people has nothing to do with relative levels of immigration.  The places where you will find immigrants in America but won’t in Japan are in agricultural fields and janitorial closets.

But more to the point, this is exactly what I’m talking about.  How much innovation is coming from that dingy Chinese restaurant down the street?  Even if their pu pu platter is the best you’ve ever had, a family run restaurant is not a powerhouse of new technologies and middle-class job creation.

What an advanced economy needs are good jobs for everyone and new technologies to sell to the world.  Highly skilled jobs in offices and factories, and a constant stream of new technologies (and improvements to existing ones) that flow out of university and private research centers.  Sure, it’s always a nice when someone has a good idea that they were able to develop and bring into being with nothing but a garage and the tools available in a hardware store, but that is almost a story of failure.  Such people should not be in garages, they should be in communities of researchers with the best tools in the world available to them.  Genius doesn’t exist outside of the world, it needs the right environment in which to develop and flourish.  A company like Apple didn’t do it’s best work when it was just two Steves soldering in a garage, it did and does it’s best work by collecting thousands of the best designers and engineers in the world and giving them research budgets large enough that they can have anything they want.

“[In Japan] just seven percent of the population decides to start a business.  By comparison in countries like Canada and New Zealand that percentage is about ten percent.”

Really all that (including, I kid you not, the origin story of the hot dog) over the difference between seven and ten percent?

“The Japanese dream isn’t to start your own business, it’s to get hired by one that already exists.”

No explanation as to why this is bad.

“You know those big companies we previously mentioned like [exaggerated eyeroll] Sony and Toshiba.  Companies that have the same corporate and work structure that they had in the 1980s.”

No proof that that is true, nor an explanation as to why it would be bad.

Meanwhile in the West we are reverting to a “gig economy”, you know that piecemeal style work from early industrial times you read about in your middle school history textbook.  An unstable wage with no benefits or legal protections is clearly so much better and more advanced than those stupid old 1980s-style systems of life-time employment, social insurance, yearly raises, and twice yearly bonuses.

“Those who like football…”

This is gonna be good.

“…might keep up with the World Cup or the UEFA championships.  Twenty years ago there were at least two Japanese companies sponsoring these events.  In 2016 the European cup had no Japanese sponsors [emphasis in original].”

There it is.  You know Japan is a failed state because they didn’t sponsor the Union of European Football Associations championship last year.  How this could possibly be a reliable measure of, well, anything, is both beyond my imagination and not at all stated in the video.

euro ads

But using this football based measure of successful businesses resulting from technological innovations resulting from foreigners, we can see that America has fallen in world by at least 33% with the loss of MasterCard.  But then neither McDonald’s nor Coca-Cola were started by immigrants nor in the 21st century (or even the 20th century in the case of Coca-Cola), so maybe those two don’t count either.

Seriously, though, the most obvious thing in common amoung these sponsors of a European football tournament is the European nature of them.  Several companies I, an American living in Japan, have never even heard of previously.

But the next most obvious commonality is the more meaningful one:  they are businesses that sell low-cost consumer products.  Hyundai is on there because they need to sell lots of low-quality cars, McDonald’s is famous for its low quality fast-food, and Hisense makes a variety of low-quality consumer electronics under a variety of brands (but seem to be trying to to get the Hisense name to at least have some recognition value).

Cannon, Fujifilm, and JVC are still major Japanese companies employing tens of thousands of workers each.  But Fujifilm doesn’t make that much camera film anymore and JVC has given up producing VCRs.  What companies like these have been transitioning to, and what many more totally unknown Japanese companies are engaged in, is producing producers’ goods rather than consumer goods.  They don’t make the things you buy, the make the internal parts of the things you buy.  Or, ever increasingly, they make the things that make the internal parts of the things you buy.

We’re used to a concept like that of Kodak going bankrupt because people don’t buy film anymore, but somehow shocked that Fujifilm can carry on a successful business without needing us to regularly grab some film rolls while waiting in line at the drugstore.

“Whereever you look, Japanese companies are struggling to compete…and the reason is not a lack of money, it’s a lack of innovation.”

What does that even mean?  Aside from the fact that this is the concluding argument, the results of our research into hot dogs, name trivia, and football sponsorships; I don’t even know what they are trying to say here.  Lack of money is not a problem Japan has, but they’re struggling to compete?  So I guess you don’t need to compete to be rich.  I really don’t know what they’re getting at.

But on to the final salvo:

“And of course this is having a major impact on the lives of Japan’s citizens.”

I’m eager to hear this.

“In order to keep productivity up Japanese workers have the longest working hours and the shortest holidays of any developed nation.  Meanwhile they still have the same salaries that their parents had.”

The last line first:  wage stagnation is a problem the entire developed world, and even the entire world is experiencing.  The ever increasing GDPs tend to only go to a small percentage of people, and you aren’t one of them.

The other two statements are patently false.  First of all, productivity is GDP divided by hours worked, so Japan actually tends to get more productive the less hours are worked, and so has had a government sponsored trend of reducing working hours.  The OECD data for 2016 puts the average hours worked over the course of a year at 1713, a bit more than Canada and a bit less than Italy.  Also less than New Zealand, Portugal, Ireland, Iceland, and Poland.  Oh yes, and also less than the United States which stands at 1783.  That’s right, if you’re an average American you work 70 hours, almost two full work weeks, more per year than the average Japanese worker.

Though that is not too surprising because American workers are entitled to precisely zero vacation days, putting them actually dead last in the developed world.  Japan certainly rates behind Europe on this measure, but even a new worker (and even a part-timer) is legally entitled to 10 days of paid vacation a year, which rises regularly up to at least 20 the longer you work for a place (one extra day per year for the first two years, then two more per year after that).  Most workers get many more than that, but everyone with a job gets at least two weeks off per year.  And of course that is only the beginning of the benefits available to workers here that most Americans wouldn’t dare to dream of ever having.

To conclude, while the inaccurate conclusions they reach obviously annoy me, they are bound to wind up there because of their super poor research methods.  If you set out to study something by just grabbing random facts and assertions you find on the internet from random websites and news sources, the chances of you reaching real and truthful conclusions are about as good as hoping to pass a multiple choice exam through random guessing.

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