updated 4/1/2009 7:38:05 PM ET 2009-04-01T23:38:05

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

The program, which began Wednesday, applies only to several hundred thousand South Americans of Japanese descent on special visas for factory work. The government's motivation appears to be three-fold: help the workers get home, 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, an official at 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 ($3,000) handout, plus 200,000 yen ($2,000) for each family member. The money comes with strings attached: The workers cannot return to Japan on the same kind of visa.

Given Japan's strict immigration laws, that means 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" jobs, standing for "kitsui, kitanai, kiken" — meaning "hard, dirty, dangerous" — jobs Japanese had previously shunned.

Before their arrival, many such jobs had gone to Iranians and Chinese. But the government saw their influx — much of it illegal — as a problem and was eager to find a labor pool it felt would more easily adapt to Japanese society, said Nishiyama of Japanese Abroad association.

So by virtue of their background, these foreigners of Japanese descent — called "Nikkei" in Japanese — were offered special visa status.

"They may speak some Japanese, and have a Japanese way of thinking," Nishiyama said. "They have Japanese blood, and they work hard."

The workers are mainly descendants of Japanese who began emigrating to Latin America around the turn of the last century.

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.

Brazilians are the most numerous of such foreigners in Japan, totaling about 310,000 overall in 2007, the latest tally available. Peruvians are next at 59,000. Those from other South American nations were fewer at 6,500 Bolivians, 3,800 Argentineans and 2,800 Colombians.

Nearly all work manufacturing jobs, many through job referral agencies. Major companies, like Toyota Motor Corp., have relied on contract employees to keep a flexible plant work force.

Foreign workers in Japan are entitled to the basic unemployment and other benefits that Japanese workers get. Though rates vary, Japan provides about 7,000 yen ($71) a day in unemployment — which would equal about $2,100 per month.

Still, Nikkei are sometimes victims of discrimination in Japan, as they are culturally different and aren't always fluent in Japanese. As a result, many have had a hard time blending into Japanese society.

Now, as the economy worsens, many find themselves out of jobs.

The government doesn't track the number of jobless foreigners, but the number of foreigners showing up at government-run centers for job referral has climbed in recent months to 11 times the previous year at more than 9,000 people, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Overall, the government estimates that some 192,000 temporary workers who had jobs in October, including Japanese, are expected to be jobless by June. Experts fear such numbers are growing.

In addition to the handout offer the government is also helping Nikkei find jobs in Japan.

"These are like two sides of the same effort to assist people of Japanese ancestry," said Yamashita of the labor ministry.

Tokyo has already allocated 1.08 billion yen ($10.9 million) for training, including Japanese language lessons, for 5,000 foreign workers.

Fausto Kishinami, 32, manager at a Brazilian restaurant in Oizumimachi, a city with a large Japanese-Brazilian population, said none of his friends are applying for the government money because of the no-return condition.

"I don't think people should take that money," he said, adding that he hasn't gone home in eight years, and is focused on his work in Japan.

Some 20 percent to 30 percent of the South American foreigners of Japanese ancestry are estimated to have already returned home, said Nishiyama. They have paid their own way back and may return, once a recovery brings fresh opportunities, he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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