Government and governance, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

2 November 2016

The Japanese Government’s efforts to increase immigration by side door measures are both disingenuous and ineffective. A more transparent, robust approach is needed if immigration is to help solve Japan’s demographic challenges, David Green writes.

A number of proposed solutions have been put forward to address population ageing in Japan, which is already pronounced and expected to get considerably worse. The Abe administration, for one, has pointed largely toward incorporating and empowering female workers and the elderly, eschewing any kind of explicit large-scale increase in immigration.

While trying to increase the numbers of female and elderly workers is certainly warranted given Japan’s very low female labour force participation rate, long life expectancy and surprisingly early retirement age, immigration occupies a somewhat unique position. Long regarded as conservative leaning, favouring ethnic and cultural homogeneity and concerned with increases in crime and linguistic misunderstandings, the Japanese population has traditionally been averse to major increases in immigration. Politicians thus have to walk a very fine line when broaching changes to immigration policy, even in the midst of an unprecedented demographic crisis.

As Japan ages, labour shortages are becoming more pronounced, particularly in areas such as healthcare, agriculture and construction in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. To that end, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party began considering proposals in April 2016 to expand both the scope and duration of working visas in Japan, potentially allowing a doubling of the foreign workforce. The government has since taken steps to implement these plans, noting progress in September and October 2016, although they have yet to be fully approved.

In addition to already trying to recruit highly skilled and low-skilled workers, recent developments represent an expansion of targeted labour pools, aiming to bring more foreign workers into the fields facing the most acute labour shortages. Although the proportion of immigrants remains very low compared to other advanced economies, since 2013 there has been a 40 per cent increase in the number of foreign workers residing in Japan.

Yet in spite of the conspicuously growing foreign population, particularly in Japanese cities, the government refuses to acknowledge these obviously concerted efforts for what they are – actual changes to immigration policy. This must be addressed in order to clarify immigration’s role as a potential demographic solution.

More on this: A demographic ticking time bomb has Japan thinking the previously unthinkable

Implementing significant changes to immigration policy in a de facto manner is disingenuous to the Japanese public. To drastically expand the size of the foreign workforce without bringing it to the attention of the voting populace, or in fact calling it a change from the status quo at all, represents a substantial lack of transparency. If, in fact, immigration remains unpopular and strongly opposed by most Japanese people, politicians should present the public with a reasonable case for increased immigration that can be openly discussed and debated. Failure to do so amounts to the government advancing an unpopular policy by stealth with fewer alternatives available after the foreign population settles in.

More significantly, immigration efforts as they stand currently are insufficient to make a meaningful contribution toward curbing Japan’s shrinking population and labour force. The vast majority of visa categories remain temporary in nature. Establishing eligibility for permanent residence can take a considerable amount of time and effort, while employment circumstances are often insecure and highly uncertain for many new immigrants.

Even if Japan succeeds in overcoming public scepticism and doubling its foreign workforce, it will still not be enough to surmount a projected population decline of over 20 million people. Current efforts, in other words, fall short of addressing the problems Japan faces.

For immigration to have a meaningful impact in Japan a number of steps need to be taken. Fundamentally, there should be some understanding among the public as to whether immigration is indeed a way to mitigate Japan’s negative demographic trend. If so, immigration should be pursued more strongly. If not, the government should not promote ‘side door’ entry into the country, effectively circumventing public will, and seek other meaningful paths.

Were immigration to be more explicitly accepted in Japan, the government should try to make Japan an appealing destination. Japan retains the strong perception of being unfavourable to foreign workers and would need to work hard to amend that impression. Additional public language assistance should be provided to new residents. Government offices should make stronger attempts at multilingual information provision. Anti-discrimination policy should finally be codified into law. Permanent residency should be easier to obtain and permanent residents should be permitted to vote, at least locally.

For immigration to work as a potential solution (or at least a mitigating factor) to Japan’s declining population, immigrants need to be able to see themselves as future residents of Japan. With a welcoming society tolerant of diversity and willing to extend a hand to new residents, Japan will become considerably more appealing, especially to the type of mobile, skilled labour the government seems be targeting.

This alone may not unequivocally solve Japan’s demographic problems, but it would represent a step in the right direction.

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Green, David. 2017. "Immigration Policy Change By Stealth - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.