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Aging Japan Reckons With Immigration Debate to Meet Labor Demands

Aging Japan Reckons With Immigration Debate to Meet Labor Demands

By Robin Harding


Traditionally closed to immigrants, the world’s fastest-aging society may open up to overcome labor shortages and support its economy. 

By Robin Harding

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe devised a plan to create two new visa categories, he wanted to appease Japanese companies that are gripped by labor shortages and desperate to hire more foreign staff. But Abe’s contentious plan has profound implications for Japan and has ignited a debate it has avoided for decades: Should the world’s fastest-aging country, and one of its most ethnically homogeneous, accept immigrants to stabilize its population and economy?

At the heart of the controversy are two elements of Abe’s plan that have been taboo in Japan. First, it will create a path — however long and difficult — for guest workers to become permanent residents. Second, it will allow some guest workers to bring their families.

On the defensive in Parliament last week, Abe insisted he was not adopting a “so-called immigration policy.” He said the hurdles to permanent residence in Japan were high and he was not trying to lower them.

Up to now we have only accepted highly skilled foreign labor.

Takashi Yamashita, justice minister 

The population of foreign workers in Japan has soared in recent years — up 18 percent in 2017 alone, to 1.28 million — but the majority are students or “trainees” whose visas make it impossible to stay long term. Abe’s proposed reform would issue full work visas in areas with labor shortages, such as construction, with the possibility of permanent residence for those who pass a tough Japanese-language exam.

“Up to now we have only accepted highly skilled foreign labor and we’re transforming that to create a new residence status for basic laborers as well,” says Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita.

The plan has led to a backlash across the political spectrum, but it has also prompted one opposition party to endorse immigration — the first time any Japanese party has done so. Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of the small, centrist Democratic Party for the People, says his party favors “a European- or American-style immigration policy.”


Opinion polls suggest that 54 percent of the public support Abe’s plan, while 34 percent oppose it. The young are especially positive, reflecting a slow shift in attitudes, as booming numbers of tourists and guest workers mean foreigners are increasingly commonplace across Japan.

Ngo Van Tung, a 25-year-old graduate in structural engineering from Vietnam, is the type of worker Abe wants to attract. A listed Japanese contractor went to Vietnam to interview Tung and arranged a 5-year visa under the existing scheme for highly skilled workers. Tung has a permanent contract and the same pay as a native graduate, and is currently supervising a construction site in Tokyo.

On the whole, Tung finds life in Japan good. He plays soccer on the weekends and has been able to travel around the country for work. “The environment and transport in Vietnam are still basic, so I was really impressed when I saw Japan,” he says. The country’s long-hours culture has been a shock. “People here are so dedicated and work so hard,” he adds, with a mixture of admiration and resignation.

Tung married in Vietnam this summer and hopes his wife will be able to join him in Japan, which could become easier under Abe’s reforms. He is uncertain about the future — perhaps his company will open an office in Vietnam, perhaps he will stay in Japan for a decade or more — but he does not see himself becoming Japanese.

Another group swelling the foreign population of Japan is students, who can legally work for up to 28 hours a week. Krizzialyn Judrana, a college graduate from the Philippines, is on an unusual scholarship run by a newspaper distributor. On top of her wages, the company pays for her accommodation and tuition at a Japanese-language school. In return, Judrana delivers newspapers from 12:30 am until 4 am.

The scholarship scheme runs for two years, but Judrana is enjoying her time in Japan, and is interested in staying. “If the opportunity comes, I want to grab it and study hard and work hard,” she says.

The two fastest-growing nationalities in Japan are Vietnamese and Nepalis. Bahadur, a 43-year-old cook from a village near Kathmandu, is the kind of person who would find it easier to come to Japan under Abe’s reforms. At present, he has a rare skilled-worker visa, which is available because he has more than 10 years’ experience in cooking a particular national cuisine.

Bahadur is married and has two teenage children in Nepal. It would cost too much to bring them to Japan, even if visas were available, and he plans to return home when his visa runs out. “The Japanese language is a struggle,” he says, “but I like it here, even with all the rules and regulations.”

Even if Abe’s plans pass through Parliament next spring, Japan is determined to learn from what it regards as the errors of Europe and the United States, by making sure any permanent resident is both a productive worker and a fluent Japanese speaker. But the debate Abe has ignited, and the shift in attitudes it has revealed, suggest a long-closed country may finally be willing to open up.

By Robin Harding

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2020.

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