07 Mar 2019
For decades, Japan has been seen as separate or immune from the global migration issues which have gradually consumed most of the world.

Waves of migration fuelled by politics, racism, religion, war, famine and terror have accelerated border issues in all corners of the globe. Yet to many casual observers, Japan seems to have somehow dodged these waves and succeeded in preserving its uniquely homogeneous society.

As is often the case, perception and reality may be less concrete on first glance, with Japan now almost certainly on the threshold of throwing open its doors to greater numbers of migrants.

Demographic realities

Recently, the country passed a new immigration bill which could see an estimated 500,000 blue-collar workers enter the Asian archipelago by 2025.

The law establishes two new work visa categories. One is for lower-skilled workers and allows them to work for a period under five years without bringing their family. The other category, however, targets workers with skills in desired fields, allows them to bring their families and can lead to permanent residency after 10 years.

The measure is designed to bolster a sagging job market pummelled by the typical bane of developed economies — an ageing workforce moving into retirement in inconveniently large numbers.

Consider, for a moment, that there are now 70,000 people in Japan aged 100 or older — a total which has increased for 48 years in a row. Japan clearly needs younger people to boost the shrinking economy and replenish its labour force. But while the ancient Japanese proverb says “ten men, ten colours” — different strokes for different folks — many Japanese still traditionally believe that fewer men and fewer colours are probably the best path forward.

Fears remain

Assistant Professor Marina Kaneti at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy studies the way migrants can transform the political and social environment of a society. She explains there are a few common reasons that cause communities to object to new immigrants. “Many fear that ultimately, any new population will become a charge of the state,” she said.

There are also cultural fears. “People remain uncomfortable with other cultures and religions. There are also concerns about language proficiency. In many communities there is a very strong connect between national identity and language ability. That's why in many countries, immigrants must pass a language proficiency test as part of their naturalisation process,” says Prof Kaneti, who teaches Global Governance as part of the Masters in International Affairs (MIA) programme.

Many observers wonder how traditional Japanese will react to this new reality, a similar version of which has already been observed in many western nations as wealthy retirees from liberal-voting big cities move to more affordable and liveable communities which have traditionally been politically and socially conservative.

As a relatively homogeneous and stable society, conservative Japan provides a compelling case study of how a country so obsessed with its own cultural uniqueness reacts to the arrival of increasing numbers of “New Japanese”, whose very existence challenges Japan’s traditional sense of national unity and identity.

Says Professor Kaneti, “[Immigration into] homogeneous countries are much more difficult. What does it mean for a community to have remained so homogeneous over time? This means that, for whatever reasons, the barriers to integration are very high and the social, political and economics boundaries that have been set around the community are quite rigid.”

This is not, however, the first time the nation has looked beyond its own coastlines to solve its labour shortages, with Japan’s technical training programme offering jobs to foreigners for up to five years. But the scheme has been criticised for being open to abuse by unscrupulous employers, allowing them to take advantage of vulnerable migrants.

In the simplest terms, the new law will allow employers for the first time to officially bring in offshore workers to take on “manual jobs”.

Is it all about the money?

Commentators like the Japan Times make no apologies for why the policy change was required: “Behind the policy turnaround is the fact that Japan’s economy can no longer be sustained without foreign workers. With the birthrate at nearly an all-time low, the nation’s productive-age population (from 15 to 64) has declined by 13 percent from the peak in 1995 to 75.96 million last year — and is forecast to fall below 70 million by 2030 and 60 million in 2040. Although more women and elderly people are joining the labour force, a manpower shortage is growing increasingly acute in many sectors as the economy continues to pick up.”

But economic need does not necessarily change people's perceptions. According to Professor Kaneti, “Immigrant groups will remain isolated. If the Japanese government wants to change perceptions, it needs to work on immigrants' integration and explain the benefit of immigration to the local population. There needs to be a lot of grassroots efforts.” She points to initiatives developed by organisations such as “Welcoming America,” that helps raise awareness and works with local communities to become more receptive of immigrants. “Initiating a community-to-community exchange is one of the best ways to help locals understand the benefits of diversity,” said Kaneti.

For example, immigration could possibly kickstart local entrepreneurship in Japan. “The majority of studies show immigrants are very entrepreneurial in seeking ways to earn income. They are often driven to send remittances back home, so they almost always seek employment or start their own businesses,” says Professor Kaneti. From the perspective of immigrants, an environment that is conducive to employment, entrepreneurial opportunities, and social benefits is always an attractive proposition and might offset concerns with high cost living or conservative communities.

It remains to be seen if Japan can find the right immigration policies to satisfy the needs of the economy, assuage the fears of the locals, and make it attractive to foreign workers. It also seems unlikely the country would open the doors wider, but despite its proud closed-door history, it may well find itself now battling for hard to attract overseas workers.

“Competition is said to be intensifying among Asian economies — particularly those facing demographic challenges similar to Japan — to attract good workers,” says the Japan Times. “For Japan to be chosen by foreign workers, the nation needs to prepare a good environment in which they can live and work. Ensuring equal levels of wages and social security as their Japanese counterparts will be the minimum necessity, and various measures to support their life in this country, including language aid, will be needed. Much work remains to be done.”