For a long period of time Japan has been one of the world’s most homogenous countries; and even today only 2% of the population is foreign born. This is especially unusual given that large GDP countries like Japan generally tend to attract immigrants. But lately there is more and more evidence that their migration policies are finally going to be changed.
Japan seems poised to begin accepting more immigrants, and given the opportunity, the appearance of large flows of people seeking blue-collar work is only a matter of time. It is a major breakthrough that reveals new challenges. There is still work to do to make it an effective measure.
In June the government announced it would create a “designated skills” visa in order to accept 500,000 new workers by 2025, specifically in agriculture, construction, hospitality, nursing and shipbuilding.
That even Japan has agreed to accept migrants suggests it may be the only solution for mature economies to maintain productivity growth. In this case the strongest reason for the shift comes from the shrinking working-age population.According to the government data the number of workers in Japan is projected to fall by 7.9 million, or 12.4%, to 55.61 million in 2030. Its population of around 128 million is expected to fall to 86 million by 2060, with the proportion of people aged 65 or over reaching nearly 40% of that total, according to government forecasts. It goes without saying that like many other developed countries there is a struggle regarding low birthrates for decades.
In its initial efforts to overcome this worrying tendency, the government focused on getting more women and old people into work while also using artificial intelligence to fill shortages in the labor force. In 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said: “There are many things that we should do before accepting immigrants”, which means that just three years ago the government believed that it was possible to develop without changing the migration policy.
Another hidden phenomenon that restrained government from opening borders was the cult of workaholism. Japanese people are known for working hard and regularly accepting overtime hours. This was an extra resource that business could use to substitute the lack of workers. But on the other hand these overloaded employees are sometimes faced by “Karoshi”, a special Japanese word for death from overwork. Hardly a week goes without a grim report about some overzealous worker in the prime of his life who had succumbed to a too great workload. In a demographic sense, that means they are no longer there to support the economy.
It was not only the awareness of national-level demographic factors that pushed the government to accept a change in policy but also local business groups begun campaigning hard for opening the market to foreign labor. They want foreigners to help them remain competitive and become more global. Currently there are 60% more job vacancies than there are people looking for work! Industries such as agriculture and construction, as well as nursing, are increasingly dependent on foreigners.
It is not a secret that foreign workers are a crucial but usually underappreciated motor of the economy.A large influx of migrants can drive production, but will often lead to reductions in wages. It will encourage struggling companies to stay in business, as freshcheap labor will bring a second chance for them to lower prices and open up new export markets. Businesses may be incentivized to exploit foreign workers in order to remain competitive. And this is a serious risk.
One interesting detail about the recent Japanese government announcement was that it voiced their willingness to admit lower-skilled workers openly, rather than through the back door. It is definitely a sign of progress, when compared to the prior government which had relied on informal methods such as immigration loopholes, special internship programs, and other programs technically described as ‘trainings’. Beyond a short period of language study, most trainees received little or no instruction that would distinguish them from regular manual laborers. These programs became a way around Japanese immigration restrictions, striking a compromise between Japan’s labor shortage and its ban on low-wage immigration. In the end hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers poured through these loopholes. They primarily came from China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Cambodia.
The changes in Japanese migration politics are a true necessity and new reality for the national economy. Perhaps not only in Japan, the opening of borders becomes the last quick solution for balancing the supply and demand for a labor force.But this practice raises another issue. The growth of migrants has led to an increase in cases of worker abuse and fraud.
It is important that the government implements policies allowing for strict regulation of foreign labor. The fair and equal upholding of standards for all workers native or foreign should be the first priority for Japanese labor officials and civil society labor activists. In addition, it is time for Japan to develop a serious long-term integration policy, even if it opens a complicated public debate on what that will entail. As the number of immigrants rises, and especially as more low-skilled workers are admitted, the continued absence of a real, publicly-endorsed integration policy threatens to contribute to the very concerns that prompted the government to restrict immigration in the first place, such as ghettoization, structural poverty, and criminality. Both the national government and local communities should work towards conditions in which there will be a commitment to good relations between natives and foreigners in terms of language, customs, religion and other cultural spheres.
The last frontier is passed. In the globalized world it is impossible to remain surrounded by walls. Aging population and pressure from business are a big reason behind the change. The Japanese border opening represents a new life for both migrants and local residents. But the changed migration policy can lead to either a general gain or a general loss. Only the presence of integrative actions for newcomers and updated labor law will determine what kind of new life this will become.1 comment