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Japan’s revolving-door immigration policy hard-wired to fail

by Debito Arudou

Last December, the Japanese government announced that a new visa regime with a “points system” would be introduced this spring.

It is designed to attract 2,000 non-Japanese (NJ) with a “high degree of capability” (kōdo jinzai), meaning people with high salaries, impeccable educational and vocational pedigrees, specialized technical knowledge and excellent managerial/administrative skills.

Those lucky foreign millionaire Ph.Ds beating a path to this land of opportunity would get preferential visa treatment: five-year visas, fast-tracking to permanent residency, work status for spouses — even visas to bring their parents and “hired housekeepers” along.

Sweet. But then comes the fine print: You must get 70 points on the Justice Ministry’s qualifying scale (see www.moj.go.jp/content/000083223.pdf) And it’s tough, really tough. Take the test and see if you qualify (I don’t). Symptomatic of decisions by committee, it’s a salad of idealized preferences without regard for real-world application. There’s even a funny sliding scale where you get more points the longer you’ve worked, yet fewer points the older you get.

Interesting is how low Japanese language ability is weighted: only 10 points — in a “bonus” category. One would have assumed that people communicative in Japan’s lingua franca would be highly prized (especially when the call for kōdo jinzai is in Japanese only).

However, I would argue the opposite: Crowds of NJ completely fluent in Japanese are exactly what the government does not want. Visa regimes with illiterate foreigners facing insurmountable hurdles are what maintain Japan’s revolving-door labor market.

For example, consider 2008′s visa program to import elderly-care nurses from the Philippines and Indonesia.

These NJ were all qualified nurses in their own countries, so their only real obstacle was the Japanese language. Yet this visa program required that they pass the same nursing exam that native speakers sit. Within a time limit of three years. Otherwise they lose their visas and get sent home.

This, coupled with a full-time job (of humiliating unskilled labor, including bathing patients and setting tables) and insufficient institutional support for learning kanji, ensured they would fail. And they did: The Yomiuri (Jan. 5) reported that 95 percent of the Indonesians tested over the past three years did not pass — and more than half (even one of those who did pass) have gone home. Future applications have since dried up.

This begs the question: If learning written Japanese was so important, why didn’t the government hire nurses from kanji-literate China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan? Because, I guess, that would be too easy, and we’d get hordes of skilled Chinese. Undeterred by policy failure, the country being asked next for nurses is — drum roll, please — Vietnam.

Now consider another regime: 1990s nikkei South Americans’ special “repatriation” visas.

The nikkei were invited to come to this country based on the assumption that somehow their Japanese blood would make them more assimilable (see Just Be Cause, April 7, 2009). Wrong. So, after nearly two decades of working full-time keeping Japan’s export industries price-competitive, the nikkei were told after 2008′s economic downturn that they were no longer employable. Because of — you guessed it — their lack of Japanese ability.

The government offered only 1 percent of the nikkei any retraining, and the rest for a limited time only a free plane ride home (forfeiting their unemployment insurance and pension claims, natch).

Out they went. Over the past three years, the Brazilian population alone has dropped more than 8 percent per annum, and it’s accelerating. They will probably dip below the fourth-place minority (Filipinos) next year.

Now triangulate this with concurrent “trainee” and “researcher” visa regimes, bringing in even cheaper (sometimes slave-labor) NJ from all the other less-developed countries. Applicants were once again lured with false promises of “training” or “research,” only to be given unskilled labor like cleaning pig sties or pounding sheet metal. And, once again, their visas only lasted one to three years. Back home they mostly went.

I think we can safely say that Japan’s working-visa regimes (including, if you think about it, even the JET Programme) are deliberately designed to discourage most NJ from ever settling here. Given this context, let’s now consider this new “points system.”

While I am in favor of having an objective and reviewable program (for a change) for granting visas, it is still no substitute for a real immigration policy. All of Japan’s visas are temporary migration policies; this new one just aims for a rich elite with a housekeeping entourage.

Not to worry: It will fail to bring in any significant numbers of foreigners. By design. For in this era of unprecedented levels of international migration, think about the incentives available to all governments to use exclusivity as a weapon.

Here’s what I mean: One of the prerogatives of a sovereign nation-state is the ability to make laws about who is a “member” of its society (i.e., a citizen) and who isn’t (i.e., a foreigner).

Axiomatic is that citizens have full rights and foreigners have fewer, meaning that the latter is in a weakened position in society.

This is how countries exploit people: Give them visas that don’t let them get too settled, because foreigners who stay indefinitely might put down roots, agitate for more rights as contributors to society, even — shudder — take out citizenship and expect to be treated like citizens.

So Japan’s visa regimes use criteria that practically guarantee foreigners stay disenfranchised — such as low language ability. After all, an unassimilated foreign populace without the means to communicate their needs remains the perpetual “other.” Then you can siphon off their best working years, send them home with a simple visa nonrenewal, and never have to pay back their social contributions and investments.

But if a nation-state can set boundaries on membership, it must also set criteria for how people can surmount those boundaries and graduate into becoming members — in this case, making foreigners into Japanese citizens.

If it doesn’t, it becomes clear that the goal is to deliberately create a weakened subset of the labor force that can be politically disenfranchised and permanently exploited. This can go on for generations, as the zainichi Koreans and Chinese might attest.

However, for Japan these visa scams are no longer sustainable. Demographically, Japan needs more laborers to pay its taxes, work its factories and service sectors, and support its aging society. It needs measures to make Japan open enough to get people to stay — like, for instance, a law against racial discrimination, protecting residents regardless of nationality from prejudice and inequality. But no.

Still, it really doesn’t matter now, because the jig is up. With decades of economic stagnation and now falling incomes, people are staying away from Japan. After an unbroken rise for 48 years, the registered NJ population in 2011 dropped for the third consecutive year.

International labor is bypassing Japan for other rich countries — those with more accommodating labor practices, more open import/export markets, a more internationally useful language to learn, and a less irradiated food chain.

Japan has the option to believe that immigrants do not belong in Japan’s future. On the other hand, potential immigrants have the option to watch from afar as Japan withers into an economic backwater. Again, by design.

Discussions on this issue can be found at debito.org/?p=9848 and debito.org/?p=9809. Debito Arudou’s latest book is “In Appropriate” (www.debito.org/inappropriate.html) Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send your comments to community@japantimes.co.jp