Foreign workers are not robots

Regarding the May 19 article “Success of ‘Abenomics’ hinges on immigration policy“: Japan’s demographic, economic and social future must be planned beyond Abenomics. What the Abe administration seems to be hinting at — an “immigration” policy divorced from an “immigrant” policy — is a symptom of Japanese exceptionalism that would turn Japan into a Galapagos society of the aged and welfare-dependent.

Separating immigration policy from immigrant policy is possible only conceptually; practically it has proven impossible in virtually every country that has introduced a temporary foreign worker program. Many “temporary” workers become “permanent” — but illegal — residents.

That’s because foreign workers are people, just like the nationals, who have human needs and capacities to fall in love, procreate, live with spouses and children, enjoy friendships and fellowships developed with coworkers and neighbors, and enjoy what the host country has to offer beyond the short period of time they are legally permitted to work.

Besides, many of them will have little or no incentive to return to their country of origin or move to another country. To expect all or most “temporary” workers to “return home” is to expect them to behave not like people but like robots.

Equally, if not more important, Japan needs these people to remain in Japan to contribute to the nation’s economic vitality not only as workers but also as consumers. They will have the incentive to produce inasmuch as their knowledge and skills allow them. They will become normal consumers of goods and services only if they are allowed to plan their lives for longer terms as members of Japanese society.

If Japan ignores these basic and irrefutable facts and insists on permitting foreign workers to stay in the country for only a few years, businesses will end up with growing numbers of disgruntled but otherwise productive employees, and there will be an expanding pool of illegal foreign nationals throughout the country. Once they become “illegal,” they will be vulnerable to human rights violations and labor rights abuses and even criminality. There will be employers and criminal organizations who will exploit them.

If Japan wants foreign workers to contribute to the Japanese economy, they must be allowed — better yet, encouraged — to contribute to Japanese society as legal and long-term residents. If Japan liberalizes its immigration policy — and, yes, immigrant policy — there will be a substantial net gain for Japan, a revitalized economy and a welcoming society.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics would provide an excellent opportunity to introduce to the world an open Japan that understands the realities of international migration.

tsuneo akaha
salinas, california

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.