Japan is not ready or willing to accept an immigrant influx, says Barry Brophy

One of the great givens regarding Japan’s aging population and declining birthrate is that an influx of immigrants, or “replacement migration,” is needed if the nation’s pension burden is not to become unmanageable, and the shrinking labor force harm the economy.

The introduction of foreign labor is an established and successful means of relieving labor shortages and, as has been the case in the U.S., a cause of increased productivity.

However, the promotion of large scale, long term immigration when applied to Japan at this time is flawed in several key respects.

Most crucially, assuming large numbers of immigrants were admitted, what kind of welcome would they receive?

The government, even at a time when it moots replacement migration as a possible answer to the aging issue, aggressively seeks to marginalize the existing foreign population, from running absurd campaigns against foreign crime to refusing to enact even the most basic of human rights legislation for foreigners.

If Japan is to seriously consider increasing immigration, then it must also be serious about creating a social and legal framework that allows for the successful long-term integration of immigrants into society. There is none at present.

Recent survey results that show a majority of Japanese in support of immigration remain dominated by the question of illegal workers.

These results reflect legislative attitudes here, which have seen the passage only of laws designed to control foreigners and absolutely none to protect them from discrimination.

Even existing legal foreign residents, who are fully paid-up members of the tax, pension and insurance systems, can have difficulty in obtaining loans, finding accommodation and getting served in bars.

In other words, while Japan is having trouble coping with the foreign population that’s already here, it should hardly be talking about increasing it substantially.

It is argued and accepted that foreigners are needed to fill labor shortages caused by an aging population and decline in birthrate. But labor import assumes that Japan can attract skilled and absorb unskilled workers. Neither is certain.

Rigid and often non-performing management structures, a lack of career advancement opportunities, short term contracts, and an emphasis on seniority over skill make Japanese companies unattractive to the qualified, skilled worker.

If unskilled foreign workers are brought in to fill the labor gap — and they would come — then the profile of these workers in Japan must change; from one of doing the jobs that Japanese won’t do themselves, to one of filling employment needs when and where they arise.

These workers must also be offered the rights, rewards and status enjoyed by Japanese workers, and steps taken to fully assimilate them.

At present, however, officialdom appears far happier to turn a blind eye to illegal — and essential — foreign labor and then target it as a source of social problems when political expediency dictates.

And the debate on immigration also ignores one basic demographic fact: immigrants also age.

A 2001 report by the U.N.’s population division on whether replacement migration is a solution to the problem of an aging society concluded that Japan will need to admit over 530 million immigrants by 2050 to maintain the current support ratio between pensioners and workers.

The report concluded that large-scale immigration was presently unsuitable for Japan since there is no precedent for admitting and assimilating large numbers of foreigners.

Japan is not unique in this sense, but the oversimplification of the issue of immigration here, ostensibly to avoid discussion and solution of integration problems, makes useful debate on the subject difficult.

Until that debate does take place, it is neither responsible or realistic to argue for replacement migration.

More migration to Japan is inevitable, so we should start getting used to the idea, says Debito Arudou

This is not an essay arguing the merits of immigration. It would be like arguing for or against the sunrise. Simply put, migration to Japan is inevitable.

It may be hard to envision Japan as an “international society,” but that is precisely what is happening. The number of registered foreigners (those here on three-month visas and up) will probably top two million this year — yet another record. International marriages number around 40,000 couples per year, up by a third from just five years ago.

“Illegal foreigners” says the government, number at least 250,000 souls — many brought in, supported and exploited by both above-board and underground industries.

Demographics aside, foreigners are now an intrinsic part of the economy. To ameliorate Japan’s corporate “hollowing out” from outsourcing abroad, the government in 1990 created visas to bring in cheap foreign workers as “trainees” etc, i.e. people who would work for half minimum wage and few welfare benefits.

Result: 250,000 South American laborers have suddenly become Japan’s third-largest foreign minority — their population percentage in some areas reaching double digits.

Shukan Diamondo (June 5, 2004) reported that Japan’s 760,000 foreign workers, some working 22-hour days, are now powering companies like Toyota, Suzuki, Sanyo, Honda, and Yamaha. During a crackdown on Chinese last year due to fears of SARS, factories in ruralities like Shikoku simply closed down.

Fact is, Japan needs foreigners. And they will come.

Japan’s economy is bigger than all the other Asian economies combined — which means the pull is irresistible. And this is not unprecedented. According to John Lie’s book “Multiethnic Japan,” Japan had a higher percentage of “foreigners” (i.e. migrants from Japan’s colonies) in the population during World War Two. Yes, many were brought here as forced labor, but when the postwar government tried to kick them out (by depriving them of citizenship and registering them like criminals), some still stayed on.

Why? They had roots and livelihoods. Some, despite everything, preferred it here.

Nowadays there is even more to like in Japan.

“Immigrant” might sound too hopeful a term, but remember: many peoples — more than 75 percent — are not from Anglophone countries, and their lifestyles are largely invisible to Japan’s English-language media.

So they come, stay on, learn the language, negotiate for what they need, and create roots and livelihoods of their own.

I am not an expert in issues of immigration or globalization, so I will not further quantify migration’s side benefits: beefing up Japan’s taxation base, funding future social services for an aging society, rescuing the educational system . . .

So let me focus on common sense:

Postwar Japan got rich through access to the international market.

Nowadays all developed nations are dealing with issues of migrant workers and immigration.

But Japan in particular is making a hash of it. The government is having trouble treating foreigners like human beings, let alone as contributing residents, by denying them civil rights or legal protections.

But to those who think that Japan will never change, read your history.

At least three times in the past 150 years (the Meiji Restoration, the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, and defeat in 1945), Japanese society essentially turned on a dime.

It saw the writing on the wall, mobilized, and — for better or worse — worked miracles. It can happen.

The writing is on the wall again. Foreigners are coming, many to stay. Short of closing its borders, banning international marriage, stripping the foreigners already here of property rights, or driving the rural economies further into bankruptcy, migration is an inevitable part of the landscape. Live with it.

What do you think?
E-mail your views on the replacement migration question in Japan to community@japantimes.co.jp Two respondents will each get a Japanese phrasebook

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.