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To remain a global leader, Japan needs to open up immigration to accommodate its aging society, possibly to the point of allowing 647,000 immigrants to enter annually until 2050, a new study shows.

The study, “Reinventing Japan: Immigration’s Role in Shaping Japan’s Future,” was written for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace by Demetrios Papademetriou and Kimberly Hamilton.

Japan is poised to sink or swim, the study argues, and must open up to more permanent foreign workers “across the entire jobs continuum.”

These changes will ultimately lead to fundamental alterations to the social, political and legal systems.

Japan faced periods of great economic and social changes during the Meiji Restoration and the postwar era. But now it is poised for a “third opening,” because of its aging population and low birthrate, it said.

In the past, Japan’s immigration policies have been very strict, limited to foreign trainees, skilled workers and people of Japanese descent, “partially in fear of diluting its cherished culture.”

But there is also a large number of illegal foreign workers who settled in Japan in the 1990s. These workers are a sign of growing labor demand, it said.

Japan’s official policy is to “deny most — but particularly clandestine — foreigners’ benefits and rights,” it says.

“The Labor Ministry has argued that the admission of unskilled immigrant workers could lead to an avalanche of foreigners who would undermine Japan’s labor market and social cohesion,” it says.

“Foreign workers merely provide ailing and uncompetitive sectors with a fragile security, which in turn contributes to the health of the Japanese economy,” the authors said in their paper.

But Papademetriou said labor demand in Japan is also a talent issue — other countries have the workers with skills that Japan requires.

“So you can reach out to an increasingly plentiful labor pool and take in people you need,” he said.

Japan’s immigration policies will need to be amended, but the treatment of foreign workers will need to be addressed, it said.

Indeed, Japan may become a more open and free society. The new changes will require legislation on the issues of discrimination, social and human rights, protection for minorities and coming to terms with Japan becoming a multiethnic society, Papademetriou said.

“It has to do with the shedding of the insularity — the sense that there is this thing of Japanese exceptionalism,” he added.

“In the end, the judgment that history and the international community will have to pass on Japan is whether it behaved vis-a-vis these newcomers in a way that is consistent in terms of what advanced industrial democracies are supposed to do,” he said.

But more than just opening up, the study finds that Japan needs to prepare itself to become an international society.

“Japan may have to accept the burdens and challenges of the accompanying social, political and cultural transformations that immigration entails, including the loss of its carefully tailored homogeneity,” the study says.

The author said people from as many as 60 countries could migrate to Japan in search of work.

Papademetriou specializes in immigration, but he is mindful of the economic changes that are required for a more international Japan.

“There is a certain unshackling that has taken place, a move toward freedom and individuality that demands the rules of the game be changed — not to overtax or overregulate; allow industry to fail and banks to close; and allow for a more competitive capitalist system,” he said.

“You basically have to allow lower levels of government and business to operate in a more chaotic marketing code,” he added.

The changes required for future success will come at lightning speed. “We are saying that the changes are going to be almost revolutionary-fast by Japanese historical standards,” Papademetriou said.

The labor shortage in Japan may also grow into more opportunities for Japanese women, and also for the unemployed in the 18-24 and over-60 age categories, the study said.

“These findings also serve as a wakeup call to other industrialized countries — many of which face rapidly aging societies — to re-evaluate their immigration policies,” it said.

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