The government needs to look at the broader picture and actively work to open the domestic labor market to unskilled workers so Japan is not alienated from the global community.

That is according to Kazuo Kumagai, who headed a Foreign Ministry panel that last week compiled a report urging the government to create a national consensus on accepting more unskilled labor from abroad amid the rapid graying of society.

“Opening our doors to more foreign labor will lead to Japan’s revitalization,” Kumagai said. “Despite voices of opposition, we need to resolve the issue so as not to isolate ourselves from international society.”

The government should spearhead the debate on opening up to foreign labor, the senior adviser to Hitachi Ltd. said in an interview with The Japan Times, adding that purported negative effects, such as an increase in crime committed by foreigners, can be kept in check by drafting legislation as necessary.

The Council on the Movement of People across Borders submitted its report to Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura on Tuesday, urging the government to look squarely at the present state and needs of Japanese society and seek a national consensus on the idea of accepting more unskilled foreign labor.

Japan has encouraged foreigners with certain skills, including engineers and academics, to work in the country.

However, it has basically refused to allow unskilled people to enter due to such fears as a deterioration in Japan’s labor conditions, a rise in crime and concerns that overall social costs could increase with a huge influx of such workers, according to a report issued by the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau.

Nevertheless, the government estimates that about 580,000 of some 760,000 foreigners currently in Japan — including illegal residents — are engaged in unskilled labor. A large number of them are foreigners of Japanese descent or those who initially came to Japan as company trainees or exchange students.

Some critics found fault with the report’s wording, saying it was too ambiguous and that it should have stated clearly that Japan needs to open up to unskilled foreign labor.

Kumagai brushed aside such criticism, saying the document was in itself an accomplishment.

“This is the first time (any policy advisory body) has urged the government to discuss the issue of unskilled foreign labor,” he argued. “The issue had been put on the back burner until now.”

Kumagai admitted that most of the council’s 20 members — largely members of academia, the private sector and administrative circles — wanted clearer wording that would help pave the way for unskilled foreign labor.

However, in the end they settled for more equivocal phrases out of consideration for those who oppose the idea, he said.

“Our message is to strongly urge the government to deal with the issue with sincerity,” he said. “The report is just a first step.”

He called on the government to move fast in setting up a body to discuss issues pertaining to foreigners in Japan. It would involve a wide range of governmental organizations, including the justice, foreign, education and health ministries.

Conflict among the ministries was another reason why debate on unskilled foreign labor made little headway in the past, Kumagai said, adding the differences could still be seen as various bureaucrats presented their views to the council.

Kumagai expressed concern over various problems that foreigners such as Chinese, Brazilians, Filipinos and Peruvians face in their daily lives. The panel report calls these foreigners “newcomers,” as opposed to ethnic Koreans in Japan, who while making up the largest group are gradually shrinking in number.

These “newcomers” are often exploited, suffering from poor working conditions and unpaid wages, and are usually excluded from the nationwide health care or pension systems.

Statistics compiled by municipalities with a high concentration of foreigners show that about 20 percent to 30 percent of school-age children of such parents do not go to school and become delinquent.

“Local governments are doing their utmost, but there is a limit to what they can do,” he said.

Among the council members was Yasuyuki Kitawaki, mayor of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, where about 4 percent of the population is non-Japanese.

Kitawaki’s input during the council meetings provided firsthand accounts of the realities surrounding foreigners in Japan, Kumagai said.

“Japan cannot avoid these issues when mapping out a future vision of the nation,” he stressed. “The government needs to face them with a firm resolve.”

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