National / Politics

Japan's immigration policy rift widens as population decline forces need for foreign workers

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Shigeru Ishiba, minister in charge of reinvigorating local regions, says Japan should let in more immigrants to mitigate issues related to the nation’s declining population such as labor shortages.

Ishiba’s position highlights a growing rift in the Cabinet over easing the nation’s strict immigration policy.

“Japan’s population is shrinking. I believe (Japan) should further promote policy measures to accept immigrants,” Ishiba said in response to a question posed by a reporter during a news conference at the Foreign Press Center in Tokyo on Tuesday.

“At one time, people from Japan migrated to South and North America and managed to fit in with the locals while maintaining their pride as Japanese … It doesn’t make sense to say no to foreigners who come to Japan when our people did the same thing overseas,” Ishiba said.

Ishiba’s remarks followed similar calls from Taro Kono, the minister in charge of administrative reforms and who concurrently serves as chairman of National Public Safety Commission, which oversees the National Police Agency.

On Nov. 7 in Okinawa, Kono argued Japan should consider accepting more immigrants to help boost the country’s gross domestic product to ¥600 trillion from the current ¥490 trillion, a key economic target set by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

However, on Wednesday, when asked to comment on Ishiba’s remarks, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga indicated that the government is not currently reviewing its immigration policy.

The country should first focus on accepting more foreign labor in certain sectors, such as ship-building and construction, which is needed to prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games, Suga said.

He also said the country should make an effort to attract highly-skilled professionals in other areas as well.

“Foreign countries have undergone and experienced various difficulties in accepting immigrants. … We must first address the urgent needs I mentioned earlier,” Suga said.

Suga also noted that the government has already been “conducting comprehensive and concrete studies” on long-term immigration policy with a focus on “areas that actually need” more foreign workers.

According to a government forecast, the nation’s population, which stood at 127 million in 2013, would more than halve to 52 million in 2100 if the current low birth rate continues.

Many experts argue that letting in more immigrants could help mitigate a number of population-related issues, such as a contraction of the economy and the expected shortage of workers that will be needed to support the rapidly aging society.

But many conservative politicians, including Abe, are reluctant to ease immigration rules, particularly for unskilled foreign workers, apparently fearing social and economic tensions that could arise from the introduction of different ethnic groups.

During Tuesday’s news conference, Ishiba emphasized that wages and working conditions for non-Japanese workers should be equal to those for normal citizens.

“We shouldn’t expect foreigners to do jobs that Japanese people are reluctant to do,” Ishiba said.

“We should implement measures to remove as many obstacles as possible for foreigners working in Japan, including those related to languages and customs,” he said.

At the news conference, Ishiba went on to highlight the serious situation the nation finds itself in with the “super-aging” process and low birth rate. He also discussed the massive migration of people from rural areas to the Tokyo metropolitan area.