National / Social Issues | DEMOGRAPHIC CHALLENGES

Government weighs immigration to maintain population, boost workforce

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

This is the last of a five-part series on Japan’s population woes caused by its graying society and low birthrate.

A shrinking population has long been an issue for an increasingly graying Japan.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September announced administrative measures seeking to maintain a population of at least 100 million people over the next 50 years with a target of significantly raising the fertility rate to 1.8 — a figure the government says is reachable if people today marry and have as many children as they wish.

The government worries that if the fertility rate — 1.42 in 2014 — continues to remain low, the population will dip to about 80 million by 2065 and even 40 million by 2115, causing a significant labor shortage and decline in people’s standard of living due to reduced economies of scale.

However, considering the difficulty of meeting the population target by only raising the fertility rate, the government has also been discussing accepting more immigrants. In February 2014, the Cabinet Office revealed that Japan will likely only be able to maintain a population of more than 100 million if it accepts 200,000 immigrants annually from 2015 and the total fertility rate recovers to 2.07 by 2030.

But accepting such massive numbers of immigrants is currently unrealistic given Abe’s reluctance to open the doors to immigrants to stay permanently, except for those the government regards as skilled professionals.

Instead, Abe is planning to expand the foreign trainee program to solve labor shortages in industries such as construction, which faces increased demand for labor ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Some of Abe’s aides, including Shigeru Ishiba, minister in charge of reinvigorating regions, and Taro Kono, minister in charge of administrative reforms, have recently claimed Japan should accept more immigrants to counter its dwindling workforce.

According to the labor ministry, there were about 790,000 registered foreign workers as of the end of October 2014, with the largest number — 39.6 percent — coming from China. Among them, some 145,000 people — about 18.5 percent— are working as foreign trainees.

Amid continuing debate over the country’s immigration policy, The Japan Times has interviewed two experts — Eriko Suzuki, a professor at Tokyo’s Kokushikan University specializing in foreign labor issues, and Yoichi Kaneko, an Upper House member of the Democratic Party of Japan — to examine the pros and cons of accepting immigrants as a measure to overcome the nation’s shrinking population.

Eriko Suzuki : Japan needs immigration overhaul to better accommodate non-Japanese

As a researcher who studies demography, Eriko Suzuki says the government will not be able to meet its population goal of 100 million people in 2065 without depending on immigrants.

Eriko Suzuki says she hopes discussions on accepting immigrants helps change the poor working conditions of foreign workers in Japan.
Eriko Suzuki says she hopes discussions on accepting immigrants helps change the poor working conditions of foreign workers in Japan. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

But she also pointed out that accepting them should not be considered as merely a way to fill the labor shortage, as strongly pushed by various industries.

“Given the seriousness of the situation with the dwindling population, it’s clear that accepting immigrants is unavoidable. But to do that, we would have to clear problems in the current immigration system,” Suzuki said.

Suzuki said she hoped such discussions over conditions to accept immigrants would help change poor working conditions for many foreign workers currently living and working in Japan.

She said their problems would continue if the country failed to address the issue.

“Many foreign people are working in this country as de facto immigrants,” she said.

Suzuki said the foreign trainee program was a prime example of the problems faced by foreign workers.

The program started in 1993 as an “international contribution” to transfer skills and knowledge to workers from developing countries by letting them work at Japanese firms in such industries as textiles, farming and construction for up to three years.

But Suzuki pointed out the “international contribution” was a mere facade to use trainees for a fixed term with far lower wages than the minimum set by municipalities.

She said the system was also problematic because hiring foreign trainees, who will go back home after a few years, discouraged employers from improving their working conditions.

This eventually made those workplaces unattractive for Japanese workers as well, she said.

“Many of these companies are located in rural areas, and I believe this has been one of the factors that causes the outflow of the rural population,” as many young Japanese leave to look for better job opportunities in cities, she said.

Rather, Suzuki said Japan should widen the scope of employment-based visas to accept more foreign laborers officially as immigrants and offer them options to stay longer in the country by inviting their families.

She said she believed the government was hesitant to ease visa regulations because it was afraid of the immigration problems experienced in Europe after World War II, when many people lost their jobs after the economy took a downward turn.

To keep Japan from experiencing the same mistake, Suzuki stressed three “barriers” need to be removed: a “systemic barrier” that hindered immigrants from receiving the same social services as Japanese, a “sentimental barrier” — prejudice against foreign nationals as typified in hate speech, and the “language barrier” that needed to be addressed to improve the lives of immigrant families.

Measures should be taken soon, Suzuki said, before the economic gap between Japan and some immigrants’ home countries narrows and it becomes harder to attract them here.

“Japan today surely is not as economically attractive as before, but many foreign people living here praise this country’s safety, saying women can walk around at night and property left on streets at night rarely gets stolen. They also praise Japanese people’s kindness,” she said.

“The population of this country will eventually increase if we could make these people want to stay for a long term.”

Yoichi Kaneko: Immigration comes at cost to society, technology development

A self-professed conservative in the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan, Yoichi Kaneko said he opposed the idea of opening Japan’s doors to more immigrants as it could result in higher costs for the rest of society.

Yoichi Kaneko says accepting more immigrants could bring about a large financial and social burden on Japan.
Yoichi Kaneko says accepting more immigrants could bring about a large financial and social burden on Japan. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

A former economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Kaneko said the most active advocate of welcoming immigrants was the corporate world, which wanted to use foreign workers on low wages. But he said this overlooked the broader costs of housing immigrants, such as education and health care.

“The only cost companies will pay by accepting immigrants is just their salaries,” he said. But if the nation is accepting immigrants as long-term workers, “we have to think of managing their pensions and their unemployment insurance, as well as giving them a chance to learn Japanese,” he said.

Many immigrants are likely to bring families with them, and Japan will have to shoulder the expenses of providing proper social and educational support for them as well, he added.

Rather than relying on immigrants, Kaneko said Japan should overcome its labor shortages by developing “labor-saving technologies” that allow people to work with less manpower, which he believed will underpin the future of Japan’s economy.

“Take the nursing care industry, for instance. We can develop something like nursing robots or wearable robotics” to reduce the burden on caregivers who performed such tasks as lifting people up, he said.

If the nation depended on immigrants to solve the labor shortage immediately, “we would cease efforts to develop these kind of technologies,” Kaneko said, adding that Japan might also lose the chance to become a leading exporter of such technologies.

However, Kaneko said he believed the foreign trainee program was a good one for both the worker source countries looking to improve their industries and for Japan as it sought to fill labor shortages and make global contributions.

But the reality of the program didn’t reflect its designated purpose, he said, adding that Japan’s international reputation would be seriously damaged if the current situation continued, where many trainees are confined in dirty rooms and forced to work at below minimum wage.

“Most of the trainees are people who come to Japan with high expectations for working in our country. If we can treat them properly, they would become fond of Japan,” Kaneko said. “But some companies treat them badly and make them dislike Japan.”

In order to accomplish the aim of the program, trainees’ human rights should be respected, he added.

Kaneko said Japan currently was not the most appealing choice for immigrants to come and work, with better salaries offered in other places, such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, due to the weaker yen.

He said these locations also had a language advantage over Japan, because many immigrants from Asia today spoke either Chinese or English.

Instead of pursuing immigrants to support Japan’s economy as a labor force, Kaneko said Japan should continue efforts to attract more foreign visitors, such as Chinese on their bakugai shopping spree, to prop up consumption.

“To be honest, I can’t imagine how Japan will be” if it accepted more immigrants, Kaneko said, adding that it had not openly done this to date and lacked knowledge on how to make the country livable for both Japanese and foreign residents.