Japan’s foreign workers policy riddled with contradictions, says lawmaker

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

As the government tells it, Japan doesn’t accept unskilled foreign labor. Except it does.

For example, a state-sponsored technical internship program brings in a slew of foreign “trainees” every year, ostensibly to provide instruction in advanced industrial methods. But in reality, the trainees provide a surreptitious source of cheap labor, with many being consigned to blue-collar jobs such as factory work.

For Yoshio Kimura, an Upper House legislator with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the contradiction is obvious to the point of being ridiculous.

“They are, in reality, foreign labor, but the government keeps saying they are not,” according to the lawmaker. “It’s almost equal to pretending crows are white.”

A special LDP committee chaired by Kimura will submit a package of proposals to the government later this month that, if realized, will signify a landmark policy shift in an immigration-averse nation.

In the face of an ever-worsening population crisis and the alarmingly rapid thinning-out of the domestic workforce, Japan, Kimura says, can no longer rely on what is dubbed a “backdoor” acceptance of foreign labor.

Instead, he said, what is needed is a drastic policy change that embraces such individuals with open arms — a rare view among the ranks of his fellow conservative LDP lawmakers.

“Unless we become serious about letting in foreign workers, Japan’s growth will only lose steam — and it will happen fast. Now is the last chance,” he said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

The committee tasked with exploring ways to secure sources of labor will urge the government to open its door beyond existing “skilled” professionals, to include manual laborers, particularly in undermanned areas such as nursing care, agriculture and construction.

One of the proposals states those workers will be granted entry to the country on a renewable five-year visa that would effectively pave the way for their settlement in Japan.

It also calls for the improvement of domestic policies to accommodate such individuals, with a view to doubling the number of foreign workers from the current 908,000. They should be paid on par with Japanese workers, too, according to the proposal.

Coming at a sensitive time when the LDP is bracing for a pivotal Upper House election this summer, the proposal states that its policy suggestions are separate from official “immigration policy,” which dovetails with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s past assertions that Japan “is not considering accepting immigrants.”

The notion of allowing in immigrants has long been frowned upon in a country where conservative concerns run deep and there is a widely held conviction that an influx of foreigners may lead to increased crime, deprive Japanese people of jobs and lower wages.

To differentiate its proposals from government immigration policy, Kimura’s committee has identified immigrants as those who get permanent residency upon entering Japan, while the workers the proposals cover are those with limited work visas that require renewal.

Despite denying there is any overlap, the lawmaker was surprisingly candid in arguing that foreign workers — assuming they pay taxes and social security premiums — are welcome to stay in Japan as long as they wish.

“The labor shortage here is very serious, with Japan expecting a drop in its growth,” Kimura said. “Foreign workers are a key to its efforts to maintain the economy, because it’s obvious the growth strategy driven by monetary and fiscal policies has approached a limit.”

Japan already lags significantly behind other island economies, such as Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, in embracing cultural and ethnic diversity, he said.

“What happens by letting these folks in is that they will spend, pay pension premiums and, if they happen to take a liking to Japan, they will even bring in more people from back home. That would be of huge national interest to us,” Kimura said. “So why brush them off?”

Toshihiro Menju, managing director at the Japan Center for International Exchange, a think tank in Tokyo, hailed the proposals being made by Kimura’s committee as a “landmark” breakthrough and described them as a harbinger of Japan’s virtual transformation into an immigration society.

No matter how the committee defines the word immigrants, “should the government provide these unskilled foreign workers with an option of settling, it will send out a message to the international community that Japan has indeed adopted a more open immigration policy,” Menju said.

Menju, however, warned that Japan’s dogged refusal to acknowledge such workers as immigrants or take steps to help them resettle here, such as investing in language training, did not bode well for future foreign workers.

“The lack of these efforts risks marginalizing foreign workers to the point where they are regarded as some sort of second-class citizen, and would delay their integration into Japanese society.”