When it comes to public safety and terrorism in Japan, nobody probably knows the situation better than Takaji Kunimatsu.

The former chief of the National Police Agency dealt with a number of high-profile crimes during his career, including the 1972 Asama Sanso Incident, a hostage standoff by five armed members of the United Red Army, and a series of terrorist attacks by Aum Shinrikyo, including the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

While Japan has yet to come under domestic attack by foreign terrorist groups such as Islamic State, experts and many in society fear that the country could face such a risk as more people visit, study and work here.

Kunimatsu, however, sees it slightly differently and is now spearheading a campaign for Japan to accept more people from abroad to solve its population woes.

“People have a perception that police by and large are against immigration, and they think I am crazy,” Kunimatsu, who himself fell victim to a terrorist attack, said in an interview with The Japan Times this week.

Ten days after the March 1995 gas attack, which sent shock waves through the government and law enforcement, and eight days after police launched raids on Aum, Kunimatsu was shot and severely wounded in front of his home in Tokyo. Kunimatsu took three bullets — in the abdomen and other parts of his body. He retired as NPA chief in 1997.

“But if you think carefully, you would understand why it’s important to have a proper system to accept and treat foreign residents better, not only to cope with population decline but also to boost public safety.”

Kunimatsu’s proposal comes at a time when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continues to shy away from any real discussion on immigration policy, due in part to strong public fears that opening the country to immigrants might endanger public safety.

But in Kunimatsu’s view, the biggest issue that confronts Japan right now is not national security or the economy — two of Abe’s policy priorities — but population decline.

The prime minister has addressed the depopulation problem by trying to utilize more women, including mothers, as well as the elderly, as untapped sources of labor and by building child care centers and extending the retirement age. But Kunimatsu said these measures were not enough to fill the labor gap, and Tokyo should seriously consider immigration.

Kunimatsu added, however, that Japan should be selective about the kind of qualities it values when accepting foreign residents, such as their Japanese proficiency or willingness to live peacefully with other members of society, as well as their potential to contribute to Japan and their desire to establish their lives here.

“Of course we do not want to accept people who would harm public safety,” Kunimatsu said, noting he tries to avoid using the term imin (immigrants) as it has negative connotations among some people in Japan. He opts for the term teiju gaikokujin (long-term foreign residents).

“We need a sustainable system to accept foreigners as residents.”

Despite resistance to large-scale immigration, the number of non-Japanese residents is on a steady increase. As of the end of June last year, the country had more than 2.3 million non-Japanese residents, up more than 110,000, or a 5.2 percent increase, on the previous year. Foreign nationals in Japan now account for about 1.8 percent of the total population of 127 million.

And the government has been upping its efforts to invite highly-skilled workers — white-collar specialists, including researchers, engineers and top business managers. The government in 2012 introduced a points system through which it grades foreign workers by such attributes as income, occupation, academic background and professional achievement.

People with 70 points or more under the system are classified as “highly skilled professionals” and are now eligible for permanent residency in five years at the earliest, a process that would normally take 10 years.

The Justice Ministry last month said that it is revamping the system further so permanent residency can be obtained as early as in one year. As of June, 2,688 foreigners were considered highly skilled professionals.

Yet Kunimatsu said that Japan should also create an easier path for those who are not considered highly skilled workers to obtain permanent residency. Foreign trainees and foreign students, totaling more than 258,000 and 211,000, respectively, deserve such special treatment, he said.

Japan launched the trainee system in 1993 under the premise of making an “international contribution” by transferring its advanced industrial skills and expertise to developing countries. But the program has been heavily criticized both at home and abroad as a way to import cheap labor in sectors suffering from chronic worker shortages, such as farming and fishing.

The trainees, many of whom are overworked, underpaid and even sometimes sexually harassed, can only work in Japan for three years and have to return home after the program.

Japanese firms have not fully tapped the talent of foreign students who wish to stay in Japan, either.

According to the education ministry, 65 percent of the 39,650 foreign students who completed undergraduate or graduate study in 2013 wished to work in Japan, but less than 13,000 — or 50 percent of them — are estimated to have landed jobs.

A 2015 survey of 198 Japanese companies by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, meanwhile, showed that 38.9 percent of respondents said foreign job-seekers had problems with their Japanese language ability and 36.9 percent found them lacking an understanding of Japanese work customs.

Kunimatsu said these people were de-facto immigrants, adding that, according to the United Nations, anyone who lives in a foreign country for more than three months is an immigrant.

Kunimatsu maintained that Japan should recognize them as valuable members of society and treat them better, as it could face intensifying competition in securing foreign labor in the future with countries such as China.

“We need a career path for the trainees. If they learn Japanese and have the cultural understanding of Japanese society to co-exist in Japan, we should welcome them as residents,” he said. “But currently, Japan only sees them as a convenient source of labor, despite the fact that they could provide a solution for the depopulation problem.”

Kunimatsu’s pro-immigration stance comes from his experience as ambassador to Switzerland between 1999 and 2002. Immigrants account for about 25 percent of the neutral country, whose population is 8.2 million, providing labor across industries.

The former ambassador said the fact that multinational companies such as Nestle were founded by immigrants there demonstrates that they are an indispensable part of the society.

During his ambassadorship, Kunimatsu said he was impressed by the Swiss government’s policy to respect the cultural heritage of immigrants and integrate them into the society at the same time. For example, the Swiss government provides language education assistance for new immigrants so they can make a smooth transition. At the same time, foreigners hoping to obtain a residency permit have to demonstrate their efforts and willingness to be integrated, including acquiring a certain level of language skills.

After returning to Japan, he said he was surprised by the utter lack of immigration debate here and started speaking out.

Last year, the Outlook Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up by Kunimatsu and others, made five policy proposals. In one, the group called on the Japanese government to flesh out a clear policy of stepping up acceptance of long-term foreign residents as well as providing Japanese language education for them.

Kunimatsu said Japanese language education is especially important to promote their integration into society, noting that some municipalities, including the city of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, have succeeded in integrating Brazilians of Japanese descent. But such municipalities now face new challenges, such as the “double limited” problem, where the descendants of these Brazilians cannot speak either Japanese or Portuguese fluently.

“Switzerland did not have the concept of integration at the beginning, but found it had no choice but to adopt it over time,” Kunimatsu said. “I think Japan will eventually face the same situation, and that’s why it is time to start the debate now.”

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