Prime Minister Shinzo Abe receives a lot of grief from left-leaning pundits who consider his policies and outlook regressive, but right-leaning commentators aren’t always enamored of the country’s leader either. They voice frustration at his refusal to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and find it humiliating that he gives in to U.S. President Donald Trump on matters they see as being vital to Japan’s interests, especially those having to do with trade.
Their biggest beef at the moment is the proposed revisions to Japan’s immigration laws, a description that makes sense only in English because the government has never used the word “immigrant” (imin) in the context of the laws. The aim of the revisions, which are now being discussed in the Diet, is to increase the number of foreign workers in Japan. Many conservatives are upset because they see the revisions as inevitably leading to more foreign people moving to and eventually settling in Japan, a situation they oppose.
Economist Takaaki Mitsuhashi represented this view in an Oct. 11 post on his blog, arguing that the Abe administration was intent on advancing an “immigrant policy.” He says the government is anxious about the labor shortage brought on by the low birthrate and subsequent loss of “productive-age workers.” Mitsuhashi blames this situation on the private sector, which, following the austerity policies implemented by the administration of Ryutaro Hashimoto in 1997, has neglected to invest in resources that would increase productivity. The growth rationale of the business community since the dawn of the new millennium has been based on keeping costs down, chiefly by suppressing wages, he says.
“Some services in Japan are cheaper than those in Southeast Asian countries,” Mitsuhashi writes in the blog post, and thus Japan has become “poorer” due to deflation. Nevertheless, he adds, Japan’s “excellent” human resources means Japanese goods and services remain superior in terms of quality, which is one of the reasons for the recent foreign tourist boom. If owners properly invested in productivity improvements, he argues, the labor problem would not be as bad, but they see less risk in holding down pay, and so to them the only solution to the resulting labor crunch is more foreign workers, who toil for less money.
Other media have expanded on this theme. Last week’s issue of the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho made the case that increasing the number of foreign workers in Japan will place downward pressure on wages for all workers in Japan, in turn creating conflicts between Japanese and foreign residents. The Sankei Shimbun editorialized that Japan should figure out a way to survive with a dwindling native population.
These economic arguments don’t usually channel the cruder protests of far-right groups, who simply say they don’t want Japan to be overrun by hordes of foreign workers bringing their families and destroying the cultural purity of the nation, but, in a sense, they imply the same thing: Foreign workers are inherently bad for Japan. In his blog, Mitsuhashi points to problems with guest workers in Germany as an illustration.
In a long front-page feature published on Oct. 21, the liberal Asahi Shimbun pondered the possibility of foreign people coming to work and staying to live permanently, an option partially addressed by the proposed revisions. In principle, foreign workers are not able to live in Japan for more than five years. The article provided detailed examples of foreign nationals who have come to Japan with specific visa statuses, from “specialists” to “trainees” to “students,” and concluded that, with 1.28 million foreign workers in Japan as of Oct. 2017, Japan is already a “mixed society.” The reality of productivity decline has necessitated the “acceptance” of more foreign workers who make their homes here, but the government position is that Japan does not accept “immigrants,” and so it does not address these workers’ situations, in particular “co-existing with Japanese people.” The government’s vague position in this regard is to rely on independent organizations to help foreign workers cope with life in Japan, but if the government does nothing to solve inequalities, they will lead to problems with genuine social costs.
In a continuation of the piece published the next day, the Asahi Shimbun acknowledged that hiring more foreign workers at lower wages could jeopardize the jobs of lower-paid Japanese contract and temp workers, who increasingly constitute a large portion of the country’s workforce. As the business structure becomes more reliant on cheap labor, more people will find it difficult to make a living.
Is the Asahi Shimbun’s position substantially different from Mitsuhashi’s? Both contend that the proposed revisions regarding foreign workers will lead to social problems and imply that the government is too beholden to the private sector, which, in the form of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), is demanding greater access to foreign labor. The difference is that Mitsuhashi thinks acceptance of foreign workers should be limited in order to avoid problems, while the Asahi Shimbun says the workers are already here, so these problems should be confronted. The administration does not address the issue because it believes the Japanese public does not want more foreign nationals living here.
During a discussion on the Oct. 15 edition of the TBS Radio show “Session-22,” Koichi Yasuda, a journalist who covers foreign workers, said that Japan avoids the reality of foreign workers in Japan by framing the issue as one of “public safety.” Although many of these workers came to Japan through government programs that define them as “students” or “trainees,” by now everyone except the government recognizes that they are here to work. Under the present situation, the authorities seem to be wearing blinders, so the system is subject to abuse by both sides of the employment transaction. The revisions may only exacerbate that situation.