National / Politics

Opposition ramps up criticism of new immigration law ahead of Lower House passage

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Opposition parties stepped up criticism Monday of an envisaged shake-up of Japan’s immigration control law as its passage through the Lower House grew near, slamming Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s interpretation of immigrants that they said was out of line with “global standards.”

The bulk of Monday’s Diet deliberations were spent scrutinizing a bill set to overhaul the immigration control law, in changes intended to assuage the country’s severe labor crunch that stems from its graying population. Opposition parties are fiercely opposed to its passage through the Lower House, currently slated for Tuesday.

Abe may even cut short a diplomatic tour planned for early next month in an apparent bid to focus more on Diet debate over the bill. Media reports said Monday he is considering canceling his trip to Britain and the Netherlands after attending a summit of the Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies in Argentina, which starts Friday. He is now likely to return to Japan on Dec. 4, instead of originally scheduled Dec. 7, Kyodo News quoted government sources as saying.

The planned revision to the immigration law would see an estimated 340,000 blue-collar foreign workers enter Japan’s rapidly thinning labor market over a five-year period, marking an apparent break from the nation’s long-standing policy of keeping immigrants out. Nonetheless, the Abe administration has long argued that the revised law, despite its potentially wide-ranging implications, does not equate to Japan shifting toward accepting immigrants.

The rationale behind the changes has been that the new system will be fundamentally different from Japan “admitting foreign nationals and their families without a time limit and at an amount that would affect the proportions of the nation’s overall population,” according to Abe’s repeated statements the Diet. In particular, he has highlighted the narrow scope of eligibility for workers and the fixed period of their stays under the new system.

The phrasing used by Abe is more narrowly defined than the benchmark commonly adopted by the Organization forEconomic Co-operation and Development, which defines long-term migrants as a “person who moves to a country other than that of his or her usual residence for a period of at least a year.”

On Monday, Abe said that his government’s logic is “not based on any scholarly theory, nor is it something in line with standards overseas.” This prompted criticism from the opposition that his administration has essentially concocted its own convenient definition of immigrants to dissociate the new system from what is commonly perceived as an “immigration policy.”

“It has become very clear that (this logic) is the Abe administration’s original definition, backed by no theory or external organization,” said Shiori Yamao of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

“It does more harm than good to use a definition nonexistent anywhere else, and describe what would amount to an immigration policy under the global standards as otherwise, because that would only confuse the international community,” she said.

In a result that some say underscores Japan’s virtual transformation into a country of immigrants, the International Migration Database compiled by the OECD showed that the nation ranked fourth in 2015 in terms of the inflow of the foreign population, which stood at 391,160. Japan trailed only Germany, the U.S. and the U.K.

Fears have long run deep in the nation that an influx of foreign workers would lead to domestic employees losing their jobs or crime rates soaring. Recent weeks have seen a right-wing rally pop up periodically outside the Prime Minister’s Office, with protesters calling on Abe to rethink revising the law.

On Monday, Abe said the government will ensure that foreign workers — even if they hail from countries much poorer than Japan — won’t be regarded by employers merely as a cheap source of labor, promising that they will be granted wages equal to their Japanese peers.

“We must avoid a situation where (their influx) will be taken as an incentive for employers to reduce wages for Japanese workers,” he said.