On Nov. 19, Diamond Chain Store Online, a site featuring news for the retail industry, posted a story about a Reuters article that appeared a day earlier outlining the government’s plan to liberalize visa procedures and allow more foreign workers to not only stay in Japan indefinitely but bring their families to live with them.
The story explained what the proposed changes would mean to the site’s readers. At present, only a specific type of foreign worker can stay in Japan indefinitely. As far as foreign laborers go, except for some in the construction or shipbuilding industries, residency is capped at five years. The proposed revision would eliminate this cap for most foreign nationals who have been permitted to work in Japan, a prospect that Diamond Chain Store emphasizes is because of the country’s labor shortage.
In 2019, when the government relaxed immigration rules for people with certain skills, it projected that 345,000 foreign workers would come to Japan over the following five years, but then COVID-19 happened. The number of foreign workers, including technical trainees and student visa holders, available to Japanese businesses has for the past two years been limited to those already in the country. The government has allowed some to renew their visas on an exceptional basis.
The piece reiterates much of what the mainstream press has reported about the revision with one significant difference. Diamond Chain Store states that if the revision is passed, then some of the workers affected will have an “opportunity to apply for permanent residency.” Most media did not say that explicitly. In fact, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, during a regular news conference, denied that the changes would lead to granting permanent residency.
The fact that Diamond Chain Store told its readers that more foreign workers could be in line for permanent residency highlights the problem the government faces in trying to fashion a revision. The business community is pressuring the government to create a situation that will allow them to hire more foreign workers, while a certain segment of the public is anxious about allowing more foreign people to live here. Just the idea of letting foreign workers bring their families is a red flag to many Japanese people.
The media’s caution in reporting the full extent of the revision is understandable in light of the last revision to immigration law that allowed more foreign workers to stay. Certain groups in Japan complained, and the new proposal is an extension of the policy put forth in the previous revision, which was implemented in 2019. There was a social media backlash to the latest proposal, with calls for newly installed Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to resign, but the proposal is obviously part of a long-term plan that predates Kishida’s premiership. Even if a more conservative member of the ruling party had become prime minister, it’s doubtful this proposal would have changed.
The 2019 revision said that workers in certain sectors would be able to stay in Japan for one to three years, but offered them the option of renewing their visas indefinitely without the need for strict testing. Opposition parties objected to the revision not because conditions had been eased, but because the gate for entrance remained narrow, thus continuing to expose potential immigrants to the kind of broker exploitation that has plagued the technical trainee system. And once they do get in, even if they are able to stay indefinitely, there are no special social services in place to help them adjust. The changes were made to satisfy the business community, but the welfare of workers was not addressed.
In an interview with the Asahi Shimbun that was published on Nov. 26, Yu Korekawa, a researcher on population issues, said that prior to the pandemic, Japan was technically “accepting immigrants,” and with the expansion of job categories eligible for indefinite stays proposed in the new revision, a larger number of foreign people will be coming to Japan to live, work and raise families. He despairs that these new arrivals will be marginalized socially, so it’s important to remember that foreign workers are still choosing to work in Japan despite the risks. Looking upon them exclusively as objects of pity misrepresents their passion to come to Japan. Even if that passion springs from a desire for financial gain, it shouldn’t be denied or denigrated. Japan attracts more workers from Asia than any other non-petroleum producing country in Asia, especially educated workers. Such a desire should be appreciated and these people welcomed as valuable assets to the communities in which they live and work.
That sort of appreciation may be difficult to instill in some people. In Tokyo Shimbun’s “Honne” column on Nov. 29, caregiver Azusa Miyako cited a tweet by Upper House lawmaker Masahisa Sato, who is opposed to a plan proposed by Musashino City in Tokyo to allow foreign residents to vote in referendums on municipal matters. Sato claimed that if the plan is approved, China would move 80,000 Chinese residents of Japan to Musashino in order to control the city administration. Miyako says that besides being ridiculous (“If tens of thousands of people moved in, where would they live?”), Sato’s theory is xenophobic.
The sentiment behind Sato’s tweet is not uncommon, however, though it probably won’t derail the government’s immigration revision plan, which Sato, as a member of the ruling party, would be expected to support. Employers remain desperate for workers, as exemplified by a convenience store owner in Nagano Prefecture whose hopes were crushed by the reclosing of the border due to fears of the omicron variant. He told the Asahi Shimbun that when controls were relaxed on Nov. 8, he looked forward to the arrival of international students who would presumably be available for hire, but then “that bright light went out.”
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