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Japan must soon get ready to accept, even to welcome, a far greater number of legal foreign workers in its midst. The possibility is not remote, in view of plans just announced by the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau to relax visa procedures for non-Japanese workers in a wider range of fields than previously permitted. The dramatic shift in the nation’s formerly strict immigration policy for non-Japanese wanting to work in this country comes just as unemployment levels are at record highs, leading some to question the wisdom of the move. The objections are shortsighted and narrow-minded.

They are also unfair. Critics should bear in mind that the ministry is not proposing an influx of foreign workers who would take employment away from job-hungry Japanese. Immigration Bureau officials are belatedly alerting the public to a twofold crisis of growing urgency: the rapid aging of Japanese society and the continuing precipitous decline in the birthrate. On the same day that the new plans were published, the Management and Coordination Agency announced that Japan’s population had grown by only 200,000, or 0.16 percent, as of last Oct. 1, the smallest annual increase since the end of World War II.

Few can dispute the need for increased immigration in the coming years. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s Commission on Japan’s Goals for the 21st Century issued a report in January emphasizing the need for more English-language education and allowing more immigrants into the country. Unfortunately, some of the same people who fear that “too much” English will result in a loss of “Japaneseness” oppose more foreign workers for similar reasons. While promising even stronger measures to control illegal aliens, the Justice Ministry is simply proposing easing the requirements for long-term visas for foreign workers in specialized and technical fields where the demand for them is greatest.

These include, among others, the telecommunications industry and — an area of growing concern — nursing care for the elderly. Many believe the latter category should be expanded to include trained nurses to work in the nation’s hospitals, where the need is acute. One year ago, a national nurses’ and medical workers’ union called on the government to substantially increase the number of nurses to help reduce frequent medical accidents caused partly by understaffing. The continued occurrence of such blunders, sometimes with fatal results, should give new impetus to the immigration proposals.

It seems obvious, however, that not all suggestions involving the immigration solution are realistic. The day before the Justice Ministry published the details of its new plan in the official government gazette, the United Nations Population Division issued a report stating that this country would soon have to accept some 10 million immigrants per year, or raise its standard retirement age to 77, simply to maintain the ratio of employed people to retirees that existed in 1995, when the population stood at about 125 million. The U.N. report predicts that Japan’s population will drop to some 105 million by 2050 if large-scale immigration does not become part of national policy.

The world body’s demographic experts expect Japan’s working population — citizens between the ages of 15 and 64 — to fall to about 57 million by that same year from the 1995 figure of 87 million. Long-range projections based on current conditions do not always prove accurate, and annual immigration totals of 10 million seem unlikely to come to pass. Yet the U.N. figures may not be far off the mark, since the Labor Ministry’s own specialists see the working population falling to some 67 million as early as 2010.

To people familiar with modern Japanese history, the government’s proposed new immigration guidelines may seem reminiscent of the Meiji period (1868-1912) when special advisers, teachers and technical experts called “oyatoi gaikokujin” (hired foreigners) were brought here to help Japan catch up with the industrialized West. This time, the more straightforward “gaikokujin rodosha” (paid foreign workers) is more appropriate.

The government is calling on the nation — for the first time — to create a society in which Japanese and foreign residents can amicably coexist. Far more needs to be done to educate the public before the goal becomes reality. That is painfully clear from a survey among foreign students at the University of Tokyo not long ago that found that nearly 90 percent of those responding wished for better and more frequent communication with Japanese people.

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