Immigration reform: Could this be Abe’s new growth strategy?


Special To The Japan Times

The politics of immigration in Japan involve anxieties about national identity and worries about crime. Looking at other countries with large numbers of immigrants, the Japanese government has said “no thanks.” There are, however, strong economic reasons for Japan to let down the drawbridges.

Advocates point to Japan’s shrinking population, impending labor shortages, and the need for more taxpayers to keep the national medical and pension schemes solvent without considerably upping individuals’ contributions.

Critics fear that too many foreigners living in their midst will rip asunder the fabric of society and endanger what they cherish about Japan. But not all opponents are xenophobes; some argue that until Japan can ensure foreigners’ rights and provide equal opportunity it should not being putting out the welcome mat.

As of 2012, 24 percent of Japan’s population, numbering about 30 million, is over 65 years of age, and this will reach 40 percent by 2055. More importantly, the number of workers supporting each retiree is shrinking, from 10 in 1950 to 3.6 in 2000 and 1.9 by 2025. And there are fewer replacements in sight.

Who is going to pay sufficient taxes to fund retirees’ pensions and medical care? And who will take care of all these elderly people as they grow frail? Until now, female relatives have done most of the heavy lifting, but a third of these caregivers report giving up their job in order to do so, representing a significant loss of household income and derailed careers. On top of that, many spouses are getting too old for the job.

About one-half of family caregivers are age 60 or over, meaning that much of elderly care is in the hands of the elderly. Currently, care managers decide on how much national insurance-funded professional assistance the elderly get at home, but it is supplementary. Given that primary caregivers are usually female relatives, the declining number of middle-aged women combined with the rapid growth in the number of over-65s in the population suggests the limits of this model.

The major implication is a serious shortage of nurses and caregivers, with estimates in the hundreds of thousands. The annual turnover rate for caregivers is more than 20 percent, and some 500,000 Japanese with licenses have given up working in the field; clearly many workers feel it is not a desirable calling.

So who will take on these difficult, low-paid jobs? The answer might come from overseas, but there is a tight global market as aging societies elsewhere are also competing for the same limited pool of caregiving professionals — and many offer a better deal than this country.

Japan has initiated tiny pilot programs with Indonesia and the Philippines, but the acceptance and retention criteria are set so high that the programs are designed to fail. The difficulties of mastering written Japanese, stringent qualification exams, and the prospect of being sent home for failure to pass exams will hamper Japan’s efforts to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of foreign caregivers. Hence such programs offer little immediate relief to the existing acute shortages.

As of 2011, 63 out of the original 104 nurses who came from Indonesia in 2008 had returned home, citing language and other problems. Reportedly, they were discouraged by restrictions preventing them from administering some treatments, such as drips and injections, that they had been licensed to administer in Indonesia. Instead, they are assigned tasks that do not require professional training, such as bathing patients and table setting.

In 2012, only 47 of 415 non-Japanese candidates passed the nursing exam. Nursing homes estimate that its costs ¥30 million to train and employ a nurse over the four-year initial visa, meaning that vast investments in human resources are being squandered. Things have got so bad that this year the government decided to give nurses and caregivers from both countries an extra year to prepare for their exams. But this is an inadequate, band-aid for a program that needs more fundamental surgery; a microcosm of the overall policy challenges presented by immigration.

The doubling of the number of foreign residents in Japan over the past two decades, to 2.2 million, has raised anxieties among Japanese about the future of their country, national identity and how to manage the influx — even though this represents less than 2 percent of the population.

While Japan as a monoethnic, homogeneous nation persists in the collective imagination, that perception is being confronted with some jarring signs of transformation evident in increasing numbers of international marriages and permanent-residency visas over the past two decades. Ironically, recent studies suggest that in rural areas foreign wives have played a key role in preserving traditions, taking over roles that fewer Japanese women choose to assume.

Alas, public discourse is dominated by widespread misconceptions that foreigners are crime-prone — despite national crime statistics proving they are not a menace to society.

Back in the early 1980s, Japan accepted more than 10,000 Indochinese refugees, and they have done well and contributed to the communities where they live. It’s an unheralded success that bears repeating. The United Nations estimates that to stabilize Japan’s population and avoid the consequences of a declining and aging population, immigration needs to rise to 650,000 a year. That, though, just won’t happen.

But even if on a smaller scale, expanding immigration could boost Japan’s capacity to innovate and create new wealth, bringing an infusion of new ideas, language and cultural skills, global networks and entrepreneurial spirit.

The recent influx of Chinese since the 1990s demonstrates just how valuable immigrants can be, as these people have leveraged their transnational networks to facilitate and contribute to burgeoning trade and investment links. Many come as students and remain because they can get good jobs and start profitable businesses. Since 2007, Chinese have become Japan’s largest foreign resident population (more than 600,000), while an additional 100,000 have become Japanese citizens.

In certain sectors facing a shortage of skilled workers, such as IT, the government has initiated a new points system that targets foreigners with desired skills, achievements and level of income. But this fast-track permanent-resident visa program is small, involving only about 2,000 people a year who are already working in Japan.

By way of comparison, the United States — with a population more than double Japan’s — lets in 225,000 foreigners with special skills every year because there is recognition that talented foreigners are contributing to innovation, and immigrant entrepreneurs are creating job-generating businesses.

Indeed, The Economist recently reported that immigrants or their children founded 40 percent of Fortune 500 firms and were responsible for 25 percent of all high-tech startups in the U.S.

A senior Cabinet office vice-minister in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government recently mentioned increasing the numbers of foreign engineers and other skilled workers by annual increments of 100,000 by easing criteria. In terms of growth strategies, the potential benefits of attracting resourceful immigrants are significant, since — just as in the U.S. — they could be engines of innovation and employment. Migrants tend to have high aspirations and are willing to work hard to achieve them; to the extent they prosper they could help rejuvenate the overall economy.

Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Fast Retailing (Uniqlo), supports immigration as a way to tap into the rising Asian story and make Japan more dynamic. But nurturing and mobilizing immigration’s potential in Japan means creating a more hospitable and appealing environment — and that’s an agenda still in search of a constituency.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • A.J. Sutter

    The US perhaps is not a good model for other countries when it comes to immigration. Migrants to the US have, or at least used to have, aspirations to become American culturally as well as legally, as was the case with my grandfather, who landed at Ellis Island over 100 years ago. Most migrants to Japan will discover (if they don’t already know or assume) that it’s very tough to become Japanese in either of those two senses, to say nothing of in both. The aspirations of most migrants to Japan are therefore most likely to be primarily material.

    It would be quite foolish to invite large numbers of economically-motivated immigrants, particularly if they come from China or some other country with whom Japan could very conceivably find itself at war sometime during the next few decades. This is a case where economic calculations shouldn’t blind Japan’s leaders to political reality. To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s impossible for a Chinese person to love Japan, but only that it’s unlikely that most of those who would come here for money will feel that way, if their loyalties were to be tested.

    Of course, some people do have a natural desire to integrate into Japanese life, such as those with a Japanese spouse or those with a special love for the culture; sadly, current policies can make it very tough for them to get permanent residency, and even tougher to naturalize. There’s room for improvement there, but such people are few in any event. If Japan can’t inspire additional migrants to want to contribute to life in Japan, and can’t make it easier for them to do so, it should simply forego large-scale immigration, instead of inviting those whose only loyalties are to their native countries and to money.

    A better approach to the population issue in that case would be to provide more equitable working conditions and shorter working hours for both women and men, along with universal daycare, more second-chances to get college education and more chances to get hired as a freshman even if you’re well past age 22. Then maybe we’ll see more people already living here being able to raise families.

    • Akom Seni

      Your singling out the Chinese as a good example as immigrants not to be allowed into Japan because of possible future conflicts betrays your true motive of posting your opinion. Maybe it would be a better idea to let in Americans in large numbers instead, in addition to the US troops already stationed there. Ever wonder what the average Japanese would be saying about that?

      • A.J. Sutter

        Thanks for your comment. My criticism of economic immigration was across the board. I also emphasized the possibility that some immigration from China to Japan could be sincere. Nonetheless, Americans are much less likely than Chinese to come here, particularly for economic reasons, in large numbers. Moreover, while American policy clearly isn’t always in the best interest of Japan, the US is much less likely to become a belligerent vis-à-vis Japan in the next few decades. It is simply naive to ignore, for the sake of “political correctness,” that there are political implications that ought to be considered regarding any immigration policy to any country — it isn’t a purely economic matter. BTW, the US certainly doesn’t ignore it. E.g., Chinese tend to have a more difficult time than Japanese to get US green cards, even when they are married to Americans. (I’m not saying that is the way it ought to be for every case.)

        In light of some other comments in the main thread, I should clarify that my point has nothing to do with cultural or ethnic purity (which arguably I, as had my grandfather, have helped to dilute by immigrating). It has to do with sincere commitment to contribute to society in Japan. There’s no question that Japan should make the path to permanence and naturalization easier for those people who really want to be part of that society, whatever their background. But encouraging people to come here just for money remains a bad idea.

  • Ben

    Immigration reform needs to be accompanied by Citizenship Law reform, to provide a path to permanence and acceptance, even for yesterday’s/yesteryear’s immigrants.

    Not so much “let down the drawbridge” but how about small steps, like recognising dual citizenships, particularly for Japanese born abroad of mixed parentage, citizenship by decent to those with Japanese grandparents who may have missed the family book, spouse visas and a path to citizenship, and many other ways of attracting people back into Japan.,

  • sebby

    The Japanese government will have great trouble trying to convince the population that increased immigration is a good thing. Having said that, the only way for them to prevent the inevitable would have been to have more babies, but the current work-life balance in society is such that a lot of people decide not to have children.

    Unless that changes, fewer and fewer Japanese will choose to have children and at some point the Japanese population will just disappear because they aren’t reproducing. The gov’t needs to stimulate another baby boom but I don’t know how they’re going to do that.

  • Roan Suda

    I agree with A.J. Sutter that America serves as no model. The image of the US as a country with open doors and open arms, welcoming the oppressed but hardworking and talented from around the world is as simplistic as it is seemingly inspiring. The Catholic Irish were deeply resented when they arrived, often half-starved, and, alas, when they succeeded, they rioted against Chinese laborers. Japanese-Americans are a huge success story, but the first immigrants from this country had to endure racist hatred. During the war, those on the West Coast were shipped off to internment camps…Americans abort 1.5 million of their children every year and then import refugees from every war-torn land on the face of the earth to make up the loss. It’s madness. Japan should not follow suit.

  • steve

    Japan has a unified culture. They should learn from the mistakes of Europe and the USA that have diluted their culture with people with radically different backgrounds.. all in the name of cheap labor. Diversity is a lie. China is doing great with a homogenous culture.

    • RaceBuster

      “Japan has a unified culture.” No, it doesn’t. The culture across Japan is vastly different, and certain parts of Japan are peopled by completely separate ethnolinguistic groups from mainland Japanese. Recognition of these groups seems uncommon among the Japanese (I asked a few of my students if they could name the major ethnic groups in Japan, and they couldn’t – as in, they couldn’t even name Ainu or Okinawa, let alone any of the others), but non-Japanese like you also seem to buy into that happy myth of Japan as “unified culture” for reasons that are pretty obvious.

      As for China “doing great with a homogenous culture,” you fail again. China is an INCREDIBLY diverse nation – itself spanning vastly different nations of people with pretty much unrelated ethnolinguistic groups spread across the country.

      Of course, your comments mark you quite clearly as a xenophobic bigot. Europe and USA “have diluted their culture”? What does that even mean, since it is impossible to “dilute” culture in the first place. I mean, as in, it is literally impossible to do that. What could you possibly be talking about? You cling to the myth of homogenous Japan and the idiotic fever dream of a homogenous China in order to justify your own racism. You absolutely NEED Japan and China to be homogenous, because otherwise, you would have to face the truth: you’re wrong and racist. There are no homogenous cultures left in the world, and your fever dream of a homogenous USA is just racist ravings.

      • ryanball

        But the dominant and pervasive ethnic group and culture in China is the Han, is it not? They control the government, state owned enterprises, business, and educational establishments and have made it virtually impossible for any other group within China to enter these arenas successfully.

      • mateo

        Yes, but the Han are not a unified culture. It can be subdivided into many smaller cultures like Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Huizhou. It’s the same as dividing European culture into smaller cultures like French, German, Italian, etc.

      • Christopher-trier

        There is no European culture. China and Europe cannot be compared. China formed because the different groups in the region grew together, in Europe they have always broken apart. The dynamics are the opposite.

      • Laurent Giroud

        Except that over the course of the last two thousand years historians note that China has been more often divided into opposing nations (each with their unique culture) than united. It is also well documented that it is during these periods of division that Cultural diversity in China flourished the most.
        It is far from clear that China should be considered as a single cultural and political entity if it was not totally controlled by the CPC. Remember that during the first part of the 20th century China was essentially in a state of civil war, there was no clear central command until the CPC managed to obtain (partial) control around the fifties.

      • Christopher-trier

        For roughly 60pc of its history China has either not been united or been under foreign rule at least partially. “United”, in this case, refers to being under at least the nominal control of the central government. I’m well aware of China’s periods of great accomplishments in disunity — even the most Chinese of sages, Confucius, emerged during the chaos of the Eastern Zhou.

        My attempt was not to label China a single cultural entity — it never has been. It has at best been an approximation. Those who use the Chinese script, spoke some form of Chinese language, and structured their society along something resembling “Han” Chinese norms were deemed “Chinese”. Today the term extends to ethnic minority groups as well.

        However, there has long been something resembling a sense of being “Chinese”. Note the response to attacks on Chinese civilisation in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Even if they are not part of mainland China, and even if they often wish to have as little to do with mainland China politically as possible, they are still loyal to the concept of China has a civilisation and cultural point.

    • mateo

      Have you ever been to China? The culture is certainly not homogeneous. There are huge cultural differences between the North and the South, the Coastal areas and the interior, the urban and the rural, the 92% Han population and the 8% ethnic minority. China has 292 languages.

      Japan is much more unified culturally and linguistically than China, but there are still significant regional differences as well as minority languages like Okinawan.

  • Spudator

    The concept of a country populated only by people who were born there, and whose ancestors were born there, is becoming more and more of an anachronism. Maybe there was once a time when it was natural for tribalism to be the defining feature of a nation; but in the modern world where science and technology form the basis of a universal mindset, English provides a global language, and the Internet has broken down the barriers between countries, tribalism is beginning to look like a very unnatural way of organising the human community.

    In this respect, North America, Europe and Australasia are leading the way into the future with their heterogeneity, while Japan is still stuck in the past as it tries to hold the future at bay by maintaining its homogeneity. But the thing about the future is that you just can’t stop it happening: sooner or later, what’s taking place in the rest of the world will start taking place in Japan.

    Immigration to Japan on an increasing scale is unavoidable. The movement between countries of people with skills and knowledge, hopes and dreams, and a desire to better themselves to the benefit of their adopted homelands is a natural, normal feature of the modern world. It’s a good thing. The diversity of thinking, freshness of ideas, and newness of blood that it introduces will keep the human race and human communities vital and vibrant and able to meet the challenges of the future. Japan would do well to simply accept the realities of this world of which it’s very much a part and start embracing immigration.

  • Why do “growth strategies” in Japan always end up with the government growing, and nothing else?