The public debate on Japan’s aging society, low birthrate, shrinking population and labor shortage is read at the breakfast table almost daily. Although these are not new issues, recently the debate is heating up, triggered by several factors.

The three-year-old Tohoku reconstruction efforts have been plagued by a shortage of construction workers, which will become even more acute with Tokyo’s successful bid to host the 2020 Olympics. The two programs are very important to the country, both to its economy and image.

The challenges posed by the actual and future shortage of labor are intrinsically interrelated with Japan’s shrinking population, which has longer-term and deeper implications beyond 2020.

Rapid aging and low birthrates need to be squarely confronted now; otherwise, it is likely that Japan’s population, five decades hence, will be so low that it will create severe strains on the country’s ability to maintain its economic strength and international standing.

A key issue in the ongoing debate is whether Japan should promote migration to address the interlinked challenges of an aging society, low birthrate, shrinking population and labor shortage.

While a range of different opinions exist, most people engaged in this debate do not seem to fully acknowledge the fact that Japan has been already making important migration policy decisions and implementing them to address these various issues.

In response to economic needs, Japan, in the 1980s, made it a policy to attract international students, seen as potential source of highly skilled workers. In the 1990s the country eased its restrictive immigration laws to allow Japanese descendants in Latin America to come to Japan to live and work.

Then, in 1993, the technical intern training program was introduced to support foreign trainees in acquiring technical skills and knowledge of Japanese advanced technology, which at the same time helped small- and medium- scale Japanese enterprises find badly needed labor.

Under the Economic Partnership Agreements (2008) with Indonesia and the Philippines, nurses and caregivers are allowed to come and work. And in 2012, Japan introduced the points-based system of immigration for highly skilled foreign workers. Through these measures, the public and the private sectors gained valuable experience in dealing with foreign nationals.

To provide protection and assistance to those in need, Japan started receiving Indochinese refugees in the 1970s, and in 1981 it acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention. In 2010, it piloted a refugee resettlement program, the first Asian country to do so.

With an increasing amount of human trafficking into the country, Japan, in 2002, signed the U.N. Trafficking Protocol, established an interministerial task force that then led to the adoption of a national action plan on measures to combat trafficking in persons. In 2005 Japan launched a counter-trafficking project to protect and assist identified victims of trafficking in Japan.

In 2009, the government introduced “bridging schools” to help in the educational integration of migrant children whose parents were affected by the 2008-2009 global economic crisis.

Despite these efforts, Japan does not have a national migration policy as such. But through its responses to specific migration challenges, the government has gained experience and learned valuable lessons. The task now is to try to see which responses worked best and keep them, and which ones need fine-tuning or jettisoning.

Migration is a complex phenomenon, requiring not only a linear immigration control but also a multi-dimensional response. Thus the approach needs the “whole of government” bringing together immigration, labor, social welfare, health, education, justice, internal affairs, development, as well as local municipalities who have very important role in migrant reception and integration. Some countries, instead of creating an interministerial body, have formed “super-migration” entities.

For example, in Switzerland there is the Federal Office of Migration, which regulates the conditions under which people can enter, live and work in the country. It decides who will receive protection from persecution, coordinates efforts on integration and is the organ responsible for naturalization. Sweden has a similar system.

By the same token, we cannot expect the government to do everything. The approach needs to be “whole-of-society,” too, which includes the public sector, private sector, businesses, labor unions, advocacy groups, service providers, migrants’ associations, academia and the media, all of whom have a stake in ensuring migration remains a force for good. To realize this, the government needs to be proactive in informing and educating the public and governmental institutions about migration realities and about the positive contributions of foreign nationals, thus chipping away at harmful stereotypes, discrimination and xenophobia.

Given the daunting challenges, it is to Japan’s advantage to keep the original noble aim of its technical intern training program and find another workable mechanism to bring in needed foreign workers that does not compete with but rather complements local labor.

Setting numerical targets on immigration or the birthrate is a typical planning tool for many governments. Migration is much more than a mathematical equation. Serious consideration should be made to establishing an interministerial entity that ensures a “whole-of-government” approach.

Once established, such an entity could consolidate previous and current responses, improve those that need improvement and transform them into a more comprehensive, integrated and sustainable migration policy framework that would address not only 2020 but also the expected challenges of Japanese society well into 2060 and beyond.

William Barriga, the current chief of mission for IOM Tokyo, previously headed the Labor and Facilitated Migration Division at IOM headquarters, Geneva.

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