NEW YORK - The United States has been roiled by debates over immigration. Japan has the opposite problem — not enough debate. Immigration is happening, and no one is talking about it or preparing to deal with it.
Americans tend to use Japan as an example of a country that doesn’t take in immigrants. For example, my Bloomberg View colleague Justin Fox recently wrote that “politicians have so far been unwilling to allow immigration to take up the slack” of an aging population. It’s true that Japan has a small foreign-born population compared to other countries:
But this image of Japan as a closed country gets two things wrong.
First of all, Japan doesn’t actually do much to keep out immigrants. The country has no legal limits on either the number of people who can get work visas there, the number of people who can get permanent residency, or the number who can become naturalized citizens.
This stands in contrast to the U.S., which still imposes legal limits on immigration. And Japan, unlike most countries, doesn’t require permanent residency as a prerequisite for becoming a naturalized citizen. It’s true that Japan, like most countries, doesn’t have birthright citizenship. Japan also takes very few refugees. But in general, Japan has unusually lax immigration controls. The reason for Japan’s low immigration levels is that relatively few foreigners have chosen to move there.
Second of all, Japan’s immigration numbers have risen substantially in recent years:
The country’s population of foreign nationals grew by about 150,000 in 2016, to a total of 2.3 million, with most of the increase coming from other countries in Asia. That’s about three-quarters as many as Canada. Japan’s population is much larger, so it’s not about to enter the ranks of high-immigration countries, but it’s definitely not the walled garden many in the U.S. make it out to be.
Walking around Tokyo these days, the change is palpable. Chinese exchange students work the cash registers at convenience stores and the reception desks at hotels. Indian salespeople offer English-language help at electronics stores. Brazilian chefs serve up grilled chicken at restaurants, Africans sell clothing on the street in youth districts, and Canadian and American finance workers shuffle around ritzy neighborhoods in flip-flops and shorts.
Many believe that immigration will be a positive for Japan. It will certainly help slow the decline of the country’s aging population, giving companies more of a reason to invest there, and helping to keep the pension and health care systems funded. Skilled immigrants will also help Japanese technology companies compete in global markets and improve its financial system.
But all is not well in the world of Japanese immigration. Unlike Canada or other high-immigration countries, neither Japan’s leaders nor its people seem prepared to deal with the flow of newcomers in a proactive way.
When I talk to Japanese government workers, and to people involved in immigration policy, I get the distinct sense that the influx of foreigners is seen as a temporary phenomenon. The government simply expects most foreign workers to stay in the country for only a short time, and then leave — a rotating workforce that gets constantly switched out. Some believe that the new arrivals will return to their home countries after the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Others insist that Japan isn’t the type of place that foreigners want to move to.
On the policy front, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has made one very good step, which is to introduce a Canada-style points-based system for skilled immigrants. That’s good, because skilled workers tend to have an easier time integrating into local cultures, and are less likely to be blamed if wages fall for the working class.
But most of the government’s efforts involve temporary workers under the so-called technical internee program. Participants in this program generally take low-earning, low-productivity jobs. Worse, they are temporary residents, with less of a connection to Japanese culture, fewer local ties and poorer language skills. They will therefore be slower to integrate. And if Japan suffers a disaster, war or economic downturn, these workers could be vulnerable to scapegoating. That in turn lead to an exodus of workers, depriving Japanese companies of labor they had counted on and exacerbating the economic pain. An anti-immigrant backlash in Japan could even lead to xenophobic leaders taking power — think Donald Trump with Japanese characteristics.
Instead of assuming that foreign workers are temporary residents who will eventually depart, Japan’s leaders should plan for the reality that many will stay. This means more active programs of assimilation, including making sure that the children of immigrants attend Japanese schools. It also means more permanent residents and fewer temporary workers, and more of a shift toward skills-based immigration. Making room for permanent residents will require government policies like language education, assistance with naturalization and urban planning to ensure adequate housing.
So there is much to be done. If managed wisely, immigration can be a boon for Japan. But if allowed to proceed in an ad hoc manner, it could present dangers in the years to come.
Noah Smith, a Bloomberg View columnist, was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.