At a time when the anti-immigration debate is heating up not only in the United States but also in other parts of the world, the Abe administration has proposed a bill to reform the nation’s foreign labor regulations and accept more workers from overseas. Does this mean that Japan is going against the global trend or is the nation’s labor shortage so severe that the reform is urgent?
The debate around the proposed amendment to the immigration control law appears to focus on several fronts. Some criticize the new program’s lack of clarity and specifics, and argue that clearer definitions and limitation are required. For example, what sectors (so far it seems about a dozen or so) will be allowed to use “type 1” category foreign labor under the bill and what specific skills will be required to qualify for the “type 2” category visa status are not clearly defined.
Another cause for opposition is that the Abe administration is busy pushing the legislation through the Diet without sufficient discussion and debate, citing the severe domestic labor shortage as an excuse. Some charge that the move is opening a Pandora’s box that will lead to unexpected consequences such as an oversupply of labor once the current economic boom is over and the baby boomer retirement surge finishes.
Others argue that this is in fact an immigration policy whether or not Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calls it as such, and that issues often linked to immigration (such as increases in crime and terrorist attacks in Europe, in particular) will likely emerge in Japan once it opens its doors and there is no way back. Yet others insist that Japan should stay as “Japanese” as possible without people from other countries and races, i.e., stay isolated from the rest of the world.
It is my view that the move to accept unskilled foreign labor, if done in clearly specified fields and with a well thought out program of integration, could provide great opportunities for both young Japanese and foreign workers to be directly exposed to the diverse nature of today’s world. It could lead to a better world in which people with different backgrounds can compete to create new values. We can perceive the move as a step toward making Japan great again, by developing people with a global mindset and sensitivity to diversity, which is a reality in the rest of the world. It can give younger generations an opportunity to be creative and innovative through working and studying with people from diverse backgrounds.
Knowledge and perceptions that the world consists of different races and culture can be acquired via advancing technology as we can see what exists in other parts of the world. We can appreciate the rich history of different cultures and the beauty of diverse lifestyles. At the same time, we can see sharp divides caused by the gap in digital accessibility, intergenerational conflicts and the widening income inequality that is often debated today. But does knowing that difference exists change our attitudes or behavior? It is one thing to have knowledge of the differences and divides, but it is another to be directly exposed to these differences.
Japan cannot continue doing nothing about its rapidly declining population since it is causing both a manpower shortage and sapping the nation’s economic vitality. We need more people, particularly young ones.
What’s even more critical, however, is the potential lost opportunity for the younger generation to see, feel and experience diversity if Japan remains closed. Young people are usually more curious about new things and new people, and are often more open to differences, if we let them be who they are. They are also more tech-savvy and thus have more access to a variety of information from abroad. If they have direct experience of studying, working and interacting with people from other parts of the world, they will be capable of understanding the good and bad aspects of diversity.
I once asked a Japanese business leader with extensive global experiences what the best way would be to develop global mindset and understand diversity. His response was to “work and study with people from different countries and backgrounds.” I was a bit surprised at this simple response, but it had a strong impact on me.
The first time I became aware of diversity was when I saw myself in the mirror looking different from others the first time I spent time in the United States as an exchange student, and of the homogeneity of people back home in sharp contrast when I returned to Japan. My experience of having an African-American as a roommate in my graduate school dorm extended my awareness of diversity. Since then, it has grown slowly in my mind as I have experienced going to different places and working and studying with people of different nationalities. And my experience is quite limited compared to people with much broader global exposure.
I have also seen some young Japanese who have been stimulated and inspired to speak their minds and to form creative and innovative ideas when they study and work together with people from different cultures and nationalities. When they spend some time working on a project, etc., with people of different backgrounds, they seem to realize they are of similar age and wonder why they behave very differently.
Japan is struggling with the effort to make organizations (mainly in the private sector) more diverse, and to stimulate creative and innovative ideas. The Abe administration has tried hard in this endeavor, by seeking to empower women, promoting a corporate governance code, limiting overtime work and pushing for a work-life balance. How many Japanese, however, have experience of working and studying with people from different nationalities, age groups, backgrounds and ways of thinking — or living in a diverse society? How many Japanese perceive interactions with people from different cultures to be a natural scene at work?
The proposed policy is not a panacea for achieving a diverse society. But it exposes many more people to direct contact with people from other cultures that have different ways of thinking. They will develop the sensitivity and intelligence needed to explore new fields and to distinguish differences and similarities.
How we can make Japan great again is not by building a wall and driving away people of different nationalities. It is by making Japanese see and hear people from other cultures and letting them develop the capability to judge the differences and similarities themselves, with adaptive, agile and flexible minds. After all, what makes a country, a city and an organization great is the people they develop, recruit and retain.
Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council.