Commentary / Japan

A new immigration policy for Japan

by Haruaki Deguchi

The ruling coalition hopes to push the government’s bill to amend the immigration control law through the Diet shortly. If passed, the revision will create new visa statuses that will enable foreign workers to be employed for unskilled labor in Japan. This is a major departure from the policy of accepting a limited number of foreign workers with specialized, highly professional skills.

Behind this change is a strong push from certain business sectors in Japan that are suffering from a serious labor shortage due to the rapidly graying and declining population. The government hopes to enforce the revision beginning next April, after getting it cleared in the Diet during the current extraordinary session. Since this represents a considerable change in policy direction, the amendment was the subject of heated debates in the Diet.

Currently, the visa statuses that allow foreigners to work in Japan can be grouped into five general categories:

1) People with specialized knowledge and skills. This includes university professors and lawyers.

2) People staying in Japan on the strength of their legal positions, such as those of Japanese descent, permanent foreign residents and those with Japanese spouses. No limits are placed on their choice of occupation. The same condition applies to special permanent foreign residents like Korean residents.

3) Trainees under the Technical Intern Training Program, which is designed to transfer skills to developing countries. People in this program learn skills by working at factories and farms for a certain period of time and receive remuneration. Critics say this program is abused by some companies and serves as a cover for the use of unskilled foreign workers.

4) People engaged in specifically designated types of work for which wages are paid. This includes nursing and care-worker candidates coming to Japan under economic partnership agreements, and people visiting Japan under working holiday agreements.

5) People engaged in activities outside their visa status. Probably the most well-known example would be foreign students working part-time jobs in places like convenience stores and restaurants. In general, people on a visa exemption like this are allowed to work up to 28 hours a week. For students, the point has been raised that working so many hours a week could interfere with their studies.

The government plans to create two new visa statuses. The first is for foreign workers having a certain level of skill. They can stay in Japan for up to five years but will not be allowed to bring their family members. The second is for workers with a higher level of skill who would be allowed to bring their spouses and children. If certain conditions are met, they could be permitted to live in Japan indefinitely.

The government says an ordinance will decide on the sectors in which these two categories of foreign workers can be employed. It is currently considering accepting them in 14 industrial sectors such as construction and agriculture. The total number of workers admitted under these two statuses may swell to hundreds of thousands.

Although the government insists that the new policy is not for accepting immigrants, an influx of such a large number of foreign workers will be in reality nothing less than immigration. If so, half-hearted measures will be insufficient to deal with the issue. Full-scale discussions involving citizens must be held. There are three important points that need to be discussed.

First, for what purpose Japan will accept immigrants must be clarified. Simply put, is Japan focusing on accepting people with professional skills and knowledge, even those savvy enough to start venture businesses, or does Japan merely want to accept cheap labor?

U.S. President Donald Trump’s extraordinary policies aside, the post-World War II prosperity of the United States has owed a lot to the acceptance of immigrants from all over the world. Its apex is the strong competitiveness of American universities.

Currently 1 million students from abroad are studying in the U.S., where both tuition fees and living expenses are high. One of the employees at the insurance company I founded had lamented that her studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cost her ¥10 million a year. If 1 million students spend ¥10 million each, it will generate an effective consumption of ¥10 trillion. The story does not end here. One million students full of diversity can serve as catalysts for innovative startups and new industries, which can lead to the creation of IT giants or other high-value ventures.

It can be argued that one of the significant contributors to the stagnant growth of the Japanese economy is its failure to give birth to companies like these in the quarter century following the collapse of the bubble boom in the early 1990s. To counter this, the pillar of Japan’s immigration policy should be attracting highly skilled professionals from around the world. To attract this talent early, Japan should immediately take the step of starting the university school year in the fall and have entrance exams in English.

Behind the planned introduction of unskilled foreign workers is a serious labor shortage. But in solving this problem, the first priority should be given to measures designed to attract more Japanese senior citizens and women to the labor market. Doctors say that today’s 75-year-olds are not inferior to the 65-year-olds of 20 years ago in terms of their physical strength. The mandatory retirement age should be abolished and the uppermost age in the definition of the working-age population should be raised from the current 65 to 75.

Japan is one of the worst in discrimination against women among the developed countries. This is clearly shown by the United Nation’s gender index, which places Japan 114th among 144 developed countries. If measures to support child-rearing women and families are upgraded to the level of European countries, more women will opt to work. To rely on unskilled foreign workers before taking these measures in a thorough manner is like putting the cart before the horse.

Second, Japanese language ability is indispensable for a foreign nationals living in Japan. Since the Japanese language is the basis of Japanese culture, it is necessary to build a system to teach the language, culture and customs to newcomers, giving careful thought to the question of who will teach, where and how. A follow-up system must also be provided. This issue is beyond the scope of the immigration control law.

Third, the fundamental questions of how to treat foreign workers in Japan’s public insurance system and whether they should be given the right to vote and to run in elections should be thoroughly considered. The prime minister told the Diet that Japan will accept these foreign workers not simply as laborers but as people. If so, discussions on how to guarantee foreign workers’ basic human rights and the extent of their civic rights are indispensable.

If Japan introduces unskilled foreign workers with the myopic view of overcoming its labor shortage — a short-term problem — a new third social class made up of foreigners (after Japanese men and women) could come into being, thus increasing social discord and friction. This is not a decision nor a policy that should be rushed without careful and comprehensive consideration.

Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 30 books, he founded Lifenet Insurance in 2008 after a career spanning nearly 35 years at Nippon Life Insurance Co.