After nearly eight years in office, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, resigned for health reasons on Sept. 16. Under his administration, the number of foreign workers in Japan more than doubled to reach 1.6 million even though he repeatedly claimed that admitting such workers was different from an immigration policy, which his government had no intention to pursue. Thus, speaking of an “immigration policy” has become a political taboo in Japan.

Yoshihide Suga, the nation’s new prime minister, during his time as the chief Cabinet secretary in the Abe administration, was the driving force behind changes in migrant worker policy. In December 2018, Japan revised its immigration control law to attract so-called “middle-skilled” foreign workers to deal with labor shortages in 14 sectors including care-giving, the food services and construction. The revision went into effect in April 2019, and the Justice Ministry’s immigration bureau was reorganized and expanded into the Immigration Services Agency. Is Japan’s new approach working and has it done enough to address the question of immigration?

In reforming the immigration control law in 2018, the national government worked out a comprehensive policy to accept talent from abroad and ease their transition into Japanese society. A key component of the policy was to set up local centers that offer multilingual referral services to foreign residents. The Immigration Services Agency has assisted approximately 180 local governments to establish or manage such centers throughout the country.

In Japan, local governments have been more actively engaged in addressing the needs of foreign residents than the national government. Beginning in the 1990s, when the number of foreign workers started to increase, many local governments developed migrant-inclusion policies based on the idea of tabunka kyosei, which literally means “many cultures living together.” The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which is responsible for local governments, issued a plan starting in 2006 for promoting tabunka kyosei at the local level. This plan has been adopted by a majority of the nation’s largest cities and by most regional governments across the country. In this sense, tabunka kyosei is at the heart of local integration and Japan’s inclusion policy.

According to the Council of Europe, there are at least five different measures that governments should take in regard to the integration of foreign nationals: (1) no policy or denial of migration; (2) migrant worker policy; (3) assimilation; (4) multiculturalism; and (5) interculturalism. Given that Japan is no longer in denial about the importance of migrant labor, and given that assimilation seems to go against the basic tenets of universal human rights, what principles should guide its policy orientation in the years to come?

Multiculturalism, which focuses on the recognition and rights of specific cultural communities, has come under criticism, especially in Europe, where governments in countries such as France and Germany are concerned about the emergence of ethnic enclaves and anti-immigrant populist movements, which have become increasingly vocal. Interculturalism sees the recognition of cultural diversity as a starting point, but is primarily focused on promoting meaningful and sustained interactions between different individuals and communities. The idea of tabunka kyosei could combine the best elements of these two models and be used to forge a new path for Japan.

Japan, like many countries in Asia, is not historically a “country of immigration,” so it is difficult to compare it to nations such as Australia or Canada who are often held up as models in terms of diversity and inclusion. Japan is behind in terms of its immigration policy and this situation reinforces stereotypes about it being insular and xenophobic. Indeed, one of the main aims of an immigration policy is to facilitate different forms of civic engagement and to encourage a sense of belonging among foreign residents. As a globally minded, cosmopolitan society, Japan needs to go beyond its focus on just migrant workers.

Research has shown that migrant workers and their children are more likely to suffer from the effects of social and economic inequality. For example, there are 93,000 foreign children who go to Japanese schools and almost half of them are in need of assistance in terms of learning Japanese. It has also been estimated that almost 20,000 foreign children may not even go to school. The Technical Intern Trainee Program, which started in 1993 and is the primary mechanism for admitting foreign workers into Japan, has been criticized for failing to protect workers from exploitation. In fact, more than 9,000 foreign trainees went missing from their approved jobs in 2018, nearly double the figure from 2014.

While it may be argued that the 2018 reforms formally recognize that the future success of the Japanese economy will depend on the contributions made by migrant labor, the timid nature of this policy and its inability to address the underlying issues of social inequality with regards to foreign residents has led many critics to argue that these reforms are too limited in scope and what Japan really needs is a comprehensive national immigration policy.

In September 2020, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications finally revised the tabunka kyosei plan after 14 years. One emphasis under the new plan is that foreign residents become active participants and leaders in local communities and not merely people who are in need of assistance. With the revised 2018 policy and new tabunka kyosei plan, the national government seems prepared to work with local governments to ensure the inclusion of foreign residents, but much more needs to be done.

Japan should ensure coherence across different cities and regions by promoting a more national approach. Like Germany, South Korea or Taiwan, which have enacted laws to advance migrant integration and created official structures to oversee this work, Japan needs national legislation and a formal policy framework for making tabunka kyosei a reality at every level of government, not only at the local or regional levels.

The nation, whose economy is struggling and whose population is rapidly aging, will clearly need to rely on immigration in the years to come. Still, Japan should not take a strictly economic position as it pertains to immigration. As a global leader and a modern democratic society, it is important for the country to show its commitment to universal human rights. In concrete terms, this means facilitating the integration of foreign residents and eventually giving them a clear and formal path to citizenship.

The topic of immigration in Japan has been swept under the rug for too long and it should no longer be a taboo subject. The new government has an historic opportunity to show its leadership on this important issue by facilitating a national conversation about the status of foreign nationals in Japanese society. If the nation’s government believes in the basic principles of universal human rights and if it wants to strengthen Japan’s prospects for a prosperous future, it is time to start talking about immigration policy.

Keizo Yamawaki is a professor at the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University, and a leading scholar on Japanese immigration policy who has advised national ministries and local governments. Bob W. White is director of the Laboratory for Research on Intercultural Relations and professor of anthropology at the University of Montreal. He is the author of “Intercultural Cities: Policy and Practice for a New Era.”

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