The steady drain on Japan’s workforce because of aging and population decline is forcing the government to do what was once considered unthinkable, namely to open the country to foreign workers. Just don’t call them immigrants!
This month the government introduced legislation in Parliament that would, for the first time allow immigrants with valid work permits to live and work legally in Japan, including bringing with them their families. Just don’t call them migrants either!
This represents a sea change in Japanese attitudes on unskilled migrant labor in Japan in which it seeks to maintain the racial purity of their nearly homogenous society. (Not entirely homogeneous. Foreigners make up 1.27 million of Japan’s 127 million people).
But it seems to be a sea change that is necessary with Japan, one of the few countries in the world whose population is actually shrinking, with an annual 0.1 percent negative growth rate and a life expectancy of 83.98 years. Its domestic labor force, ages 15-64, is shrinking even faster, expected to fall by 24 million by 2050.
Nonetheless, public opinion polls show that most Japanese are opposed to letting in more foreigners, often citing arguments heard elsewhere, most loudly in the United States under the Trump administration, that immigrants bring with them increased crime and a long string of other problems.
Aware of public antipathy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has studiously avoided using the word “immigration” in his comments. He simply states that looser visa rules are unavoidable to maintain growth of the economy and prosperity threatened by growing labor shortages thought the economy.
Technically, the government has submitted a bill to revise the Immigration, Control and Refugee Recognition law. It would create two new types of visas. Category 1 status would allow foreign works to stay in Japan for up to five years but could not allow the to bring spouses or children with them.
Category 2, which requires higher skills, would allow workers to bring their families with them and essentially stay permanently. There is language to allow the government to cease accepting new workers if the labor shortages are resolved, which doesn’t seem likely.
Pressed by the opposition to provide more details, especially business categories most impacted, the government released data with estimates of the numbers who might enter the country to work in 14 categories totaling 345,000 people.
That doesn’t entirely address the problem. The Labor ministry projects that the county will, under present trajectories be short 586,000 workers in 2019 and 1.5 million in five years.
The current shortfalls range from 60,000 for nurses, 36,000 for farmers, 40,000 in construction, 53,000 for restaurants. They relate to actual labor shortages in the fourteen affected categories over a five-year period starting in April.
The governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership says it wants to pass the bill by the end of November. But the opposition is complaining that leaves too little time to debate the bill in the three weeks left in the current Diet session.
The government is accused of using the acute labor shortage as an excuse to ram the bill thorough parliament, where the LDP and its coalition partner have two-thirds majorities. The current session ends Dec. 10, and some think it might have to be extended for 10 days.
“The bill is a step forward in that the nation is finally coming to grips with the need do accept more foreign workers to make up for the labor supply shortage caused by its rapidly aging and shrinking population.” wrote the Japan Times in an editorial.
Some wish to avoid the need for importing more foreign labor by trying other means to curb shortages, such as encouraging more women and elderly to enter the work force. But the birth rate is at an all-time low and efforts to allow more women in the work force are flagging.
Tokyo has tried other means to make up for the shortfall in labor but without much success. Some 250,000 foreigners are working in Japan now under a program called the Technical Intern Training Program to provide job training for Asians to take back to their country.
But the program has long been considered just a cover for supplying low cost labor for business, leading to other abuses such as unpaid wages and illegal unpaid overtime. This is seen as best a short time solution having more to do with cultivating good will abroad, not addressing the labor shortage.
Many Asian workers with valid student visas moonlight in the regular economy. The figures keep growing. About 40,000 Asians are said to work in all-night convenience stores, especially during the late night hours that many Japanese tend to void.
These are working at the edge to the law. There is no such thing as a convenience store worker visa category, so most of them are in Japan technically to attend various schools with student visas. Many of them do in fact attend classes while putting in a night shift at the convenience store.
Another initiative to meet labor shortages was also something of a failure. With the oldest population in the world Japan has a major need for people to help care for the aged. People in Southeast Asia have the skills to care for them. A marriage made in heaven?
The Japanese government signed agreements with Indonesia and the Philippines to import about 1,000 care givers to live and work in Japan for up to three years after which they would take an exam in order to say.
Embarrassingly for the government, only about 1 per cent of the caregivers managed to pass the test, which included many complicated Chinese characters for technical medical terms. Neither Indonesia nor the Philippine uses the Chinese writing system.
It is of course, desirable that the are givers should be able to converse with the patients and to read notices, which could be written in Japan’s alphabetic script. That led some to complain that the books were really cooked to keep the numbers of foreign workers – immigrants - down. At the roots, Japan’s stubborn racial homogeneity is difficult to change.