Japan Opens Up to Foreign Workers (Just Don't Call it Immigration)

  • Number of foreign workers nearly doubles over eight years
  • Government looks to admit more without path to immigration

Japan Businesses Open Up to Foreign Workers

Send us your construction workers, your care givers, your store clerks -- but for a limited time only.

That’s the message from Japan, where the number of foreign workers, though still relatively small, has nearly doubled over the past eight years, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling party is considering policies to speed up arrivals.

Just don’t call it immigration. Japan will allow more unskilled workers to enter temporarily, as companies struggle to fill positions in a country with the lowest unemployment rate among Group of Seven nations. Abe has made it clear that opening the country to permanent immigration by unskilled labor isn’t an option, reflecting an historic fear among the Japanese people that foreigners would cause social unrest and erode national identity.

"In Japan, the word ‘immigrant’ is not used in policy making," former economy minister Heizo Takenaka said in an interview Tuesday. "The prime minister often says it’s not immigration, it’s guest workers."

Masahiko Shibayama, a lawmaker and adviser to Abe, is among those testing the boundaries as policy makers seek to meet the needs of a country with a shrinking population. He has called for a guest-worker program that would give five-year visas for sectors suffering from labor shortages. Yet he noted that even a recent tourism boom has raised questions among Japanese about how many foreigners should be here.

"For ordinary people, they see the rapid increase in foreign tourists and they see more foreigners downtown, so it’s not strange that some think, ‘Is it good that it’s increasing this much?’" Shibayama said in an interview. "I think it’s important to establish a culture that accepts foreign workers. However, in the case of Japan, it’ll be totally different from the large number of refugees that went to Europe, so I don’t think public opinion will be split on the issue."

The cross-border flow of workers has animated politics across the world, including the U.S. presidential election campaign and the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union. In Japan, immigration is widely touted as one of the few obvious solutions to its demographic and economic challenges. Economists point to it as a source of growth as well as labor. The government projects Japan’s population of 127 million will shrink by 19 million people by 2040.

Central bank Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said in a speech last week in Tokyo that more foreign labor is essential for Japan to achieve sustainable long-term growth.

Japan needs the help now. A 2015 Manpower Survey found that 83 percent of Japanese hiring managers had difficulty filling jobs, compared with a global average of 38 percent.

An Indonesian nurse takes care of an elderly woman in Tokyo in Nov. 2014.

Photographer: Toru Yamanaka/AFP via Getty Images

The government has taken a more welcoming approach to highly skilled foreign workers who are the objects of a global war for talent. Abe this year vowed to provide them with the world’s fastest path to permanent residency. Currently, a person generally becomes eligible for permanent residency after living in Japan for 10 consecutive years.

On the other hand, though it depends on unskilled foreigners in some sectors, Japan has no visa categories under which they can enter the country to work, nevermind become permanent residents or citizens. It instead uses back doors such as a "training" program, ostensibly aimed at training people from developing nations with skills they can use at home, but in practice a guest-worker system which the U.S. State Department has criticized as prone to abuse, including "conditions of forced labor."

Still, the number of foreign workers in Japan has jumped from about 486,000 in 2008 to nearly 908,000 in 2015. About 190,000 work under the training program.

Lawmakers in Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party are supporting a bill that will expand the training program to include workers in elder care as well as manufacturing and agriculture. An LDP proposal would allow participants to stay up to five years, compared with three years currently.

Japan will also be in need of construction workers as it races to build and renovate facilities for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

To be sure, immigration is no panacea for Japan. Barry Bosworth, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said it would raise growth but cautioned that it was no substitute for the structural reforms needed to overcome the country’s economic stagnation.

The influx of workers is already being seen on some streets in Tokyo. In the Ikebukuro neighborhood, an emerging Chinatown, the Chinese language is heard frequently and shops advertise favorites such Shanghai’s specialty fried dumplings.

Staying ‘Forever’

Su Fan, a 27-year-old employee at an auto-sector company, said he moved from China’s Henan province about eight years ago to study. Then he was recruited by a Japanese company. "I never had any worries about a visa. The language was the hardest thing for me," he said.

The Japanese government may see them as a temporary solution, but not all foreign workers will want to leave when their time is up.

Lin Zhi Peng and Zhang Shuang Feng, both 25, just moved to Tokyo from Nanjing, China. They both plan to start working as staff at a mobile phone store soon.

"It’s wonderful here," said Feng, in Ikebukuro. "We love the food, the clean environment, the people. Everything."

Asked how long they plan to stay in Japan, Feng quickly answered, "Forever."

Peng nodded. "Probably forever," he said.

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