In recent years, Japan, a country traditionally opposed to immigration, has doubled the number of migrant workers on its territory. And now, the conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to change the system of strict limits on visas to attract 500,000 more foreigners for medium- and low-skilled jobs.
This does not involve their integration with full rights from a formal standpoint, but the migrants who will come to the “Land of the Rising Sun”—mainly from China, the Philippines and Vietnam (but also from Brazil and Nepal)—will be able to extend their new five-year work permits to remain as residents for up to 10 years.
Getting to this point was not easy, but some of the elements that have had great importance have been the requirements of “Abenomics” and the increase in the demand for jobs, especially in construction, ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games. The particular demographic condition of Japan, marked by an unprecedented number of seniors and the progressive depopulation of the countryside, has led to an unfulfilled need for agricultural labor in addition to construction. Today, there are around 1,280,000 immigrants in Japan, a number which has doubled in the past five years. The first wave consisted of students and employees in the service sectors; nowadays, the inflow is driven by construction and agriculture.
All this has not gone over without resistance and internal debates: the case of Europe is the favorite argument of the local proponents of ”Japan First,” and it is generally believed that immigrants bring with them disorder and crime, and that in the end they will negatively affect the rights of the Japanese. However, even in the face of these attitudes, the 2017 reform instituted a points system that allowed foreigners to obtain a permanent residency visa.
Abe’s course of action was also made necessary by the urgings of Japanese companies, which were the first to emphasize their need for new workers, including those without a high level of skills. As reported by the Asia Nikkei Review, “the business community would like Abe to go further. The unemployment rate stands at 2.5 percent, the lowest level in 25 years. There are now 1.59 jobs for every job seeker, the highest ratio since 1974. Given Japan’s demographics—it is the world’s oldest advanced economy—the labor shortage is only going to intensify. The nation’s working-age population, defined as those aged between 15 and 64, is expected to decrease more than 40 percent to 45 million over the next 50 years. By contrast, those aged 75 or older … are projected to make up more than a quarter of the population.”
As for Abe’s more general “Japan First” policies, which stand in contrast with these recent liberalization measures but which still enjoy deep-rooted support among the population, professor Toru Shinoda, a labor relations expert teaching at Waseda University in Tokyo, said in an interview with The Diplomat that, while Abe’s proposal was a step in the right direction to ensure the country’s future, Japan was still laboring under misinformation regarding the Japanese myth of ethnic homogeneity. Actually, as Shinoda pointed out, the history of Japan before World War II shows that around one million immigrants had been accepted en masse, and that 100,000 Japanese had in turn emigrated throughout the world.
Thus, according to Shinoda, there is nothing intrinsic to Japanese culture that would impede the acceptance of immigrants, although the dismantling of the myth of a homogeneous Japanese society will require a number of steps to accomplish.
As Reuters has also reported, before deciding to loosen the restrictions on immigration, Abe had tried to tackle the country’s economic problems through internal reforms, such as encouraging women and retirees to return to work. For instance, the “Womenomics” project had been unveiled in 2015, with an ambitious initial goal: to raise the proportion of women in leadership positions to at least 30 percent by 2020—an aim which was later lowered to 15 percent by 2030.
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