Analysis. The Japanese government has proposed a bill that would introduce a new residence permit for skilled labor. The country, which has no easy path to citizenship, has yet to grapple with the long-term effects of guest workers.

Foreign workers could help resolve Japan’s demographic decline

By the end of the next decade, Japan will have around 10 million inhabitants fewer than it does today. During the same period, the Japanese government plans to increase the growth of domestic consumption and economic growth through fiscal stimuli, trade treaties and domestic reforms, in addition to hosting the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.

An additional phenomenon is the gradual reduction in the workforce, which has fallen by more than four million in the past five years due to the aging population. This looks like a perfect recipe for a significant increase in overtime worked, to which many Japanese workers are already accustomed all-too-well. The government, however, is also trying to convince employers to reduce working hours, for the purpose of stimulating consumption during leisure time.

To find a solution, the government has begun in recent years to try to broaden the workforce, both toward including pensioners—a visible example of which is the inescapable presence of gray-haired parking valets working for various businesses, which one will inevitably encounter when driving in Japan—and women, traditionally a marginal presence in the Japanese workforce.

In recent months, the administration has also begun to look at doing more to include the gaijin, i.e. foreigners.

The government has circulated among the press a draft bill that will introduce a new residence permit for skilled labor. This measure is slated to enter into force after parliamentary approval in April next year, and comes in addition to those already taken over the summer to increase the number of temporary visas (up to five years, no family members), to establish a government agency for immigration (at the moment there is only one office of the Ministry of Justice, with some local bureaus), and the previous permissions granted for high-skilled workers (researchers, managers and professionals).

The new permit will be issued after an initial temporary permit, and it will require passing both a language and a technical or professional examination. The most important novelty it brings is that with this permit, bringing family members will be allowed (up to now, only highly skilled professionals could bring their wives and children, and also their parents, but only if they were needed to care for their grandchildren). The areas for which the new permit will be issued are agriculture, fishing, construction, manufacturing, hospitality and catering and social assistance.

For now, the number of permits that will be issued is small, and the measures may not yield the desired results (a previous relaxing of the requirements in 2013 increased the number of visas for professionals from a few hundred to around 1,500 per year). In addition, the path to obtaining citizenship is a difficult one. This opens up the question of the place of foreigners in Japanese society in the long run, a topic that is not being much discussed by public opinion.

The country has given very different answers to this question in the past. It has gone from absolute isolationism during the Shogun era—except for the Dutch merchants in Nagasaki—to a gradual opening up at the beginning of the Meiji era 150 years ago, then to the dream of a multicultural empire (a notion was used to justify the war in Asia, which Japanese intellectuals thought of as an anti-colonial enterprise), only to fall back to the more reassuring version of a homogenous society after the war. Never resolved, this conflict seems destined to make a comeback.

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