Foreign workers in Japan

The changing face of Japan: labour shortage opens doors to immigrant workers

Immigrant workers are part of a growing foreign workforce that policymakers see as a solution to Japan’s shrinking, aging population and a stubbornly low birthrate.

Under pressure from Japanese businesses battling the tightest labour shortage in decades, Japan’s government has finally been forced to relax its tough immigration policy.

The Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved legislation that will open the door to as many as half a million foreign workers by 2025, in what some are calling the end to Japan’s traditional opposition to large-scale immigration. The bill is expected to pass by the end of the year and go into effect next April.

Critics say employers abuse the scheme for cheap labour, with failing to pay proper salaries and forcing interns to work long hours. In addition, the program, which employed just over 260,000 foreign workers last year, does not include enough people with the specific skills required in sectors of the economy that are suffering from a labour shortage.

There were 1.28 million foreign workers among Japan’s workforce of 66 million in October 2017, which doubles the number in 2012. As a result, unemployment dropped to just 2.3% in September and there are 163 job vacancies for every 100 job seekers; was the highest job availability for more than 40 years.

‘Not a conventional immigration policy’

Under the new legislation, foreign workers will be divided into two categories. One is with skills in sectors experiencing labour shortages will be allowed to work for up to five years but cannot bring their families with them. Another category is more advanced skills will be able to bring family members and renew their visas indefinitely, and may eventually apply for permanent residency. However, both categories must pass a Japanese-language exam.

Abe warned that labour shortages risked obstructing Japan’s return to modest economic growth.

“We are not pursuing a conventional immigration policy,” Abe said, adding that most foreign workers would stay in Japan for limited periods and that the policy would be reviewed in the event of an economic downturn or easing of labour shortages in particular sectors. “It would be wrong to force our values on foreigners. Instead, it’s important to create an environment in which people can happily coexist.”

But some experts disagree. “I think this is a de facto shift to an immigration policy,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, the former head of the Tokyo immigration bureau. The prospect of a significant rise in the number of immigrant workers prompted a backlash from opposition parties.

The rightwing Japan First party complained that flood of foreign workers would place unbearable pressure on welfare services and lead to higher crime rates.

Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of the centrist Democratic Party for the People, voiced concern over pressure on wages and social services. Likewise, he became the first party leader to support a European-style immigration policy. His argument is to ensure equal pay for equal work and allow foreign workers to bring their families to Japan.

Although Yuichiro Tamaki had a suggestion, the rightwing still disagrees with his opinion. A rightwing magazine, Sapio features a series of articles warning of a rise in violence, sex crimes and cultural clashes. Meanwhile the private broadcaster Fuji TV was criticized for a recent program about visa overstayers that demonized immigrants.

A survey by the TV Tokyo and the Nikkei business newspaper showed 54% of Japanese voters favoured allowing in more unskilled foreign workers, with 36% against. Support for the move was particularly high among younger people.

The liberal Asahi newspaper said Abe had failed to address “a slew of concerns about its hasty initiative to drastically increase the number of foreign workers”.

“Whether they are called immigrants or not, the government has a responsibility to lay out a viable and convincing vision of the future of Japanese society where foreign workers and Japanese citizens can live together in harmony and feel secure,” the newspaper said, adding that the change was “bound to have a far-reaching effect on Japanese society”.

‘Places like this can’t survive without foreign workers’

Takatoshi Shiba, head of the Akitsu fishermen’s cooperative, jokes that at 67, he is relatively young compared to his Japanese colleagues. “It feels like a wasted opportunity because the trainees spend time learning the job and getting used to life here, and then they have to go home after a few years,” says Shiba. “I don’t think the government has any choice but to act soon. Places like this can’t survive without foreign workers.”

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