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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 10:22 09/08/2008
September 8, 2008

Foreign Labor Need Adds Up to Japan's 'Third Opening'

But despite dwindling domestic work force, government, public evidently apprehensive about lowering nation's barriers to outsiders

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor, Foreign Press Center Japan, and Lecturer, Waseda University)

The arrival in early August of some 200 Indonesian candidates hoping to get licensed to work in Japan as nurses and caregivers made headlines. They were the first group of such Indonesians to be accepted as part of the provisions of Japan's bilateral economic partnership agreement with Jakarta.

Though limited in this case to one nationality, they epitomized what appears to be Japan's changing attitude toward acceptance of foreign workers or, eventually, immigrants - a word that has been carefully avoided in the past. At the same time, controversies surrounding their arrival attested to the persistent Japanese ambivalence about accepting foreign workers in earnest.

Conspicuously absent is serious discussion on a comprehensive immigration policy, despite growing recognition that if Japan is to maintain its level of economic strength, accepting foreign workers on a major scale will inevitably be necessary to make up for a decline in the domestic labor force. As Japan's population stands to continue to decline, the labor force is projected to shrink by 20 million people to 46 million by 2050.

What is holding the nation back from addressing the issue squarely, however, is the government's - and public's - apprehension about difficulties arising from living with a large number of non-Japanese residents. As a society that historically has lived essentially homogeneously in terms of ethnicity, this is understandable. And what is happening with immigrants in European countries, for example, only adds to their concern, in that even counties supposedly more experienced at mixing with immigrants are finding it rather difficult.

All the same, Japanese are aware of the approaching need to face up to the issue, and their reluctance should therefore be counted as yet another case of indecision on matters of critical importance for the future of the country. Indeed, this might constitute Japan's third opening to the rest of the world in its modern history - after the brutal awakening by the Black Ships in the mid-18th century and the devastating defeat in World War II a century later. Many argue the country's future survival may well depend on the success of this third opening.

Such openings in the past notwithstanding, this country has jealously closed itself to foreigners who might desire to live and work here. The idea of accepting "immigrants" has always been something out of the question. Other than students and those married to Japanese, foreigners coming to Japan to live have generally been treated as "foreign workers" and strictly limited to those with high-level skills or talent termed by professions - typically professors, artists, lawyers, engineers, journalists or athletes.

The name of the game is to shut out "simple workers," a rather vague term generally construed as meaning "manual workers" or "unskilled labor" - an exception being descendants of Brazilians of Japanese origin who are more easily admitted into the country on work permit visas, with this year marking the centenary of the first Japanese emigration to Brazil. It should be added that even concerning high-skill professions, Japan's openness is very limited.

Dotting the landscape

At the end of last year, registered foreign residents in Japan numbered 2,152,973 - approximately 1.7% of the entire population and up 50% from 10 years ago. Of them, 20% were ethnic Koreans and Chinese who moved, or were forcibly taken, to Japan before World War II and chose to stay on after the war, along with their offspring. Another 20% consisted of spouses of Japanese. The remainder included students and those on industrial training programs.

At the same time, cases are cropping up that betray the often exploitative and abusive treatment of foreign workers. A considerable number of domestic firms, mostly smaller ones, and farmers admit that they could not stay in business without foreigners who work for extremely low wages. Some are illegal workers, but many are people who have come to Japan under the guise of industrial training, intended as a form of international aid to developing countries.

So where do the would-be nurses and caregivers from Indonesia fit into the picture? They are outside and above the framework of the country's general policy toward foreign workers; special, in that they are admitted under the bilateral EPA with Indonesia. A similar arrangement has been negotiated with the Philippines as well.

The realities awaiting them, however, are quite demanding.

First, they will study Japanese to acquire language skills good enough to pass the national examination to be qualified as nurses or caregivers, just as Japanese candidates do. If one fails to pass the test in three years, he or she must return home. Some warn the condition is too strict.

The nursing care industry, moreover, is known for its difficult working conditions, excessive workloads and disproportionately low pay, resulting in high turnover among caregivers and nurses and a chronic workers shortage. This is quite a chaotic situation in the face of the prospect of swelling demand as the nation's elderly population rapidly expands. More than 1.5 million caregivers are projected to be needed in 2024, but a severe shortage is expected.

Understandably, the number of Indonesian candidates who signed up for possible work opportunities in Japan turned out to be much smaller than expected. And the question is what significance only a few thousand Indonesian and Filipino nurses and care providers - already with uncertain futures in this country - will make under the circumstances.

Missing policy

All this reveals the stark absence of a comprehensive national policy - or willingness to have one - regarding acceptance of foreign workers and immigrants with broad social, economic, political and cultural implications. More broadly, a demographic policy is nonexistent, without which the nation's survival will be in question, as Hiroshi Okuda, former chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), has declared.

A group of some 80 governing Liberal Democratic Party politicians led by former party Secretary-General Hidenao Nakagawa has proposed a positive immigration policy, envisaging the acceptance of foreign workers and their families to the level that they would account for 10% of the total population in 2050, forming a "multi-ethnic society."

Still, this sounds like an overly ambitious goal, and whether people will be prepared for such a society is up in the air. If Japan is to move in that direction at all, one essential thing is to get rid of the tendency to regard foreign workers as cheap, expendable substitutes for a decline in the domestic labor force. Japanese need to socially and culturally reinvent themselves to live with the foreign population, making the country truly attractive for them. This should indeed be a third opening in the country's history.

(Originally appeared in the September 1, 2008 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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