Can Japan turn to foreign workers?

Author: Atsushi Kondo, Meijo University

Japan is the only developed industrial democracy to have become rich without heavily relying on foreign workers during its period of advanced economic growth. The government has followed two basic immigration principles: it welcomed specialised and technical labour while examining carefully the admission of unskilled labour. In practice, this meant Japan welcomed relatively few immigrants.

Japanese businessmen take a rest at a square outside Shimbashi railway station in Tokyo. There is now a debate in Japan over whether the country should adopt a more liberal immigration policy, especially for highly-skilled workers. (Photo: AAP)

But after the Plaza Accord in 1985 caused the yen to strengthen, the bubble economy attracted significant numbers of foreign workers to Japan. In the 1990s and 2000s Japan experienced a large influx of foreign residents for the first time in its history. While the government kept the official policy and refused to admit unskilled foreign workers, in practice three loopholes were established. First, Japan allows Nikkeijin (people of Japanese descent), who come mainly from Brazil, Peru and other Latin American countries, to enter the labour market through the front door. They can work without restrictions. Second, it opened a side door for trainees and technical interns (mainly from China and other Asian countries). The trainee program has been criticised because it allows foreign workers to be exploited as low-wage labourers. While most trainees have now been shifted into the category of technical interns, which will mean more oversight and allow immigrants to work for a maximum of three years, there are still cases of abuse. The third way immigrants enter the labour market is through the back door — Japan has a number of irregular labourers who come mainly from South Korea, the Philippines, China and other Asian countries.

There is now a debate in Japan over whether the country should adopt a more liberal immigration policy, especially for highly-skilled workers. In fact, there has already been some reform in this area. In 2012 the government introduced a points-based preferential immigration regime for highly-skilled foreign professionals. This means that the government will give a score to foreign workers calculated in reference to their academic qualifications, professional career, income and so on. Applicants that score above 70 points in the evaluation will be recognised as ‘highly-skilled foreign professionals’, and can qualify for permanent residence after five years. The government is targeting three categories: academic research activities; advanced specialised/technical activities; and business management activities.

Japan is also trying to attract more foreign students. The ‘Plan to Accept 100,000 Foreign Students’, first set out in 1983, was upgraded in 2008 to an annual target of 300,000 foreign students by 2020. The number of foreign students increased from 10,428 in 1983 to 141,774 in 2010, and in May 2012 there were 137,756 foreign students in universities, while 24,092 pre-college students attended Japanese language schools. The vast majority of these students are Chinese. In 2010 the pre-college student visa was abolished and integrated into the student visa in order to ensure students complete their study in Japan.

So Japan has gone some way to achieving its goals, and its attitude to foreign students also seems to be changing. Foreign students are not just expected to create a network of trust to deepen mutual understanding and friendship; they are expected to play a part in economic activities in Japan. After graduation, if they find employment foreign students can change their residence status to become ‘specialists’ in humanities, international services or engineering. If they cannot find a job initially, foreign students can apply for a 180-days ‘Designated Activity Visa’ to extend their search. Since 2009 even recently graduated foreign students who cannot find employment 180 days after graduation can renew their visa and keep looking for a job for up to a year.

Japan has a rapidly ageing and decreasing population, and the government has started to realise that immigration can be part of a way to cope with this issue. But while its education-oriented immigration policy is relatively liberal Japan has no systematic framework to encourage integration and support recent migrants. Japan is still the only developed industrialised democracy that does not have an anti-discrimination law. The Migrant Integration Policy Index of 33 countries shows that Japan has relatively less trouble in the fields of labour market access and settlement. Japan’s real problems are discrimination and education, and then political participation and citizenship. Since the end of the 2000s, the government has started to promote support measures for foreign residents of Japanese descent, but the targets and contents are very limited. In order to be an attractive country for foreign students and foreign workers, Japan should strengthen anti-discrimination policies and work to change the nation’s image as an exclusive society. Greater migrant participation is increasingly necessary for the improvement not only of the economic, but also political, social and cultural life of Japan.

Atsushi Kondo is Professor of Law at Meijo University and Academic Visitor at the Faculty of Law, Oxford University.