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Japan cracks open the door to immigrants

Immigration is such a taboo in Japan that the government's current push to loosen its immigration laws is welcome indeed. 

However, the amendments being discussed are too little...and rather late. The Abe administration itself estimates that introducing two new visa categories for foreign labourers in about a dozen specific sectors (nursing care, construction, agriculture and hospitality are the most important) is likely to bring at most 340,000 overseas workers into the country -- and that over several years.

This compares with a labour shortage of 600,000 this year, rising to 1.3m per annum for each of the following five years. It is hard to overstate just how bad Japan's demographics are: the population is expected to shrink from around 130m now to below 100m by 2050, by which time one third of those will be over 65 years old.

The effect on overall economic growth, on a tax base that has to pay for the growing burden of elderly care as well as the social consequences of abandoned villages and empty classrooms is not hard to imagine. Yet if you live in Japan, what strikes you most forcefully is that there is no sense of crisis. The Japanese are comfortable, their surroundings are modern and their society is so racially and culturally homogenous that the idea of a large influx of "others" remains anathema to most people.

In fact, the population mostly appears worried about rising crime and social unrest if it lets in more foreigners - a concern that opposition politicians are trying to make the most of. Surveys show that a majority of Japanese would prefer robots to foreign workers when it comes to jobs like staffing nursing homes and hospitals. This attitude even pervades humanitarian issues: in 2017, Japan received nearly 20,000 applications from asylum seekers but accepted only 20.

The government's proposals reflect these feelings. As noted, the new visa categories are limited to certain sectors and to skilled workers only; they are generally for five years at most; and in the majority of cases, overseas workers will not be allowed to bring their families with them -- the clear implication being that they will leave again after their initial visa expires, rather than applying for permanent residency.   

There is still merit in these proposals...if they are seen as a first step. It will take time to change cultural perceptions and moving too rapidly could end up being counterproductive. However, it would be short-sighted and dangerous if the government and its citizens think that just tweaking the law will be enough. Letting in a small number of carefully chosen workers for a limited time will not solve the country's enormous demographic challenges. In the end, Japan will have to throw open its doors to survive.

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