Unlocking Japan’s Immigration Policy Potential | Wilson Center

Unlocking Japan’s Immigration Policy Potential

Immigration remains a divisive issue in the United States, but there is no doubt that the history of migration plays a key role in defining U.S. history. Japan too has its own history of immigration and emigration, but pales in comparison to that of the United States or even Europe. Yet as projections for the country’s demographic future become ever bleaker, Japan seems at first blush to be prepared to buck the global trend of closing borders. But Tokyo tiptoeing its way to open its doors ever so slightly to migrants may prove to be the most challenging deal yet, even as the rewards could be far greater than it expects.

Given such a demographic reality, it may well be that Japan is doing too little, too late in light of its dire population projection.

In April, Japan will be loosening its restrictive immigration policy to allow lower-skilled foreign workers to fill the much-needed gap in some of the most crucial jobs including construction and healthcare. Initially, up to 345,000 visas will be issued, which is hardly a flood of migrants in a country with 127 million people. Still, the population is projected to shrink to 100 million by 2050, and more than a quarter of the total number of citizens is expected to be over 65 years old within the next two decades. Given such a demographic reality, it may well be that Japan is doing too little, too late in light of its dire population projection.

Yet with expectations of more visas to be issued once the policy takes root, the voices against Japan’s nascent immigration policy remain persistent across the political spectrum. In fact, so strong has wariness about the new policy been that Prime Minister Abe has had to emphasize on multiple occasions in the Diet that this is not an immigration policy per se, but rather a policy to bring in foreign workers. Two types of visas will be issued, and the one for lower-skilled workers will not allow foreigners to bring family members, and will only let them stay in the country for up to five years. The second type of visa for more skilled workers such as lawyers, on the other hand, would allow foreigners to bring their spouse and children.

Concerns about a greater influx of immigrants into Japan stems in part from concerns about social changes a growing foreign population would pose to a country that has identified itself, rightly or wrongly, as a homogenous society. The question being asked is whether the economic benefits of migrants taking on jobs would actually outweigh the cost on society as that supposed homogeneity comes under pressure.

What Japan must do, though, is consider the economic benefits to be gained from the social change that greater migration would bring. One of the challenges of empowering women, for instance, has been precisely the slowness in social adaptation to more women in the workforce. The fact that Prime Minister Abe highlighted the need for women to work and to take on leadership roles has been a welcome one. Yet for all the talk about “womenomics” and female empowerment, the fact remains that it still is difficult for Japanese women to move up the corporate ladder and be greater risk-takers amid social expectations for women to be the primary caregivers. Companies, schools, families, and oftentimes women themselves still see women as doing the bulk, if not almost all, of the housework and child-rearing as well as elderly care. Having more women work would no doubt be an effective measure to offset at least some of the shortages in Japan’s labor market.

More importantly, though, having more women and more foreigners in the workforce and in the public realm would invariably bring different perspectives and different values to society at large.

More importantly, though, having more women and more foreigners in the workforce and in the public realm would invariably bring different perspectives and different values to society at large. It could lead to a decrease in inefficiencies in Japan’s workplace, especially the norm of putting in hours in the office for the sake of putting in hours, rather than being results-focused. It could also lead to greater innovation that would appeal to broader markets, precisely because there is input from multiple perspectives.

Japan’s economic challenges stem not just from addressing the demographic time bomb. It also needs to address how to remain competitive in an increasingly integrated and rapidly evolving global economy where a handful of companies can quickly dominate a nascent industry. Greater diversity of the Japanese population through more migrants can certainly help the country become more flexible, innovative and efficient. Without them, it will be harder for Japan to adapt in the longer term.

Follow Shihoko Goto, deputy director for geoeconomics and senior associate for Northeast Asia, on Twitter @GotoEastAsia.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2018, Asia Program. All rights reserved.