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Economy & Tech

Immigrants in Japan: Unclear Policy Not Helping Anyone

Before recruiting foreign workers to address Japan's labor shortage, the government must explain its plans for integrating immigrants both socially and legally.

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A meeting of the LDP's Special Committee on Foreign Workers held on February 5 at LDP headquarters in Tokyo. (© Kyodo)

Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW) estimates that the number of foreigners living in Japan will nearly triple over the next few decades. Immigrants could reach 9.4 million, or 10.8% of the projected population of 87 million by 2070.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) defines an immigrant as an alien who intends to live [here] permanently. The Japanese government has never clearly defined immigrants. However, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has stated in a written statement that "an immigrant is a person who has permanent resident status at the time of entry into Japan, and that acceptance of a person with work status does not constitute immigration."

With such an increase in the number of foreign residents and even conflicts with local residents, the government has offered no careful explanation of Japan's immigration and refugee integration policies to the public. 

The Specified Skill Worker System

One example is the introduction of the Specified Skill Worker system in April 2019. With it, the Japanese government began accepting more foreign workers. 

Initially, the system began with the premise of inviting human resources to Japan and providing them with technical training. It was a means to contribute to the developing countries from which these workers came.

However, some companies took advantage of this system. They abused it by accepting foreigners as low-wage manpower to simply fill a shortage of workers. This became a social problem as trainees who became fed up with the system went missing.

Under these circumstances, MHLW's expert committee on employment measures for foreign nationals released a final report. In response, the Japanese government just announced a policy of easing the working conditions of foreign technical trainees. This includes relaxing restrictions on changing employers through the newly founded "Nurturing Employment System." However, the new system will not start working immediately — it will not become operational until 2027.

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Facilitating Adjustment into Japan

If the government is going to accept an influx of people from abroad for the purpose of residing in Japan, it is only natural that it should establish a system to ensure their adjustment. This means not only legally but also socially. The government must also explain this to its own citizens before implementing the policy. 

There is a mountain of work to be done including significant changes in the Japanese conventional systems. Even for the Japanese, there are many inefficient systems in Japan. Those systems must seem even more mysterious to foreigners.

For example, in Japan, it is difficult to obtain a driver's license without attending a driving school. Overseas, there are no large-scale driving schools such as the ones in Japan. Therefore, the cost of obtaining a driver's license is lower in other countries. For foreigners who want to obtain a driver's license for the first time in Japan, the hurdle is high.

On top of that, we have to consider changes in the systems regarding more immediate daily necessities. These include housing for families, education for children, health insurance, education to ensure compliance with the law, etc. 

With all this in mind, it is difficult to say that the country is ready to accept people from abroad, even on a moderate scale. Moreover, in some regions, criminal activity by foreign residents is also on the rise. The current ad hoc policy of responding to problems as they arise will only confuse all people concerned.

Fair Wages and the National Health Insurance System

In addition, Japan has a national health insurance system. As long as you are a citizen, you are obliged to pay premiums. Foreigners registered as residents are also obliged to join this national health insurance system. However some foreigners do not pay insurance premiums. 

For such people, the government does not immediately suspend their health insurance coverage. Instead, it allows them to receive medical care for up to two years at a 30% co-payment. During that time, the Japanese people are paying the arrears. The public is complaining about this due to a sense of unfairness.

Meanwhile, the political world is putting various pressures on companies to raise wages. Some large companies are already complying. However, in some jobs that must now rely heavily on foreign workers due to labor shortages, wages could go down instead of up.

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In other words, in jobs with both Japanese and non-Japanese workers, the low wages of foreign workers may bring down the wages of Japanese workers.

This pattern allows a negative cycle to develop in which the shortage of workers leads to dependence on foreign labor. In turn, that could lead to lower wages in some sectors. This would then exacerbate the shortage of workers. Meanwhile, friction between Japanese and foreign workers will be inevitable. 

Avoiding an Anti-Immigrant Crisis

The root of the problem is the government's lack of transparency and preparedness in handling immigrants. The problem can be better understood from the anti-immigrant crisis in Europe. It is quite possible that this will eventually happen in Japan as well.

Printed emails sent from Kawaguchi residents to The Sankei Shimbun regarding the immigration influx. (©Sankei by Ikue Mio)

Anthropologist Chie Nakane analyzed the traditional Japanese concepts of uchi (home) and soto (out). According to Nakane, in Japan, a small group of friends is first formed in the uchi. Then, a society is formed in which these small groups are linked up and down like beads. 

If a person is not included in the small groups or the middle groups that form around it, he or she becomes part of the "soto" group. To join a core small group or a middle group, it is essential to follow the group's rules and not become a detriment to others in it. 

Some would argue that Nakane's analysis is old-fashioned. But it is still implicitly present, even if it does not appear on the surface. For example, consider whether the foreigner is a visitor or a resident. If they are only here to visit, they are part of the soto and therefore do not need to worry about adhering to a group's implicit rules. 

However, living in Japanese communities means that they are getting closer to the people's uchi. That means they would be expected to follow the rules, or at least try to.

Living with Host Country Social Norms

In fact, cases have been reported in which foreign residents caused trouble in the neighborhood by violating rules. But these extend beyond mere cultural etiquette to include dangerous and intimidating behavior and crimes such as stealing crops from nearby fields. When legitimate local frustration with such issues is not properly addressed, it escalates into anti-foreigner sentiment.

Many foreign tourists talk about their impression that Japan is safe and the Japanese are kind. On the surface, that is true. Of course, every country has expectations and aspects that tourists cannot see.

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It is against this backdrop that the government is accepting more people from foreign Against this backdrop, the government is welcoming more people from foreign countries. However, it is doing so without a carefully articulated immigration policy or taking steps to ensure the smooth integration of foreigners into the communities where they are to live.

Naturally, immigrants are expected to abide by the same laws as Japanese citizens. But it seems that some foreigners do not understand the rule of "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." 

The public is waiting for a clear immigration plan, including measures against possible problems.

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Author: Yoshifumi Fukuzawa

Yoshifumi Fukuzawa is a business consultant with an extensive career in international banking.

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