Doors to Foreign Workers Opened up by Japan

Japan, where the number of foreign workers, though still relatively small, has nearly doubled over the past eight years, is giving this message: send us your construction workers, your care givers, your store clerks — but for a limited time only.

And policies to speed up arrivals are being considered by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling party.

But it should not be termed as immigration. As companies struggle to fill positions in a country with the lowest unemployment rate among Group of Seven nations, Japan will allow more unskilled workers to enter temporarily. Reflecting an historic fear among the Japanese people that foreigners would cause social unrest and erode national identity, Abe has made it clear that opening the country to permanent immigration by unskilled labor isn’t an option.

“In Japan, the word ‘immigrant’ is not used in policy making. The prime minister often says it’s not immigration, it’s guest workers,” former economy minister Heizo Takenaka said in an interview Tuesday.

Among those testing the boundaries as policy makers seek to meet the needs of a country with a shrinking population is Masahiko Shibayama, a lawmaker and adviser to Abe. A call to give five-year visas for sectors suffering from labor shortages has been called by him through a guest-worker program. Yet, questions among Japanese about how many foreigners should be here have been raised by a recent tourism boom, he noted.

“For ordinary people, they see the rapid increase in foreign tourists and they see more foreigners downtown, so it’s not strange that some think, ‘Is it good that it’s increasing this much? I think it’s important to establish a culture that accepts foreign workers. However, in the case of Japan, it’ll be totally different from the large number of refugees that went to Europe, so I don’t think public opinion will be split on the issue’” Shibayama said in an interview.

Politics across the world, including the U.S. presidential election campaign and the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union has been animated by the cross-border flow of workers. One of the few obvious solutions to its demographic and economic challenges in Japan has been widely touted to be immigration. It is seen as a source of growth as well as labor by economists. Japan’s population of 127 million will shrink by 19 million people by 2040, projects the government.

More foreign labor is essential for Japan to achieve sustainable long-term growth, Central bank Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said in a speech last week in Tokyo.

Japan needs the help now. Compared with a global average of 38 percent, 83 percent of Japanese hiring managers had difficulty filling jobs, found a 2015 Manpower Survey.

Now objects of a global war for talent are highly skilled foreign workers and the government has taken a more welcoming approach to this group. The world’s fastest path to permanent residency to members of this group was promised this year by Abe. Currently, after living in Japan for 10 consecutive years, a person generally becomes eligible for permanent residency.

(Adapted from Bloomberg)

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