Shrinking ‘made-in-Japan’ work force sparks identity crisis, policy fight

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solDespite the widespread view that Japan is ethnically homogeneous, Professor John Lie argued in “Multiethnic Japan” (Harvard Press) that it is more accurate to describe Japan as a multiethnic society. Such claims have long been rejected by other sectors of Japanese society such as former Japanese Prime Minister Tarō Asō, who once described Japan as being a nation of “one race, one civilization, one language and one culture”. — Wikipedia

By Sol W. Sanders

Tokyo is about to take its most important social policy decision since World War II when General Douglas MacArthur’s American Occupation [ending in 1952] remolded the Japanese society.

College students attend job fair at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center. / Chris McGrath / Getty

The Japanese, with no seeming alternative if their highly skilled and successful economy is to be maintained, are now going ahead with plans to import foreign workers on a semi-permanent or permanent basis.

Japan’s population is aging faster than any other nation. Current predictions are that Japan’s population will plunge from the current 126 million to about 87 million in 2060.

Japan has never welcomed foreign emigrants and its rigid and unique social structure makes it difficult at best for them to assimilate.

But, increasingly, Japan is being forced to the decision to accept permanent foreign nationals as workers or introduce much more efficient nationalization procedures. As the world’s third-largest economy, the ageing and rapidly shrinking population has major economic repercussions not only for Japan but for the global economy as well.

Now Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he wants to attract hundreds of thousands of foreign workers over the next five years to meet the catastrophic fall in its population producing a significant labor shortage.

Still even after Abe’s statement seeking to end a decade-long debate, six major Diet opposition parties pledged to block his government’s bill. That is coupled with concern after the government’s initial refusal to release estimates of the number of new foreigners that would be allowed into the country continues to prejudice the issue.

So the outcome still remains problematical.

The government still officially bans unskilled foreign workers from employment in the country. The two new proposed working visas that will be issued will require foreign applicants to possess “a certain skill” to work in 14 selected industries, including construction and farming.

As of December 2014, there were 2,121,831 foreigners residing in Japan, 677,019 of whom were long-term residents. [The UK with half the population of Japan has 6.2 million foreign residents to Japan’s slightly over two million.]

Vietnamese made the largest proportion of these new foreign residents, while Nepalese, Filipino, Chinese and Taiwanese are also significant in numbers. However, the majority of these immigrants will only remain in Japan for a maximum of five years, as many of them have entered the country in order to complete trainee programs.

Japan’s population of those 65 years or older roughly doubled in past 24 years, from 7.1 percent of the population in 1970 to 14.1 percent in 1994. [The same increase took 61 years in Italy, 85 years in Sweden, and 115 years in France.]

Therefore, despite the strong opposition, more than 345,000 blue-collar foreign laborers are expected to enter Japan within a five-year period starting from fiscal 2019. However, expectations as to their status and potential role in the labor force differ significantly between those promoting the emigration and the industries they are set to join. Some businesses simply consider them temporary labor, while others see them as having the potential to become more versatile employees and Japanese citizens.

In the restaurant industry, which is projected to take in around 41,000 to 53,000 laborers, major companies have reiterated their willingness to embrace foreign workers. In the nursing-care sector, which would absorb the largest share of laborers, 50,000 to 60,000 new hires expected, it is clear that extra labor is crucially needed

But Hiromi Ogata, a senior supervisor in Setagaya Ward Office in Tokyo, said this will not quickly improve the situation.

“Taking foreign workers will not create a paradise. It will a take long time for such systems to become accepted in Japan,” said Ogata.

Sol W. Sanders, ([email protected]), is a contributing editor for and