Foreign Labor Need Adds Up to Japan's 'Third Opening'
But despite dwindling domestic work force, government, public
evidently apprehensive about lowering nation's barriers to
Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor, Foreign Press Center Japan, and Lecturer, Waseda University)
The arrival in early August of some 200 Indonesian candidates
hoping to get licensed to work in Japan as nurses and
caregivers made headlines. They were the first group of such
Indonesians to be accepted as part of the provisions of
Japan's bilateral economic partnership agreement with Jakarta.
Though limited in this case to one nationality, they
epitomized what appears to be Japan's changing attitude toward
acceptance of foreign workers or, eventually, immigrants - a
word that has been carefully avoided in the past. At the same
time, controversies surrounding their arrival attested to the
persistent Japanese ambivalence about accepting foreign
workers in earnest.
Conspicuously absent is serious discussion on a comprehensive
immigration policy, despite growing recognition that if Japan
is to maintain its level of economic strength, accepting
foreign workers on a major scale will inevitably be necessary
to make up for a decline in the domestic labor force. As
Japan's population stands to continue to decline, the labor
force is projected to shrink by 20 million people to 46
million by 2050.
What is holding the nation back from addressing the issue
squarely, however, is the government's - and public's -
apprehension about difficulties arising from living with a
large number of non-Japanese residents. As a society that
historically has lived essentially homogeneously in terms of
ethnicity, this is understandable. And what is happening with
immigrants in European countries, for example, only adds to
their concern, in that even counties supposedly more
experienced at mixing with immigrants are finding it rather
All the same, Japanese are aware of the approaching need to
face up to the issue, and their reluctance should therefore be
counted as yet another case of indecision on matters of
critical importance for the future of the country. Indeed,
this might constitute Japan's third opening to the rest of the
world in its modern history - after the brutal awakening by
the Black Ships in the mid-18th century and the devastating
defeat in World War II a century later. Many argue the
country's future survival may well depend on the success of
this third opening.
Such openings in the past notwithstanding, this country has
jealously closed itself to foreigners who might desire to live
and work here. The idea of accepting "immigrants" has always
been something out of the question. Other than students and
those married to Japanese, foreigners coming to Japan to live
have generally been treated as "foreign workers" and strictly
limited to those with high-level skills or talent termed by
professions - typically professors, artists, lawyers,
engineers, journalists or athletes.
The name of the game is to shut out "simple workers," a rather
vague term generally construed as meaning "manual workers" or
"unskilled labor" - an exception being descendants of
Brazilians of Japanese origin who are more easily admitted
into the country on work permit visas, with this year marking
the centenary of the first Japanese emigration to Brazil. It
should be added that even concerning high-skill professions,
Japan's openness is very limited.
Dotting the landscape
At the end of last year, registered foreign residents in Japan
numbered 2,152,973 - approximately 1.7% of the entire
population and up 50% from 10 years ago. Of them, 20% were
ethnic Koreans and Chinese who moved, or were forcibly taken,
to Japan before World War II and chose to stay on after the
war, along with their offspring. Another 20% consisted of
spouses of Japanese. The remainder included students and those
on industrial training programs.
At the same time, cases are cropping up that betray the often
exploitative and abusive treatment of foreign workers. A
considerable number of domestic firms, mostly smaller ones,
and farmers admit that they could not stay in business without
foreigners who work for extremely low wages. Some are illegal
workers, but many are people who have come to Japan under the
guise of industrial training, intended as a form of
international aid to developing countries.
So where do the would-be nurses and caregivers from Indonesia
fit into the picture? They are outside and above the framework
of the country's general policy toward foreign workers;
special, in that they are admitted under the bilateral EPA
with Indonesia. A similar arrangement has been negotiated with
the Philippines as well.
The realities awaiting them, however, are quite demanding.
First, they will study Japanese to acquire language skills
good enough to pass the national examination to be qualified
as nurses or caregivers, just as Japanese candidates do. If
one fails to pass the test in three years, he or she must
return home. Some warn the condition is too strict.
The nursing care industry, moreover, is known for its
difficult working conditions, excessive workloads and
disproportionately low pay, resulting in high turnover among
caregivers and nurses and a chronic workers shortage. This is
quite a chaotic situation in the face of the prospect of
swelling demand as the nation's elderly population rapidly
expands. More than 1.5 million caregivers are projected to be
needed in 2024, but a severe shortage is expected.
Understandably, the number of Indonesian candidates who signed
up for possible work opportunities in Japan turned out to be
much smaller than expected. And the question is what
significance only a few thousand Indonesian and Filipino
nurses and care providers - already with uncertain futures in
this country - will make under the circumstances.
All this reveals the stark absence of a comprehensive national
policy - or willingness to have one - regarding acceptance of
foreign workers and immigrants with broad social, economic,
political and cultural implications. More broadly, a
demographic policy is nonexistent, without which the nation's
survival will be in question, as Hiroshi Okuda, former
chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren),
A group of some 80 governing Liberal Democratic Party
politicians led by former party Secretary-General Hidenao
Nakagawa has proposed a positive immigration policy,
envisaging the acceptance of foreign workers and their
families to the level that they would account for 10% of the
total population in 2050, forming a "multi-ethnic society."
Still, this sounds like an overly ambitious goal, and whether
people will be prepared for such a society is up in the air.
If Japan is to move in that direction at all, one essential
thing is to get rid of the tendency to regard foreign workers
as cheap, expendable substitutes for a decline in the domestic
labor force. Japanese need to socially and culturally reinvent
themselves to live with the foreign population, making the
country truly attractive for them. This should indeed be a
third opening in the country's history.
(Originally appeared in the September 1, 2008 issue of The
Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)