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Japan’s Immigration Policy: Turned Corner or Cul-De-Sac?

A new immigration reform package still doesn’t go far enough to meet Japan’s needs.

By Arnab Dasgupta for
Japan’s Immigration Policy: Turned Corner or Cul-De-Sac?
Credit: Pixabay

On December 12, 2018 the Shinzo Abe-led Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) proposed and got approved through the Diet the most comprehensive reform of Japan’s immigration policy mooted since 1990, when the Act in its present form was enacted. The reform actually comprises three separate parts, two amendments of existing legislation, and one set of policy guidelines that comes into force this year. The contents of the reform package are revolutionary: From April 1, 2019, a policy comes into effect that essentially expands the numbers and types of migrants who will be inducted into Japan. The reforms create two new visa categories, Technical Intern Class 1 and 2. The first is directed at marginally-skilled workers in designated fields who meet certain basic criteria and are willing to work in Japan for a period not exceeding five years without the benefit of family reunification. The second new category targets semi-skilled workers with work experience in designated fields who are allowed to bring families as well as shift their visa status at the end of their ten-year initial working period, effectively making them permanent residents. At the same time, the reforms also enjoin the creation of a dedicated Immigration and Foreign Residents Agency, to replace the current Immigration Bureau. The new agency is expected not only to take on the functions of immigration control, but also integration policy formulation and implementation.

Undoubtedly the new reforms come at a time of dire need for Japan. The influx of approximately 350,000 lower-skilled and semi-skilled workers will undoubtedly bring cheer to many sectors of Japanese economy. Small and medium-scale enterprises, burdened as they are with declining worker productivity due to a shortage of helping hands as well as difficulties with the fundamental problem of adapting to new production methods, will undoubtedly appreciate the boost foreign workers will bring to their sagging margins. Agriculturists, cosseted by the state until the new millennium, will also have reason to be satisfied; foreign workers will be a great help to rapidly aging farmworkers who have been struggling to maintain the viability of their profession while the economy progressively lurches into a post-post-industrial twilight.

More broadly, another group of stakeholders in the Japanese democratic system will have reason to rejoice: local governments. As Japan’s birth rate plunges into a total crash (the total fertility rate for an average Japanese woman has retreated to a lowly 1.21 in 2018, with no let-up in sight), even as life expectancies continue to maintain world-beating highs, the problem of “ghost towns” is becoming more and more an object of concern, even alarm in some local corridors of power. Responses to this issue have been haphazard; some municipalities are effectively offering abandoned or vacant houses for free, conditional on certain residence and tax requirements, while others prefer to gently fade away. To be sure, major hubs of global significance such as Tokyo and Osaka are not under threat just yet, recording the only positive demographic growth due to the sheer number of young people moving base to live and work in these global centers, but a slowly creeping sense of desperation has nevertheless enveloped much of the rest of Japan, especially metropolitan areas in the less well-known parts of the archipelago. The resulting stress to the social welfare infrastructure, as well as to the fiscal viability of some regions, has led many to turn to attracting foreigners instead. The news media has recently given some attention to municipalities that are aggressively attracting foreign residents, with promises of political and social rights that would effectively make migrants equivalent to locals.

In this context, the Abe administration’s opening to unskilled workers alongside their skilled counterparts (whom Japan has always encouraged to settle in the country) would seem to be a revolution a long time in coming. As pointed out by other commentators, the reforms offer many new directions for an immigration policy evolution that indicates a growing realization in Japan of the sheer indispensability of migration as an acceptable policy option. At the same time, however, at least some aspects of the new policy present problems that need to be addressed.

One set of issues revolves around the cabinet-approved guidelines called “Comprehensive Measures for Acceptance and Integration of Foreign Human Resources,” which is envisaged as a basic policy document guiding the “integration” (or “assimilation”; both terms have been used to describe it in print media) of migrants into Japanese society. The first point of concern here is the Japanese government’s stated aim of using the guidelines to empower the new Immigration Agency (discussed below) to “help foreign workers assimilate” into Japanese society. As migration scholars from the field of sociology well know, the word “assimilation,” when used by states, often has varying definitions. Sometimes, it is used in the sense of the more appropriate “adaptation,” where the migrant is helped by the state to adapt to life in a new country with a different set of norms. However, given the Japanese state’s historical emphasis on racial homogeneity (a nostrum many commentators on Japan tend to repeat and thus perpetuate), it must be said that the word “assimilation” might be meant literally, as a means of eliminating difference by “encouraging” the migrant to subscribe to the dominant social mores of the host society. To this end, an essential step the government can take would essentially be to define what it means precisely by “integration” (or assimilation) and what that entails.

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The “Comprehensive Measures” document, while an important first step to creating a well-rounded integration policy, also falls short because it does not represent a holistic solution to the problem of integration. This is because it represents only what the government binds itself to doing (or not doing). However, not all problems faced by foreign residents in Japan have to do with government neglect or discrimination; a major proportion of problems concerning housing, social welfare, and access to facilities are in the private domain, that is, between migrants and Japanese natives. This jibes with the well-known antipathy toward migrants prevalent among some Japanese, whereby the very term engenders a knee-jerk rejection, even coupled in some extreme cases by xenophobia and hate crimes. From denying access to certain businesses to difficulties in securing appropriate housing, the negative attitudes of some Japanese toward migrants cannot be ignored while formulating or even envisaging a viable integration policy. Therefore, a more wide-ranging set of measures, which would encompass not only the government, but also civil society, local governments, and the native population itself, would have been more desirable.

Another element of the reform package is the amendment of the Establishment of the Ministry of Justice Law, which removes the current Immigration Bureau from the direct chain of authority inside the Ministry of Justice and sets up a semi-independent Immigration Agency as an external agency with multiple stakeholders. The salient point here is the broader function this new immigration agency (imincho) will play in the macrostructure of Japanese governance. As media reports have made clear, the new agency will initially have a core staff of 13 officials, who are to be dispatched to various regional immigration bureaus, from where they will carry out their duties. Not only does this invite criticism that the number of officials is too small to handle migration numbers, which, especially in recent years, have taken on the characteristics of a flood (Japan now ranks fourth among OECD countries in terms of migrant flows), it places the broader experiment of having a dedicated immigration agency in the first place at risk. The immigration administration reform, which has been a fixture of the LDP-endorsed “Sakanaka plan” of 2008, was in the initial document envisaged as a well-staffed body that would form the bones of (eventually) a ministry of immigration, with a dedicated minister (or deputy minister) in charge of handling migration-related issues. The present reform, though, does not go nearly far enough; crucial doubts remain, such as whether the new agency will have enough operational autonomy to chart its own course on immigration policy, whether it will be able to protect this autonomy against the budget politics of Japanese bureaucracy, or even whether it will be independent enough to protect its very mission of helping migrants enter and reside in Japan from the partisan attacks on it by a future far-right government, should parties such as the Japan Restoration Party or the Party of Hope gain power.

A final note of concern regards the reform itself. The fact that it was ramrodded through the Diet without substantial discussion and despite opposition from other parties indicates a lack of the spirit of seeking cooperation among those in government with those without. While lauded by some commentators as indicative of the growing salience of immigration as an issue in Japanese politics, the way the present reform was enacted is a tragedy. Opposition lawmakers remained quite vocal in public statements that the current reform does not take into account satisfactorily the concerns of several civil society groups regarding the protection of the migrants’ human rights. These concerns have found echoes in other quarters as well: business federations such as the Keizai Doyukai have criticized the lack of family reunification clauses in the new amended law, which would allow all the new migrants to bring families. Though the government has defended itself by pointing to new, more robust criteria for the selection of companies where new migrants would be employed, as well as better rights abuse detection mechanisms and the freedom given to many of the new entrants to seek employment elsewhere after a period of time has elapsed, doubts remain. For one thing, than the reform basically expands the much-maligned Technical Intern Training Program (TITP), which has been widely held to be a “side-door” to recruit low-wage migrant workers under the guise of “training.” New workers will officially be classified as “technical interns,” even though the nature of their work in Japan would barely conform to any definition of “technical internship,” but rather resemble more the Gastarbeiter policies of post-war Germany, or the seasonal Mexican farmworkers of Project Bracero in the United States.

These criticisms all tie into a broader critique, one that scholars have been making for some time: That Japan’s immigration policy is excessively state-centric, bureaucratically-driven, obsessed with quotas, and perceived as solely a tool to solve economic problems, such as loss of competitiveness and continuous economic growth. Unless the government learns to see migrants as valuable in and of themselves, no amount of reform will help it survive the crisis it is facing. However, as presently constituted, there is nothing in this reform package to indicate that this is the case.

Undoubtedly, one factor that might be related to the halfway nature of the reform would be the sheer antipathy to immigration among Prime Minister Abe’s core constituency of right-wing ethno-nationalists, who can reliably be expected to bristle at every step taken by the state that in their calculation would make it easier for foreigners to stay and work in Japan. The Japanese government’s reliance on Abenomics and the new Japan Restoration Policy (JRP) may also be behind the less-than-full attention given to immigration policy reform. It can only be hoped that more cohesive expansion plans for immigration policy reside somewhere deep in the bureaucratic pipeline, awaiting the next prime minister after elections in 2022. In the meantime, the success of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the ostensible reason for the opening to unskilled workers, would be a win for the prime minister, as proof that immigration is a viable option for Japan in the long term, and that a Japan friendlier to migrants is in the best interests of all involved.

Arnab Dasgupta is a doctoral candidate in Japanese Studies at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.