Tokyo Report | Society | East Asia

Is Japan Ready to Welcome Immigrants?

A recent survey by Japan’s Cabinet Office has interesting implications for the push to welcome more foreign workers.

Mina Pollmann
Is Japan Ready to Welcome Immigrants?
Credit: Pixabay

In late 2018, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan pushed through an immigration reform law that aimed to attract 345,000 foreign workers over the next five years. Driven by demographic and business concerns about Japan’s shrinking labor force, the legislation created two types of visas: one for less skilled foreign workers to stay for not more than five years, and one for semi-skilled workers who can stay for 10 years with the possibility to become permanent residents thereafter. Almost immediately, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his party were on the defensive, battling criticisms of the law from the left and the right.

The more liberal-leaning opposition parties protested the hastily drawn up legislation, pointing to the lack of preparations to protect foreign workers’ rights and provide for their social welfare. Japan already had a trainee program, but the program was plagued with worker abuses such as “trainees” working overtime, being underpaid, or having their passports withheld, and has recently been linked to concerns about political corruption. Opponents to immigration reform were concerned about increasing the number of immigrants before even adequately dealing with the problems of the existing trainee program. Preparing Japanese to live with foreigners and providing Japanese language education for accompanying children are particular concerns.

At the time of the law’s passage, it was also criticized from a more traditionalist angle for creating a path for guest workers to become permanent residents, and for allowing some guest workers to bring their families. Though the conservative ruling party is responsible for passing the law, that does not mean that Japan’s mainstream attitude is currently receptive to embracing foreign nationals as truly Japanese. Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro’s recent “single-race nation” gaffe (which he later apologized for) demonstrates how deeply many Japanese identify Japan as a nation for the Japanese race.

The immigration reform law took effect on April 1, 2019. The findings of last November’s Cabinet Office survey were released earlier this week, offering a glimpse into how the Japanese public views the issue of granting permanent residency to foreigners.

The 1,572 survey respondents were told that at the end of 1998 Japan had 90,000 permanent residents, at the end of 2008 Japan had 490,000 permanent residents, and at the end of 2018 Japan had 770,000 permanent residents. They were then asked whether they thought Japan had “many” permanent residents or not. Of the respondents, 38.3 percent thought that Japan has “many” permanent residents, 29.2 percent thought that Japan has an “appropriate number” of permanent residents, and 18.6 percent thought that Japan has “few” permanent residents.

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Though a plain reading of these numbers would indicate that there is little appetite to increase the number of permanent residents, such an interpretation may be misleading given how little information was given to respondents. Providing more information about Japan’s labor force shortages or demographic crisis — for example, the Cabinet Office estimates that Japan has a shortage of about 1.2 million workers in many labor-intensive sectors — could change these results. The survey findings tell us that Japanese respondents may have an initial inclination to think that there are “many” permanent residents, but it does not rule out the possibility that they may be persuaded about the desirability of more permanent residents if given greater context.

Respondents were also asked what kinds of requirements are needed to grant a foreigner permanent residency, and were allowed to select multiple answers. 73.7 percent responded “having no criminal record,” 71.6 percent responded “paying taxes and social security premiums,” 61.3 percent responded “having never broken immigration laws,” and 53.9 percent responded “having enough income or property to support themselves.”

The survey also asked respondents whether permanent residency should be revocable. An overwhelming majority – 74.8 percent  – said it should be revocable, and only 14.6 percent opposed such a measure. Of the respondents who wanted permanent resident status to be revocable, 81.0 percent said that permanent resident status should be revoked if the individual was “sentenced to prison,” and 73.2 percent said status should be revoked if the individual “failed to pay taxes and social security premiums.”

These survey results are interesting for two reasons. First, there seem to be at least two separate concerns driving those who are less favorable toward granting foreigners permanent resident states: one is couched in terms of law and order concerns, and the other in terms of the state’s fiscal sustainability. It is impossible to disentangle which concern is more salient given the way the questions were structured to allow individuals to give multiple responses.

Second, even though respondents were given the option to also select criteria for permanent residency that may be interpreted as more “nativist,” these options were not the most popular. Specifically, only 31.3 percent of respondents thought that living in Japan for at least 10 years should be a minimum condition for permanent residency on the first question. On the question about conditions for revoking permanent resident status, only 38.3 percent thought that it should be revoked if a foreigner married a Japanese person and thus sped up their approval process but divorced the Japanese person soon after gaining status, and only 33.1 percent thought that status should be revoked for foreigners who spent most of the year abroad.

Whether such responses were not chosen as often because respondents genuinely do not prefer those options or because they thought it was impolitic to select those options is difficult to say. The government-run survey was a fairly straightforward questionnaire, with no attempt at uncovering less savory motivations for opposing granting foreigners’ resident status, though incidents of anti-foreign discrimination and hate speech belie any benign image of Japan as an immigrant-friendly nation.