An immigration conundrum in Japan
Immigration policy has always launched heated debate in Japan, where decades of government administrations have failed to create an expansive legal framework for migrant workers. But a declining population will perhaps create a fresh awareness and cultural outlook concerning foreign nationals living and working in Japan.
Last month, a new immigration plan proposed by 80 Liberal Democrat lawmakers and led by the party's former secretary general, Hidenao Nakagawa, pushed for Japan to loosen its borders and by 2050 to have 10% of the Japanese population consisting of immigrants - an intake of at least 10 million people.
The proposal claims that the population is shrinking as deaths now outnumber births and immigration remains tightly controlled. According to communications company CNC Japan KK, the number of Japanese will shrink to just under 90 million in 2055, from the current total of 127 million.
Nakagawa's plans are revolutionary; not only adjusting numbers to cope with labor market shortages but also inviting workers' family members to live in Japan. Inviting relatives is aimed at creating a vibrant sense of multiculturalism as opposed to simply making up the labor shortfall in the low-paying health or agricultural sectors.
The plan calls for a central immigration agency to be established, and assume all border duties. Such a move has also been requested recently by seven prefectures, including Nagoya and Nagano. Other tenets of Nakagawa's proposal include extending student and working visas to five years from three, and the construction of Japanese culture and language institutions abroad. There was even a call to outlaw racism.
Recently, there have been two significant developments which suggest a thaw in Japan's traditionally cold reception of foreign workers. First, a court ruling that Japanese children of unmarried foreign mothers can now be granted citizenship "for the protection of basic human rights". And second, as part of a trade agreement with Indonesia, a deal has been brokered to allow Indonesian nurses and health professionals to live and work in Japan.
The conditions for the nurses' arrival and participation in the health sector will be strict. There will spoken and written Japanese language examinations as well as a three-year training course for nurses and a four-year course for health workers requiring more technical qualifications. Only when these requirements are successfully completed will Indonesian health workers be treated as full wage workers. They will receive a "training wage" up to that point.
Similar deals exist with the Philippines, but this is limited to nurses only. Japan's diplomatic relations with Thailand have not extended into an immigration policy.
These arrangements could be viewed as pilot schemes for any attempt to infuse the population with more overseas workers. At the moment, however, they are no more than part of trade agreements and nothing like the scope that Nakagawa proposes.
Will Japan be able to cope with the extra numbers? Japanese society cannot boast of a harmonious relationship with immigrants and there are many examples of begrudging migration policies throughout its history. However, Japan pales in comparison to some European nations which maintain immigrant populations of up to 15%.
Before World War II, there were migrant flows from Korea after Japan colonized the country in 1910. Millions of laborers were brought into Japan on a conscription basis, but the flow stopped after 1945. When independence was declared in 1952, all non-nationals were declared gaijins or "foreigners" and given no welcome entry into Japanese society. Few gaijins were encouraged to settle long-term.
Later, the Immigration Control Law (ICL) was introduced and became the framework of all ensuing migrant policies. It has held that all foreign workers must sign into an alien registration scheme which must be repeated every year. The ICL also provided means to monitor workers who only planned to stay for a short time.
During the spiraling economic progress of the 1960s and 1970s, machines became preferred to foreign labor; a policy propelled by government and major corporations alike which resulted in low migrant labor numbers during this period.
In response to more transnational networks - and the growing power of a strong yen to attract overseas workers - the ICL was reformed in 1989. The overhaul aimed to buck the rise in expired short-term visas as well as an influx of low-skilled labor. It established strict guidelines for employers concerning illegal or black-market employment of foreigners.
Foreigners have not always enjoyed a favorable reputation in Japan, and have widely being blamed for the rise in crime and increased use of drugs in the country.
Tokyo's governor Shintaro Ishihara is one of Japan's most prominent right-wing figures. In 2006, he was quoted as saying, "Roppongi [Tokyo's most populous foreign section] is now virtually a foreign neighborhood. Africans - I don't mean African-Americans - who don't speak English are there doing who knows what. This is leading to new forms of crime such as car theft. We should be letting in people who are intelligent."
Still, the obvious necessity for change may provoke a change in such entrenched attitudes.
"Opinions from Japanese people are diverse at the moment and there is an increasing realization that demographic patterns are going to change and that we need a younger population," said Akio Nakayama, of the International Organization for Migration's Tokyo office. "Many more local communities know that there is no other alternative, and in the major cities they already have migrant communities and their knowledge of multiculturalism is growing. We have 2.15 million migrants in the country now and look at the amount of Brazilians that now reside in Japan since the Nikkeijin policy was introduced allowing descendents of Japanese emigrates to live here. This has only been recent."
Nakayama added, "Tokyo has a high proportion of foreigners and has the experience of welcoming labor. But the skepticism [about] foreigners and the perception that they often cause crime is not based on reality and official crime figures confirm that. This image is manipulated."
However, criticism of foreign workers still points to a loss of national culture, social instability and the burden of unemployed migrants.
Goro Ono, author of Bringing Foreign Workers Ruins Japan, argued that salaries will determine whether migrants are needed. Nor does Ono believe an increase in migration is a necessity: "If industries where labor is in high demand pay adequate salaries, people will work there."
Nakagawa is an influential politician and his proposal is the strongest indication yet that policies must change. Still, his proposal is unlikely to become law in its current form and will almost certainly have to be watered down.
Across the Diet opinions are diverse. The Democrat Party, which took control of the House of Councilors after last year's elections, has put forward its own proposal which is much more limited in scope than Nakagawa's, but is supportive of an immigration overhaul.
Japan's immigration debate is heating up once again.
Peter Taberner is a freelance journalist based in the United Kingdom for the past four years. He has also reported directly from Bosnia.