Buck­ing a global trend, Ja­pan am­biva­lently seeks more im­mi­grants to fill va­cant jobs

The Buffalo News - - CONTINUED FROM THE COVER - By Mo­toko Rich NEW YORK TIMES

KASHIWA, Ja­pan – When it comes to im­mi­gra­tion to Ja­pan, Koichiro Goto is blunt. He’s against it.

“To ac­cept a lot of im­mi­grants would break down the bor­ders of our sin­gu­lar na­tion,” said Goto, di­rec­tor of a nurs­ing home com­pany in Kashiwa, a sub­urb of Tokyo.

Yet Goto, who also serves on the City Coun­cil, sup­ported a bill that passed Ja­pan’s Par­lia­ment early to­day, al­low­ing for a sharp in­crease in the num­ber of for­eign work­ers who will be ad­mit­ted to Ja­pan start­ing next year.

As im­mi­gra­tion roils the pol­i­tics of the West, and the United States and Europe seek to lock down their bor­ders, Ja­pan – long con­sid­ered one of the most in­su­lar of nations – is mov­ing in the other di­rec­tion, sur­pris­ing its neigh­bors and per­haps it­self, by open­ing its doors just a bit wider to im­mi­grants.

Goto’s rea­son­ing for en­dors­ing the mea­sure is purely eco­nomic: He is des­per­ate to hire care­givers at Mother’s Gar­den, a 70-room nurs­ing home where there is a wait­ing list of 60 would-be res­i­dents and want ads hardly ever at­tract job ap­pli­cants.

“If we aren’t helped by for­eign work­ers,” Goto said, “this busi­ness would not sur­vive.”

Un­der the bill that passed Par­lia­ment’s up­per house, Ja­pan will of­fer five-year work visas to un­skilled guest work­ers for the first time. Be­tween 260,000 and 345,000 will be made avail­able for work­ers in 14 sec­tors suf­fer­ing from se­vere la­bor short­ages, in­clud­ing care­giv­ing, con­struc­tion, agri­cul­ture and ship­build­ing.

The bill also cre­ates a sep­a­rate visa cat­e­gory for high-skilled work­ers, who will be al­lowed to stay for un­lim­ited pe­ri­ods and en­joy greater ben­e­fits, in­clud­ing per­mis­sion to bring their fam­i­lies to Ja­pan.

The new law ap­pears to mark a sig­nif­i­cant turn­around for the right-lean­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. As re­cently as three years ago, Abe said on the side­lines of the U.N. Gen­eral Assem­bly that “there are many things that we should do be­fore ac­cept­ing im­mi­grants.”

To cope with la­bor short­ages re­sult­ing from a de­clin­ing pop­u­la­tion, he ad­vo­cated for more women in the work­place, de­lay­ing re­tire­ment and us­ing robots to do jobs once filled by hu­mans.

But Ja­pan’s shrink­ing work­force and rapidly ag­ing pop­u­la­tion put pres­sure on Abe and his con­ser­va­tive sup­port­ers to ac­cept that the na­tion’s de­mo­graphic chal­lenges could not be solved by in­ter­nal mea­sures alone.

In the ab­sence of im­mi­gra­tion, Ja­pan’s pop­u­la­tion is pro­jected to shrink by about 16 mil­lion peo­ple – or nearly 13 per­cent – over the next 25 years, while the pro­por­tion of those older than 65 is ex­pected to rise from a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion to more than a third. In care­giv­ing alone, the gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates that em­ploy­ers will need an ad­di­tional 377,000 work­ers by 2025.

The short­age of work­ers is “an ur­gent mat­ter,” Abe said last month. The coun­try, he said, needs “for­eign work­ers as soon as pos­si­ble.”

Yet the new law, which came un­der con­sid­er­able crit­i­cism from op­po­si­tion par­ties, does not rep­re­sent an em­brace of im­mi­gra­tion so much as a deeply am­biva­lent busi­ness cal­cu­la­tion. The bill, strongly pushed by in­dus­try groups, is vague in some as­pects and is de­signed to limit the kinds of work for­eign­ers can do, as well as how long they can stay.

“This isn’t about Ja­pan be­com­ing a mul­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety and it’s not about Ja­pan open­ing its doors to be­come more glob­ally ori­ented,” said Gabriele Vogt, a pro­fes­sor of Ja­panese pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety at the Univer­sity of Ham­burg who has stud­ied mi­gra­tion. “This is just very plain la­bor mar­ket pol­i­tics.”

Al­though the law marks a shift in of­fi­cial pol­icy, Ja­pan has long ac­cepted for­eign work­ers through back­door routes, such as visas granted to Brazil­ians and Pe­ru­vians of Ja­panese de­scent or tech­ni­cal pro­grams for in­terns, mainly from China and South­east Asia, pur­port­edly so they can be trained in skills to take back to their home coun­tries. As of Oc­to­ber, there were nearly 1.3 mil­lion for­eign work­ers in Ja­pan, ac­cord­ing to the gov­ern­ment.

Many em­ploy­ers use the trainees as cheap la­bor, and they of­ten are abused. Be­tween 2015 and 2017, the gov­ern­ment re­ported that 63 for­eign trainees had died from ac­ci­dents or ill­ness in Ja­pan, with an­other six com­mit­ting sui­cide.

Crit­ics fear the new law could sim­ply ex­tend the ex­ploita­tion of for­eign work­ers. “With­out mon­i­tor­ing or an in­spec­tion sys­tem, the sys­tem won’t be man­aged prop­erly,” said Chikako Kashi­wazaki, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Keio Univer­sity in Tokyo.

In a sign of how deep sus­pi­cion of for­eign­ers runs here, politi­cians from both the right and the left have ques­tioned whether ac­cept­ing more work­ers from abroad will dis­rupt so­ci­ety.

“We need to se­cure jobs for old and mid­dle-aged peo­ple, women and the youth who could not get jobs be­cause of so­cial with­drawal or de­pres­sion,” Shige­haru Aoyama, a law­maker from Abe’s govern­ing Liberal Demo­cratic Party, wrote in Ironna, a right-lean­ing on­line mag­a­zine. “We need to stop for­eign­ers from us­ing Ja­pan’s so­cial wel­fare sys­tem.”

Ad­dress­ing the House of Representatives late last month, Shiori Ya­mao, a law­maker from the left-lean­ing Con­sti­tu­tional Demo­cratic Party, the largest op­po­si­tion group, warned that “if we open up the door with­out care­fully de­sign­ing the sys­tem, we will not be able to shut the door eas­ily.”

Lower-skilled for­eign work­ers on tem­po­rary visas are un­likely to have much choice of jobs and won’t be al­lowed to bring their fam­i­lies. An­a­lysts worry they will be treated as mere cogs.

New York Times

A care­giver moves an el­derly res­i­dent to a wheel­chair in her room at Mother’s Gar­den, a nurs­ing home in Kashiwa, Ja­pan, Fri­day. Long seen as one of the most in­su­lar of nations, Ja­pan is sur­pris­ing its neigh­bors, and per­haps it­self, by open­ing its doors a bit wider to for­eign work­ers.

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