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In-depth Japan in the Age of Global Migration
Updating the Immigration Debate

Okabe Midori [Profile]

[2018.10.30]

With the government preparing to launch a new guest-worker system to fill acute labor shortages, international migration expert Okabe Midori calls for strategic, balanced immigration policies that safeguard the welfare of ordinary people.

In June this year, the Japanese government announced its decision to pursue legal and institutional reforms that would dramatically loosen Japan’s notoriously strict policies on admission of foreign workers. Under the government’s plan, outlined in the 2018 Basic Policy on Economic and Fiscal Management and Reform, Japan will establish a new status of residence for lower-skilled and semi-skilled workers in sectors facing acute labor shortages.

Noting that these foreign workers will be admitted only on a temporary basis (a maximum stay of five years), the government insists that the policy is designed only to secure human resources as needed, not to encourage immigration (imin) in the sense of permanent relocation. That said, the cabinet is apparently eyeing measures that would open the way to long-term residency, including special accommodations for foreign workers in the nursing-care industry and mechanisms whereby participants in the current Technical Intern Training Program and workers admitted under the new system will be able to upgrade their status of residence and ultimately extend their stay.

An Outdated Debate

Thus far, a good deal of energy has been expended in arguing over whether or not the new government plan is, or is not, an imin seisaku—translated directly, simply a “policy for immigrants.”(*1) Unfortunately, the anachronistic assumptions attached to the concept of imin (immigrant) render much of the discussion irrelevant.

If, by imin seisaku, one means policies to accommodate the linguistic and cultural needs of foreign residents, then clearly Japan, as a modern democratic nation, cannot function without such policies. One can argue that Japan’s accommodations do not go far enough, but to maintain for that reason that Japan needs an imin seisaku is no longer a tenable position.

Second, the foreign residents at issue are not looking to be treated as immigrants in the traditional sense of the word. They are looking for an environment in which their linguistic and cultural differences are respected, not forcibly assimilated.

Finally, the international environment surrounding migration and foreign labor has changed. Mutual recognition of foreign qualifications (in such professions as law and medicine), bilateral social security agreements, and multiple citizenship (particularly in Europe) are all on the rise. Such policies and agreements are not only lowering the barriers to relocation but also laying the foundations for a society in which migrants can lead stable lives even while continuing to identify with their home country, as opposed to one in which they are expected to relinquish their national identity and blend seamlessly into the systems and institutions of the host society. In other words, we are witnessing the rapid development of an environment in which people can work and live abroad as foreign nationals, not simply an ethnic subset of the local population. In the age of globalization, it is interesting to watch this trend toward fixed, rather than fluid, national identity.

In short, I believe that the world is entering an era in which the old concepts of immigration are neither relevant nor useful, either to the migrants themselves or to the countries accepting them.

Japan in the Age of Circular Migration

Until now, the Japanese government has taken an extremely cautious approach to the use of foreign workers to ease labor shortages, relying on such incremental, politically safe solutions as the admission of foreigners of Japanese descent. Viewed in this context, the recently announced policy, which would open the door to many thousands of low-skilled and semi-skilled workers, has the appearance of an abrupt conversion. The truth, most likely, is that after a long standoff, the scales have finally tipped in favor of the forces seeking immigration reform—namely, Japanese industry and its champions.

The Japanese business lobby (assumed to be the main driving force behind the new policy) has been pushing to lift restrictions on foreign workers for some time now, citing the labor needs of Japan’s aging society, with its dwindling working-age population. On the other hand, immigration and police officials have opposed any large-scale influx of foreigners on the grounds of security and public safety. This basic conflict between business and law enforcement is by no means unique to Japan. But the particular combination of factors required to overcome the latter’s resistance varies from one country to another.

In Japan’s case, one of the key factors was doubtless the Abe government’s strong emphasis on global trade and investment and reform of the labor market to stimulate the economy. Policymakers were probably influenced as well by the dawning awareness that Japan’s traditional strengths in industrial technology and management are no longer particularly advantageous in today’s international business environment. The success of recent policies aimed at inbound tourism may also have helped tilt the balance in favor of those seeking to open the doors to foreign labor.

Another factor facilitating the shift was probably the changing climate of international opinion on immigration policy. Today many experts are touting the benefits of “circular migration” as a win-win strategy with potential benefits for both the industrially advanced destination countries and the developing world. Circular migration is the nonpermanent, often repetitive movement of migrant workers between their home countries and one or more host countries. Experts in international development see it as a means of supporting developing nations by stemming “brain drain” and transferring skills and funds to countries in need of those resources. Western leaders are hoping it will serve to stem the influx of long-term immigrants while providing much-needed labor.

The key, of course, is getting the migrants to go home. Under traditional immigration policy, many advanced industrial countries have come up against the limits of deportation as an enforcement tool. But the concept of circular migration makes it easier for destination countries to adopt policies that discourage foreign workers from settling on the grounds that their return is a positive thing from the standpoint of the home country’s development. Of course, the migrants’ basic human rights must not be violated in the process, and this is something the United Nations and other international organizations will need to monitor going forward. But it seems likely that the growing international support for circular-migration policies was another factor behind Japan’s decision to open the door to migrant labor despite its longstanding resistance to immigration.

A National Reality Check

Be that as it may, the government’s plan for accepting foreign labor has triggered a vigorous debate over Japanese immigration policy going forward. Will Japan become an immigration-friendly country? Should it?

Some analysts and commentators have characterized Japan’s current policy as backward, taking the industrial democracies of the West as a standard and citing Japan’s relatively small population of non-native residents (about 3% of the total). These critics maintain—baselessly—that acceptance of immigrants is a fundamental attribute of an advanced society and suggest—misleadingly—that having more immigrants makes a country better and stronger.

Decisions on migration and immigration are strictly domestic policy matters subject to the judgment of the voters. Of course, we should not condone discrimination or prejudice against foreigners or people of foreign extraction. But to claim that countries that accept more immigrants are more peaceful or stable is simply wrong.

James Hollifield has argued that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen the emergence of the “migration state,” in which the management of migration has become a vital strategic component of national policy. He notes that while economic forces have pushed toward greater openness, governments have struggled to balance those considerations against security concerns and domestic opposition stemming from political and social factors.

Japan, like any other country, must weigh the benefits and dangers of a more open migration policy in the light of its own needs and circumstances.

Certainly an influx of foreign workers will enhance our economic competitiveness and readiness. Government-funded Japanese-language training programs abroad and other policies to attract foreign talent are likely to promote a better understanding of Japan around the world. A larger foreign population might foster greater tolerance for individual differences and deepen respect for human rights, which could improve conditions for vulnerable and marginalized elements of our own native population, as well as for foreign residents.

That said, history teaches us that waves of migration trigger conflicts between newcomers and established groups—not only in Europe but also in countries like the United States and Australia, which style themselves “nations of immigrants.” Japan must weigh the merits and drawbacks of a more open policy and make a decision based on its own national interests, not on the tenor of media coverage abroad. We are not in an immigration competition with the industrial democracies of the West.

Toward a People-Oriented Migration Policy

Finally, Japan must realize that when it imports labor, it is also getting human beings, who cannot simply be discarded when they are no longer needed. Unfortunately, efforts aimed at easing the integration of migrants tend to focus on their needs while neglecting the concerns of native residents.

Respect for diversity is certainly important. But to translate that into policy is no easy matter. A nation needs certain core principles and beliefs around which the people can unite, and it is far easier to govern and maintain order when diversity is contained within those limits. A multicultural society that lacks ideological unity tends to succumb to identity politics, a phenomenon written about recently by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama among others. In other words, the nation becomes increasingly fragmented along ethnic (or other) lines, until eventually the majority group begins to feel that it, too, must lobby and agitate vigorously to protect its rights and interests. Such are the feelings that drove the Brexit movement in Britain, the election of President Donald Trump in the United States, and the rise of anti-immigrant parties in Hungary, Austria, and elsewhere. For Japanese pundits to dismiss this trend as an irrational swing to the right, without pondering its underlying causes and their implications for our own social stability going forward, is not merely unsound but downright dangerous.

Sooner or later, to one degree or another, Japanese society will face similar challenges to its social unity and stability. How it weathers those challenges will depend in large part on how skillfully our leaders navigate the perilous waters of identity politics. But even if our politics manages to rise to the challenge, a major influx of foreigners could unleash social turmoil through a decline in public morality. The safety, order, and civility for which Japanese society is known owe much to shared norms and expectations, as opposed to written laws and rules. As people from other cultures come to occupy a larger and larger portion of our population, it will become necessary to codify these unwritten norms and rely on the letter of the law. And then we are apt to see an increase in undesirable behavior by those who assume that any conduct not explicitly forbidden is okay.

Despite a relatively small foreign population, Japan is by no means a xenophobic nation. But the Japanese could become xenophobic if conflicts and problems proliferated following an influx of foreign workers. This has been the pattern elsewhere. Underlying such outbreaks of hostility is a growing belief among the native population—justified or not—that the presence of migrants is damaging or threatening their way of life. This is the kind of situation we must do our best to avoid.

If our policy makers and leaders believe, on balance, that opening the door to foreign labor will benefit Japanese society over the long run, they should have the political capacity to explain this to the country’s citizens and win their acceptance of  the short-term impact. The new policy on foreign workers has been driven by powerful business interests, but its success will ultimately hinge on the way it treats society’s vulnerable, whatever their nationality or ethnicity.

(Originally published in Japanese on September 26, 2018. Banner photo: Vietnamese construction “interns” at a site in Shinjuku, Tokyo, in November 2016. © Yomiuri Shimbun/Aflo.)

(*1) ^ Though commonly translated “immigration policy,” imin seisaku as used by the Japanese government in this context appears to have the narrower meaning of “policies that encourage (permanent) immigration.”—Ed.

  • [2018.10.30]

Professor, Sophia University Faculty of Law, specializing in international relations and migration studies. Received her PhD from the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences after completing the doctoral program in advanced social and international studies. Has been a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge Center of International Studies and the University of Oxford Center of Migration, Policy, and Society, and a special advisor to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Author of numerous articles on migration and editor of Hito no kokusai idō to EU: Chiiki tōgō wa kokkyō o dono yō ni kaeru no ka (International Migration and the EU: How Will European Unification Affect National Borders?).

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