Japan’s Immigration Policies Put to the Test

Japan as an “Immigrant Nation”: The Need for Frankness on Recent Policy Changes

Politics Economy Society

With the introduction of the Specified Skilled Worker visa in 2019, Japan effectively became an “immigrant nation,” proactively accepting foreign migrants. The author, however, argues that the government needs to be more forthright in informing the Japanese public of the consequences of recent policy changes.

Changes in the Nature of Japanese Society

On January 1, 2023, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications revealed that Japan’s population had decreased by more than 800,000 people during 2022, based on a survey of the Basic Resident Register. Over the course of 10 years, such a rate of decline would mean Japan would lose the equivalent of Osaka Prefecture (8 million people). The ministry’s regular population survey also showed for the first time a decrease in the population of every single prefecture—including Tokyo.

Akita Prefecture’s population dropped 1.65% in 2022 to 941,021 people, the highest rate of decrease in Japan. This is despite Akita having taken a variety of measures to address the declining birthrate and aging of its population. Looking at the age composition of Akita’s population in 2022, 9.26% of people were between 0 and 14 years old and 52.47% of the population were of “working age,” or between 15 and 64 years old. The “elderly population”—those aged 65 and over—accounted for 38.27% of all Akita residents. This means the number of elderly was almost four times the number of children.

On May 2, 2023, a local newspaper, the Akita Sakigake Shinpō, published an editorial titled “Future Population Decrease of 30% Requires Urgent Reforms.” The editorial argued that “the fundamental basis of society must change with a view to accepting more foreign nationals and promoting coexistence.” The reasons given for needing to go down this path were that foreign resident workers would contribute to the public pension system, offset the decline in the labor force, and limit the degree of shrinkage in local economic demand.

Akita is one example of a local government that has recently recognized the need to entertain migration to deal with its population crisis. However, numerous municipalities in Japan began accepting relatively large numbers of foreign residents as early as the 1990s, and have been implementing support activities and promoting notions of coexistence. More and more prefectures are now following their lead.

Gunma’s “Intercultural Co-Creation Promotion Month”

One example is Gunma Prefecture, which has a large Japanese-Brazilian population. In October 2021, it enacted the Gunma Prefectural Ordinance for Promotion of Intercultural Co-creation to “further develop Gunma and to improve well-being of the people of Gunma in the process.” The ordinance stipulates the responsibilities of the prefecture, municipalities, and businesses in promoting coexistence while asserting that “it is vital for the people of Gunma to make efforts to achieve intercultural co-creation.” October was also designated “Intercultural Co-Creative Society Promotion Month,” and an educational video is being shared to spread awareness among the citizens of the prefecture.

In Shinjuku, Tokyo, foreign residents already account for 12% of the city population. One response was the establishment by ordinance of the Shinjuku Multicultural Community Building Committee. This committee contains more than 20 members, including me, along with academic experts, Japanese residents who head local community associations, and representatives from the foreign community living in Shinjuku. Discussions are held on a continuing basis to address challenges facing foreign residents in their daily lives and to promote exchange between Shinjuku’s Japanese and foreign residents. The results of proceedings are reported to Shinjuku’s mayor, and administrative changes are often made in response to these discussions. According to one local survey, 73% of Shinjuku’s residents believe that recent activities have helped further multicultural coexistence.

I was also involved in Yamanashi Prefecture’s Multicultural Coexistence Promotion Plan formulated in May 2023. This plan calls for improving the Japanese language skills of foreign residents, promoting understanding of Japanese culture and social systems, increasing opportunities for social participation, developing a consultation system, and improving the working environment for foreigners. To help with the latter goal, Yamanashi established a system to subsidize Japanese-language study for new foreign employees working at small and medium-sized companies in the prefecture while promoting interaction with local residents. The prefectural government also established the Foreign Workers Labor Environment Improvement Network to help companies in the prefecture provide proper working conditions and eliminate unfair practices when employing foreign nationals.

Kōchi’s Strategy for Securing Foreign Human Resources

Some prefectures are even more proactive and clear in their intent to attract and retain foreign nationals to offset demographic decline. One example is Kōchi Prefecture, which in 2022 released the second version of its Strategy for Securing and Advancing Foreign Human Resources. The document states that “It is important to accept, train, and retain foreign nationals as both members of the local community and valuable human resources who will ensure the continuation and development of each industry.” Kōchi dispatched official missions to Vietnam and India in 2022, and the prefectural government has sought to strengthen relations with the Philippines, Vietnam, India, and Myanmar for the purpose of securing a stable flow of human resources from abroad. The prefectural government is also developing training, tools, and Japanese language classes that municipalities can use.

However, Japan’s regions all feel that there are limits to what local governments can do to promote multicultural coexistence. Some, such as Nagano Prefecture, have begun calling for national policy change. In 2021, Nagano’s prefectural assembly called for the government to pass a “Basic Law on Multicultural Coexistence,” which it anticipates would establish “a clear national policy to accept foreign residents,” and for the national government to support this goal. Nagano’s Azumino City Council voted for a resolution to the same effect ahead of the prefectural assembly, demonstrating the seriousness of local sentiment on this issue.

Specified Skills Program a Major Policy Change

The acceptance of substantial numbers of foreign workers as a national policy has, in fact, already begun. In 2019, the Japanese government made a significant decision to open its doors to lower-skilled “blue-collar” foreign workers by introducing the Specified Skilled Worker visa program. It also created a new Immigration Servies Agency, which includes a Resident Support Division tasked with both supervising migration as well as providing support to foreigners residing in Japan. In July 2020, the Foreign Resident Support Center (FRESC) was established in Yotsuya, Tokyo, as a contact point supporting foreign residents as well as companies and local governments looking to engage with foreign nationals.

In 2018, the national government also formulated a document called “Comprehensive Measures for Acceptance and Coexistence of Foreign Nationals.” The goal of these measures is the “realization of a society where Japanese nationals and foreign nationals are able to live safely and comfortably together through the proper acceptance of foreign nationals and to realize a society of harmonious coexistence.” The document summarizes the integrated support measures for foreign residents implemented by each ministry and agency and is updated annually. In 2023, the number of cross-government initiatives reached a high of 217.

The government also formulated a vision document to complement the comprehensive measures. On June 14, 2022, following the submission of a proposal by a panel of experts to the Minister of Justice, the government announced the Roadmap for the Realization of a Society of Harmonious Coexistence with Foreign Nationals. The roadmap comprises four areas of focus: Japanese language education, strengthening information dissemination and consultation systems for foreign residents, support for each life stage and life cycle, and efforts to establish the foundation of a society of harmonious coexistence.

Interestingly, support for “each life stage and life cycle” will include measures such as providing places where parents with infant or school-aged children can interact and discuss their concerns, as well as measures to publicize information for foreign nationals nearing retirement regarding the pension system. That the government is taking this life cycle approach indicates an acceptance of the idea that foreigner workers will become long-term members of the community and not simply temporary workers.

In addition to supporting residents already here, the national government has begun implementing projects to attract and help settle foreign nationals. From 2020 to 2022, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare implemented Model Projects to Accept and Establish Foreign Nationals in Japan’s Regions in Hokkaidō, Gunma, Fukui, Gifu, and Kagoshima Prefectures. Local companies are encouraged to interview foreign nationals from Southeast Asia with specified skill qualifications, and to help them find and retain employment. This represents a direct effort by Tokyo to assist with settling foreigners in depopulated areas.

Government Reluctance Remains an Issue

Taken together, the passage in December 2018 of the amended Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, new “comprehensive” measures to assist migration, and the establishment of a medium-term strategy in the form of the 2022 roadmap, the Japanese government has initiated a substantial foreign settlement and immigration policy. However, there remains strong opposition from some conservatives who believe that acceptance of immigration will change the fundamental nature of Japanese society. Perhaps for this reason, the government has not been sufficiently forthright in informing the public, or even foreign governments, about the scale and the significance of recent changes.

At a recent event celebrating the one-year anniversary of Reiwa Rinchō, a group of about 100 prominent business, labor, and academic figures chaired by Mogi Yūzaburō, honorary CEO of Kikkōman, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio told attendees that, “we must imagine a society in which we can live together with foreigners” in light of Japan’s demographic decline. The prime minister should also explain to the Japanese people in a concrete and clear manner that coexistence with foreigners is essential for Japan’s future. With national elections expected soon, the time has come for the government to cast off any hesitation and confront immigration policy head-on.

(Translated from Japanese. Banner photo: A “Specified Skilled Worker” sushi trainee from the Philippines learns from a sushi chef, at right, how to prepare sushi knives during a training program offered by Ginza Onodera, which operates high-end sushi restaurants. Taken in Setagaya, Tokyo, on November 15, 2022. © Jiji.)

foreign workers foreign labor depopulation migrant workers immigrants labor shortage foreigner specified skills visa