Foreign workers in Japan edge closer to political and social acceptance

Former Japanese Minister for Justice Yoko Kamikawa. Photo by: Lisa Cornish

CANBERRA — An aging population, emigration, trade wars, and regional tensions are seeing shifts in the way Japan is engaging the world and tackling politics. And among the changes is an increasing political and social acceptance of foreign workers.

In April new legislation supporting foreign workers officially came into play in Japan, despite opposition. It aims to support 345,000 foreign workers over the next five years across 14 industries with nursing, hospitality, and construction priority employment sectors. But the new legislation also aims to learn from past mistakes to build a society that is accepting of foreign workers and enabling a whole of government program that includes partnerships with the origin countries of workers.

Nine memoranda of understandings have so far been signed with foreign governments to support the strategy for increased migration, including Cambodia, Nepal, the Philippines, and Vietnam. More countries including Malaysia are discussing opportunities to join the program. And recent surveys suggests that the new approach is being supported, with 66% of Japanese people seeing the rise in foreign workers as good, increasing from 54% in 2018 as Japan understand the potential economic impact and aging population will have on the country.

Despite rising foreign worker numbers, resident foreigners in Japan account for less than 2% of the Japanese population. And their acceptance of immigrants outside of an economic component is limited — refugee approvals to Japan are in double figures only, totaling 42 people in 2018.

Japan’s new approach was an important focus of the Japan Update, hosted by the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific on Sept. 4, with former Japanese Minister of Justice Yoko Kamikawa among the presenters, discussing the drivers of this shift and what it means.

“Japan will face challenges in accepting foreign workers,” Kamikawa said.

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Prior to entering government, Kamikawa had been a researcher focusing on multicultural co-existence. And she believed there was a “lack of vision” from the national government in creating a multicultural Japan.

“Responsibility [was placed] on municipal governments for providing assistance and promoting inclusiveness of foreigners of Japanese descent,” Kamikawa said.

In the 1990s the experience with foreign workers in Japan had been focused on people of Japanese descent. Programs engaged South American communities, particularly Brazilian workers. Foreign workers were centered in the manufacturing sector, but the global financial crisis saw many return to their countries of birth after losing jobs and facing challenges with the Japanese language.

The foreign worker system, Kamikawa said, has also been rife with exploitation and human rights violations. The technical intern training program between Japan and the Philippines has seen underpayment and trainees going missing. In 2016 new laws needed to be introduced to combat this growing problem.

But there was also a problem with the schemes in not incorporating social support that could help foreign workers integrate into a new life in Japan. And this meant that foreign workers were seen as an “other” group. A key gap, Kamikawa said, was the role of the national government who had primarily left the responsibility of integration and support to municipal governments.

“Following my election to the House of Representatives in 2000 … I continued to advocate that the national government must take responsibility for measures aimed at realizing a cohesive multicultural society,” she said.

As Minister for Justice, Kamikawa was tasked by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to explore a new system to integrate foreign workers. The new system, she said, had three areas of focus to address the past challenges — the need for a work-life balance to facilitate integration into Japanese society; the responsibility of the national government to foster a multicultural society and acceptance; and a framework to encourage various groups to work together including the national government, municipal government, the private sector and foreign governments.

“A package of 126 policy measures for which a budget of 2.1 billion yen [$19.5 million] has been budgeted for the financial year,” Kamikawa said.

New conditions aim to provide foreign workers with more rights, including the same wages and workers of Japanese born workers as well as support schemes to help with complaints and finding new employment opportunities. Other support services help with language programs, translations, and understanding social activities and customs. And a new agency, the Immigration Services Agency, has been created to foster collaboration between governments and private sector partners whose activities engage foreign workers.

But to work the scheme needs continual review “to move to a cohesive multicultural society, it will be very important for us to take a step-by-step approach to regularly review our systems and policies as necessary,” Kamikawa said, with a focus on human rights and access to justice for foreign workers as part of the review. This, she believes, will support greater acceptance and ensure no one is left behind.

Is skilled migration the answer for Japan?

There has been rapid growth in the percentage of the Japanese population ages 65 or older since 1990 that will begin to steady in 2050. But by then the age demographic of the population will have shifted dramatically.

With the changing demographics, Kamikawa explained, the unemployment rate is very low and getting lower. Currently, it is just over 2%. Within the labor market, this is creating the challenge were demand for workers is greater than supply.

Dr. Nana Oishi, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne Asia Institute, said that foreign workers and pathways to permanent settlement were part of the solution to drive the economy of Japan. But the success of the new program will be in its ability to maintain skilled migrants. Currently, Oishi explained, 72% of skilled migrants leave within five years and 88% within 10 years, before inheritance tax requirements kick in. This is despite Japan offering health insurance for residents who stay longer than three months, along with childcare allowance, a national pension scheme and free public education.

“Communication and long-term career prospects are the main reasons for this,” Oishi explained.

The Japanese brain drain, she said, also needed to be addressed. Oishi added that currently 1.3 million Japanese are currently living overseas. This has been a key factor in a 12.5% net population loss between 2011-2017 with her own research showing that 23% of Japan’s skilled workers are investigating options for permanent emigration, she said.

Japan can also look to other countries including Australia for guidance on foreign worker intakes. In 2000, the Australian government under Prime Minister John Howard directed the then-Department of Immigration Secretary Abul Rizvi to look at programs to increase temporary migration pathways that could lead to permanent migration.

“Australia’s population wasn’t about to age quickly,” Rizvi explained. “It was still sometime away before the baby boomers would reach retiree age, but [then-Treasurer Peter Costello] moves preemptively to start dealing with the issue of aging rather than waiting for aging and then dealing with it.”

The strategy worked at reducing the pace of aging, but in Australia has also resulted in social cohesion issues, exploitation of temporary workers, and complaints about congestion.

“We are in an era where anti-immigration is the flavor of the month and we’ll probably be in that era for some time yet,” Rizvi said. “But there will come a time when the arithmetic of demography will run up against the populism of anti-immigration sentiment … I think the part of the world where this will occur first is in East Asia — China, Japan, and South Korea.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.