Is population decline opening the doors for new immigration policies in Japan

When discussing immigration policies, Japan is known for its rather apprehensive policies in the acceptance of immigrants other than high skilled labourers, and even for those the percentage in comparison to the local “homogenous” population, is low. It is also known that from the year 2008 Japan has had an increase in the number of citizens over the age of 65, or the so-called ageing population increase, that overpasses the birth-rate metrics of the country. Due to the uncertainty of how these population changes will affect or even collapse the security social system and pensions, Japan has seen an increase in the discussions of immigration policies and the acceptance of foreigners as a possible proxy to delay the imminent possible threat to their economy.

It is known that Japan has about 2% of registered foreigners as of 2017, and of that percentage, most of the foreign citizens come from other Asian countries like China, South Korea, and Vietnam. With the hosting of the Olympics, Japan increased in great numbers the amount of construction workers in the country. Unfortunately, due to absent policies and organizations that can satisfy decent working condition, the rise of low skilled construction workers has led to numerous cases of overworking related deaths.

Other initiatives have opened the path for Nikkei to enter Japan, but unfortunately, this limits greatly the possibilities for other communities to be part of the working force. Recent policy changes like the 2010 enactment of a refugee program initiative for third-country resettlements with the UN and the surge of work visas for foreign nurses and caretakers in accordance with EPA (Economic Partnership Agreement, 2007) has sparked a debate between policymakers and the public, on whether Japan should enable an open-door immigration policy.

New systems for medium-skilled workers are facilitating migration to Japan, in the form of working visas, traineeships and accreditation for workers who graduated from Japanese Universities who also possess language skills, but more importantly is the discussion surrounding not only a more accepting Japan in terms of bureaucratic procedures but also a social shift in the idea that “Japan is homogenous and poses one culture and one language.” This cultural shift may be the trigger to open the door for new immigration policies in the future.

The debates surrounding the social consequences of an influx of foreign workers often touch upon topics of belonging and meaning of Japan, Japaneseness and common rhetoric of homogenous Japan. I believe that this last aspect of homogeneity is an important piece in the puzzle for the discussions surrounding immigration, as Japan has never been a fully homogenous society but one with oppressed minorities as the native (アィヌ) Ainu in Hokkaido and the (琉球民族) Ryūkyū minzoku in Okinawa. The extensive history that precedes the current inhabitants of Japan should be a point of convergence to discuss immigration policies and their relationship with other policies that deal with cultural diversity, safety, and integration.

Posted on behalf of the euthor who is a student at the University of Helsinki