Strict immigration rules may threaten Japan's future

Japan's ruling party has elected former finance minister Naoto Kan as its new leader, paving the way for him to become the next prime minister. As expected, Kan won the presidency of the Democratic Party of Japan.
By Chico Harlan
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

TOKYO -- Her new country needs her, her new employer adores her, and Joyce Anne Paulino, who landed here 14 months ago knowing not a word of the language, can now say in Japanese that she'd like very much to stay. But Paulino, 31, a nurse from the Philippines, worries about the odds. To stay in Japan long-term, she must pass a test that almost no foreigner passes.

For Japan, maintaining economic relevance in the next decades hinges on its ability -- and its willingness -- to grow by seeking outside help. Japan has long had deep misgivings about immigration and has tightly controlled the ability of foreigners to live and work here.

But with the country's population expected to fall from 127 million to below 100 million by 2055, Prime Minister Naoto Kan last month took a step toward loosening Japan's grip on immigration, outlining a goal to double the number of highly skilled foreign workers within a decade.

In Japan, just 1.7 percent of the population (or roughly 2.2 million people) is foreign or foreign-born. Foreigners represent small slices of almost every sector of the economy, but they also represent the one slice of the population with a chance to grow. Japan is on pace to have three workers for every two retirees by 2060.

But the economic partnership program that brought Paulino and hundreds of other nurses and caretakers to Japan has a flaw. Indonesian and Filipino workers who come to care for a vast and growing elderly population cannot stay for good without passing a certification test. And that test's reliance on high-level Japanese -- whose characters these nurses cram to memorize -- has turned the test into a de facto language exam.

Ninety percent of Japanese nurses pass the test. This year, three of 254 immigrants passed it. The year before, none of 82 passed.

For immigrant advocates, a pass-or-go-home test with a success rate of less than 1 percent creates a wide target for criticism -- especially at a time when Japan's demographics are increasing the need for skilled foreign labor.

For many officials in the government and the medical industry, however, difficulties with the program point to a larger dilemma confronting a country whose complex language and resistance to foreigners make it particularly tough to penetrate.

Kan's goal to double the number of skilled foreign workers seems reasonable enough, given that Japan currently has 278,000 college-educated foreign workers -- the United States has more than 8 million, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development -- but it meets some resistance.

An Asahi Shimbun newspaper poll in June asked Japanese about accepting immigrants to "maintain economic vitality." Twenty-six percent favored the idea. Sixty-five percent opposed it. And the likelihood of substantive changes in immigration policy took a major hit, experts said, when Kan's ruling Democratic Party of Japan saw setbacks in parliamentary elections this month.

Political analysts now paint a grim picture of a country at legislative impasse. Foreigners such as Paulino find it difficult to get here, difficult to thrive and difficult to stay, and at least for now, Kan's government will have a difficult time changing any of that.

'A lack of urgency'

"There's a lack of urgency or lack of sense of crisis for the declining population in Japan," said Satoru Tominaga, director of Garuda, an advocacy group for Indonesian nurse and caretaker candidates. "We need radical policy change to build up the number" of such workers. "However, Japan lacks a strong government; if anything, it's in chaos."

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