The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Aging Japan needs new blood. But a plan to allow more foreign workers sparks concerns.

Japan's workforce is shrinking, leading the government to introduce legislation that would shake up the country's views on immigration. (Video: Simon Denyer, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

YOKOHAMA, Japan — As the United States and Europe take steps to keep more people out, Japan is cautiously moving to let more people in.

This is a country that has long sought to defend its culture and its ethnic homogeneity by discouraging immigrants. Now, with its population continuing to shrink and age, and its labor force dwindling, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is thinking the previously unthinkable.

This month, his government introduced a bill that aims to bring in hundreds of thousands of “semiskilled” foreign workers in the years ahead, opening Japan’s doors as never before.  

He is careful to stress that this is not “immigration,” because these workers are not supposed to stay indefinitely, but it is still a shift that is being described as a watershed moment in the country’s modern history. Critics say the plan is ill thought-out — an immigration policy by stealth that will cause problems down the line. 

“This is the biggest turning point in postwar Japan,” Akira Nagatsuma of the opposition center-left Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan told parliament, calling the government’s proposal “irresponsible” and “half-baked.” 

“I am not saying no to foreign workers,” he said. But he added that there needs to be rigorous planning and a meaningful debate on how to integrate foreigners into Japanese society.

What is not up for debate is the urgency of the situation.

Birthrates are falling across the developed world and populations are aging, but nowhere is this reality hitting harder than in Japan.

Its population is expected to drop from about 127 million to 88 million by 2065. People over 65 already account for 28 percent of the population, and 500 schools close every year because of a lack of students.

There have never been so few children in Japan (at least, not since they started counting)

Letting in more people may be the only way to reverse the slide to stagnation and decline, experts say. The problem is what happens then.

“If depopulation continues, people will come to Japan somehow,” said Toshihiro Menju, managing director of the Japan Center for International Exchange. “We need an immigration policy to prevent an immigration problem.”

Abe’s government is conservative, but it is also closely entwined with the business community, and the message it hears from every quarter — shipbuilding and construction, agriculture and fishing, elder-care establishments and convenience-store owners — is ever more insistent: We need more workers.

While the highly skilled have always been welcome, Abe wants to allow in 345,000 semiskilled workers by 2024, letting them come for a maximum of five years in about a dozen industries, including agriculture and construction. If they pass some still-unspecified tests at the end of that period, they could be allowed to stay for five more years, and even bring relatives. 

Previous efforts to ease Japan’s labor shortage have had mixed results. 

Abe initially tried to attract more women and seniors back into the workforce and also sought to boost fertility rates, but those efforts could not overcome overwhelming demographic trends.

In the late 1980s, Japan opened its doors to the descendants of ethnic Japanese who had emigrated at the beginning of the century, and hundreds of thousands came from Latin America, especially Brazil and Peru. 

But even though they looked Japanese, many barely spoke the language and many failed to integrate. In 2009, after the global financial crisis, Japan started offering them money to return home.

Workers of different ethnicities also came — but under much more-restrictive policies.

The main vehicle was the Technical Intern Training Program, or TITP, introduced in 1993, under which workers from other Asian countries were supposed to be given training for three to five years before returning home.

“It is a sham, pretty much just a way of importing cheap labor from overseas,” said lawyer Yoshihito Kawakami, adding that workers often do not receive any real training. 

The main problem, he said, is that the trainees’ visas are conditional on them not changing employers. If they complain, they face losing their jobs and being deported.

Some 270,000 foreigners, many from Vietnam, China, the Philippines and Myanmar, work in Japan under TITP. Yet, amid abuses inherent in the system, about 4,300 have absconded from the program in the past six months alone, with many going underground as undocumented workers.

A similar number of foreign workers are here ostensibly as language students, officially allowed to work 28 hours a week but in practice often putting in longer hours in the country’s ubiquitous 24-hour convenience stores. 

Nepalis might be a common sight behind the cash register in 7-Elevens or FamilyMarts in Tokyo, but outside work they often live in dormitories and don’t mix with locals. 

Japan’s employees are literally working themselves to death

If Abe’s bill passes, some foreign workers will bring relatives and some may stay long enough to gain permanent residency, as many of the arrivals from Brazil and Peru have done. 

It could represent a sea change for a country where few people speak foreign languages or have much contact with foreigners.

Japan is home to 2.6 million foreigners, about 2 percent of the population, but based on current trends, that number could rise to 12 percent in 50 years, said Makoto Kato, who analyzes the economics of immigration for Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting. 

That is approximately the ratio in Germany.

The problem is that Japan’s unwillingness to acknowledge that it is accepting immigrants means no government funds are allocated for integration efforts, and there is no law against hate speech or discrimination against foreigners, Kato and other experts say.

Masashi Ichikawa of the Japan Bar Association likens Japan to Germany in the 1970s, when it brought in “guest workers” from Turkey without much thought to the long term.

“The idea was that they would not stay in the country permanently, and so it wasn’t necessary for the government to implement social integration policies,” he said. “But in reality, they stayed. And now they are having to pay the price for that. I worry Japan will face similar problems.”

A lack of inclusion could be a recipe for social unrest, while an economic downturn could leave Japan regretting how many people it allowed in, some experts warn.

“The United States let Mexicans in to work, but the time they tried to stop them coming, the economy was already counting structurally on their labor,” Kato said. “Once you start immigration, it’s hard to stop, and it’s hard to get immigrants to return to their home country.”

Goshi Hosono, an independent member of parliament, says the latest move, if handled strictly but humanely, could prove a positive one for Japan. 

“I think immigrants give vigor to the United States, for example,” he said.

Others see things differently.

The far-right Japan First party held rallies across Japan in October protesting Abe’s plan, although the demonstrators were often outnumbered by activists accusing them of racism and hate speech.

“We should protect our own culture,” said Kazuhiro Nakamura, the head of Japan First’s office in Kanagawa. “People from different cultures tend to claim their own rights. Just as it has in Europe, that could lead to conflict.”

Japan First commands little public support and has no seats in parliament, but there is a much larger group of Japanese who worry foreigners could disrupt a country where crime rates are low.

“A backlash against immigration should be anticipated,” said Kei Hakata, a professor at Seikei University in Tokyo, adding that hidden sentiments eventually emerge in voting patterns.

“Although often criticized as xenophobia, this phenomenon can be understood as a legitimate expression of ordinary people who want to preserve their culture, history and identity,” he said. “It’s a defense mechanism at work.”

Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.

Video: In aging Japan, abandoned burial urns pile up

As U.S. fertility rates collapse, finger-pointing and blame follow

As family dynamics change in Japan, more people are living by themselves — and dying alone

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news