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Bucking a global trend, Japan seeks more immigrants. Ambivalently

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Author: Motoko Rich

JAPAN: Vexed by labor shortages in their rapidly aging country, lawmakers relaxed Japan’s long-standing insularity early Saturday by authorizing a sharp increase in the number of foreign workers.

Under a bill approved by Parliament’s upper house in the early-morning hours, more than a quarter-million visas of five-year duration will be granted to unskilled guest laborers for the first time, starting in 2019.

The measure is a remarkable turn for Japan, surprising neighbors and maybe even itself. A nation that once embraced draconian limits on immigration is now reluctantly moving in the other direction, beckoning foreigners just as anti-immigrant political forces are roiling the West.

The change in Japan, however, is driven largely by economics and demographics. Japan has no other choice for filling jobs in a shrinking workforce that is simply getting too old

To accept a lot of immigrants would break down the borders of our singular nation,” said Koichiro Goto, director of a nursing home company in Kashiwa, a suburb of Tokyo.

Still, however reluctantly, people like Goto support the new measure. He is desperate to hire caregivers at Mother’s Garden, a 70-room nursing home where there is a waiting list of 60 would-be residents and want ads hardly ever attract job applicants.

“If we aren’t helped by foreign workers,” he said, “this business would not survive.”

Under the new measure, between 260,000 and 345,000 five-year visas will be made available for workers in 14 sectors suffering severe labor shortages, including caregiving, construction, agriculture and shipbuilding.

The measure also creates a separate visa category for high-skilled workers, who will be allowed to stay for unlimited periods and enjoy greater benefits, including permission to bring their families to Japan.

The change appears to mark a significant turnaround for the right-leaning administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. As recently as three years ago, Abe said on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly that “there are many things that we should do before accepting immigrants.”

To cope with labor shortages resulting from a declining population, he advocated for more women in the workplace, delaying retirement and using robots to do jobs once filled by humans.

But Japan’s shrinking workforce and rapidly aging population put pressure on Abe and his conservative supporters to accept that the nation’s demographic challenges could not be solved by internal measures alone.

In the absence of immigration, Japan’s population is projected to shrink by about 16 million people — or nearly 13 percent — over the next 25 years, while the proportion of those older than 65 is expected to rise from a quarter of the population to more than a third. In caregivi ..

The shortage of workers is “an urgent matter,” Abe said during a parliamentary session late last month. The country, he said, needs “foreign workers as soon as possible.”

Yet the new law, which came under considerable criticism from opposition parties, does not represent an embrace of immigration so much as a deeply ambivalent business calculation. The bill, strongly pushed by industry groups, is vague in some aspects and is designed to limit the kinds of work foreigners can do, as well ..

Although the new law marks a shift in official policy, Japan has long accepted foreign workers through backdoor routes, such as visas granted to Brazilians and Peruvians of Japanese descent or technical programs for interns, mainly from China and Southeast Asia, purportedly so they can be trained in skills to take back to their home countries. As of October, there were nearly 1.3 million foreign workers in Japan, according to the government.

Many employers use the trainees as cheap labor, and they often are abused. Between 2015 and 2017, the government reported that 63 foreign trainees had died from accidents or illness in Japan, with another six committing suicide.

Critics fear the new law could simply extend the exploitation of foreign workers. “Without monitoring or an inspection system, the system won’t be managed properly,” said Chikako Kashiwazaki, a sociology professor at Keio University in Tokyo.
In a sign of how deep suspicion of foreigners runs here, politicians from both the right and the left have questioned whether accepting more workers from abroad will disrupt society.
“We need to secure jobs for old and middle-aged people, women and the youth who could not get jobs because of social withdrawal or depression,” Shigeharu Aoyama, a lawmaker from Abe’s governing Liberal Democratic Party, wrote in Ironna, a right-leaning online magazine. “We need to stop foreigners from using Japan’s social welfare system.”

Addressing the House of Representatives late last month, Shiori Yamao, a lawmaker from the left-leaning Constitutional Democratic Party, the largest opposition group, warned that “if we open up the door without carefully designing the system, we will not be able to shut the door easily.”

Lower-skilled foreign workers on temporary visas are unlikely to have much choice of jobs and won’t be allowed to bring their families. Analysts worry they will be treated as mere cogs.

“It raises these much broader ethical questions that I don’t think the administration has thought through quite yet,” said Erin Chung, a professor of East Asian politics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “If anything, the administration might feel quite emboldened during the Trump era to enact policies that treat migrant workers and value them only for their labor without acknowledging their humanity.”

Source: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/nri/visa-and-immigration/bucking-a-global-trend-japan-seeks-more-immigrants-ambivalently/articleshow/66998626.cms?utm_source=whatsapp_amp&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=socialsharebuttons&from=mdr


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