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Increasing migration to Japan – breaking a taboo

4 October 20170 comments

For the past decade or so Japan’s economic growth has hovered around zero, the result of an ageing population and severe labour shortages.

And while the Japanese traditionally are wary of foreigners, the nation’s leadership knows it will have to import more workers to avoid even worse economic problems.

Dire demographics have saddled Japan with its worst labor shortage in decades.

The unemployment rate may be as low at 2.8 per cent, but the dwindling workforce chokes growth.

With no one left to build their roads, harvest their food, or empty their hospital bedpans, Japan needs workers, and it needs them now.

Earlier this year Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare announced that vacancies exceed 1.48 jobs for every applicant.

The ratio is 2:1 in Tokyo, and 3 or even 4:1 in the pinched nursing and construction sectors. The bite is only set to get worse as the current workforce grays and the birth rate continues to decline.

Yet Japan has ignored the obvious solution already sitting on its doorstep: hiring asylum seekers.

Despite what appears to be an obvious solution, Japan accepts fewer asylum seekers than almost any other developed country.

Last year, just 28 out of 10,901 asylum applicants – or 0.26 per cent – were successful, one more than the previous year.

UN chief António Guterres has called for an overhaul of Japan’s system, calling it “too rigid, and too restrictive”.

If humanitarian grounds alone were not cause enough to move Japan to act, financial imperatives should make the choice an easy one.

Economists from the prime minister’s own office to the International Monetary Fund have cautioned that unless Japan overcomes its reluctance to drastically accelerate large-scale immigration, its fatal combination of the world’s highest longevity and one of the lowest birth rates will spawn a crushing burden for the next generation, and stagnate the world’s third-largest economy.

By some estimates, Japan needs an average of 610,000 immigrants per year for nearly 50 years to re-establish its peak workforce of the 1990s boom years.

But if the economics is simple, the politics isn’t.

Unskilled workers are barred from settling and Japan uses a ridiculously literal interpretation of the refugee convention meaning even asylum seekers who have escaped civil war are typically rejected, and only a paltry number of refugees – just 18 last year – are resettled from overseas.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made it clear that Japan is not open to permanent immigration – even for Syrians fleeing war.

“I would say that before accepting immigrants or refugees we need to have more activities by women, by elderly people, and we must raise [the] birth rate,” he told the UN in 2015.

In a report in 2016, the NGO Oxfam singled out Japan included, for taking in zero per cent of their perceived “fair share” of Syrian refugees.

According to Oxfam’s formula, Japan should have resettled 49,747 Syrian refugees, roughly on par with the number Germany and Canada have already welcomed.

Instead, Japan has pledged to accept over five years a maximum of 150 Syrian students, with their families, under a scholarship program.

Another 69 Syrians filed applications for refugee status in Japan between 2011 and 2016. Only seven were accepted, while 52 were allowed to stay temporarily on under humanitarian grounds for a one-year reprieve which does not encompass family members.

Japan says its refugee policies are not heartless, but fiscally responsible.

Instead of paying around $10,000 per head for resettlement, Japan was the fourth largest donor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) last year, contributing $165 million.

There is a widespread but unfounded perception that migrants will ‘steal’ jobs. But so pressing is the need for blue-color workers in Japan that Prime Minister Abe has relented to business leaders’ demands for foreign manpower by boosting the quota of a “trainee” scheme to 200,000.

But the temporary program only allots three-year visas, after which the workers must return home.

Meanwhile, the 10,000 or so asylum seekers already in the country cannot legally rent apartments, open bank accounts, or sign up for mobile phone contracts. They can only legally work if they entered the country on a valid visa – an impossibility for those who fled their homes without time for gathering paperwork.

Many seek work in the black market which business is already illicitly tapping into, hiring those seeking refugee status for a cheap and much-needed source of labor.

How Japan handles its aging society and strained labor market is being closely watched by other countries that will soon face the same challenges.

Japanese business leaders have cautioned that if the country wants to remain competitive, redrafting its immigration policies is inevitable. Politicians are starting to catch on to the idea as well.

Yoshio Kimura, a member of parliament with Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, told Reuters news agency last year that fiscal policies to spur growth are no longer working.

“Breaking a 50-year taboo, we will tackle the debate on accepting foreigners as workers,” he said.

The question remains. Will these economic imperatives lead to a more generous acceptance of refugees?
Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist