Japan Begins to Recognize the Failures of Closed-Door Immigration Policies

On MurthyDotCom, our focus, typically, is U.S. immigration. Yet, it is sometimes illuminating to examine the immigration practices of other countries to help put U.S. immigration policy in context.

Take the policies of Japan, for instance. In many respects, Japan historically has been on the opposite end of the immigration spectrum from the United States. Japan is a traditional country with a relatively homogeneous population. The country has long maintained strict immigration policies, which has led to worker shortages and a rapidly aging population. Yet, as the United States has started to close its doors to foreign labor, Japan is beginning to recognize the error of its ways and liberalize the nation’s immigration laws.

Last month, Japan’s upper parliament approved legislation to allow over 345,000 blue color workers from surrounding Asian nations into the country on temporary work visas over the next five years. The newly enacted visa system is designed to address a growing labor shortage in a nation with a skyrocketing elderly population and one of the lowest birth rates in the world. While Japan’s tiny foreign worker population has doubled over the last decade, its immigration rate still hovers below other developed countries. The number of non-native workers who potentially can enter Japan over the coming years under the modernized visa system, is historic for the island nation, which notoriously has eschewed a comprehensive immigration system in the past. [See Japan Opens Door to Foreign Blue-Collar Workers Despite Criticism by Linda Sieg and Ami Miyazaki, Reuters, 07.Dec.2018.]

The legislation is not without controversy. While most Japanese businesses welcome the anticipated labor boost, the country’s voters are more apprehensive, with 30 percent disapproving of the new visa system and 36 percent undecided. Some critics have cited concerns that an influx of immigrants will increase crime, while human rights advocates are wary that unskilled foreign laborers will be exploited in a country that is particularly suspicious of outsiders. But Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems confident that the visa system, which also provides a pathway to permanent residency, can rectify the nation’s shrinking economy. And top industry insiders agree. “Having young and motivated foreign workers with the guts to work overseas help inject new energy into the workplace,” explained Susumu Nagahashi, director of Business Co-Operative Society MEC, a foreign talent recruiter, in an interview with The Asian Review. Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asian economics research at HSBC in Hong Kong, concurred that an increase in the workforce “even if temporary, is thus important to maintain economic growth and address some of the structural challenges facing the economy, including high public debt and persistently low inflation.” [See Japan to Asia: Give Us Your Young, Your Skilled, Your Eager Workers by Mitsuru Obe, Asian Review, 01.Jan.2019.]

Japan is just now beginning to recognize the dangers of having a closed-door immigration policy. While change is slow, the country’s actions could do much to address its labor shortages and boost its sagging economy.


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