Japan’s cabinet votes to allow in more foreign workers

Plan to address ageing population and labour crunch has attracted criticism

Foreign workers in Japan were once a rare sight but not any more. In addition to the nearly 29 million tourists who visit the country annually, Chinese, Vietnamese and east Europeans can increasingly be found behind the counters of neighbourhood convenience stores.

On Friday, prime minister Shinzo Abe asked the nation to lower its drawbridge further when his cabinet voted to allow in more foreign workers. The revisions to Japan's immigration control laws are supposed to help ease its worst labour crunch since the mid-1970s.

As Japan’s population ages and shrinks, immigrants are needed to help run hospitals, factories, shipyards and restaurants. The unemployment rate of 2.4 per cent is at a quarter-century low. In some industries there are 12 vacancies for every one person looking for work.

But the government plan has come under fire in this still largely homogenous nation where just 2 per cent of the population is non-Japanese. Some commentators rail against the prospect of a foreigner on every street and say Japan should live with its shrinking workforce.

A television programme last month showed illegal aliens being hunted down by immigration police. A magazine on the shelves of bookstores across the nation this week speculates that the influx of foreigners will bring more violence, sex crimes and community strife.

Mr Abe has been at pains to assure his base that he is not sponsoring European-style mass immigration. The proposals, he said, would mean more “industry-ready human resources” for limited periods, essentially meaning guest workers. During sometimes heated parliamentary debate he denied the revisions constituted “immigration policy”.

The government has declined to confirm media figures that it wants 500,000 more blue-collar workers. If passed, the revised law would create two new visa categories, including a five-year residency for single workers in Japan without their families.

Oldest societies

Japan’s working-age population peaked two decades ago and it is one of the planet’s oldest societies, with a median age of more than 46 years. By 2060, the country is projected to lose about 40 million people. Almost 40 per cent of the remaining population will be 65 or older.

The acute labour shortage means the elderly increasingly perform service jobs. More than 12 million Japanese aged 60 or older now opt to keep working, up from 8.7 million in 2000. Across the country, people once classed as pensioners drive taxis, serve in supermarkets and guard banks.

Liberal commentators say foreisgn workers will trigger social problems and put downward pressure on the wages of Japanese workers. Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, on Friday called the proposed immigration revisions “half-cooked and insufficient”.

Public opinion, however, appears to be shifting. Over half of respondents in a survey last month in the nation's most popular newspaper, the Yomiuri, said they supported the government's policy of allowing in more foreign blue-collar workers

Still, many still believe the influx of foreigners will be temporary. Industry is investing heavily in robots and artificial intelligence. A 2015 report by Nomura Research Institute, a think tank, says half of Japan's working population could be replaced by robots in 20 years. Yoko Takeda of Mitsubishi Research Institute, says by the end of the next decade, Japan will have a labour surplus.

David McNeill

David McNeill

David McNeill, a contributor to The Irish Times, is based in Tokyo